Many people use reasons like, “I’m too old to start” or “I won’t be able to learn it” or “I’m too old, I’ll get hurt” to avoid trying something new. But Steven Kotler says it’s especially important to continue using mental and physical abilities as we age. Many people think aging is a long, slow rot, but research shows that our physical and mental skills do not have to decline over time. Our mindset towards aging is a key player in peak performance aging.
Steven 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.
He is the author of eleven bestsellers (out of fourteen books), including The Art of Impossible, The Future is Faster Than You Think, Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman, Bold and Abundance, and he has a new book, Gnar Country, coming out at the end of this month. 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.
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, with his wife, author Joy Nicholson.
“It’s really clear from all the research that mindset matters, right? How do you feel about growing older? How do you feel about the second half of your life? There is copious research that says mindset towards aging, a positive mindset towards aging, I’m excited about the second half of my life and what it holds, it produces an extra seven and a half years of health and longevity. So it’s literally like directly tied to lifespan, we get to live long. In fact, it is better to have a positive mindset towards aging than it is to quit smoking, or lose weight if you’re obese for your long term health. It’s that important.”– Steven Kotler
- What does it mean to grow older?
- Debunking the long, slow rot theory of aging
- Why mindset towards aging matters
- Being patient while learning incrementally
- Dynamic, deliberate play
- How does flow take care of learning?
- Understanding the optimal amount of fear
- Elements of performance that improve with aging
- Further defining mastery using flow
One of the biggest challenges with supplements is that there are so many out there and it’s so difficult to understand and figure out the right ones to take. If you’re looking to level up your health, I highly recommend checking out Previnex and their supplements! Previnex uses the highest quality forms and levels of each and every ingredient, all are manufactured at pharmaceutical grade levels (meaning Previnex does ingredient testing on each and every ingredient, production run testing, and finished product testing). In addition to the quality of their products, I love their mission. Previnex is on a mission to improve health for everyone. For every order or any products, Previnex donates a bottle of their premium children’s multivitamin, Super Vites, to malnourished children throughout the world. To try them out, use the code sonya15 and get 15% off your first order!
- Learn more about Steven Kotler
- Learn more about the Flow Research Collective
- Sign up for my weekly newsletter!
Sonya Looney: Steven Kotler, welcome to the show.
Steven Kotler: It is so good to be with you.
Sonya: It’s fun to get to talk to you in person, because I’ve been reading your work. The first book I read of yours, which wasn’t, by far was not your very first book that you wrote. But I read the rise of Superman, then I read The Art of Impossible, and then I got the sneak peek at Gnar Country. So it’s an honor to talk to you.
Steven Kotler: Oh, that’s great. Thank you.
Sonya: So I love how you are redefining what it means to age. And I think that our culture has a negative connotation, even when we hear the word older. And people always want to be younger. People see a picture of somebody and say, well, you don’t even look your age as if it’s a bad thing to get older. So I just wanted to ask you, as you put lots of thought and effort into this, what does it mean to you to grow older?
Steven: That’s an interesting question. Wow. So this is not a good answer, but this is what I think about the most, is that one, growing older has actually meant unlearning the erroneous belief that life was going to get easier. I think my whole life, I kept thinking, the older I get, I’m going to get better at this, it’s going to get easier, it’s going to get easier. And it doesn’t and some of it is because I keep upping the challenge level because I like doing that. And some of it is it’s just hard to hear. And it’s hard to hear for everyone. And it’s harder for everyone most of the time. And the second part is, while it hasn’t gotten easier, it has gotten immensely more meaningful. So I don’t know what getting older means to be other than it means that I feel like I’m living more intentionally, more exactly, on purpose and the things I do mean so much more, because I have targeted in on exactly sort of who I am and what I can add to the conversation, and I just try to do those things. That’s my answer. I don’t know if it’s a good one. But nobody’s asked me that before, so I think that’s my answer.
Sonya: All right. Well, I like it. And as you know, answers can always evolve, and I liked the answer. I think that that’s such a good point that we think things are going to get easier financially, things are going to get easier, or I get to just relax and “retire” and go drive around in my motorhome. And my husband and I talk about retirement all the time. Well, you know, the previous story about retirement, how people like, I think it was in Germany.
Steven: It’s the worst thing you can do, period, like single worst thing you could do, as we age is retire. It’s so it’s unbelievably dangerous from a health and longevity standpoint. And the research is really clear on that. Like, I’m not the only person who says it. But there are a lot of people who like the best eight peak performance aging advice you can give is don’t retire.
Sonya: Yeah, I don’t remember the exact story, so people who know it, can correct me. But the retirement age of 65 was set or 62, or whatever the age is set in the past because people’s lifespan was two years past retirement age. And as we’ve gotten older, and able to live longer, people retire at 60 something and then they live another 20 years or more.
Steven: It’s incredible. This is footnoted, I think in Gnar Country is definitely in the class we build around it. So what is interesting about this story is I always say that, in Gnar Country where performance aging starts is with this, the old idea about aging is the long slow rot theory, right? It’s our mental skills, our physical skills decline over time, there’s nothing we can do to stop the slide. That story starts really with Freud in 1904, I think he says something crazy, that anybody over the age of 50, their brain is so decayed, they can no longer do psychotherapy, and they’re uneducated. So the idea that old dogs can’t learn new tricks, it’s all Freud. And he was like 49 and terrified of turning 50. I should also point out that Freud did some of his most famous work in his 60s. So even it wasn’t true for him. But by the time you get to 1950, and this is your point, if you look at the memo Harry Truman sends out about Social Security that sets the retirement age and does all that the memo itself establishes, it’s to all these leaders who are going to come together to discuss social security, and it starts with four things we have to acknowledge about older people that are just not widely known. One is older people are people too and they actually have the same feelings as all of it. I mean, it’s you look at what they were thinking of who we were over the age of 50 and it’s actually crazy. It’s not like looking like what people were making decisions from this knowledge base. It makes almost know sense.
Sonya: And your book and your work is changing how we view this knowledge base. So, in Gnar Country, it’s fantastic because you outline what the process looks like of learning a skill and I want to hear about that skill, because a lot of people, it’s on a lot of people’s minds. But the process of what that look like looks like and what your expectations are of yourself can really change. So can you tell us about the book and why you decided to write it?
