Book Summary:

The Rise of Superman is an in-depth explanation of optimal human performance through mastery of flow state. Action sports athletes have advanced faster than other areas as a result of flow mastery.

Favorite Quote:

“Flow, they will tell us, is the gateway to impossible, but this has never been take two pills and climb Everest in the morning. Committing to this path demands a radical restructuring of our days and our ways. It demands a considerable tolerance for risk and a considerable shift in culture.”

~ Steven Kotler


Preface:  The Why of Flow

Action sports athletes have pushed their respective professions further and faster than any other area of sports.

“Success in these danger-fueled activities requires incredible psychological and intellectual talents:  grit, fortitude, courage, creativity, resilience, cooperation, critical thinking, pattern recognition, high-speed “hot” decision making.”

p. vii

“Of all the things these athletes have accomplished, nothing is more impressive than their mastery of the state known to researchers as “flow”.  It’s high speed problem solving: it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance.”

p. viii

Introduction:  Before the Flow

Shane McConkey

This chapter introduces us to one of the pioneers of big mountain skiing, Shane McConkey.  In 1993, Shane was described after throwing a giant, naked, spread-eagle back flip at the Crested Butte Extremes.  He was dubbed a “genius”.

The New High Bar

Genius in action sports needs some redefinition.  Especially considering that many of these athletes are “the poster children of the slacker generation”.

“Genius is defined as “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc.”

p. xiii

Although this doesn’t help us much in action sports, we all agree that genius “begins with feats of mental greatness”.

Ultimate Human Performance

Progression in action sports (advancement of trick complexity and difficulty) has been ridiculously fast.  This progression has come in the face of “ultimate human performance” where you need to be your best and any mistake could be deadly.  It stands to reason that advancement in these sports would be incremental and slow, but, advancement in action sports has been anything but.

The Question of Cost

This section chronicles the death of surfing great Mark Foo at Mavericks on December 23rd, 1994.  Because these sports are so inherently dangerous and because it is the human desire to live and “pass along our genes” it is difficult to explain one thing.  Since Mark’s death, the number of big wave riders has risen from less than 100 to well into the 1,000’s.  Why are people willing to risk death for these sports?

1:  The Way of Flow

Danny Way and the Shortest Path Toward Superman

This chapter highlights perhaps the greatest skateboarder of all time, Danny Way.

“But for me, when it finally snaps together, when I’m really pushing the edge and skating beyond my abilities, here’s a zone I get into.  Everything goes silent.  Time slows down.  My peripheral vision fades away.  Its the most peaceful state of mind I’ve ever known.  I’ll take all the failures.  As long as I know that feeling is coming.”

p. 6

“You want to know how I did something like ump the Great Wall on a fractured ankle?  I can’t really answer that.  All I can tell you is what I already told you:  When I’m pushing the edge, skating beyond my abilities, it’s always a meditation in the zone.”

p. 8

Albert Heim, William James, Walter Cannon, and the History of Peak Performance

“During a mountain climbing incident where Heim fell he stumbled upon a great insight.  High risk activities can profoundly alter consciousness and significantly enhance mental abilities.”

p. 10

The Way of Way

“I’ve gotten really good at pulling the veil down, at camouflaging reality, locking out my conscious mind and riding my focus into the zone.”

p. 14

The Godfather of Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first person to coin the word “flow”.  Mihaly discovered that “intrinsically motivated” people received “peak experiences” as was coined by Abraham Maslow.  These experiences linger and give sense of purpose, integration, self-determination and empathy.

“In his interviews, to describe these optimal states of (peak experiences) performance, flow was a term his subjects kept using.  When everything was going right, the work was effortless, fluid and automatic — flowy.”

p. 20

“What is the meaning of life?  Flow is what makes life worth living.”

p. 21

2:  The Wave of Flow

The Millennium Wave

The Millennium Wave was perhaps the single most important wave every ridden.  On August 17th, 2000, Laird Hamilton rode Teahupoo (cho-poo) off the coast of Tahiti and made history doing something never done before.  He was in complete flow state.  Had he not been, he likely would have been killed.

