In this episode of the Psychedelic Podcast, Paul F. Austin reunites with renowned author Steven Kotler to dive deep into the realms of peak performance aging and flow states.
Kotler's latest book, Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad takes center stage as they explore the profound impact of continuous learning, experiences in nature, and adventurous pursuits throughout life. With Kotler's expertise in human performance, the conversation uncovers the secrets to maintaining optimal mental states and staying active in later life.
Listeners will embark on a thought-provoking journey into the possibilities of thriving in aging as Steven decodes the neurobiology of flow.
Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective. He is one of the world’s leading experts on human performance.
Steven is the author of eleven bestsellers out of fourteen books, including The Art of Impossible, The Future is Faster Than You Think, Stealing Fire (part of the curriculum in the Psychedelic Coaching Institute’s Coaching Certification Program), The Rise of Superman, Bold, and Abundance. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, translated into over 50 languages, and has appeared in over 100 publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, TIME, and the Harvard Business Review.
Alongside his wife, author Joy Nicholson, he is also the co-founder of The Buddy Sue Hospice Home for Old Dogs, a canine elder care facility, and Rancho de Chihuahua, a dog rescue and sanctuary.
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0:00:00.3 Paul F. Austin: Welcome back to the Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave. Today, I am speaking with New York Times bestselling author, Steven Kotler.
0:00:11.0 Steven Kotler: If we wanna sort of rock till we drop, as I've become fond of saying, you wanna regularly engage in challenging, creative and social activities that demand dynamic, deliberate play, and take place in novel outdoor environments. It is literally peak performance aging in a single sentence. It's interesting 'cause you can't own that formula, you can't patent it, you can't sell it, there's nothing you could do with it other than just sort of say it out loud and live it. But that's the formula, and incredibly well documented.
0:00:46.5 Paul F. Austin: Welcome to The Psychedelic Podcast by Third Wave, audio mycelium, connecting you to the luminaries and thought leaders of the psychedelic renaissance. We bring you illuminating conversations with scientists, therapists, entrepreneurs, coaches, doctors and shamanic practitioners, exploring how we can best use psychedelic medicine to accelerate personal healing, peak performance and collective transformation.
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0:03:08.4 Paul F. Austin: Hey, listeners. This is Paul Austin, founder and CEO at Third Wave, and I am so excited to have Steven Kotler on the podcast today. Steven is a friend and colleague, someone who we've had on the show previously. And in fact, this is our first repeat episode of the podcast. I've been hosting this seven years, and this is the first time that we've had an individual guest come back on the show to talk about what we are up to. So, in today's show, we go deep into peak performance aging. Steven recently published a book called Gnar Country: Growing Old and Staying Rad, about his experience learning park skiing at the ripe age of 55.
0:04:00.3 Paul F. Austin: And we talk about how as we grow older, we can still learn new things. And so in this episode, we go deep into the fundamentals around peak performance aging. So Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author, an award-winning journalist and the executive director of the Flow Research Collective. He is one of the world's leading experts on human performance. Steven is the author of 11 bestsellers, including The Art of Impossible, The Future is Faster Than You Think, Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman, Bold and Abundance. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, translated into over 50 languages and has appeared in over 100 publications including the New York Times, WIRED, Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, Time and the Harvard Business Review. Alongside his wife, author Joy Nicholson, he is also the co-founder of the Buddy Sue Hospice Home for Old Dogs, a canine elder care facility and Rancho de Chihuahua, a dog rescue and sanctuary. Alright, that's it for now. I hope you enjoy my conversation today with Steven Kotler.
0:05:14.5 Paul F. Austin: Hey, listeners. Welcome back to The Psychedelic Podcast. I'm your host, Paul Austin. Today, with our first ever repeat guest, Steven Kotler, the flow aficionado, the flow genius, the flow expert, the flow research guy. Steven, it's good to have you back on the show.
0:05:33.3 Steven Kotler: Thanks, Paul. I'm feeling very flowy. [laughter] Super flowy. Yeah, super flowy. By the way, we should tell people that... We talked about that, my expertise is actually in plumbing technology.
0:05:45.3 Paul F. Austin: Right. Yeah, yeah. Just to keep a little humility in there. Right? So we had you on the show in early 2018, and this was right after Stealing Fire was published, and Stealing Fire was an incredible success. And yet, you've also written, I believe, 10 other bestselling books. You've written 14 books in total and you've really made a name for yourself when it comes to the overlap of flow, peak performance. And I think my sense is, science with a journalistic bet, meaning science that is accessible and available to a broad range of people. And a recent book that you published, which we're gonna talk about today in the podcast, is called, "Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad." And I'm just gonna read the first paragraph from the cover, so we can use that as a launching off point. Cutting-edge discoveries and embodied cognition, flow science and network neuroscience have revolutionized how we think about peak performance aging.
0:06:33.5 Paul F. Austin: On paper, these discoveries should allow older athletes to progress in supposedly impossible activities. After all, a world-class athlete such as Kelly Slater or Tom Brady can beat players half their age. But what about the rest of us? So to see if theory worked in practice, you, Steven Kotler, you've been studying human performance for over 30 years, conducted your own, and I love this phrase, ass-on-the-line experiment and applied neuroscience and later-in-life skill acquisition to teach an old dog some new tricks. Interesting. And it overlaps a little bit with what we're learning about psychedelics in terms of how they bring the brain specifically back into a childlike state. And I'd love to open up our conversation today with just, why write this book? What's the impetus for this book? What's the motivation behind Gnar Country?
0:07:55.3 Steven Kotler: So the book is about peak performance aging. And there were sort of... Books come from... At least my books, can come from a dozen places, so I could pick any story. But I think there's two here that are gonna be most relevant. The first was something that... Forget peak performance aging for a second. At the Flow Research Collective, we train folks in peak performance, and wildly diverse group of people working in like 130 countries and tens of thousands of people every month. But there was this commonality among everybody we trained, which is, the applied side of peak performance remained a mystery. You can stand on a stage, you can tell people, this is how flow works, this is how peak performance works in the brain, in the body.
0:08:38.4 Steven Kotler: But until you get to the day-to-day trenches of trying to put this stuff into practice, it's just words. And how to convey that information was really tricky. And nobody had really ever written a book about applied peak performance because you have to take on a really big challenge, and then you have to essentially do a diary. And that would be mostly boring. It's a writing challenge. But I knew that when going in. I was like, okay, I'm up for this writing challenge. One, I thought the adventure I was going on lent itself to the... I could do it as the kind of storytelling, I needed to not bore the shit out of my reader, but it was to solve a problem for our clients, which is like, what does applied peak performance really look like on a day-to-day basis? Part one and part two was really sort of what the cover says. So for reasons we can probably get to later on, flow science runs smack into adult development. So in a sense, a large portion of, what do we mean by peak performance, some portion of what we mean by peak performance is also the same thing as what it means to become a very successful adult. There's a tremendous amount of overlap there. And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, while he's written a bunch of books on flow, he's written a ton of books on flow and adult development, arguing that flow is the driver or one of the main drivers of adult development.
0:10:05.0 Steven Kotler: So, why do we grow up? We grow up through flow states. And why does that make any sense on the other side of flow states? Because we're pushing on our skills to the utmost, to get into flow, we learn stuff, and learning is way amplified in flow, right? So we come out the other side, we're more adaptable, we're more complex, wisdom increases, expertise increase, empathy increase. These are all things we associate with maturity. So Csikszentmihalyi noticed this, a lot of other people noticed this. He worked on this and he also worked on the question, does flow help us age better? And the answer is yes for a ton of different reasons. It boosts the immune system, it specifically targets some of the real chronic issues of aging, on and on and on and on. And that was really prevalent. So, the tradition I was in sort of moved in this direction and I had been researching it for a while. And also, there was this need to show stuff to our clients. And finally, okay, third thing, and this will summarize everything and then I'll shut up 'cause I don't mean to talk your face off, Paul. Third thing is...