Steven: I’ll tell you why I decided to write it at the end. Lt me walk you through what the book is. So we talked about a second ago, the long slow rot theory. That theory started breaking apart in the 1990s. In a bunch of different fields. A short version of what we learned is that all the skills we used to think declined over time, and there’s nothing we can do to stop this, it turns out, they’re all use it or lose it skills. If you never stop using these skills, you can hang on to them, even advanced them for later in life, the name is all possible. That’s a bunch of research and research papers and school experiments out in the world in the wild, but I haven’t seen anything that like, made me go okay, this is exactly true. But for a bunch of reasons that we’ll come back to in a second, I decided at age 53, that I could take a bunch of ideas out of flow science, which is my field, out of embodied cognition, exercise physiology, a bunch of things that were at the cutting edge and if I combine them correctly, I should be able to teach myself how to park ski at age 53. Now, park skiing, as most of you listeners probably know, is the discipline of skiing that involves doing tricks off jumps, boxes, rails, wall rise, is very acrobatic, it’s very dangerous. And for 12 to 15, different biological reasons, it’s considered really difficult to learn if you’re over the age of 30. By the time you get to 40 and 50, most people thought I was insane. So what I did is I made a list of tricks that would go from like zero to intermediate as 20 tricks. And I figured when I started, if it took me five years, that would probably be great, okay, cool. And we could talk about what I did and how I did it later, but what happened is I got everything on the trip list and there were like four or five other goals in a single season. It was astounding, like I went farther, I learned this faster than I’ve learned anything new. I think you have to know, I’m a bad athlete. I come from a family of gifted athletes, I know what that looks like, up close. I’m not that; I’m the exact opposite. I was the guy who was a journalist covering the professional athletes. So I saw really clearly all the time for decades, there’s a difference. I’m not a naturally gifted athlete, I’ve also broken a ton of bones. So my body, my body is pretty beat up along the way. And I’m really busy. So I’m a bad athlete and a broken body with a busy schedule. And I set out to do this class that would take five years and took a season. That was amazing. My ski partner, Ryan Wicks, who was a former sponsored athlete, a park skier, who retired, had a family, raised three kids, got injured, walked away, he decided to come back into the sport with me and started applying the protocol. And he went farther than he’s ever gone, faster. And by the time it was done, we thought, wow, this is the most amazing thing ever. This thing is working really, really well. But there’s no way it could work for anybody because like we got lucky. It’s just us. And at the Flow Research Collective, which is the organization that I run, you know, everybody brings data, we don’t we have a cardinal rule that like what works for me will probably not work for you. And we look for things that work for everyone all the time. So we ran an experiment, we took 17 older adults ages 30 to 68, used the exact same protocol four days on the mountain and the results in four days was like they got farther faster than even I… like it was astounding. Anybody can go to gnarcountry.com and watch the performance aging experiment video. Like don’t take my word for it, go watch the videos of what people ended up doing. We measured and tracked everything we possibly could; the results were staggering. We saw like a 26.5% improvement in our skiing ability. And these were mostly in that study group intermediate skiers, they weren’t expert skiers, they were mostly intermediates and we use the same FIS judging criteria, videotaped everything, and that’s how we built the judging panel. And you know, you could read the white paper on the website too, so that’s the story told in the book. It’s applied peak performance, as you pointed out and applied performance aging, sort of done as an adventure story, which makes it a little friendlier, I think for people. And the actual reason I wrote it is a flow is my core field. The godfather of flow psychology is Mihaly “Mike” Csikszentmihalyi and Mike died during COVID. The last conversation we had was a couple months before COVID, I would say, and it was a conversation about Mike was a mountaineer and a rock climber and I asked him about the influence that played in his flow research. And there’s like a long pause in the conversation, like really long. And Mike’s in his 80s, he’s had a stroke. And I was like, oh my god is it like a brain thing. And finally, he says, Steven, you got to be careful. And I was like, what do you mean? Like, I have to be careful. Thinking has he lost his mind? And he’s like, you do something, your whole life for flow, and then you get to be my age and forget about climbing mountains, I can barely get out of bed, have a backup plan. Be careful. What am I going to do with the rest of my life was a big mountain skier, I was going to chart big lines and big lines and big lines. And his point was, you’re going to get to a point where that’s not possible, and have other entrances into flow. If you’re a flow junkie, this is really important to you have to have a backup plan. And so I knew learning how to park ski was going to be dangerous. But I also knew that by the time I got to intermediate, I could filter out a bunch of the danger because you stopped making dumb mistakes, then you make intentional mistakes, but most of the dumb mistakes go away. And I just knew I could have used being able to creatively interpret the mountain in a million different ways, because I learned how to move my body in new ways, would give me so much more access to flow and actually a much safer way. And in fact, the funniest thing about it is, as a weird side note, and result, I noticed that this season, we’re three seasons in, we got an early snowfall, and they opened up North Star, and none of the expert runs were open, none of the intermediate runs were open, there were like a four or five beginner runs. Nobody who knew how to ski was on the mountain. But I was there with Ryan, our crew, because we could take a beginner run, take four or five side hits, turn it into a mini slopestyle course and have a blast. And everybody else was bitching about no snow, it’s not open yet. And we are having an absolute blast. We’re like two-year-olds in a playground. And that was the goal. That was what I started to set out to do. And ultimately beginning as I wanted to be able to creatively interpret the mountain because creativity, that kind of pattern recognition is a flow trigger. And it’s a safer way to get into flow than pushing the envelope all the time and taking huge risks. I will say that the end result of me learning how to park ski is I’m a much better big mountain skier as well, because I can see all kinds of stuff I never could see before. But that’s the experiment that was Gnar Country. And it I think it’s the most radical experiment and peak performance aging anybody has ever run though a woman named Ellen Langer at Harvard has definitely run some really crazy ones as well. She’s sort of a hero of mine is in for her experiments and peak performance aging, but the most important thing to come out of it, and then we’ll shut up and let us your next question is, it’s really clear from all the research that mindset matters, right? How do you feel about growing older? How do you feel about the second half of your life? There is copious research that says mindset towards aging, a positive mindset towards aging, I’m excited about the second half of my life and what it holds, it produces an extra seven and a half years of health and longevity. So it’s literally like directly tied to lifespan, we get to live long. In fact, it is better to have a positive mindset towards aging than it is to quit smoking, or lose weight if you’re obese for your long term health. It’s that important. So I think that this kind of Gnar Country style adventure, like, whatever I thought about the second half of my life, you asked me what do I think about getting older at the start, and this is why I’m saying this, it got obliterated by me learning to park ski. It seems like whatever I thought a lot was possible, and I certainly ran the experiment and got great results. But whatever else I thought was possible, like, when I learned how to do a nose butter 360 at 53, I was like, okay, that sort of blew everything else out of the water because that shouldn’t be possible. And you know, it turns out it wasn’t even that hard.
