Transcending the impossible

One of the most defining aspects of human experience is limitation. You only have so much energy on a given day, and only so much time. At the same time, many scientists, entrepreneurs, and top athletes frequently push and even transcend the apparent limits of human capability. But is there a common thread that unites all peak performers? And how can you take advantage of it?

These are the exact questions that author and consultant Steven Kotler seeks to answer in The Art of Impossible. Published in early 2021, this book draws on psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy to give a scientifically-grounded account of the fundamental practices and processes that undergird all instances of human peak-performance.

The book is structured around four key cognitive skills—motivation, learning, creativity, and flow—all of which naturally stack on top of each other. Kotler’s analysis of these different skills is solid, breaking them down from vague, catch-all terms into specific, learnable abilities.

Take motivation, for example. In The Art of Impossible, motivation is not simply synonymous with willpower or optimism. Rather it describes a whole process whereby we carefully discover our passions and then work to channel and sustain that passion in pursuit of both short and long term goals. From here, Kotler goes through the concepts of learning and creativity, essentially how to acquire the knowledge and skills to pursue your goals.

At every stage, this process is heavily grounded in science, both the usual psychology factoids and studies that are common to many self-help books as well as more concrete breakdowns of neurochemistry. Dopamine plays a big part, and Kotler spends time throughout the book discussing ways in which you can utilize your brain’s dopaminergic system to create positive feedback loops, whereby good practice naturally feeds into more good practice.

All this leads into probably the most important concept in the book, flow. Flow is a state of heightened consciousness and productivity, associated with the release of a high concentration of particular neurochemicals. A well-documented phenomenon, flow is responsible for those moments of intense focus that result in great feats of athleticism and scientific and cultural breakthroughs. As a result, peak performance rests in your ability to maximize your flow.

Kotler offers up a number of techniques to help achieve and maintain flow. But the concept still remains somewhat fleeting and mysterious, despite the scientific grounding the book lays out. The book is full of intriguing and actionable advice, but the end goal of it all, flow, may still end up evading you. Reading The Art of Impossibility and taking its words to heart may make you more productive, creative, and self-disciplined. But it won’t, by itself, make you the next Albert Einstein.

Kotler is a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, which comes through in the clear and very readable style of the book. He goes to great lengths to define the numerous terms he introduces. From “impossible” and “formula” to “autonomy,” “motivation” and countless other words, they are all clearly defined and consistently used.

The high quality of the writing means that the book will have something for every reader, not just the peak performers, to learn or ponder. This makes The Art of Impossibility a very good read, even if the discussion of flow falls flat.

The Art of Impossibility by Steven Kotler is available for purchase here.

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