0:11:13.8 Paul F. Austin: That's why we're here. [laughter]
0:11:16.7 Steven Kotler: If you go into the field of what is now known as peak performance aging, and which is really like 14 different fields that have come together in the past five years to become peak performance aging, what you learn is that the traditional theory of aging, which I'd like to call the long, slow rot theory, it's what we all grew up with. It's the idea that our mental skills decline over time, our physical skills decline over time, and there's nothing we can do to stop the slide. That was entirely true up to about 1995. And then holes started showing up in that research.
0:11:47.2 Steven Kotler: And by today, or five years ago when the book got started, essentially that entire idea had been overturned almost completely. And the new thought was everything we used to think declined over time, mental and physical, we now thought, at least on paper, in labs, they're all use-it-or-lose-it skills. So if you never stop training these skills, you get to hang onto them, you get to advance them far later in life than anybody thought possible. That was the theory. Nobody... Well, I don't wanna say nobody, because Ellen Langer at Harvard and a couple other people along the way had taken this question into the wild, but nobody had really taken it into the wild and said, okay, if this stuff is true, then the idea that an old dog can't learn tricks has to be totally false.
0:12:29.7 Steven Kotler: And in fact, maybe old dogs could really take on incredibly difficult, supposedly impossible tricks. So I decided, if this stuff was true, I should be able to craft it into a learning theory and teach myself how to park ski in my 50s. Now, park skiing is the discipline in skiing that involves doing tricks off jumps on rails, on wall rides, on boxes. It's very acrobatic, it's very dangerous. And for about 11 different biological reasons, essentially considered impossible or very difficult to learn over 30, 35. By the time you get to 40, 45, it's considered impossible. You go to 50, like I was at 53 when I started the quest, and, "You're bleeping crazy," is the only response anybody has.
0:13:09.1 Paul F. Austin: It's like having a child in your mid 50s, basically. It sounds like it's... Right.
0:13:13.7 Steven Kotler: Yeah. It's just not something people [chuckle] can really look at and say, "Oh, that's brilliant. You should absolutely do that. Let me help." That's not what happens. But on paper, it's exactly what was possible. And so I decided I would put it to the test. And that experiment run by myself and one other person, initially, and let's just say massively successful, and then re-run by a group of 20 older adults in a double blind study using the same protocol, getting the same fantastic results. So it wasn't just us. And so the book itself tells the story of mostly my experiment and my ski partner's experiment, but it goes into that at the very end, the other study. And we've since run even larger studies than that, with the same protocols and the same ideas. But that's...
0:14:05.5 Paul F. Austin: Wow.
0:14:05.6 Steven Kotler: Long and short, what the book is. And we could talk in crazy detail about any direction you want to go, but I'll stop there.
0:14:13.6 Paul F. Austin: Hey, listeners, Paul here. We'll be right back to this conversation with Steven after a brief word.
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0:16:05.5 Paul F. Austin: There's a couple things that I want to go deeper into. One is just adult development. It's something that we talk about on the podcast here and there, but I think one follow up question that I had is, what model or what framework of adult development do you resonate most with, do you think is the most true or the most relevant specifically for peak performance? 'Cause we have Wilber's model, we have Kegan's model, we have Maslow's model, right? There's probably dozens of models of adult development. Which one or two maybe do you feel like they've really, got into something?
0:16:38.5 Steven Kotler: That's interesting 'cause we actually... At first, I'm gonna give you the highfalutin answer and then a real, practical answer.
0:16:46.5 Paul F. Austin: Cool.
0:16:47.4 Steven Kotler: At a high level, what I have discovered is if you look at Csikszentmihalyi's, he doesn't really have a model as much as he has a flow-based argument for how adult development occurs. You find, for example, Kegan's model sits totally inside the Csikszentmihalyi's model. Kegan's not saying anything different. He's using all kinds of fancy made-up Rob Kegan language, right? Which is like, the angels dancing on a head of a pin, as far as I'm concerned, and totally needlessly complicated. And Wilber, not as needlessly complicated, but really sort of the same thing in 2000 more words per sentence, with a lot of history in there. And I'm not saying... And some physics. And I'm not saying bad, I'm really not. I think everybody has to understand this stuff through their own language. That's what language is about, what we do with it. So, I've got no... I'm not judging anybody for their choice. I'm just sort of... Well, I'm poking fun at Kegan 'cause his stuff is so damn hard to read. But, I think Csikszentmihalyi's model of flow really holds them all, because most of them are... And the only problem with it, of course, is that Csikszentmihalyi was very flow-centric and the true model seems to be the... One of the major drivers of adult development are these profound altered states of consciousness.
0:18:16.9 Steven Kotler: Sometimes, it's flow. Often, it's flow, but awe seems to play a role. Trance state... A lot of this stuff, psychedelics as you know, it seems like altering our consciousness is built into how we develop. And that's what Kegan sort of stumbled onto, though he didn't want to say... Nobody wanted to say that out loud, until fairly recently, 'cause you would've been laughed out of academia for the statement. But a lot of people said it very discreetly along the way. But Kegan, when he finally mentioned psychedelics and other things, he does it in a tiny little footnote. And flow, it's a footnote. It's not in the body of the text at all. But anyways, that's the highfalutin, crazy answer. Here's the practical answer. So, we know if you're going to age successfully, there are gateways you have to pass through. There are certain things you have to do by age 30, by age 20, by 40, by 50, right? And what's interesting is some of these things correspond with models. Some of them don't. But for example, by age 30, if you're gonna really thrive in the second half of your life, you need to have solved the crisis of identity. And this is Ericsson's model basically.
0:19:42.4 Steven Kotler: And he said we develop through these crises with identity. The only thing that Ericsson seems to have gotten wrong, or we live so long now that the timetable has completely changed, he put 12-18 as you're gonna figure out... I don't know any 18-year-olds, myself included, who had a clue who they were. But we know biologically that if you don't solve it by 30, you start to have real issues. And one of the big ones happens by 40. By 40, we have to solve the crisis of what economists talk about as match fit or match quality. Just basically, your vocation, your avocation has to match with your identity, with who you are in the world, your values, your strengths, all that stuff. Or, to put it into the terms that Csikszentmihalyi would use and a lot of the humanists, you have to live with passion, purpose and flow. So there's a bunch of different adult development models in there, as you can see. And by 50, this is an interesting one. And this comes out of the Harvard Adult Development Project probably more than anything else, and the retirement cohort group at Stanford, these long studies, 80-year or 100-year studies of adult development where people have said, "Hey, the cohorts aren't exactly... " mostly, they studied White men in all these cohorts except for Stanford where there's some women in one of the group.
0:20:56.9 Steven Kotler: And so people are saying, suspect is everybody age this way. Who knows? But what we learned in these groups, by 50, you have to have forgiveness for self and other. If you don't put down those old grudges, everything after that sucks. And then, it gets really interesting. And this is a lot of the work that I have been involved in, what do you do post 50? There are other moderators, but I want to stop there just 'cause this is the answer to your question, which is, from a practical side, you can actually look at the data and say, "Oh, this person got this right." And by the way, a lot of the theories of child develop... Piaget and those stuff, are still... Even Ericsson, they're maps. You know what I mean? It's like the big five, the big five personality profile. They use semantic analysis to get there. In other words, they started with the English language and they said, how many adjectives describe personality? And then they put them into categories and they come up with five basic categories that all of our descriptions of personality fit into. And then they went looking for these in people and tying them to genetics and other things. And is it 100% accurate? Not at all. You know what I mean? It's a made-up framework that helps us think through a puzzle.