Sonya: Yeah, I’m kind of smiling because Mike said, hey, you need to have a backup plan. And most people were probably thinking, learn an instrument or something that isn’t a sport and your backup plan was learning tricks so that you can ski different types of runs, which I think is it’s funny and also think it’s audacious.
Steven: So the thing is, if you look at all the neuroscience and all the science on peak performance aging, if you were to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be, if you want a rock til you drop, you have to have to have to this is not nothing is non-negotiable, and then we’ll define what these terms mean, you have to engage in challenging social and creative activities that demand dynamic, deliberate play. And dynamic is just a fancy word for all five categories of functional fitness: strength, stamina, balance, agility and flexibility. Right? Dynamic, deliberate play in novel outdoor environments. That’s peak performance aging in a single sentence, which, by the way, is not most people think, well, there’s diet, there’s this, supplements, I have to take these, no, no, it’s about engaging in challenging social creative activities that demand dynamic, deliberate play in novel outdoor environments is the single best thing you could do. And that’s action sports – dynamic, deliberate play is taking a creative approach to the mountain and action sports, if you’re not involved in action sports, you’re trying to do this just in the gym, and whatever, the World Health Organization is really clear on the physical requirements for peak performance aging, it’s 150 to 300 minutes of aerobic, moderate, intense aerobic activity a week to strength training days and three balance agility and flexibility days, that’s if you’re a decent athlete, that’s two hours in the gym every day, and or you need action sports, which train all that shit at once. The only other substitute that we could find is hiking with the weight vest in the in the great outdoors, which will hit almost all of them. And then you probably need a yoga routine.
Sonya: Yeah, I mean, you’re singing to the choir here when it comes to the joy of action sports. And I think that a lot of people think, oh, gosh, I don’t like doing cardio, like I was on a mountain bike ride once and someone said, yeah, good cardio workout. And it is. But that’s not how we’re viewing it when we’re out there having fun. It’s deliberate play, where we’re learning new skills. And like you said, the skills that you learned made your big mountain skiing more fun, because when you break it down into these fundamentals, and then learning how to scale them in other scenarios, you get to be more creative.
Steven: And it was, as an athlete, the craziest thing has been my vision. Like I see a different mountain. From this season, we were at Kirkwood and we skied align off the top and like I pulled to the top of the line I watched the guys get ahead of me, I knew is a big line. And I watched him go skate. And he did it wrong. He actually fell. But my brain went, oh, he fell because he didn’t lean back right at that millisecond. I saw it, I knew exactly. And without even thinking, I pushed off the corners and skied the line and that was exactly what happened. And when I got to that millisecond, my brain went, oh, this is a spot lean back. And I did and I wrote it out. And I turned around and looked at what I just skied and I would have never ever would have spent the rest of my life not skiing that line. If you had told me that what I actually had just like couldn’t believe it. And it was because my vision it changed how I see the mountain possibilities, kinesthetically. That’s the coolest part about this.
Sonya: So I want to go back to the mindset towards aging. And that makes a significant difference in your expectations of yourself as you age and what you believe that you can do. And I think that the narrative that you’re changing, and other people like you are changing, is that I can do things as I get older. And people put these limits and these barriers, like, I’m afraid I’m going to get hurt. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to learn the skill. It’s too late for me to start. So people that have those mental barriers, especially around action sports, because most people as they get older are not thinking they’re going to pick up an action sport, how do they rewire their mindset so they stop thinking about these barriers and start focusing on what they need to do?
Steven: Let me tell you what we did on that. We’re talking about park skiing, we have protocol, this is this is the answer to these questions. So one, allostatic load is a big fancy term for the residual effects of trauma, physical or emotional on the body over time, right. And for all of us, especially if you’ve got an athletic past, you’ve injured yourself or anything like that, on an unconscious level, it’s not going be visceral, you’re going think you’re the same athlete you used to be. But the amount of inflow science we talk about one of those most important triggers, challenge skills balance. flow follows focus, it only shows up when all of our attention is on the right here right now. And challenge skills balance says we pay the most attention to what we’re doing when the challenge slightly exceeds our skill set. So you want to stretch but not stab. Metaphorically, this is not real data, but metaphorically, we talked about like, it’s usually about a 5% difference, but adults, anybody who’s got fear in their body and like trauma shed, it shrinks, and it’s down to like about 1% which means you’ve got to go really, really slowly. What we did in park skiing is nobody went up to try to learn trick; we broke park skiing into eight foundational movements jumping, crouching, slashing, grinding, a shifty and there’s two others that I’m forgetting right now or three others that I’m forgetting. And then the goal we taught people these movements and the goal was literally we want you to do this to creatively interpret the train future just move your body in new ways. And we knew that that would drop people into flow, and the flow would take care of the learning. And we knew that everybody could do a hockey stop, because everybody was at least an intermediate, snowboarder, or skier and a hockey stop is a slasher a grind, two of our foundational movements, if you just tilt the angle of the body. So we started with a movement pattern that everybody could do 100% of the time was zero fear and 100% execution and advanced by one inch. Go so much slower than even you would like normally go. So I said earlier, hike with a weight vest. I tell people, if you think you’re going to hike for 20 minutes with a 10 pound weight vest on flat ground, start by hiking for seven minutes. And the next day, hike eight and go so slowly because no matter what else is true, older adults take longer to heal than younger adults. The caveat here is regenerative medicine, which is stem cells, exosomes, placental matrix, peptides and a handful of these other cutting-edge tools. You’ll hear about all kinds of stem cell stuff that’s not like we can’t rebuild organs yet. And we’re not really, really growing a lot of stuff from scratch, but bones, tendons and ligaments, this stuff is real, it’s expensive. Now insurance will cover PRP, or seven years ago, that was regenerative medicine and nobody would pay for it and now you get them. And so it’s going to get cheaper. But the other thing to know is that like, the toolkit is getting better. And while regenerative medicine is very expensive, in my experience with my deductible, and I get pretty much every else is deductible these days of insurance, there’s no possible way you can have a surgery without spending eight to $14,000, which is about what it’s going to cost to treat yourself with regenerative medicine. As far as I can tell, i’s now most of these things that we used to require surgery for, we can treat elsewhere. So you can heal some of the nicks and bones. The other thing is unless you have actual bone density issues, and then there’s weight vest hiking is phenomenal for that, you’re not as fragile as you think you are. The one thing that is true, though, for most people, and this was definitely true for myself and most people in our study group, it takes longer, over a certain point at a certain point of like beating yourself up, you have to have a much slower warmup. So I learned that I would have to, if I wanted a great day on the mountain, I’d want to walk my dog for 20-30 minutes, stretch a lot, then go to the mountain and do three or four warmup laps before I ever tried anything. Like really slowly and I learned that my body lies about fitness, right? Yes, I often wake up feeling like hell, can’t move, everything hurts. Oh my god, I’m so old, I feel so old. And then I go for a walk and learn this during the experiment because there was a certain number of days I wanted to ski so I kept going back I was committed, like go for a walk it feels a little better stretch to feel that better. I go to the mountain on a day where I woke up thinking, oh my god, I can barely move, I feel like I’m 95 and I’m going to die tomorrow and then I would learn three new tricks or ski to the biggest lines of my life. So that’s my body lying about fitness readiness. And what I started to realize is that anxiety, my anxiety about having to go to the mountain and do something scary, or could I get hurt or whatever, it felt a lot like the symptoms of age. Like when I was scared, I felt old. And it had nothing to do with my fitness, it had to do with where my brain was at when I went to the mouth and did something scary sort of got rid of that anxiety, my body felt great. And that was consistent throughout.
