Disclaimer: This is kind of a long-winded book review but stick with it to the end and you’ll see why I am so excited about this book and why I highly recommend it to everyone!
About a month ago, I had lunch with New York Times bestselling author Steve Kotler here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Steven lives just outside of Santa Fe and we met up at a local pub. Since we are both into adventure sports we hit it off immediately and talked passionately about a variety of topics including his latest book, the freelance life, some of our mutual friends (of which there were many) and the latest ski conditions, to name just a few. Earlier this year, Steven released his latest book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.
Before meeting with Steven, I had seen quite a few videos and Facebook posts about The Rise of Superman, since it details the arc of adventure sports over the last few decades, but I hadn’t actually read the book. After our meeting, I was very curious about “flow” and ordered the book right away. I must admit that I was a bit skeptical. The theory of “flow” sounded like a “new age” movement more than a science term. As I quickly found out in the first few chapters of the book, there are more than fifty years of science and research behind this term.
Let’s just put it this way, once I got the book, I couldn’t put it down. I read the entire book in two days and I had to force myself to put it down to get some actual work done. The book uses adventure sports to show the rise in athletic prowess that has been accomplished in the last three decades because of athletes accessing this “flow state.” Reading the stories about the athletes in itself was quite entertaining, especially since I have worked with about half the athletes in the book and have heard many of those same stories directly from them. Of note, the Red Bull Air Force, who regularly pushes the envelope of what is humanly possible, figures prominently in the book, as do quite a few other Red Bull athletes. Red Bull in fact has been working with several neuroscientists on flow for over a decade now to help their athletes’ progress in their sports. Amazingly, as someone who has documented adventure sports for the last eighteen years I have never heard an athlete talk about flow.
Beyond the entertaining stories, Steven goes into great detail describing flow and how both adventure athletes and everyday folks can access this state to improve their performance and reach a whole other level. This book is essentially the answer to why we adventure athletes do what we do. I have never fully understood why my passion for these sports was so deeply rooted and why creating images of these athletes is so ultimately thrilling for me, but this book answers that question and then some—like nothing else I have ever read. If you have a girlfriend, a spouse, or a family that wonders why you do these risky adventure sports do yourself a favor and just hand them this book. After reading it they will understand everything.
“I have never fully understood why my passion for these sports was so deeply rooted and why creating images of these athletes is so ultimately thrilling for me, but this book answers that question and then some—like nothing else I have ever read.”
While reading the book, I realized that I have accessed a “flow state” since I was fairly young, mostly while creating art. Once I got into adventure sports, I was able to access it on a whole other level and have been for quite some time now. In fact, I feel like I can access micro-flow (a lower level flow state) quite easily. While working on an interview about my work just a few days I read through the introduction to my book Exposed: Inside the Life and Images of a Pro Photographer. In that introduction, I basically described an addiction to this “flow state” in terms that seem apropos for someone who had never heard the term. I even detailed five of the ten signs of flow in the first four paragraphs. So you can see what I am talking about, below are those four paragraphs from the introduction to Exposed. I have underlined those sections that relate directly to flow.
Ever since I was a child I have had a feeling of utter enlightenment when I created something. It didn’t matter if it was a drawing, a painting, or a sculpture. When I knew it was good, my whole being kicked into high gear. My concentration became laser focused, and the rest of the world faded away. Hours would fly by and I would barely notice. I was in a bubble that was all consuming. That creative spark was a lightning bolt for me.
I knew I had some artistic skills early on. As with many children with skills that come to them easily, I took my skills for granted. At an early age, I was able to draw just about anything with very near photographic realism. With the help of my parents, I dabbled in just about every genre of art. Photography was just one of the forms I “tried out.” The more I worked at art, the more exhausted I was by “perfect” drawings. As a result, I became very interested in abstractions and quick renderings. Part of that was a curiosity to see what would happen. Hence, an interest in photography wasn’t that big of a leap.
Often, I’m asked how I made it as a professional photographer. The short answer is that I’ve worked extremely hard with the help of many photo editors, mentors, and athletes. Alternatively, I don’t feel like I’ve made it at all. I still have a long, long way to go before I can ever think I’ve “made it.” But at the base level, I am an addict. I am addicted to the high that I get when I am creating an image I know is extraordinary. And being able to share that with the world, through my clients, is a supreme pleasure. That addiction to the creative high is the reason for my obsession with photography. It is the reason I am a photographer, and it explains why I work so hard.
This creative spark and the gratification I get from sharing it is the essence of this book and the reason I’m willing to share the entire process from start to finish. Reading about the entire process removes the mystery of how certain images were created. Hearing the complete story of an image makes the process logical and understandable. Seeing the whole process laid out makes these images accessible for all so that they can create similar processes of their own to further their photography.
In short, The Rise of Superman helped explain my passion for adventure sports and documenting them, and it has opened my eyes to exactly what is going on when I am in a “flow state.” The science behind flow is compelling. Neuroscience has come a long, long ways in the last few decades and that has allowed the scientists interviewed in this book to really dive deep into what is actually happening in the brain that allows for flow. After reading this book, I did a 180-degree about face from my previous skepticism.
The beauty of this book is that it teaches you how to hack into this flow state and access it for yourself. It gives an all-encompassing view of the state, the upsides and the downsides and everything in-between. And for those of you not into adventure sports, not to worry, most creative people, whether they are artists, musicians, scientists or programmers all access the flow state from time to time. Do yourself a favor and order this book. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.