0:22:14.1 Steven Kotler: Daniel Kahneman gave us Dual Process Theory; System 1, System 2. Is that neurobiologically accurate? No, it's really not. But is it an incredibly useful metaphor to think with? Yes. And even Kahneman pointed that out. He's like, look, the neurobiology is gonna be different. But from the point of view of the observer and categories that are useful to talk about, it's sort of... In psychedelic research, somebody had to coin the phrase "Cosmic Unity." Does it capture the experience? But at least, we can talk about it.
0:22:46.0 Paul F. Austin: Well, and this reminds me of what you've done for flow, right? Prior to you really stepping in and professionally committing to this and building out the companies that you've built and writing the books that you've built, I feel like a lot of the conversation on flow was more academic, it was more about the map, and you acted as a phenomenal bridge to take the map into the territory and actually apply it in a significant way.
0:23:10.0 Steven Kotler: I had two interests when I came to flow, and they never changed. I wanted to put flow science in the hard science footing and decode the neurobiology of flow. And when I look at our most recent paper in Neuroscience about behavioral reviews on what happens in the brain as we transition into a flow state, I feel like it's 30 years later, but from the point I had any... The funny thing is if you go back to West of Jesus, which is 30 years ago, 20 years ago, and I basically lay out what I think flow is in the brain. It's hypothetical, it's speculative, but I give you two paragraphs, and this is what I think it's gonna be. The funny thing is, 30 years later, there's way more complexity in what's actually going on. But I wasn't really wrong, which was kind of amazing. So that was interesting. To me, the other thing was, it always bugs me in academia, because, look, in a sense, I'm in academia right? And I do that work and... But if you peel back the fancy language, academia... I'm gonna use the term "dude" as a gender neutral term, it's just dudes with questions. You know what I mean? Philosophy is the example I always give. There's this guy, lived a long time ago at a time people were wearing bedsheets, basically.
0:24:26.5 Steven Kotler: And he was trying to figure out how it is that kids intuitively understood math. Why is it that every kid understands, if you have two oranges and I give you a third, you get three. Why is it that you intuitively understand geometry? That guy's name was Plato. That was the world of forms. He was trying to figure out, why the hell do kids intuitively understand math? And the answer was the world of forms, the entire tradition of philosophical intuition and western philosophy comes out of that. But it starts with a guy who's like, why is it that math seems to be a perfect description of reality and come inborn into people? That's weird. What's up with that? And that's exciting. When you tell the story, when you're like, this is what happened, this was the puzzle he was trying to solve, everybody gets that puzzle 'cause we're human and we think about these things and we ask ourselves these questions. So if you take it out of all the fancy... And the fancy language is great 'cause it's precise and it's accurate and it's really serving a function, but you can strip it all back and anybody can get involved in the discussion.
0:25:34.2 Steven Kotler: And I sort of thought, in the beginning, 'cause I wanted to decode flow science and it was very clear to me that the psychologists were not up to the job. If you look at when I come into the puzzle in the late '80s and the '90s if you go into the deep psychological papers, they are arguing over the most arcane, absurd questions and not talking about anything super practical, super real, super... All we care about, or at least what I cared about. So I was really annoyed. I was like, it's one thing to have precision language, it's another thing to get lost dicking around for 20 years, precision language. 'Cause I personally wanna decode ultimate human performance. Isn't that the thing we want? So I think it came from both of those urges and just a bullheaded willingness to stick to it for 30 years. And the fact that people such as yourself and a million other people came into the conversation along the way and went, "Hey, wait a minute, we want to have this conversation too." And maybe some of them saw that they could enter the conversation through my language, a lot of people came a lot of different ways, but that was the point. I learned that... My early mentor was Andy Newberg, and you gotta... Andy Newberg, Richie Davidson, these scientists, they did something radical. They went and talked to the spiritual people.
0:26:57.3 Steven Kotler: Andy Newberg wanted to know why Buddhist monks felt one with everything and why Franciscan nuns felt one with God's love. Why it shows up in all these meditative traditions. And so he did something that almost got him kicked outta the University of Pennsylvania. He went and had conversations with Buddhists, [laughter] and Catholics, and put them into scanners. Nobody had done that before. And so a lot of progress in my field had come from people having conversations across the wall and saying, "Hey, you're having these experiences. Let's talk about what the science might tell us about these experiences, so maybe more people can have the discussion." And that was the whole goal. And here we are a bunch of years later, and a lot of people are having this discussion, and that's fantastic. That was mission accomplished, in a sense, but there were so many thousands of people who were on this same mission, you know what I mean? But, got it there, and that's cool.
0:27:56.5 Paul F. Austin: A collective effort. And there are often individuals that you've put so much of your time and energy and effort behind this, and you're not a small person by any stretch of the imagination. So to have all of that effort has been... You really have been a giant in the field and that's been incredible to witness. So, one thing I wanna get into...
0:28:23.4 Steven Kotler: That's nice of you to say.
0:28:24.9 Paul F. Austin: Absolutely. And it's true. It's absolutely true. One thing I want to get into is a little bit of the historical context around flow. It's something we haven't talked about before and it just...
0:28:33.6 Steven Kotler: Oh, I'd love that.
0:28:34.3 Paul F. Austin: It was starting to come up as you talked about... Really you talking about between the age of 12 and 18, ideally before the age of 30, there needs to be some sort of rite of passage with an altered state of consciousness, and so indigenous groups have had this...
0:28:47.2 Steven Kotler: That's interesting. I don't know if I said that, but it's not...
0:28:52.0 Paul F. Austin: You didn't, but that's my interpretation of it, I suppose.
0:28:52.6 Steven Kotler: Well, and I will tell you just for historical sake. So I got inspired, a lot of my work... There was a guy in the '80s who was an Outside Magazine journalist named Rob Schultheis, who wrote a really famous book that I've talked about called Bone Games: Zen, Shamanism, and the Search for Extreme Sports. Zen, Shamanism, and the Search for Transcendence.
0:29:12.4 Paul F. Austin: Oh, I gotta read this, I have not read this yet.
0:29:13.9 Steven Kotler: He's the first...
0:29:15.0 Paul F. Austin: Bone Games. Okay.
0:29:16.1 Steven Kotler: Bone Games. He's the first person I know of through the door. He connects the psychedelic, all that stuff. He's the guy who walks the action sports path into flow first. I had been looking at the phenomenon. I didn't actually know the word flow until I read his book. And he, by the way, this was the other thing about Schultheis that... So I was already geeked by neuro and distrustful of the psychologists, and Schultheis argues in terms of neuroscience, 'cause he's working right at the time that the endorphin hypothesis, that is endorphins at the heart of flow is being postulated. So he just leaves the psychology behind and talks about neurobiology. So I read this book, and not only was he talking about the very thing I was most interested in, the crossover, these rituals of flow, which is what you were talking about, which is what triggered this, but he was talking about it in a neurobiological context. And it was, that was... And I was an Outside Magazine writer, so I was... And that was a magazine I always wanted to write for also, so I was reading all of their great writers and the best of Outside, and all this stuff, and stumbled upon Rob Schultheis' work.