Sonya: Yeah, there’s a lot of things that I heard there. The first thing that I heard is that most people will look at the end result of the thing that they want to achieve, like some of the tricks that you’re talking about maybe in mountain biking, they’re like I’ve got to go launch off that jump. But the launching off the jump or the doing of the trick, that’s something that comes down the line. They need to break it down into much smaller steps so that they’re only taking a one to 4% increase in their challenge because it’s too overwhelming and it is too scary to try and do the end result and think that you have to get there. So the individual process of breaking it down, and then having the patience to be committed to that process. Like you said, it takes a long time to break something down.
Steven: It really does and if you really, especially in mountain biking because I’m in sort of an avid downhiller though it does tend to put you in the hospital, often. The challenging thing with some of these things is always the same and that some mountain biking, skiing is a little bit the same equipment designed to work at a certain speed. And if you don’t get it up to that speed, it’s a really rough ride. That, to me is the challenge of mountain biking. And so you have to like if you’ve got to go slow to go fast and mountain biking, you have to really start with super mellow terrain, because the speed is the thing you’re going to have to get used to first. I think skiing is also that way. Even parks game, there’s a certain speed you need to be able to do anything with your body. There’s a line in Gnar Country that my buddy Eric Arnold, who was one of the guys that skied with during it, he was one of my coaches sort of, the correct speed for a jump is always two miles an hour faster than you want to go.
Sonya: I want to go back to the patient’s comment because it you have to be patient to break something down into trying to just make it 1% or 5% harder. How do you keep that patience whenever you’re working towards something and especially if you might have this preexisting mindset of I’m too old to do this, I can’t learn this, this isn’t coming as quickly as I want it?
Steven: One, the most important thing for me, at least on this point, and I think everybody might be a little different here, this is a personality kind of question where it’s a lot of individuality. But for me, I literally had to set down the shame, the self-consciousness, the like, I’m a 53-year-old guy trying to learn to park ski so you do think it’s going to look pretty. I’m like the only other people are like chill kids, teenagers, or like parents and their kids, right? Like, I’m the only one who looks like me anywhere near the park most of the time. And I’m bad. And I’m going to fall down a lot. No matter no matter what I do. And I’m going to do it in public, it’s going to happen, and I’m an introvert, and I’m self-conscious, and all those things that don’t like being bad in public. And the reason that deliberate play approach matters so much, is because it allowed me to set all that down. And the thing about deliberate play that is so important for athletes is one of the myths about aging is that there’s a motor learning window in early childhood that shuts and after it, it’s harder to learn languages or gymnastics or ballet. Like almost all these stories, some of that is true. There is something that does change, but most of it is actually not that your brain changed or your body changed. It’s how you learn. As kids we learn by playing, we’re not self-conscious about it. We’re not judgy about it, we’ve just and we have no shame, right. Once you have those things that’s what starts making motor learning a lot more difficult was part of it. And so that was to me, I had to get over the shame and the self-consciousness and I had to like I am so competitive with myself and I can get so pissed if I can’t learn something that I learned is. In flow science, we talked about ladder realizing and I’ve talked about this and rises Superman around Ian Walsh, one until surfer Jaws right. He was one of the first guys to paddle in at jaws and idea how it could work. But he was terrified because he needed to take these horrific wipeouts. And he was a bad breath holder. So we moved into an adjacent activity, free whole breath diving, learn free whole breath dive and he lateralized. And then he came back into surfing and it was a lot less scary, right? Because you can now hold his breath for five minutes and you knew then a lot less scary. So what I would often do is if I was trying to learn something, I was getting stuck, and I was getting stuck and getting stuck would lateralize. I would find like where’s the chunk of this thing that I can move in over here and learn doing a totally different thing. And I just didn’t judge myself for the failures. And also, I will say Sonya most importantly, miracles kept happening, meaning like, I couldn’t learn this trick. I couldn’t learn this trick. But then I tried something else. You know, just to take my mind off. It’d be like, oh, let me try this because it’s just fun and there’s no way I’ll be able to do it and I would pull it off the first time. So I started to realize that there were certain things that they were working for me and there were other things that were not. So I slid my very first rail to completion two weeks ago in Whistler in the terrain park. I had been trying to do that for three years, I have hit the ground several 100 times I would believe. My hips were both so bruised the first season from trying to learn how to slaughter it, like took three years for me to actually learn it. And some stuff is going to be like that, you know what I mean? And it turns out, by the way, I was talking to a bunch of people who I thought were much better skiers about it and they were like, oh, no, it took me 13 years or took me four, so I’m actually like, right, you know, I was right there. But it was a lot. It was about like self-forgiveness and setting down the shame and the embarrassment. And also, like, my ski partner Ryan was cheering me on every step of the way, you know what I mean? It was really good to have somebody there. And I also, don’t do video review for a while, don’t get any advice. I didn’t take a lesson until I had learned almost all the tricks on my trip list. I didn’t want anybody’s voice in my head. I was we were doing like a fallen leader style learning, not much talking, keeping the prefrontal cortex really quiet. And just Ryan would do something, if I had the trick, I would do it. He did. If it was too scary for me, I would shift it down to something that I could do safely one inch at a time. That was what we did. And when I did manage to pull stuff off, and he never blew smoke up my ass. It was never like, I never got an attaboy for not doing something and it’d be like, wow, you’re willing to hit the ground pretty hard. That’s impressive. It I was always very grateful that he never like blew smoke up my ass. But that like, I had somebody there to notice and say, hey, you that’s real progress. Good job. And I didn’t do the video review because you look terrible. You know what I mean? You look you have an image of what park skiing looks like. And it looks like a pro athlete park skiing and like, that’s not what it looks like on the front end. And you can’t like you’ll just crush your spirit. We didn’t when we were doing the experiment. We filmed everything, but we didn’t show anybody any film until long after it was done. Because we knew it would just like crush their soul. And the point wasn’t about that it was creatively interpreting the mountain to maximize flow.
