Summary of The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

Have you ever wondered what drives top athletes to push the boundaries of possibility? We have often heard of the term in the zone, but what exactly is it? Well, it is the state of mind that athletes enter which allows them to perform optimally, achieving sometimes superhuman feats. 

The Rise of Superman looks at the neurology behind this and how it enables performance and allows athletes to have some deep and spiritual experiences. Understanding this will allow you to also access this state of mind and achieve your goals. 

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • What is flow?
  • How our brain works to increase our performance
  • Accessing flow through setting goals, engagement and the right mindset
  • Finding your community
  • The Roger Bannister Effect

Key lesson one: What is flow?

Whether you are an athlete or not, chances are you have experienced that feeling of being in the zone. Those moments where nothing else seems to distract you as you remain completely focused on the task at hand. It is also within this time that you are at peak performance. This is referred to as a mental state of flow. 

Flow enables people to perform at their very best. It does this through numerous actions, one of which being the increased ability to find solutions that are creative. It is in these moments that you find a sense of clarity that allows you to think differently. Some have even described flow as being a deeply spiritual experience, hearing a voice guiding them. This is their subconscious, their intuition if you like, that they hear clearly when focused on their task. The other thing that people report experiencing during this time is losing their sense of ego – they become their sport. This is why surfers say they become one with the wave or climbers become one with the mountain. 

These experiences during flow states are all related to our neurochemistry. In this state, the brain releases five chemicals that not only make us feel good but also elevate our performance. These chemicals are dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, endorphins and serotonin. Dopamine is what sharpens our focus and allows us to find innovative solutions. It does this by enabling the brain to sift through all the noise and filter the useful information that we require. Dopamine is also what makes us feel excited, engaged and rewards us for exploratory behaviour. Norepinephrine also helps us maintain focus and enhances our skills. It increases blood sugar so that our bodies have more energy and also increases heart rate and respiration. In this way, norepinephrine ensures that our muscles donโ€™t get worn out. It also allows our brain to more effectively control emotions, arousal and attention. This means you can focus on what you are doing entirely without getting distracted. 

Anandamide boosts creativity by increasing lateral thought. In addition, anandamide decreases the feelings of fear allowing us to test out new and creative ideas. Endorphins are what reduces muscle pain which is extremely beneficial to athletes. They are one hundred times more powerful than medical morphine. This explains why athletes can achieve the impossible when they push themselves to the limit. The last chemical, serotonin, is what comes after we achieve the task we had in the flow state. It is what provides that feeling of happiness and pleasure in the aftermath. These feelings are what causes athletes to keep going back for more. Thus flow is a culmination of our brain chemistry and our state of mind. They each reinforce the other further allowing us to achieve greatness during a flow state. 

The more we understand how the mind works, the more we can understand how to achieve peak performance and our true potential We are all aware of how powerful the mind really is but when it comes to performance, it can be surprising how much the mind actually contributes. A simple experiment conducted to assess the power of visualisation involved asking participants about physical strength. One group tried to increase their strength with exercise, another did nothing and the thor group was asked to visualize themselves doing exercise. Of course, the group that actually exercised showed the highest improvement, but surprisingly the group that visualized exercise showed a 35 per cent increase in strength. This clearly exhibits the actual power the mind holds over the body.

In addition, fMRI and EEG technology have made it possible to further study the effects of flow. They allow us to get a better understanding of how flow influences the body and how we can best use it. 

Key lesson two: How our brain works to increase our performance

Now that we know how flow state is influenced by neurochemistry, we can discuss overall brain activity. As much as we are so focused and our brain is occupied, it actually turns off certain parts when in a flow state. This is called transient hypofrontality and parts of the prefrontal cortex shut down. The part that controls self-awareness and introspection, the superior frontal gyrus shuts down whenever we are occupied with a task. The other area that slows down is the orientation adjustment area. This is the part that aids our orientation with regards to whatever else is in our environment and is responsible for that feeling of being one with your surroundings and eliminating your sense of self. 