“Laird’s wave at Teahupoo was the single most significant ride in surfing history.  More than any other ride.  What he did was completely restructure our entire, collective perception of what was possible.”

p. 27

I Am Trying to Free Your Mind, NEO

There are 10 categories that have been validated as components of “flow”.  However, three are conditions of flow; 1) clear goals, 2) immediate feedback and 3) the challenge/skill ratio.

Big Waves and Big Brains

Leslie Sherlin, a leading expert on the neuroscience of high performance, decodes using EEG and fMRI technology the science of high performance.

“Thats the secret.  Flow states, which can be considered elite performance on overdrive, take this process one step farther. Instead of producing all these other brain waves, really great athletes can transition smoothly into the zone, creating that low alpha/high theta wave, and then hold themselves there, sort of in suspended animation, shutting out the conscious mind and letting the implicit system do its stuff.”

p. 36

Sudden Death or Sudden Insight

This section discusses a day surfing at Jaws when had it not been for sudden insight, Laird Hamilton could have been killed on a very large tow in wave.  What saved him was a concept called “lateral thinking” or “thinking outside the box”.  It is the concept that novel stimuli can combine with random thoughts and obscure memories an the result is something utterly new.  Its when there is a “gamma” spike, or when different parts of the brain are joining disparate thoughts into a new idea.  This happens inside “theta” oscillations which professional athletes are VERY good at in.

3:  The Where of Flow

Dean Potter

This section describes Dean Potters ascent and descent of one of the most challenging mountains in Patagonia named Fitz Roy.  His state of flow and “The Voice” saved his life during a rock/snow slide during the descent.

“The Voice — the voice of intuition — the center of the zone’s mystery.  Everybody who has every been in a flow state has heard it — a voice very different from the mind’s normal chatter.”

p. 43

Transient Hypofrontality and the Quieting of Doubt

Hypofrontality is defined as the slowing of the pre-frontal cortex.  The PFC is where higher cognitive functions live.  Its our decision making core as well as the area that produces the sense of self, that introspective feeling of self awareness.

“Flow changes this entire dynamic.  Transient hypofrontality removes our sense of self.  With parts of the prefrontal cortex deactivated, there’s no risk assessor, future predictor, or inner critic around to monitor the situation.  The normal safety measures kept in place by the conscious mind are no longer.  This is another reason why flow states significantly enhance performance:  when the “self” disappears, it takes many of our limits along for the ride.”

p. 51

Unstuck in Time

People have reported that in flow state, time can appear to slow dramatically.  This concept is called “time dilation”.  It has been discovered through fMRI that the same events that erase our sense of self (self doubt) also distort our sense of time.

“This means that time, much like self, is a summary judgement, a democratic conclusion reached by a vast prefrontal caucus.”

p. 54

Closing the Doors of Perception

Our relationship and ability to orient ourselves in space is similarly affected by hypofrontality.  The area of the brain called the superior parietal lobe dubbed, the (OAA) Orientation Association Area.  This takes a tremendous amount of data and energy to calculate.  During intense focus, this area can be shutoff and as a result, the line between self and everyone blurs.

“Once this happens we can no longer draw a line and say this is where self ends and this is where the rest of the world begins, so the brain concludes, it has to conclude, that at this moment you are one with everything.”

p. 56

4:  The What of Flow

The Red Bull Air Force

This chapter starts with a story about Mike Swanson and the Red Bull  Air Force.  The RBAF is a group of wingsuit flying daredevils.  They are know for basejumping off buildings and use their wingsuits to glide at a 3:1 ratio.  For the movie, Transformers:  Dark of the Moon they performed a four man formation flight.  The flight included a final turn called suicide corner.

Pattern Recognition and ESP

For individuals who are in flow state have whats called “predictive pattern recognition”.  This allows those in flow state to think faster and make better decisions than those who are not.

The Neurochemistry of Flow

There are five (5) chemicals at play during flow state.  They are 1) Dopamine, 2) Norepinephrine, 3) Endorphins, 4) Anandamide and 5) Serotonin.  They are released in roughly this order and provide a potent cocktail.

“Alone, each packs a punch, together a wallop.  Consider the chain of events that takes us from pattern recognition through future prediction.  Norepinephrine tightens focus (data acquisition); dopamine jacks pattern recognition (data processing); anandamide accelerates lateral thinking (widens the database searched by the pattern recognition system).  The results really do feel psychic.”

p. 68

Suicide Corner and Situational Awareness

Adrenaline and the concept of “adrenaline junkies” is often floated around when describing these types of athletes.  It primes the body for the fight vs. flight response and options are reduced to fight, flee or freeze.  None of these are good and are the enemy of flow.  The razor thin dividing line between life and death depends on keeping cool, staying in flow.