Sonya: Yeah, I can relate with this so much. I live near Whistler. I live in Squamish BC and really technical mountain biking. And I’ve taken a similar, even though I’m a pro rider, like I take a similar approach to always improving my technical skills and never settling. And that involves going back to the very basics of how to corner and taking videos and thinking you look a certain way and you don’t and you can have those feelings and be a pro and still you have to be humble and you have to learn how to hold frustration and use it for a motivating factor instead of letting it stop you from trying.
Steven: Two things on this, one thing Laird Hamilton said to me years ago that really changed my life as an athlete more than anything anybody’s ever said, but I guess this story is in one of my books, it might be in Art of the Impossible… He had taken me out on a jet ski for the very first time. And when I was a kid, one of my friends’ brothers, older brother, put me on the back of a dirt bike, and just went Sean off and like crashed and I went into a tree headfirst and got a concussion and ever since I’m really scared to be on the back of anything that goes fast. It’s really hard for me, and Laird’s blazing across the ocean. And he had told me that even though if I fell off at top speed, I’d just get the wind knocked out to me. We got to like 50 miles an hour. And I was screaming, are you sure I’ll just get the wind. He’s like, yeah, and I jumped because I had to get it out of the way. I had to like, feel that I wasn’t going to die. And when he came around to get me, he was laughing and he pulled me out of the audience. You too, huh? And I was like, what do you mean? He’s like, fear is something I felt my entire life. I’ve just had to do that to get through it. He’s like, it’s the most common emotion in my life. And Laird Hamilton at the time back in the 90s, he was the widely acknowledged, bravest, toughest dude on the planet like he was it. And here he was telling me that he’s scared all the time. And I was like, oh my god, it’s not just me. It’s actually everyone. Because if this dude is scared all the time, we’re all scared all the time, doing this stuff. And that really like because you spend time around pro athletes and you guys don’t look scared. I twitch like a marionette. You guys don’t look scared. So it was great to hear. You know what I mean?
Sonya: I wanted to ask you to clarify something you said earlier for those of the listeners who haven’t read your previous work. You said flow takes care of learning. So I wanted to ask how does flow take care of learning?
Steven: So flow is an optimal state of consciousness where it feels investment performed best. Any of those moments, rapt attention, and total absorption is so focused on what you’re doing, everything else just disappears. And all of our skills, mental and physical go through the roof. So that’s flow, if you haven’t heard of it. When we’re in flow, when you’re talking about flow is optimal performance or peak performance, it’s how human beings are hard wired, because biologically in all of us, we’re all wired to get into flow, was built in. And it amplifies a bunch of stuff, creativity, productivity, motivation, learning, etc. And learning is. So in flow, one of the things that happens in the brain is the brain dumps five of the most potent, kind of reward neural chemicals, but they’re all performance enhancing neuro chemicals in the brain at once. So a very big cocktail. And a quick shorthand for how learning and memory work in the brain – the more neural chemicals that show up during an experience, better chance that experience will move from short-term holding into long term storage. And what neural chemicals are multiples, they do a bunch of different jobs. But one of the things that most more than jobs is to tag experiences as important, save for later. So in flow because of this massive neurochemical dump, and this is not our research, this is research conducted by the US Department of Defense, soldiers in flow will learn to in our 240 to 500% faster than normal. In other experiments we’ve taken, like novice marksman or archers or handgun shooters, dropped them into flow, and they can get to the expert level in 50% less time. So flow is this massive amplification learning. And the feeling was, if we can get people into flow, just by being creative, and using their bodies in new ways. Most people don’t even know they look at a training park, they see a big jump on a big knuckle. And they think the only thing I can do here is hit that jump. And that’s not true at all. You can use the knuckle, you can use the side you can there’s a million things to do with these mounds of snow, not just what they’re made for. And so use your body in new ways that itself is a flow trigger and once you’re in the state, because the state amplifies motivation and productivity and learning and fast twitch muscle response and strength and it deadens pain a little bit and does all these other things, you’re a better athlete. And in fact, years ago, the very first flow hack I ever learned from Glen Plake, professional skier, you know, biggest name extreme skiing back in the 80s, and 90s. And Glen basically told me that you never want to do something risky and dangerous to get into flow, you want to get into flow any other way you possibly can, and then use the state to take the risk because your chances of not getting hurt are so much better. So one of the other cardinal rules that we live by, is one inch at a time unless you’re in flow. And then that’s the only time you can push it a little bit because everything’s jacked up, and it’s safer to do that. And your feeling of fear is lower. I also, this brings me to one other point that I think is really important with all this work in older in anybody over 30 really, you have to get really good at what scientists call interoception, listening to the body’s subtle internal signals. If you can’t find the line between fear and too much fear, you shouldn’t be doing this work. Because when you’re feeling fear, little fear is good, too much fear you’re going to crush performance. And you’re going to send yourself to the hospital. And it’s really easy to do that. So you have to know where is that line. Where is one inch at a time, right?