0:30:28.5 Paul F. Austin: Bone Games. Will have to check that out. So what is the... With psychedelics, we know that they were used... There was a book written, The Immortality Key, a few years back, we had Brian Muraresku, the author. He talked about the use of psychedelics in ancient Greece in particular. Flow really came onto the scene, from what I understand, in the '70s or '80s as a term... Ancient, from an ancient perspective, how did ancient societies talk about flow, ancient philosophers talk about flow? What has been the context and the relevance before, let's say modern times, around flow?
0:31:04.3 Steven Kotler: Yeah. It's a great question. So there was a core question, is enlightenment flow? That's one of the core questions you've gotta start by answering; is enlightenment flow? Are we talking about the same thing? It turns out, no, not at all. Not neurobiologically, not from a historical context. And my favorite experiences ever is... So, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who is a Tibetan Buddhist, and he's one of the people who worked with Richard Davidson, and so he knows some neuroscience, but he's a Tibetan Buddhist. He gave a lecture right before COVID, where he actually gave the Tibetan word for flow. And he was like, there's this experience, and he said, the closest thing, what we have in the Asian tradition is also satori, a brief period of enlightenment, different from permanent. And flow is a state. It's not a stage. Enlightenment is a stage. And so, all... People who have looked at enlightenment; Andy Newberg, my mentor, has done a lot of this work on the neurobiology, and it looks like more permanent changes in the brain than a brief temporary state. So you have these, and then in the Western tradition, I mentioned earlier, philosophical intuition.
0:32:24.6 Steven Kotler: If you actually go through... So one of my favorite things to do is to... You can go through the Bible or you can go through the philosophical tradition or the scientific tradition, but the philosophical tradition is actually great because they write about their experiences and they're trying to explain it and point at the flow states. So, Spinoza has this classic experience that we call philosophical intuition, this classic intuitive story. And when you listen to what he's describing, he's describing a deep flow state with cosmic unity and a macro flow state. He's got all the elements, and that's... So you can look, you can re-read a lot of the philosophy around philosophical intuition till you basically get to the enlightenment, in a sense, even through the romantics though. And once you get to the phenomenologists like Hauser and Heidegger, it changes, it becomes much more scientific in language of mind. The language changes.
0:33:23.7 Steven Kotler: But literally, you can read flow through the history of science. It enters our vocabulary, the first person to put a term on it that I know of was Goethe, who coined the term Rausch, which is overflowing joy. Nietzsche wrote about Rausch. So when I talk about Nietzsche working on flow, he worked on Rausch. Now what they were trying to quantify, this is really funny, this always cracks me up. Germany, as you know, has a long history of drunken beer festivals, right? October Fest, right? Among others. And so there was this sort of communitas, right?
0:34:01.3 Steven Kotler: Like a drunken revelry at scale when everybody sort of comes together, this shared giant collective altered state. Group flow at scale was communitas. Rausch was a term that was trying to describe communitas. And they were trying to figure out where it came from. And it could go terribly wrong and it could go terribly right. If it went terribly right, it produced crazy amazing works of art and creativity and philosophy, and if it went terribly wrong, you got basically drunken brawls at scale. So they were looking at these questions. I think James works on... William James writes about flow and varieties of religious experience. Of course, it's called different things 'cause he's looking at all these different religious traditions. And then, Maslow lumped flow with other peak experiences.
0:34:57.7 Steven Kotler: But it's really clear from reading what was going on, what he was studying, he was really looking at flow and awe much more than he was looking at psychedelic experiences, you know what I mean? He was looking at, what did Albert Einstein do to get creative, or what did Eleanor Roosevelt or Franklin... He was looking at what he defined as success, and he found that the most... And his definition of successful, it's important to point out, wasn't just, "I made a lot of money, I did good in the world." It was, "I was a good person." Kindness was really built... All the humanists felt this way, was really important. So he's looking at what makes a good person and successful in the world? And the answer was these peak experiences, which are mostly flow states, and we now know the mechanism. It's the wisdom and empathy and et cetera that you get on the other side of a flow state that he was also looking at. And then, Csikszentmihalyi comes along and all he does is, Maslow is looking at sort of an elite group of people, right? And Csikszentmihalyi just asked the common man, woman question, which is, "What does it feel like for all of us?
0:36:06.6 Steven Kotler: How do the rest of us do peak performance? We know now what these geniuses do, so what about the rest of us?" And he takes that question and goes around the world and conducts what is the original... The founding flow study, still one of the largest studies anybody's done in positive psychology. So that's sort of the history. You can go bit by bit, you can talk about Croce the philosopher, and aesthetic flow, but it's not flow. He's talking about an aesthetic intuition and sort of this cross between awe and flow and art-inspired empathy where you feel what the artist was creating, which is... The origin of empathy came out of art. They were trying to figure out how it is that a piece of art makes you feel the same as the creator felt when they created the piece of art. So, they were looking at that stuff. Anyways, that's a really long-winded technical answer that you probably didn't want, but there you go.
0:37:00.6 Paul F. Austin: This is precisely... No, the Satori, to the Rausch, to flow. Now, I have...
0:37:08.9 Steven Kotler: Paul, by the way, I have to say, let me just put this out here 'cause I have to say, I have, for decades now, been gathering flow terms from around the world. So please, find me on... If you're listening to this, and you know flow terms that I don't know in other languages, as Stephen Kotler on social media. Please, just shout at me 'cause I've been gathering them, and for this very reason, it's like... Andy Newberg said, "Have the conversation, listen to the really precise details, 'cause there's neurobiology perhaps underneath those details. And those are clues." So our languages is a container for really complicated things that are hard to put words around, right? And we do it differently in different cultures, and so I find it very useful.
0:37:54.0 Paul F. Austin: Okay, this is gonna be a slight of a tangent, but it will come back into the core of what we're doing. So with flow, we've talked about altered states and how flow is a form of altered states. And I believe it was Wilber who said altered states lead to altered traits, or they can lead to altered traits, right? That's sort of the nut of them. It's not just about the state itself, but how are they actually shifting and changing an individual? And one thing that you mentioned as it relates to Maslow was this sense of kindness that can come about from being in a state of flow. Now, one of the things that you've been focused on professionally is bringing flow into, let's say, the corporate workplace. And we know that generally, corporate workplaces are pretty cutthroat. They're highly competitive, they're highly political. And I'm curious just what you've noticed as you...
0:38:52.1 Steven Kotler: So you gotta... Let me back this up 'cause I think we...
0:38:55.8 Paul F. Austin: Do you know where I'm going with this question? You get a sense of where I'm going with the question.
0:38:58.0 Steven Kotler: Yeah, I know where you're going with this question, but I also wanna... You have to understand that when I started this work, I wasn't really... I always say that the work I do is not altruistic in the beginning at all. My interest is helping animals. I wanted more flow for me and my friends in the beginning. That's where all this started.
0:39:19.4 Paul F. Austin: For sure.
0:39:20.7 Steven Kotler: And it's only been more recently that I've wanted to actually take it to the masses, and I really feel like I'm smuggling it into the heart of the mainstream. I'm smuggling it out loud and in public, but I'm smuggling and I will flat out tell you, I don't... If what you do is make widgets for a living, you're gonna use all this flow work to make better widgets faster, and you're gonna be more productive and all that stuff. And that's totally true and that's what people want, and that's fine. I could give a shit 'cause I don't necessarily think we need more widgets. But on the other side of widgets, you're more empathetic, you're wiser, your sphere of caring has expanded often beyond the border of species. So, we know this about flow, we know this about psychedelics, we know this about altered states in general, that it expands the sphere of caring beyond the border of species. So I think humans are horrible specieists and that all life is equal. "Empathy for all" was the motto at the heart of Last Tango in Cyberspace and Devil's Dictionary, the two books I wrote about these ideas. So that's what flow gives you over time. Altered states in general do that, but flow is very reliable. And there's less noise in the signal, I believe. So, to me, that's a fair trade.