“Training in high stress situations increases what psychologists call “situational awareness”.  Defined as the ability to absorb information accurately, assess it calmly, and respond appropriately, situational awareness is essentially the ability to keep cool when all hell breaks loose.  Because attention and pattern recognition are so heightened by flow, training in the state radically increases situational awareness.”

p. 72

5:  The Flow Shortcut

Mothers, Musicians And Marshmallows

There are three experiments that have dominated the discussion about what defines the path to mastery.  However, what we’ve seen is that most action sports athletes have taken a different path.

The first experiment started with the hypothesis that talent is innate and what we call expertise (mastery) is the result of talented individuals identified early, then encouraged to blossom.  The data tells a different story.

“The one commonality was encouragement, a lot of encouragement.  In each case, there was a parent of close relative who rewarded my display of talent, and ignored or punished the opposite.  Prodigies, it seemed, were made, not born.”

p. 79

The musicians section is all about Anders Ericsson who famously coined the 10,000 hour rule for mastery.  It takes 10,000 dedicated hours to become a master at anything.  After 10,000 hours, you are an expert.  What defines you from the rest of the experts?  How hard you work, simply.

The marshmallow experiment is when a child is given a marshmallow, and told that if he/she waits for five minutes without eating  it, he/she can have a second marshmallow.  Delayed gratification.

Bad news, is action sports athletes have none of these qualities!

The Importance of Time Perspectives

This is a story about the kids who ate the marshmallows right away.  The present minded kids.  Statistically they don’t score nearly as well as future oriented kids in study after study.  However, there is a balancing act that needs to happen.  The negatives of the present minded kids is obvious, the solution is a blend of both.

“Futures place a dangerous bet:  too much delayed gratification can rob them of their motivation — which is the very thing that made them futures in the first place.  The healthiest, happiest, highest performers blend the best of both worlds.”

p. 84

“In other words, when it comes to time perspectives, flow allows presents to achieve futures results.”

p. 86

6.  Outer Flow

Doug Ammons And The Stikine

This chapter begins with the story of Doug Ammons and his kayak solo down the Stikine.  The Stikine is one of the most isolated and difficult sections of any river anywhere in the world.

The Flow Landscape

The first part of this book is dedicated to the “characteristics of flow”.  The second part of this book is dedicated to the “conditions of flow” which are called “flow triggers”.

“we’ll be examining four varieties:  external triggers, internal triggers, social triggers and creative triggers.”

p. 100

Hacking Flow

“We’ll be using flow hack and flow hacker to refer to any action that helps propel people into flow, and anyone performing such action, respectively.  In these terms, extreme athletes use risk as a “flow hack” because flow follows focus and consequences catch our attention.”

p. 101

Rich Environment, Deep Embodiment

During the his trip down the Stikine, Doug was relying on two external triggers for flow.  First there is a rich environment, which is the novelty, unpredictability and complexity which are a good substitute for risk.  The second is deep embodiment, which is a deep body awareness that emanates from all over the body.  This trigger means paying attention to all of these sensory inputs at once.

The Paradox of Control

“This is another of flow’s defining characteristics.  The paradox is real power in places we should have none.  It’s that sense of controlling the uncontrollable familiar to day traders and emergency-room surgeons, only here taken to its farthest extreme.”

p. 107

“But when you’re actually in those moments, if you’re going to survive, nobody is arrogant.  You have to be humble and open to access this control.  Of course, since most people’s knowledge of action and adventure sports comes from energy drink ads and ‘blending with the environment’ doesn’t really move product, we’re sold this ‘extreme dude’ lie instead.  But, the extreme dude lie is hiding a potent flow hack:  humility.”

p. 108

7.  Inner Flow

Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and the Now

This chapter starts with the story of Mandy-Rae Chruickshank.  She is the story of an exceptionally shy girl from Alberta, Canada who became a superhero free-diver.