Sonya: So how do you know that?
Steven: Trial and error and just what am I feeling? Okay, go out try to perform. Did I do it? Did I not do it? And if I’m feeling a certain thing, and that leads to not doing very well a couple times where I’m like, okay, this is what too much fear actually feels like. It’s just trial and error with, you’re experimenting with your body. So here’s the other thing. This is what I did. How did I get good at things like interoception or whatever. I befriended a lot of female athletes, successful female athletes, because women are better than men biologically for a bunch of different reasons that material assumption and if you ask dudes, how did you push through the fear to secure that line? They’re going to bro brought the answer. They’re going to deny the emotions. I wanted to scare you or that stuff or they’re going to give you something that’s not useful, but like, I got to know people like Rebecca Rusch, Lindsey Dyer, Kristin Almer, really brilliant women who are not afraid of their emotions and I asked them, what does it feel like? Where’s the that line, how do you do it? I talked to people who actually like would talk to me about their emotions and admit to having a lot of fear and help me strategize around. I built a brain trust. Because I’m really free. I’m lucky. And I get to meet people like that. And I built a brain trust to have like, basically top female athletes who I could ask questions to about emotions and feelings, and how did you deal with fear? Because I was scared. I was scared all the time. And I couldn’t ask the guys because they weren’t giving me answers, or they weren’t feeling the emotion. Right? Like, either they don’t have it, or they were lying. And either way, it was useless to me. So I talked to a lot of women athletes is the other answer on that, honestly.
Sonya: Yeah, it might be annoying, but a more nuanced point that I wanted to make an ask about is you said, how am I feeling. And a lot of times, when you’re approaching something challenging, you might feel a certain way and you might be thinking a certain way. So like feeling and thinking could be in separate categories. In my example I’ll give, it’s like, you might be doing something and you might feel scared, but you might think I need to execute these skills that I’ve learned in order to do that, like what you were saying earlier about seeing the jump, I need to lean back. So you can feel scared, but you can also think these are the skills I need to execute. But if you feel like you can execute on those things that you’re thinking, then maybe that could be a point of not trying it.
Steven: That was the other thing that I discovered me is I can’t, if I’m trying to hold multiple thoughts in my head at once while I’m approaching something, I should back off almost immediately. Because I can only do one thing. This may not be true for other athletes, but I can only I can only build on one piece of advice at a time, if I’m trying to do two or three things, my brain is thinking two or three things as I’m approaching something that’s a sign that I’m over processed, and I should literally back off because I’m not going to be I’m not going to pull it off. If so, I don’t want to try it. If it’s the kind of thing that’s going to put me in a hospital if it goes wrong, if I if I’m dealing with multiple thoughts, I would I back off. Now, I said, bad athlete. So what applies to me might not apply to most people.
Sonya: Yeah, understanding that that optimal amount of fear, like you said, it’s based on the individual, and it requires trial and error. So I wanted to move on to something that you said about coming back to aging and peak performance. And you said, as people move into their 50s, they can index more on things like intelligence, creativity, empathy, and wisdom. Can you talk about that?
Steve: Yeah, this is Gene Cohen’s research, who I think is the guy, the actual godfather of peak performance aging. He was a geriatric psychiatrist and was the first head of the National Institute of Aging. He’s the guy who figured out that we shouldn’t retire, he was the first person to discover that but he realized as we started, and our happens, it starts in our 40s. But there’s certain genes that only activate by experience. And as we enter our 50s, there are actual shifts in how the brain processes information, the two hemispheres of the brain start talking to each other like never before. And the brain started to recruit underutilized areas. And as a result, if we get it right, and there’s some stuff you have to do to get it right, we gain access to whole new levels of intelligence, abstract reasoning, analogical thinking, really hard to teach difficult stuff. Creativity goes up. But it’s not just creativity, it’s divergent thinking like outside the box, far-flung, the hardest stuff to teach empathy and wisdom and wisdom is a distinct neurobiological trait. And it’s got it as a bonus, if you want to stave off cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and dementia, lifelong learning, that’s the only thing we’ve got right now. And it works incredibly well. But you need both expertise, and wisdom. And they’re slightly different things. And wisdom is something that starts to develop more naturally in our 50s because we start to be able to see things from part of this intelligence as our ego quiets down, we can start to see things from multiple perspectives. And we learn that like black and white thinking is sort of a folly of youth. And everything is shades of gray and nuanced, and blah, blah. And so we learned all that stuff, and it’s based on actual neurobiological changes. You have to do certain things to unlock that and to really get it right. By the 30s, you actually have to have sort of solved the crisis of identity, get to know who you are in the world, by 40 it’s about match fit. So there’s got to be a match between how you’re spending your time and who you really are. By 50, you’ve got to forgive those folks who have done you wrong and get to forgive yourself. And without and then in your 50s, who also have to engage in creative activities because it’s the engaging create activities that really sort of unlocks all this stuff in the brain and really takes you over the hump. So that’s the progression; it also tells you something that’s really important, which is peak performance aging starts young. We can rock till we drop, but like you’re really looking at stuff, there’s stuff you want to do in your 20s in your 30s, and your 40s, your 50s. And I mean, there’s research shows, you can even physically mention interventions in your late 80s can have a huge impact, right? There are fun studies out of like Tufts where they started, like women, 75-year-old women on strength training programs who hadn’t been physically active in like 50 years, or something ridiculous about, and they their strength increased, like 1200% in a year kind of thing. Like the numbers are staggering. And what’s really possible late in life is, it’s really interesting. And we keep learning more. So it’s, you know, this is the front end of a very cool revolution.