0:40:45.0 Paul F. Austin: Which I think is brilliant. And I'm just curious about, what are the tangible outcomes of that? How do people shift and change, how do organizations shift and change? What have you just noticed and observed as you've started to do that?
0:40:57.3 Steven Kotler: So I've seen everything from the... This was probably not what the organization intended, to... And let me just speak to that. So I've seen... We were brought into... So we do a lot of work inside the Fortune 500, the Fortune 100. We were brought into one of those companies by their head of innovation. Company's gonna remain nameless. And we took our training, and flow follows focus. And so if you want more flow in your life, anything that drives focus into the present moment will amplify flow. One of the big drivers is autonomy. So, we like to steer the ship, and when we're steering the ship, we pay way more attention to where it's going. So the head of innovation at Fortune 100, company X, brought us in, and after taking our eight-week training, which he thought was fantastic and completely changed his life, changed his life so much that he had to quit his job. [chuckle]
0:41:55.9 Steven Kotler: So we've seen that, which is like, wherever... I mean, yes, everybody probably in the end is better off for that, but like, talk about unintended consequences. And have we massively shifted corporate culture anywhere? I don't think so. But I mainly don't think so because corporate culture is something that tends to shift slowly over time. Are we changing corporate culture? Yes, we are. That, I can say for sure. But I think the questions you're asking are like finish line questions, and I don't necessarily know if they're answerable. So, let me put it this way. I'm somebody who gets into flow fairly frequently and I'm competitive as hell. But I will flat out tell you, like in the writing world, I wanna be the best writer in the history of the universe. And I know that's not a thing, but it doesn't change the fact that I wanna be that.
0:42:52.6 Steven Kotler: One of the reasons I get to work with a lot of professional athletes is 'cause I'm wired like that. Now, I'm also very wired cooperatively. And one of the hardest parts about leading my companies, for example, has been to realize that, as a leader, you can't always be cooperative. Sometimes as a leader, the best way to be cooperative is to say, "Oh no, that's a bad idea. Let's not do that," which I normally would... So I had to really shift how I did that, into something that maybe seems more competitive. That's a bad idea. Seems more competitive, but actually, I know if I let my employee work on an idea for three months and then say, "Oh no, that's the wrong idea," which is what I would naturally do 'cause I'm cooperative, and go test it out, and let's check it out. But I've learned that if somebody's spent three months of their life investing in an idea and then you take it away from them, they're mad. That's not kind. That's actually... But that can seem like a lot of other things. It's actually... I'm being kind, but it doesn't look like it. So I've seen... I don't know, that answer was all over the place. Did it satisfy at all? Like 1%, 2%? I'll try getting up there.
0:44:02.8 Paul F. Austin: 2%. But like the... And the larger relationship that I'm drawing here is what you wrote about Gnar Country with peak performance as people age or with aging.
0:44:15.5 Steven Kotler: Oh, yeah. Let me talk about this, 'cause this is cool. So what we have learned, and it's a big we, but you gotta shoutout Gene Cohen who built the National Institute of Aging as the guy who really drove this forward. We used to think mental decline was inevitable. And now, we know... And as I said, it's all use-it-or-lose-it skills, and bonus, turns out that as we move into our late '40s and '50s, if we get it right, there's a moderator that matters here. We gain access to whole new levels of intelligence, whole new levels of creativity, whole new levels of wisdom, whole new levels of empathy. And I can go into a lot of detail about what you're gaining, but an intelligence, you'll understand this immediately 'cause it's seen in psychedelics as well, you get multi-perspectival thinking. You gain the ability to... Black and white thinking goes out the window and you're like, "Oh, it's all gray and I can see from multiple perspectives," and big picture thinking comes online, and like never before. So, in ways that we really can't access before. So people get much smarter, creativity expands as well. And it's not just any creativity, it's divergent, outside-the-box, far-flung pattern recognition that increases the most.
0:45:30.9 Steven Kotler: And this, as somebody who trains people in creativity, is the hardest aspect of creativity to train, and you get it naturally in your 50s. And then, you get wisdom and empathy, and wisdom just... So it's a clear neurobiological trait, we know what it's composed of, we... Think of it as social intelligence and emotional intelligence writ large. That's short version, and that's not entirely right, but that's a shorthand for what we talk about when we talk about wisdom. And why did this catch my attention? So I wrote, a bunch of years ago, a book called Bold, which was about exponential entrepreneurship, how companies could tackle grand, global challenges and make a lot of money by helping a lot of people. And after that book came out, I did a lot of speeches and I talked to a lot of CEOs. And when CEOs talk to a guy like me, conversation is often about training and hiring. "How do I hire for peak performance, how do I train for peak performance?" And my first question was always like, well, what are you training for? That's a big, broad thing. What do you want in your employees?
0:46:39.8 Steven Kotler: And hundreds, thousands of these conversations, over a decade. And I always... I didn't always. 90% of the time, I heard one or two answers, often both at the same time. I would hear some version of, "I need more creativity, I need more innovation. The rate of change in the world is so fast, I don't know how we're gonna keep up. We're good at the marketing, we're good at the sales, but the innovation, we don't know how to do it." The second thing I would hear is stuff that has come to the vogue now as psychological safety, and it's important in the workplace, but it basically was, "I want wise, empathetic employees." Because psychological safety is so important that if you don't have empathetic employees, you can't get psychological safety, and without psychological safety, there's zero team performance and no flow. It's a flow blocker as well, so that was a real issue. Nobody was using the term "empathy," per se, but that's what they were talking about. And where I heard it most clearly was from people who had been swayed by... So I think Jeff Bezos has had a bigger influence on 21st-century business than almost anybody, save Elon, maybe you can argue otherwise. But I think, Jeff, more people have really copied him.
0:47:47.9 Steven Kotler: And one of the things he has said over and over again is the mantra of 21st century business is customer-centric thinking. And that's why you need empathetic employees. Without empathetic, nobody's thinking, "customer." So the reason this was so lodged in my head along the way is I knew about Gene Cohen's work and I knew that people over 50 were the very people who were getting kicked out of the workforce and laid off, and yet, if you listen to the employers, these are your dream employees. And there were some caveats, there were some reasons they had for not hiring older employees around sick days and fitness and risk aversion and that hurting the innovation and creativity. So those are the skills I worked on, and a lot of the work that I've been doing is, how do you train down risk aversion as we age, and how do you preserve physical function as we age, 'cause it allows us to take full advantage of these superpowers.
0:48:48.7 Steven Kotler: And there's a lot there, and I could unpack that if you want, but the answer to your question was really... Foremost in mind when I was writing this book is, holy crap, this is the dream workforce of the 21st century. People should be hiring the over 50 crowd in droves. And that's not what's happening. It's easier now that people are working from all over the place 'cause you no longer... You've got employees, you don't quite know what they look like, or it takes you a while, and they've worked their way into your good graces before you find out, "Oh wow, this person's in their 70s." So a lot of the ageism biases, that sort of stuff goes away 'cause you don't see people as much perhaps. But it's an interesting issue, for sure.
0:49:34.2 Paul F. Austin: And so just to land this, of those lessons that you learned from writing Bold, from talking with CEOs, from starting to get into the aging... Peak performance, aging in workplace, what practical things did you then apply as you learned how to park ski in Gnar Country?
0:49:50.8 Steven Kotler: Let's not answer that question 'cause it's going to be very park skiing specific, and let me instead pull back and give you peak performance aging in a single sentence.
