This Lunchbreak interview took a while to arrange, but if the advice here can help one person become less distracted, more focused and improve his business (and more importantly, his life), then it will have been worth it. And I believe it can have that impact.
Most of us have, at one point or another, experienced high levels of accomplishment at work. For some period of time, we are lasered in and the minutes fly by as we produce focused work and quality ideas. Scientists call this type of intensely focused work “flow,” and one of the leading experts on flow is Steven Kotler.
Driven by a deep desire to understand why some people can achieve impossible feats in athletics, business and other areas, Steven discovered that it was possible to help people become laser-focused, entering a state of flow. Besides writing books on the subject, he built a successful business around it.
A science-based entrepreneur, Steven developed his company, the Flow Research Collective, through which over 100 employees all over the world teach individuals and companies how to achieve peak work states.
Steven has worked with companies such as Facebook, Audi and many other Fortune 500 companies.
On a personal level, I fully relate to the struggle to focus at work. Since my conversation with Steven, I have been more cognizant of it, and my ability to focus has improved. Sure, I still have a long way to go, but I hope our conversation can help inspire others, as well.
I was born in Chicago and grew up in Cleveland in a lower middle-class Jewish neighborhood. My father started out as an accountant; he was also an accomplished athlete. I grew up in a fairly Conservative household. We had two sets of dishes, lit Shabbos candles, and I had a bar mitzvah. We celebrated Passover, too.
“I was a very curious child, and my mother read to me endlessly. We would go to the library and come home with a hundred books, and she would read them to me. When I learned how to read, I would read them to her. My parents—my mother especially—indulged my curiosity.
“I was very entrepreneurial as a kid. I started working when I was 11 years old. My first job was doing birthday parties every weekend as a magician at a restaurant. I did that until I was 16 or 17. I had a bunch of odd jobs after that, which is how I learned that I didn’t want to work in a factory, or for the state of Ohio, or for a furniture company.
“I was always different from the people around me. When I was in high school, they tried to fail me because they found my senior project offensive. My mother had to intercede on that one. Then I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but they asked me to leave the creative writing department. I was disruptive and nobody liked my writing. I was trying to do very complicated things with language known as a metafiction style of writing. Basically, it means that your characters are aware that they are part of a work of fiction. Nobody in the department taught that, and nobody knew what I was doing. To their credit, after they asked me to leave, they hired a couple of new teachers and invited me back. That was really cool.
“My grandmother, a Russian immigrant, was a poet. She wrote what were essentially Hallmark cards, though I did not know it at the time. I wrote my first poem when I was around four years old—I still have it. So I started writing very early. By the time I was 13 or 14, I was writing every day.
“I had no idea how to become a writer, but it was definitely what I wanted to do. A friend told me about the creative writing department in college. I remember thinking to myself, Why would I need to take creative writing classes? I’m already a creative writer. It didn’t even dawn on me that I should get training.
“I didn’t start out thinking I was going to write anything but poetry. I was trained at the undergraduate level as a poet. My senior thesis in college was a 110-page poem, a terrible one. As I was writing it, I knew it was a novel, though I didn’t know how to write novels.
“So many people told me, ‘Don’t be a writer. It’s a bad idea, you’ll never make a living.’ And I didn’t know if I was any good because anybody whose opinion I could ask didn’t know what I was doing.
“I got into the graduate program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins, where I was taught by John Barth, a legend in the field of metafiction writing. I turned in my first writing assignment, a sample chapter of my novel, and everybody in the class ripped it to shreds. But John defended it. I’ll never forget that. He loved it, and he ended up blurbing my first book when it came out nine years later. That was the vote of confidence I needed.
“During college, I freelanced for a huge advertising agency. They had never met me, but I figured they would hire me after grad school. I walked in for my interview thinking that it would be like, ‘Hi, how are you? Here’s your office.’ They took one look at me, and then I understood that it wasn’t going to be that simple. They didn’t tell me to go home, but they wouldn’t really sit down with me, either. The guy whom I was meeting with was trying to get me to leave on my own. At one point, he threw a magazine in my lap and said, ‘I have to go to a meeting. Read this. I’ll be back.’
“I flipped through it and thought to myself, I can do this. Instead of waiting for him to come back from his meeting, I went home. I called the editor-in-chief of that magazine, a man named Noah Gold, every hour, on the hour, for four days until he took my call. I also faxed him about a hundred pages of my writing. Three days later, Noah called me and said, ‘Well, kid, you’ve got chutzpah. I don’t think I have work for you now, but if work ever comes up, I’ll call you back.’
“Two days later, my phone rang. It was Noah. They needed an interview with someone who was going to go to jail in two days and Noah said, ‘Look, if you can get the interview, you can have a job.’ I found a way to get the interview, and that was how my writing career started.
“I became a freelance writer. As a journalist, I wrote for many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Time, The Atlantic and Wired. I had various staff positions along the way, too.
“Journalism is amazing because you’re paid to be curious. If you’re curious about something, you can pretty much turn it into money. I was super curious about everything. I covered music and culture and art and everything you could possibly imagine, but I was phenomenally curious about two things: neuroscience and action sports. I was fascinated with human behavior, and in the 1990s, the neuroscience of human behavior became a real field.
“I felt psychology was too squishy. It was useful, but it’s metaphorical more than mechanical. And I wanted to understand the mechanisms. How does the brain work? How does it drive behavior? I was fascinated by all of this.
“Simultaneously, I was an action sports athlete. I was really into skating, skiing, windsurfing, rock climbing. I wasn’t a professional by any means, I just really enjoyed it. The early ’90s was the birth of action sports. Most of the time, these action sports athletes wouldn’t talk to journalists. But they would talk to me because I was relatable to them. I split my time between San Francisco and what is now Palisades Tahoe. I lived in the action sports communities.
“The 1990s are referred to as ‘the era of impossible,’ where more so-called impossible feats, things that had never been done before, were suddenly being accomplished and being iterated upon.
“I knew a bit about peak performance from the neuroscience and psychology things I was writing. Anything you read about peak performance tells you that early childhood experience matters. Well, these people I was hanging out with had broken childhoods, broken homes, horrible upbringings. They had little education and no money. Yet here they were, routinely extending their limits. I needed to know how this was happening. The answer that I would discover was that they were in a state of flow.