Sonya: Yeah, I like that you’re saying it’s never too late to start, even if you haven’t found match fit, and you’re 50 or even if you’re 80, and you haven’t found self-forgiveness that you have to start. And like I mentioned earlier, I think a lot of people as they age think it’s just too late for me, and what you’re saying is, it’s never too late, but it’s better if you start earlier.
Steven: It is never too late. And I mean, it’s really never too late. And we now know this stuff, health wise and nutrition wise and pollutant wise and whatever like that you want to avoid, you know what I mean? Like, we have those recommendations for every 10 years at this point, up through your 80. People have really mapped it out in the past 25 years. We’ve got a pretty good picture of what needs to do. What’s shocking to me about it is most of what you have to do, or a lot of what you have to do, is psychological. And the physical stuff, you really sort of you don’t have to train as hard as a professional athlete, but you have to train in the same way in a sense. Pro athletes really trained their bodies, like you can’t have weak spots as you age because if there’s if there’s any weakness in the chain, something’s going to go wrong. So you got to train all five categories of functional fitness, you got to train your prime movers, you got to train your stabilizers, you got to get rid of the old trauma patterns in your body so the kinetic chain fires the way it should. Like all that complicated athletes stuff really starts to matter over 50. And one thing I’ll say about the physical stuff, the crazy one, the one where I was really blown away it was VO2 Max, because when I was like, out of all the long slow rock theory, it didn’t matter what you said to people VO2 Max starts falling off a cliff at 25. And by 50, you’re screwed. And it was written in stone and you couldn’t tell anybody any different. And then they went out and started measuring the VO2 Max of octogenarian triathletes. And they realized they had the VO2 Max of like healthy 35 year olds. But they had started training VO2 Max around in their 50s. So that 30 years of work were like every week, couple times a week, they were pushing into that upper aerobic threshold to really try and train VO2 Max. You know, they’re climbing hard hills or whatever you want to do. But that’s amazing, 88 years old, and you’ve got a VO2 Max of a 35-year-old? That’s crazy. Nobody thought that was possible.
Sonya: Yeah, this comes back to the mindset of not like you said not wanting to go gently into the good night of embracing the challenges and doing the things that are uncomfortable, like pushing yourself to maximum aerobic capacity and learning new skills and being willing to fall down and get back up again and hold that space for frustration and embarrassment, if you want to keep using these skills.
Steven: And I will say if you have bone density issues, right? Like if you if you fall down and can break, deal with the bone density issues and weight vest hiking, bone density, lots of different nutrient supplements, your check your diet, and there’s whole clinics now where they pressurize bones equally, all the bones and it massively increases bone density. That’s the only time where I’m like, okay, you got to go slower than anybody else. Right? Because that’s a that’s a real if bone density is a real issue… Interestingly, I will tell you, this is not my research, I wish I had known about it before Gnar Country, it turns out Japanese longevity researchers were looking at what is the best activity for bone density, and what’s bad and things like that, because this is the challenge in older adults, and they really think with athletes, it’s the like, it’s the deal breaker thing. We know, for example, the number one correlate for performance aging is leg strength, strong legs matters more than anything was for physical and mental health. But I think you get a lot of bone density from training legs, but skiing turns out to be the very best activity for increasing bone density. I was laughing so hard. It’s because you’re equally, like running is too much, right? You’re breaking down the bone. Swimming isn’t good at all, because you’re not loading the bones at all. So it’s actually a worthless activity from that perspective, it’s a bad aging activity. But skiing because you’re using each side of your body equally. And you’re loading each side gently. I would also have to argue because mountain biking is roughly skiing with different hand position, hips forward, loading the body. So if you’re going side to side, and you know, rhythmically, I don’t know if they looked at mountain biking, but the it’s so similar to skiing, motion wise, that I bet it’s really great for the same reason.
Sonya: With the couple of minutes we have left, it’s kind of a different question, maybe but using the wisdom and crystallized intelligence that you get as you get older; how do you define success in your life?
Steven: That’s interesting. I think I have a bunch of different answers to it. So when I think of what is mastery means to me…What success means in my life is that I keep challenging myself, and I keep getting better. And that my contribution, and that doesn’t mean a glow. I mean, that could be my contribution to my marriage, or how I treat my dog, what I’m my contribution continues to grow. Those are things that are really important to me. And when I think of what is mastery to me, I think of it as like, 360-degree creativity. I’m so good at this that whatever direction I choose to go with it, I can be, I can be great. Like, that’s what I’m aiming for, in sort of everything I do. I don’t do a lot of things. It’s the other thing, I do very specific six or seven things and everything else is a no, because I want to be great at everything I do. I always say, one of the reasons professional athletes like me, I’ve always said, I want to be the greatest writer in the history of the universe. And I know that’s not a real award, you don’t get to be that thing, but it doesn’t change the fact that that’s how competitive I actually am with myself and with my life. I’m wired for that. I’m actually wired for that. And everything I do is just that I’m not going to be that kind of athlete, so I can compete at that level as a writer, but it doesn’t change the fact that that’s how I approach everything I want to do. To me, if you’re not going to try to be great, why are you doing the thing?
Sonya: You said 360-degree creativity and mastery. And that sounded like it was compared to yourself. But then whenever we’re talking about competition, you can be competitive with yourself, but you also can be competitive with others. And this is a question that I don’t know if there’s an answer to but I think about a lot lately is, I want to be my best; I want to be the best. Where’s the intersection there of what is I don’t know if okay, is the right word, but the intersection of self-competition versus competing with others and where mastery falls on that scale?