0:50:00.0 Paul F. Austin: Perfect.
0:50:00.3 Steven Kotler: And let's decode the sentence. And then we can come back to park skiing and see how the sentence applies, but let's stay with the practical. Now, there's a bunch of terms in this sentence. The only one that's gonna be unfamiliar to people is dynamic. And when I use the term dynamic, so as we age on the physical side, we have to train up strength, stamina, agility, balance and flexibility. And there's very specific... The World Health Organization has said, look, peak performance aging, 150-300 minutes of aerobic activity, stamina, a week. It's two strength training days, three balance, flexibility, and agility. So it's very specific. Or, pick one activity that blends all those motions. That's a dynamic activity. Skiing, you're using strength, stamina, balance, flexibility, and agility all at once, and there are actually bonuses to dynamic motion from a peak performance aging perspective in that when we are dynamic, it actually amplifies the birth of new neurons in our brain for a whole bunch of different reasons. But anyways, the sentence is this; if we wanna rock till we drop, as I've become fond of sayin, you wanna regularly engage in challenging, creative and social activities that demand dynamic, deliberate play.
0:51:16.9 Steven Kotler: Deliberate play is a technical term we can come back to, but you get the idea, and take place in novel outdoor environments. It is literally peak performance aging in a single sentence. And before we dive into it, let me just high level mention one other thing. If you've been listening to the discussion around anti-aging, around longevity, around biohacking, you've been hearing lots of hot and heavy talk about boosting our mitochondria, taking this supplement or that supplement or ice baths or this or that. And the thing I wanna point out is that there's no supplements, pharmacology, or any of that built into what I just said. The thing about all the psychopharmacology and the supplements and the stuff that people are taking is brand new. And historically, regenerative medicine, anti-aging medicine, that's about 10% correct, 90% wrong. And maybe we're getting better over time, but the stuff I just said, all of it, there's 60-70 years worth of hard, hard, hard dozens and dozens and dozens of studies, if not tens of thousands of studies that show what I just said is the formula. And it's interesting 'cause you can't own that formula. Can't patent it, you can't sell it. There's nothing you could do with it other than just say it out loud and live it. But that's the formula, and incredibly well documented.
0:52:35.6 Paul F. Austin: Can you say it once more? Just to have it once more.
0:52:38.1 Steven Kotler: Yeah, and then I can break down what...
0:52:38.9 Paul F. Austin: Please.
0:52:39.6 Steven Kotler: Bits and pieces mean, if you want. You wanna regularly engage in challenging creative and social activities that demand dynamic, deliberate play, and take place in novel outdoor environments. So let's break it down one at a time. The first thing you need to know is a bunch of terms in there are actually flow triggers. So, flow is so important in peak performance aging. And I could really spend the next 10 minutes talking about why, but like, slows down the aging process, helps you live longer, blah... A bunch of stuff. Really, really fundamental and massively improves quality of life. So, makes you wanna live longer also, which really matters. Challenging activities which push on our skills drive flow. So a bunch of these are flow triggers. So challenging activities, flow trigger, creativity, also a flow trigger. When we make creative decisions and link ideas together, you get dopamine. Dopamine drives focus, focus drives flow. So creativity is a flow trigger.
0:53:36.3 Steven Kotler: But also, I said Gene Cohen did all this work. There's the superpowers of aging; more intelligence, creativity, empathy and wisdom. There's a moderator. If-then. We talked about it earlier, you can't enjoy your 40s unless you've solved the crisis of identity. These are moderators, if-then conditions. At 50, you have to engage in creative activities. Creative activities is what train the brain to start thinking multi-perspectivally, and all this stuff that comes on, if you're not regularly engaging in creative activities, you're not gonna get the super powers of aging. These super powers of aging are what help us stave off some of the bad stuff that comes with age. It's not that the stuff doesn't come, it's that you can fight back against it. But the point is really clear, once you get to age 50, if you're not going forward, you're going backwards. So, this stuff is coming for you. You can fight against it, but you have to really do it actively. So, challenging and creative social activities. We know that social activities maintain cognitive function and we know that people with robust social networks and social lives live eight additional healthy years than people without. So very, very clearly shown in the data again and again.
0:54:46.9 Steven Kotler: So that's what that's about. We can go more into the benefits of a robust social life, but you get it. Dynamic is the next term. We talked about that. That hits all five categories of physical things that need to be trained over time. Deliberate play is the next term. So you've heard about deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson's repetition with incremental advancement, 10,000 hours gets you to mastery. Okay. High level, big picture, peak performance aging thing. If you wanna stave off cognitive decline, you wanna preserve mental function, not get to Alzheimer's or dementia, you have to build up what's known as a cognitive reserve. This is essentially how you fight back. And most decline in the brain takes place in the prefrontal cortex, and the prefrontal cortex is where two traits live more than most; expertise and wisdom. They live in the prefrontal cortex. So, when we learn a new skill, it forms this incredibly redundant neural network across the prefrontal cortex. And because it's so redundant, it makes it more impervious to cognitive decline. So the more expertise we get, the more wisdom we get, the more protected we are against Alzheimer's and dementia and cognitive decline. Again, really well-established. This is why you hear lifelong learning matters so much. So, next question. What's the fastest way to learn? If lifelong learning matters so much, you've gotta be able to onboard new learnings.
0:56:15.7 Steven Kotler: We know being in flow helps a lot. We would think deliberate practice helps a lot, but it turns out that's not actually true. There've been a bunch of people who've argued with Anders Ericsson... And Anders Ericsson, by the way, he passed away not too long ago, was a lovely, lovely man who was a friend of mine, and I was somebody who argued with him 'cause flow amplifies the path to learning. But we were friends and we'd go to the same peak performance conferences together sometimes. Not together, but we would meet at these conferences. My point being, one of the big breakthroughs was that deliberate play, which is repetition with improvisation. Instead of doing the same thing again and again, do the same thing, but improv on top of it, is actually so much better for learning. There's neurochemical reasons.
0:57:07.3 Steven Kotler: When we play, we don't just get dopamine, the reward for doing the thing again. We get hitting our goal, we get endorphins with it, so this amplifies memory. And I could go on and on. Also, when we play, there's no shame or self-consciousness or... A lot of stuff that blocks learning goes away. So deliberate play radically outperforms deliberate practice as a path towards learning. And then, novel outdoor environments, novelty is a flow trigger. Novel outdoor environments serve two purposes; one, outdoor environments in general reset the nervous system. They calm us down. We know this. 20-minute walk in the woods, you're getting as much serotonin as you get from SSRIs, etcetera, etcetera.
0:57:49.2 Steven Kotler: There's a lot going on there. But there are nine known causes of aging, biological causes of aging. What do they have in common? Stress and inflammation. So anything that works as an anti-inflammatory, anti-stress device, is anti-aging. Why is flow so important for fighting aging? One of the reasons is, as we move into a flow state, there's this release of nitric oxide which pushes stress hormones out of our system. It resets the nervous system to zero. Huge benefits for aging, right? If stress and inflammation is the cause of... All the causes of aging have in common, anything that lowers this, and nothing is more potent at de-stressing us in the moment than flow. So, novelty is there 'cause it's a flow trigger. Novel outdoor environments are there because they calm us down a ton. And finally, last bit of information and then I'll be done with this, is we mentioned neurogenesis earlier, the birth of new neurons, right? You obviously wanna preserve brain function and you want new neurons. You wanna protect the ones you have. Most adult brains continue to produce about 700 new neurons every day, even late in life, but it's where they come from that's important here.