“I’m just an ordinary woman who learned she was capable of extraordinary things.”

p. 112

Internal Flow Triggers

Internal triggers are the psychological strategies that drive attention into the now.  Being present (the now) is critically important to high performance and flow.  The three most important triggers are 1) clear goals (see The One Thing), 2) immediate feedback and 3) the challenge/skill ratio.

Mindset and the Flow Cycle

There are two different types of mindsets, fixed and growth.  Fixed mindsets believe abilities like intelligence and athletic talent are innate and unchangeable, fixed at birth.  Those with a growth mindset, believe abilities are grained through dedication and hard work, that natural-born talents are merely starting points for a much longer learning process.  The fixed vs. growth mindset is covered in detail in the book Grit.

“a growth mindset is one of the secrets to maximizing the total amount of flow in your life.”

p. 119

The flow cycle has four cycles.  The first step is “struggle” which an overloading of the brain.  The second step is “release” which is where you get your mind off the problem and is a critical step to the flow path.  Third, comes the flow state itself.  Lastly, is “recovery”.  Flow is an extremely energy expensive state where there is a tremendous amount of neurochemistry at work.  It takes some time for the body to replenish.


Lateralization is the concept that at times, there are problems we face that are too big.  The only way forward is to go sideways (lateral) and then find a way up.  This section highlights the surfing great Ian Walsh and learning to paddle into Jaws, the iconic surf break.  The only way to learn how to hold his breath long enough for the multiple wave hold downs was to learn free diving.

8.  The We of Flow

Mark Powell and Camp 4

One reason for the meteoric rise in performance of extreme sports athletes is that they have banded together to chase the flow state.  This chapter opens with a story about Mark Powell and big mountain climbing.  Camp 4 is the little base camp in Yosemite National Park that was his home during his legendary rise in the sport.

Keith Sawyer and Group Flow

Human beings are social creatures who are competitive, cooperative, sexually attracted and all the rest.  These are exceptionally powerful attractors and companionship is perhaps the simplest flow hack in the world.

“The most commonly reported instances of flow are those of group flow showing up when people are having a conversation — especially, for reasons we’ll get to, if those conversations happen at work.”

p. 132

Group Flow Triggers

Triggers for group flow are similar to those of individual flow but with some noted additions.  For groups to fall into flow, there has to be some familiarity, blending of egos, a sense of control, close listening and always say yes.

Social Support

There is a wonderful mechanism inherent in groups.  Together really is more than the sum of its parts.

“Group flow is a social unifier and social leveler, creating what cultural anthropologists call “communitas” — that deep solidarity and togetherness that results from shared transcendent experiences.”

p. 135

“Amazing energizes.  Whether its cooperative excitement or competitive jealousy, one person’s triumph becomes another’s motivation.  This creates a flywheel effect:  the group itself gains momentum.”

p. 136

Stacy Peralta and the Search for Animal Chin

One amazing takeaway from this section is that greatness flows in packs.  If you want to be great, seek out the best person in your profession and try to emulate that individual or group of individuals.

“Every athlete in this book got farther and faster because they packed their lives with flow triggers and flowed in packs.  They leveraged powerful neurobiology to build tighter communities, leveraged those communities to drive innovation, then open-sourced innovation to much larger communities and collectively rode the reverberations into the history books.  The lone-wold maverick is a myth.  When it comes to becoming Superman, we really are in this together.”

p. 139

9.  The Flow of Imagination

The Evolution of the Double Ski Base

This chapter opens with the story of Shane McConkey, the Primal House, the Primal Crew and bungie jumping in Squaw Valley.  When it comes to action sports and the athletes that participate in them, we oftentimes think of them as risk takers.  However, it turns out, they are mostly interested in taking “creative risks”.

“The greatest athletes aren’t interested in taking the greatest risks.  I mean, sometimes they’re taken, sometimes not, but those physical risks are a by-product of a much deeper desire to take creative risks.  Don’t be fooled by the danger.  In action and adventure sports, creativity is always the point.”

p. 143

Creative Triggers

The single most desired quality in CEO’s (according to an IBM survey) is creativity.  In addition, the single most important quality in children as it relates to future success is creativity.  Once you drill down to the neurochemistry, the creative act (one that requires risk taking and pattern recognition) is itself an exceptionally potent flow trigger.