Steven: One of the things that’s interesting is one of the arguments about what is flow from evolutionary perspective, it is a signal that you actually have skill mastery. Among its many things like when you drop into a flow state doing something, it’s usually because you’ve automatized, six or seven different skills, and they all came together once and you’re suddenly it’s a paradigm shift in your performance. It’s a huge level up. That’s literally a sign of mastery. So one of the things that most people don’t realize that your body actually has a signal that means you’re getting better at this thing. It’s called flow. So that’s what’s happening. So one, feedback really matters, mastery. Like it’s a thing, it’s a real thing, and it feels a certain way and it produces certain psychological or physiological changes. So, I think of it that way. And I also, for me, the competition has always with myself, I always say, compare yourself to the best in the world because why wouldn’t you? You know what I mean? Like when I said I’d be a writer I didn’t care about my classmates wasn’t me beating my classmates. I wanted to be beat Hemingway. I wanted to kill Thomas Pynchon. Right, like, that’s what I wanted to do. They were the best in the fucking world. What do I care about the guy sitting next to me? Seriously, they’re sophomores in college at a writing class really? Like, no, I’m competing with, you know, the best ever. So I like because I, most people don’t think that way. Don’t think they can compete at that level, so they never even try. Right. And it never dawned on me that I couldn’t. So I think that’s important to realize that it doesn’t matter where you are, you get to compete with whoever you want to compete with. But the competition is always I have to be better today than I was yesterday. Because it doesn’t matter, where I could kill Hemingway, but the only way I’m going to kill Hemingway, is by being better today than I was yesterday and being better tomorrow. There’s the most important thing, the hardest thing to learn, I think, and the most important thing is it’s always crawl, walk run for all of us in everything. And the difference between peak performers and everybody else, one of the biggest differences peak performers know it’s always crawl, walk, run, everybody else comes into a problem and goes, you know, man, I’m not really the crawl type. And I love walking, I speed walk, I want to find a speed walking shortcut into whatever it is. They will waste three months, six months, eight months, like whatever, looking for a shortcut, and peak performers will go, I’m going to suck for a while. And the other thing I always say is the thing that peak performers know is the order the process, how it feels is always the same. I suck, I suck, I suck. I suck. I suck. I suck. Oh, look, I don’t suck as much. Right?
Sonya: And it’s okay to suck. It doesn’t mean you’re not meant to do it.
Steven: And the other thing is that everybody, that’s all of us, nobody gets to escape, the I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck, I don’t suck. Now, there are certain things that we take to. I learned a mountain bike in my 40s. And I’ve been skiing my whole life. And it was a hips forward stance. So I took to it very fast. And I had a really accelerated learning curve, whereas other sports, I surfed for decades, and I’m an intermediate, and then you know what I mean? And that’s just what it is. And that wasn’t the case with mountain biking with downhill riding for me. So sometimes you get lucky, you find something that matches like that. But most of time you don’t. The stuff to me, that means the most that makes life satisfying, is the stuff that I spent 10 years learning how to do. What am I proud? I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been married for 17 years, and it’s been fucking hard. I’m proud of like books that took a decade or two decades to research. I’m proud of the fact that when I started weight training, I was 119 pounds in my height. And I got myself up to like 178. It took a decade. I remember being five years into weight training. I was in a gym in San Francisco and working out; I’ve literally been working out four times a week for five years. And some Arnold Schwarzenegger, like a motherfucker, comes up to me and he punches me on the shoulder, he’s like, stick with it, kid. You’ll make progress eventually. And I was like, don’t you know I’ve been doing this for five years. Don’t you know, when I started it was so funny. I was five years in. And he literally thought it was like my first week in the gym and I was mad. One of the things that is great that you learn from, I learned from book writing and from weight training, I think sports is really good at teaching you this is like, the really good stuff takes a long time. Right? That’s the stuff you love the stuff that like, and everybody knows this, right? If you ask people, hey, think back in your life, what are the things that matter the most to you? Nobody ever says, oh, that day I won the lottery. You don’t hear those stories. You hear the five years of working nights as a taxi driver to put myself through film school to finally get that, like those are the stories you hear. It’s never the easy stuff.
Sonya: And it drives me nuts when people look at something and they say, oh, that looks like a lot of work. Yeah, that’s where meaning comes from is the work.
Steven: And that’s one of the things and you mentioned this at the start, I’m so glad you saw it in the book too. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. The way I did is I wanted people to see what it looks like on a day-to-day basis when you apply peak performance right. It’s not really very fancy or very special. It’s a lot of routine. There’s a checklist here. But all of it works like compound interest. So it’s a little bit, a little bit, it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress. That was the other thing. That’s the other answer to your question I think is really important with a one inch at a time thing. Don’t ever judge your progress, because most of learning is subconscious. So you have no idea if you’re learning or not. Your experience is I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck. But 98% of everything we learn is unconscious. So you literally cannot judge your progress by design.
Sonya: That’s something I’ve never heard before. And I think that’s super insightful.
Steven: You’re terrible at it. And even other people can’t, because you can’t tell when that pattern is going to finally connect. Nobody. I mean, you could look at people and go, you’re getting a little smoother, a little braver, really this stuff you can see. I mean, like we know this, like you don’t have to believe me, look at your own experience and stuff you’ve learned, right? Like, this is how brains learn. And we lie to ourselves and want to believe it’s going to happen a different way or like, you know, it just doesn’t. Which means you can get really, really far, but just understanding like the experience is going to feel like horrible frustration. But by the way, we have working memories, we can only hold four ideas at once if they’re concepts. So if you’re trying to learn something, and there’s more than like four things you’re trying to figure out at once your brain is going to be frustrated, period. You’ve over processed your ACT frustration is the natural result of that. And that’s part of the learning process. If you want the subconscious to learn something, you want to overload it, you want that frustration, that’s actually a sign that you’re moving in the right direction. Most people are like, Oh, I’m so fucking frustrated. I’m going to stop. I’m done with this. No, no, that’s what it’s supposed to feel like you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do. It just doesn’t feel good. But stop demanding that it feels good. And you’ll make plenty of progress.
Sonya: I just wrote an article about that exact thing. But anyway, we are unfortunately out of time. And I would love to just sit here and chat all day with you because there’s so many fun things to talk about. Where can people find Gnar Country and the rest of your work and the Flow Research Collective?
Steven: Gnarcountry.com is the website. Stevenkotler.com is me and if the flowresearchcollective.com as the flurries is collected and if you’re interested in, in training, with flow research collective and the work we do there, and you just want to like free coaching console, learn more about what we do, can’t believe we’re doing this for people, but if you go to getmoreflow.com, you can sign up for a free hour long call with one of with one of our coaches, who will just sort of see where you’re at and see if working with us is a good fit or not. But people seem to love it as a like free coaching, psychological mind coaching call. So that’s there.
Sonya: Well, thank you. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and personally, thank you for all the work that you’ve done, because that’s been a big impact in my life. And I’m excited for other people to read your books.
Steven: It’s really fun to hanging out. Appreciate you