0:59:00.2 Steven Kotler: And they predominantly come from the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that's long-term memory, but it also does location. It has place cells. It has grid cells. Why is this important? Because when we were hunter-gatherers, remembering where you were when you discovered the ripe fruit tree or the watering hole, or where you got attacked by the saber-tooth tiger, that was survival. So the brain is built, hardwired, has a really easy time remembering novel experiences that take place in outdoor environments, and that gives us new neurons and preserves brain function. So what you wanna do is, if those... The new learning, the expertise and wisdom, what you want it to do is to build a really rich network that goes into the associative cortexes, which is where memory lives. And this is the best way to do that. So you're preserving mental function and physical function, and that's peak performance aging in one complicated but practical, simple sentence.
1:00:00.8 Paul F. Austin: And just to hit on that last point with the hippocampus, I think this is particularly or comparatively helpful, because we spend so much of our time on Google Maps or in houses or knowing where everything is, right? We have a very sort of tidy, linear world that we live in, and so that capacity for the hippocampus to really be activated because of these novel experiences that are happening in nature almost brings us back into a biological state that we, on a deep level, I think, crave for really being alive.
1:00:36.0 Steven Kotler: So, right downstream from your very important and wise and smart statement is one of the more surprising findings at the heart of Gnar Country. And I'll give you experimental data to back it up, but it turns out action sports, the very thing that we're like, "Stop! Put down childish behavior. You're too old for this shit." Like surfing, skiing, rock climbing, snowboarding, skydiving, rollerskating, all this stuff that we literally are told to stop doing as we get older, it turns out action sports are phenomenal for peak performance aging, for a lot of different reasons. One, they're dynamic activities. And let me put it in context. So the Mayo Clinic wanted to know... They looked at 20 years of data and said, what are the physical activities that help you live the longest? And they looked at everything.
1:01:30.2 Steven Kotler: You join a health club, it's an extra year and a half. You learn to swim, it's 3.1 years, or three... Learn to run is 3.1 years, swimming is 3.6. And you get, I think, six years for soccer, badminton is seven, tennis is nine, and we can talk about why in a second. And finally, action sports are 10, skiing in particular. But that's different data from a different study on the action sports. But anyways, my point... So what is happening is the activities are becoming more dynamic and more social. Tennis, badminton, very dynamic with a lot of hand-eye coordination, a lot of fast twitch muscle, a lot of very, very dynamic... Tennis more than badminton, 'cause badminton's a little light, you need more strength for tennis and the court's a little bigger. So, that's why tennis works so well. And it's social. It's almost impossible to play tennis by yourself. You might be able to practice against a wall, but you're gonna play with others, so it demands... So you're seeing how it's one activity that hits a lot of it.
1:02:30.1 Steven Kotler: Longest lived communities in America; Summit County, Pitkin County, Eagle County, Colorado. That's Vail, Aspen, Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain, A-Basin, all of it. And huge action sports, outdoor sports Meccas. So you see this at work in the world a lot. And there was research out of Japan that found that if you're downhill skiing, bone density decreases over time. A lot of people are fighting against it a lot of different ways. It's really important. One of the reasons our brain declines so much is a decline in bone density, 'cause the bones store the minerals used by the brains. So, you've got this really tight weave there, been a lot of different approaches. But if people are like, what is the best sport for improving bone density, if you're looking for a sport, weightlifting is really good. You can hike with a weight vest. That's really good. Skiing, 'cause you're perfectly loading the bone with each turn. Every time you make a turn, it's a tremendous amount of force on the bone, and it perfectly loads the bone. Whereas like running, too much force, right? You tend to degenerate the bone over time, right? It's too much impact. Swimming, by the way, this is...
1:03:43.8 Steven Kotler: People are told to swim as they get older. It's terrible advice. It doesn't load any of the bones. So you lose bone density. Sure, it's good for your heart, but you're losing bone density. And so we can go on and on from that on the physical stuff. There's all kinds of wild details under that hood.
1:04:01.4 Paul F. Austin: Well, I'm glad you went there 'cause that was gonna be my next question, is, what are practical examples of this that actually play out? So going through surfing, skiing, rock climbing, soccer, badminton, tennis, skiing. Another thing that I thought of, like Albert Einstein is well known about... He played violin till a very late age and that helped with cognition. Now, was he doing that in outdoor environments? Probably not. But there's probably also something to be said for even if someone... Being able to do both is critical ...
1:04:29.5 Steven Kotler: So let me tell you a story. One of the questions, where did the book come from? Let me tell you another, where did the book come from story. This is not about Steven. This is about Stradivarius. So I was researching a... I was gonna write a novel about a cat burglar, and she was gonna steal... And I wanted something cool for her to steal. There's actually a flow juvenile delinquency tie-in, so it was actually... There's some flow stuff in here, but we're gonna ignore all that for the purpose of this story. And I was looking for something cool to steal, and I was like, how about rare musical instruments? I've never read a book about a cat burglary. And I was like, well, what are the rarest musical instruments in history? That's it. Next question. Turns out that Stradivarius, one guy, has built 50% of the rarest musical instruments in history. Do you know how weird that is? That's like one painter paint half of the rarest paintings in painting history. I mean, like, what? And so I sort of forgot my cat burglar book for a little while, was just like sort of Stradivarius obsessed 'cause I was like, what is this? So weird, so cool. Talk about peak performance, right?
1:05:33.6 Steven Kotler: And then I learned the weirdest thing ever, which is that two of the most famous instruments Stradivarius built, he built when he was 92 years old.
1:05:44.8 Paul F. Austin: Wow.
1:05:46.0 Steven Kotler: And I went... This was the moment that the long, slow rot theory collapsed for me. Because I went, if fast twitch, muscle response declines over time, if fine motor performance declines over time, if eyesight declines over time, if on and on and on, and he built the goddamn thing in 1687 or something like that, long before we have modern medicine. So, none of it makes any sense. I'm like, either this guy is one in a gazillion, which I never tend to believe as a journalist. That's a story that doesn't make sense. Or, something's wrong with our theory of aging. And this was right when my wife and I were doing our hospice care work with dogs, which is, we run a dog sanctuary, do a hospice care, and we were getting these incredible longevity results in our dogs. They were living a lot longer than possible. And we were starting to ask the question, why is this happening? And then I stumbled upon Stradivarius, and here's the... Wanna solve the mystery of Stradivarius? The dude made a thousand musical instruments in his lifetime, by hand. He never stopped making them. So, use-it-or-lose-it skills, right? If you never stop using the skills, you get to retain them, even advance them far later in life than you ever thought possible, like making two of the world's most expensive musical instruments in your 90s, in the 1600s.
1:07:07.5 Paul F. Austin: Insane.
1:07:08.3 Steven Kotler: So, right. That was... Anyways, that answers your question.
1:07:12.1 Paul F. Austin: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that. I played violin for 12 years. I've actually just recently picked it up again. And so my musical teacher, orchestra leader would talk about Stradivariuses when I was 12, 13, 14, so I always knew that these were like... I think at minimum, you're gonna pay a million dollars for a Stradivarius. And it is sort of a goal of mine one day, not to own one necessarily, but to play one, because the violin is an incredible instrument. And the beauty that comes from it kind of ties into the sense of awe that can come. Right when I'm playing violin, I start to do scales and I start to do other things, it's immediate flow state. And the beauty that comes out of it is really something else to witness. So, just a little anecdote.
1:07:58.7 Steven Kotler: So, do you mind if I spin off your anecdote with two quick stories?
1:08:04.4 Paul F. Austin: Please.