This shutting or slowing down of areas in the brain seems like it should negatively affect performance but it enhances it by enabling us not to overthink our ideas or doubt our intuition. Although this would not be wise in all situations, for extreme athletes who have to make blink decisions to perform death-defying acts, it makes sense because they donโ€™t have time to doubt their decisions. 

Key lesson three: Accessing flow through setting goals, engagement and the right mindset

Once you experience flow, you often want to get back in the zone. To access it again, there are steps you need to follow. Firstly, what you are doing should be rewarding. Participating in whatever task or sport it is should give you a sense of immense joy. Runners enjoy running, climbers enjoy climbing – participating in activities that you truly enjoy will give you a great sense of achievement when you accomplish your goals. 

You also have to maintain your focus and concentration. The best way to keep this level of complete concentration is to maintain mindfulness and focus on the moment. For example, athletes tend to focus on their breathing to keep from getting distracted. Lastly, your task must be challenging. This part is actually quite important as, without a bit of challenge, you will not be able to concentrate hard enough to access a flow state. There is a mathematical number for this, the challenge should be 4 per cent greater than your current abilities. 

These steps will allow you to enter a flow state. However, to remain in the flow, you will need to maintain your concentration. This can be aided by having clearly defined, immediate goals. For example, your ultimate goal may be to participate in a marathon but, whilst you are training for this, your immediate goal may be to reach a certain mile marker on your route. This allows you to concentrate on the task on hand and maintain your flow state.

The right mindset, as well, can help you achieve your optimal performance levels. If you have a fixed mindset and believe that the talent you were born with is all you have then chances are you will not achieve anything greater. This type of mindset puts a limit on your progress as it does not allow the belief that you can grow and change. A growth mindset, however, will allow you to achieve greatness. This is because this type of mindset gives you the belief that with hard work, you can reach your potential. It is with this mindset that you can push yourself further and work outside your comfort zone. 

Key lesson four: Finding your community

In addition to maintaining flow and having a growth mindset, another way to achieve peak performance is by finding a community with your shared interest. Fortunately, the neurochemicals at work during flow also help create and strengthen the social bonds we form. This is how such diverse groups of people are brought together by their love of sport. They often would not be friends otherwise but their common love for a sport brings them together. 

Being part of a group like this can improve your performance. A community will often encourage you, bearing witness to your accomplishments and help build your confidence. This will allow you to grow and train much better than if you had to do it on your own. 

Key lesson five: The Roger Bannister Effect

Year after year, records are broken and things that were thought impossible are achieved. This is called the Roger Bannister Effect and was named so after Roger Bannister did something that people thought was impossible – run a mile in under four minutes. Bannister broke this record in 1954 coming in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. What was even more fascinating is once he broke four minutes, his record was beaten just two months later. A decade later, a high school student ran a four-minute mile on their first attempt. How did things progress this quickly? Were people just faster?

The real reason is that Bannister broke the psychological barrier which people had about a four-minute mile. With his achievement, people realised it was not impossible and this is exactly what happens with every record broken to date. In addition, every new generation has access to the knowledge of the great athletes before them. Thus, with this knowledge and growth mindset, they know they can achieve greatness. 

The key takeaway from The Rise of Superman is:

All great athletes are familiar with the concept of flow or being in the zone. Flow is created by the chemical reactions in our brain that allows us to maintain a state of concentration and focus that is otherwise hindered by our normal routines. If we understand how flow works and how to access it, we too can achieve our goals. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in The Rise of Superman:

To access a state of flow, ensure that your immediate goals are clear. Thus you have to forget about your ultimate goal and instead focus on what you want to achieve now. Whether it is running one block further on your morning jog or writing the first chapter of your book. Set your goals for now, achieve them and put yourself in a better position to achieve your ultimate goal.

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