“By way of comparison, consider entrepreneurship.  Starting a company is considered one of the riskiest and most creative acts in business.  We celebrate the risk taking of entrepreneurs, we lionize their unwavering commitment to innovation.”

p. 147

The Fall of Superman

This section chronicles the story of Shane McConkey’s last jump and BASE jump in Italy.  His skis got tangled, he deployed his chute late and died on impact.

10. The Dark Side of Flow

Jeremy Jones

Jeremy Jones is a 10 time big mountain rider of the year who was good friends with Shane McConkey.  He attended Shane’s funeral and then just a few days later headed out into the Alaskan wilderness in search of big mountains.  During a ten day storm, pinned down in 20 below weather, Jeremy had a lot of time to think.

“Why do we do this?  But I got to see up close the incredibly powerful effect Shane had on people.  Most people are so afraid of dying they never live.  Shane lived his life to the fullest.  He lived thousands of lifetimes and changed thousands of lives.”

p. 157

The Pitfalls and the Path

The state of flow, like the path that bears its name, is volatile, unpredictable, and all-consuming.  Flow feels like the meaning of life for good reason.  The neurochemicals that underpin the state are among the most addictive drugs on earth.  Equally powerful is the psychological draw.”

p. 158

In the state (of flow), our skills are peaking, our inner critic shut down, and our ability to feel fear significantly dampened.  Flow makes you feel invincible, right up to the moment you’re not.”

p. 159

“This is what the self-help books don’t tell you.  Fully alive and deeply committed is a risky business.  Once you strip away all the platitudes, a life of passion and purpose will always cost, NOT LESS THAN EVERYTHING.”

p. 160

The Dark Side, The Bliss Junkies, and the Question of Control

One of the dark sides of flow is that it is an extremely blissful state.  Once you know that state, not being IN that state can be painful.  So, the lack can become unbearable.  The solution for life flow is not always simple.

“If we are hunting the highest version of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way round.  Unless we invert this equation, much of our capacity for intrinsic motivation starts to shut down.  We lose touch with our passion and become less than what we could be and that feeling never really goes away.”

p. 162

Travis Rice and the Art of Flight

The Art of Flight is a movie created by Travis Rice and crew to demonstrate the athletic possibilities of snowboarding.

“I didn’t come from a religious background.  Growing up, everything was proof-driven.  If you couldn’t see it, couldn’t experience it, it didn’t exist.  But I’ve had experiences that bitch-slapped me out of this lower-order mentality.  My need for proof — I’ve been given it.  Now, if you want to tell me that God doesn’t exist, well, now you have to prove that to me.” ~ Travis Rice

p. 167

11. The Flow of Next

Future Flow

The Gen X and Gen Y kids are the first in history to have been raised in a flow-hacking tradition.  In silicon valley terms, these kids are the fast followers.

Tom Schaar and the Children of the Revolution

Tom Schaar is a young skater who at the age of 12 became the youngest X-Games gold medal winner.  He was raised in an age AFTER Tony Hawk landed a 900 and after Danny Way jumped the great wall of China.

“Where do our limits lie?  Is another way of asking, “How far can we stretch our imagination?”

p. 173

The Roger Bannister Effect

Roger Bannister was the first person to run a four minute mile.  Once that mark had been broken, many more people broke it in a short period of time.

“There is an extremely tight link between our visual system and our physiology: once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly.”

p. 175

Flow Hacking Technologies

Knowledge is power.  And, if flow underpins optimal performance, then knowing the causes of flow — both where it comes from and why it comes — can help us achieve optimal performance more frequently.

Alex Honnold and Half Dome

Alex Honnold is a young free climber who has pulled off the impossible.  He free solo’d Yosemite’s Astroman and Rostrum.  A feat only pulled off twice before him by climbing experts.  Its his CREATIVITY that has separated him from the pack.

12. Flow to Abundance


The Red Bull Stratos Project was a joint project between the energy drink company and Felix Baumgartner.  The goal was to push the boundary of extreme high altitude jumps.

Learning to Learn Faster

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Hopefully one thing is now clear — flow is that advanced technology.”

p. 191

“Flow, they will tell us, is the gateway to impossible, but this has never been take two pills and climb Everest in the morning.  Committing to this path demands a radical restructuring of our days and our ways.  It demands a considerable tolerance for risk and a considerable shift in culture.”

p. 193

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