1:08:04.6 Steven Kotler: 'Cause both are probably really practical here. One is an origin story about where the book came from, and I'll come back to that. The first is, so, amazing that you're picking up music again. And the reason is... So I talked about cognitive reserve, which is our protection against Alzheimer's and dementia. And I talked about expertise and wisdom. So, Yaakov Stern in Columbia, who did a lot of the core work on this has said we get an additional... And it's cumulative, so stacks on top of each other, 8% protection against Alzheimer's and dementia for every leisure activity we take up in adulthood. Leisure activity, music, language. This year, I've been teaching myself to draw again. I have a degree, I have a minor in Fine Art from way back when. And I always sort of liked life drawing, but I was never... Or liked drawing, but I was never great. So I've been doing a drawing a day for six months now. That's my latest one. Gnar Country was, I taught myself how to park ski. So, additional 8% protection for each one of these. And he says, by the way... I always say peak performance aging starts young, is one of the reasons is, as Yaakov Stern said, he said in his papers on this stuff, he's like, look, each of these gives you an additional 8%, but you gotta really become an expert. So, start young. Flat out says it. So, that's one story.
1:09:27.7 Steven Kotler: The second story, and I know we're running out of time, but this might be a good final story for you. So you asked where this book came from, and the shortest long version of that answer is, so the last conversation I had with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi before he passed away, he died during COVID, I had called him up to ask him a weird question about the influence of action sports in his life and in development of the theory, because I had stumbled upon a bunch of interviews of his, from the '60s, that had been translated out of Italian. He had given them in Italian to Italian newspapers, and they got translated into English and put into a collection of some of his work. And I'm reading them, and he's name dropping Yosemite climbers from the '60s. And I knew he had done some rock climbing and some research on rock climbers, and I knew he was an outdoor athlete. But suddenly, I'm like, well, wait a minute. These are people you only know if you were in that world, like really in that world. And then, we started working with a couple of his ex-students from way back.
1:10:34.8 Steven Kotler: And they would tell stories about how he would come back from a weekend in the mountains with bruises on his face, like he was getting after it. And I was like, wait a minute. I think this stuff made a bigger dent than he ever let on. And so I called him and I was like... Didn't phrase it exactly politely. I was very excited, and I was like, "So Mike, I gotta know. I know you tell this story about being in a concentration camp in World War II, is where flow came from. And I know you did a lot of work on artists, but really, tell me the truth. This was really action sports, right? You were out there on the mountains yourself. You were getting into these wild, altered states of consciousness and you knew you couldn't use rock climbing to explain it, because it was too weird, so you had to go in these other directions."
1:11:17.7 Steven Kotler: And that was the question I asked him, 'cause that was exactly what happened to me. I know the difficulty of using action sports to explain this stuff. And I did it 50 years later, or 30 years later, and it was still really hard. So, trying to do that back in the '60s and '70s would've been impossible. But this is the question I ask him. And there's this huge pause. I mean, like, nobody talks for two minutes. And I'm thinking, "Oh my God, I offended him. Holy crap." You know how I feel about Csikszentmihalyi. He's the godfather of flow psychology. I can't offend him. You know what I mean? Like, he's the Uber Mentor. And finally, he says, "Steven, you gotta be careful." And at this point, I think, oh crap, he's lost the plot. I knew he'd had a stroke. I knew he was in his 80s. I was like, oh God, this is bad. And so at that point, I'm snarling. I've gone from, "Oh shit, I offended him," to, "Oh crap, something's wrong with his brain." And I was like, "Mike... " he asked me to call him Mike. He always went by Mike. "What do you mean? Like, what do you mean I gotta be careful?" And I'm just like sort of dreading the answer, and he says, "You do something your whole life for flow, and then you get to be my age and forget about climbing rocks, forget about climbing mountains. Some days, I can't get out of bed. You need a backup plan for flow. You gotta be careful."
1:12:49.5 Steven Kotler: And it was the most amazing moment 'cause here was literally the godfather of flow psychology... Well, it was one flow junkie to another. And he was saying, as you age, flow is really important, but make sure you have lots of ways to get into flow. And it particularly resonated with me, because up to that moment in time, I had been a big mountain skier and most of my deep flow states came from hurling myself down big mountains. And that was sort of my retirement strategy. But his point was like, oh, wait a minute. That's not long-term tenable. And even though park skiing seems really ridiculous as a way to... It actually gives me a lot more creativity on the mountain and a million more entrances into flow rather than just skiing these huge, risky lines. So, where does the book come from? It comes from all these places, but it literally came from Mike, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi telling me to be careful as I age, have a lot of these leisure activities that drop you into flow right away, 'cause you're gonna need them. And that was real... I mean, glad I got to tell this story at the end of our hour together 'cause it doesn't make a whole lot of sense at the front end. You need a bunch of details. But that was the actual catalyst of what changed, where I was like, "Oh, I'm gonna do this now."
1:14:07.8 Paul F. Austin: And that's a beautiful way to end 'cause that's even where my mind was going. It's like, in your 50s and 60s, yes, and 70s, 80s, 90s. What other ways can we diversify the ways that we can access flow with things that may not be as physically taxing? Because the truth is, at some point... This may change in the next 10 years or 15 years, but at some point, our body does start to feel the weight of existence. And there are other ways that we can access flow that don't necessarily involve hurling ourselves down huge mountains. So, yeah.
1:14:44.7 Steven Kotler: It was actually the last study Mike did, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did before he passed away. That was the exact study he did, is he found that people are flow prone over their entire span of their life. It never decreases. Our drive to get into flow and flow's importance for our development never goes away, but it drops once we lose our bodies, once the bodies fall apart. So, a lot of the peak performance aging formula and a lot of the cool stuff is about preserving that physical function, and also developing, as Mike pointed out, backup plans.
1:15:21.5 Paul F. Austin: Got to have them. Steven Kotler, Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad. Steven, thanks for joining us on the podcast. Any resources or places to point people if they wanna go check out more about your work and what you're up to?
1:15:35.2 Steven Kotler: Yeah. So if this was interesting to you, Gnar Country, and Gnar is short for Gnarly, which by the way, is an environment that's high in perceived risk and high in actual risk, which is a phenomenal description of old age, which is why Gnar Country is the title of the book. But gnarcountry.com is the book's website. In fact, the peak performance aging experiment, where I told you I took 20 older adults and taught them how to park ski, we had a National Geographic cameraman follow us around and we videotaped all of it.
1:16:02.7 Paul F. Austin: Oh, fantastic.
1:16:03.1 Steven Kotler: So you can go watch videos about that experiment. They're there. Bunch of other things are there. I'm stevenkotler.com, or @stevenkotler on social media and Flow Research Collective, it's the Flow Research Collective. And on the off chance you're interested in training flow with us or you wanna learn more about that, cheesiest URL in the world, but it's memorable, getmoreflow.com.
1:16:26.5 Paul F. Austin: Love it.
1:16:27.3 Steven Kotler: So getmoreflow.com is where you go if you wanna train with us. Thank you, Paul.
1:16:34.3 Paul F. Austin: Thank you, Steven.
1:16:34.8 Steven Kotler: Fun hanging out. I appreciate the fact that I get to be your only repeat guest.
1:16:38.8 Paul F. Austin: This is fun.
1:16:40.7 Steven Kotler: I think that's how it should be for all eternity. [laughter] I think I'm the only guy. Everybody else did it once, I got twice.
1:16:46.8 Paul F. Austin: Exactly. That's it. This was fun, Steven. Thanks for hopping on...
1:16:48.9 Steven Kotler: But I'm not competitive. I'm not competitive. I'm just... Not at all.
1:16:51.2 Paul F. Austin: Not at all. Not at all. Thank you.
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