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Flow State: How to Cultivate a State of Bliss and Seamless Productivity

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Most of us have had a heightened and radical experience where time slows down, specific details are enhanced, and self vanishes. This is what some top athletes describe as being "in the zone." In these amplified moments of consciousness, we make connections we had missed before, hatch breakthroughs to problems that have been stumping us and push the limits of what's possible for human performance.

I've felt it hundreds of times after several hours in front of an Avid while editing my films -- but I never knew there was a name for it. It's when I put enough time in that the gifts start coming. It's a transcendent feeling, as if I have to race to physically manifest the ideas and connections that are flowing through me. I become a conduit as puzzle pieces fly into place. Ever been there? Sometimes it just happens to us suddenly with a click, like magic. At other times, we think we know how we got there but what if we could dial it in whenever we wanted to cultivate that state of bliss and seamless productivity?

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, the co-founders of Flow Genome Project, have been at the forefront of discovering the triggers in order to unlock and harness these "flow states." With wide-ranging examples from different disciplines such as the Curies' "eureka moment," Einstein's mathematical genius, Mozart's legendary compositions as well as Michael Jordan's wizardry on the basketball court, Kotler and Wheal have examined how major athletic competitions, scientific discoveries, and significant progress in the arts are associated with the unconscious creativity that surges out of flow states. According to Wheal, "Flow Genome Project is an interdisciplinary organization dedicated to mapping the deep science of ultimate human performance." Kotler adds, "Flow states are defined as optimal states of consciousness. These are states where you feel your best and you perform your best."

Flow is not only for extreme sports enthusiasts. Business leaders and scientific researchers are now taking note of flow states and the possible implications for society. A McKinsey study finds that top executives in "flow" are five times more productive than out of it -- this means that if we as a society or as employers could increase the amount of time we are in flow by 20 percent, we would double our productivity.

In order to unleash this tidal wave of creativity, the Flow Genome Project is planning to launch Flow Dojo Research and Performance Centers, which they describe as "a playground dedicated to the seeking and training of flow states." The Dojo's will have 360-degree immersive dome projections, human gyroscopes, and huge looping swings where both experts and regular folks can immerse themselves in extreme environments and examine their physical and mental states. The goal is to advance "21st century skills" such as resilience, cooperation, and hot decision-making that are not taught in our schools, so that ultimately our children can master today's challenges.

In this week's episode of ATD's "The Future Is Now" series, we sat down with Wheal and Kotler to dive deep into the neuroscience and cutting-edge research that has characterized these historic and groundbreaking leaps in human performance:

For Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, "flow" is not just a professional crusade -- both men have credited the state with saving their lives. Steven had been suffering from a debilitating illness, bed-ridden for three years, and living at 10-percent functionality. He found himself in a state of consciousness where he encountered what felt like "mystical experiences," and he thought he was dying. When he recovered, he wanted to find out more about this state and ended up publishing two books on "flow," including the forthcoming book The Rise of the Superman. Jamie, on the other hand, describes himself as that "prototypical angry young man," courting death with high-risk behavior -- "Either I was going to find something more worth living for, or I was going to continue taking bigger and bigger risks. I was going to keep going until I got it, or I was content to let it get me." Through "flow," he was able to channel this existential crisis into a career, designing and delivering dynamic outdoor educational learning experiences to everyone from children to business leaders. Kotler's research into the scientific side of flow was a perfect match with Wheal's focus on experiential learning to build out Flow Genome Project.

Wheal and Kotler have huge plans for their flow Dojos in major metropolitan areas, where they will offer MacArthur-style fellowships to scientists from related fields. Wheal believes, "One of our core intentions is almost a sort of revival of Plato's Academy, where you bring together the best and the brightest, you train, you think, you play, and you go out and you seed culture." They have already attracted high-profile advisors and board members such as James Olds from the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study from George Mason University, Redbull's High Performance Director Andy Walshe, and New York Times bestselling author and world-renowned ADHD expert Dr. Ned Hallowell, among others.

Of course, one can't be in a "flow state" all the time; they're part of a cycle that involves gearing up, entering flow and a coming-down recovery period. But Kotler and Wheal hope that helping people access flow more regularly will enable them towards not only greater productivity but greater happiness. For Wheal, the question he seeks to answer is "How do we unlock that possibility, not just in the best of the best, but allow it to actually be our own birthright and to reclaim that? How do we not simply say voyeuristically, 'Wow, that's awesome, but I could never,' and actually say, 'That's incredible, and I can too!.'" Projected completion for the first dome is Fall 2014/Winter 2015, and I'll be the first in line.