December 27, 2022
Productivity
Read
8
 min read

The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler - Summary & Quotes

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Note: The following are excerpts from The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler.

Three Takeaways

1. Non-time And No One

“Non-time” is my term for it: that vast stretch of emptiness between 4:00 A.M., when I start my morning writing session, and 7:30 A.M., when the rest of the world wakes up. This is non-time, a pitch blackness that belongs to no one. It’s not close to morning, so the day’s pressing concerns have yet to press. There’s time for that ultimate luxury: patience. If a sentence takes two hours to get right, who cares: this is non-time. If I have to write five paragraphs, throw them out, and write five more—well, there are no clocks in non-time. And creativity needs this non-time. Deadlines can often be stressors.8 When we’re battling the clock crunch, the pressure forces the brain to focus on the details, activating the left hemisphere and blocking out that bigger picture. Worse, when pressed, we’re often stressed. We’re often unhappy about the hurry, which sours our mood and further tightens our focus. Being time-strapped, then, is frequently kryptonite for creativity. Yet, peak performers don’t like downtime. It’s the reason “recovery” is considered a grit skill. It’s also the reason we need to build time for non-time into our schedules. Non-time is time for daydreaming and psychological distancing. Daydreaming switches on the default mode network. If the goal is to enable our subconscious to find remote associations between ideas, then we need this network engaged. We also need a little distance from our problems, which is another reason non-time is so crucial. This distance allows us to see things from multiple perspectives, to consider another’s point of view. But if we don’t have the time to get that psychological distance, to get space from our emotions and take a break from the world, then we won’t have the luxury of patience or the uplift of alternative possibilities.

Become wiser in four minutes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Thanks for joining our newsletter.
Oops! Something went wrong.

2. The Five Books of Stupid

I think the actual number probably differs for everybody, but when I approach a new subject my rule of thumb is to allow myself five books’ worth of stupid. That is, I pick five books on a subject and read them all without judging my learning along the way. This point is worth reiterating: learning doesn’t make us feel smart. At least, not at first. At first, learning makes us feel stupid. New concepts and new terminology can often add up to new frustrations. But don’t judge yourself for the stupidity you feel along the way. On the path to peak performance, quite often, your emotions don’t mean what you think they mean. For starters, get out your notebook. Take a very specific kind of notes as you go. The goal is not to write down everything you think you need to know. There are only three main things to focus on. First, as mentioned earlier, take notes about the historical narrative. This gives the brain an easy way to order new information and amplifies learning rates. Second, as was also discussed, pay attention to terminology. If a technical word pops up three or four times, write it down, look it up, and every time you see the word again, read the definition. Keep this up until the meaning starts to lock into place. Third, most critically, always take notes on stuff that gets you excited. If you come across a quote that speaks to your soul, into the notebook it goes. If you come to a fact that makes your jaw drop, save it for later. If a question pops into your head, write it down. Stuff you find curious is stuff with a lot of energy. We’re already primed to remember anything that catches our attention. This makes the information much easier to recall later. The fact that it initially caught your attention, coupled to the process of jotting it down in your notebook, is often enough to lock it into long-term storage.

And don’t just pick any five books on the subject. There’s an order to the chaos. Book One: Start with the most popular, best-selling book you can find on the topic. Fiction, nonfiction, doesn’t really matter. The goal is fun, fun, fun. This first book is less about real learning and more about gaining a little familiarity with the world you’re about to enter and a basic sense of its lingo. Book Two: This is also a popular book, but usually a little more technical and a little more on point. This book is either closely related to or directly about the subject under investigation. Once again, the main goal here—and the reason to choose popular books—is to generate excitement. Motivation-wise, you need this excitement on the front end, as it’s what lays the foundation for real learning. Later on, as your knowledge base develops, the super-geeky details will become really tantalizing, but when starting out, just firing up your imagination is far more important. Book Three: This is the first semi-technical book on the topic—something that is still readable and interesting but maybe not quite a page-turner. This book builds on all the ideas learned in books one and two, layering in more precise language and expert-level detail. It’s also where you start to get the shadowy outline of the big picture. Toward those ends, in this third book, try to find something that provides a look at that wider view—a macroscopic perspective on the subject. If you’ve been reading about trees, this might be the time to learn something about systems ecology. If you’ve been studying couples therapy, this might be when to read up on the history of social psychology.

Book Four: We’ve arrived. Book four is the first actual hard book you want to read on the subject—something that isn’t nearly as fun as the first three, but gives you a taste of the kind of problems that real experts in the domain are thinking about. Pay close attention to the field’s current borders. Get a sense for when, why, and with what foundational ideas contemporary thinking about a subject begins and ends. Also, figure out where the crazy lies: the stuff that experts feel is balderdash. You may not agree with these opinions, but you need to know they exist and, more important, why they exist. Book Five: This is not always the hardest to read (that can often be book four), but it’s often the hardest to comprehend. That’s because the goal here is a book that is directly about the future of the topic, where it’s heading, and when it’s heading, a book that gives you a sense of the cutting edge. After those five books, your brain typically has enough data to give you a feel for a field. The language is familiar and the macroscopic big picture has snapped into view. This is the point when real comprehension begins. When you can start asking meaningful, articulate questions about a subject, then you can feel confident that you’ve learned the basics.

What does this look like in the real world? Well, consider my first novel, The Angle Quickest for Flight. The book is about five people trying to break into the Vatican to steal back one of the core Kabbalistic texts, a book stolen from the Jews in the thirteenth century and then secreted in the Secret Archives. Think of it as The Da Vinci Code, just a few years before there was a Da Vinci Code. To write this book, I needed to know quite a bit about Vatican history and the Secret Archives. So what did I read to get up to speed? Book One: Thomas Gifford’s The Assassini, a thriller about the Church’s involvement in art theft during World War II. It was a fun ride that gave me a glimpse inside the Vatican. I learned some lingo and got a feeling for the world I was about to enter. Book Two: Malachi Martin’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church. Martin is a former Jesuit and Vatican history scholar and writes popular fiction and nonfiction on the subject. Again, a fairly easy read but very informative. Book Three: Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Armstrong is one of the more respected scholars in this field, and this book tells the four-thousand-year story of the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—giving me a macroscopic sense of the subject. Armstrong is also a talented writer, meaning those four thousand years go by a lot faster than you might assume. Book Four: The Secret Archives of the Vatican by Maria Luisa Ambrosini and Mary Willis. This is the core text in the subject. Dense and detailed and directly on point. Book Five: Inside the Vatican by Thomas Reese. Not exactly a book that peers into the future. Rather, one that provides an enormously wide look at the past. The book is an exhaustive, scholarly study of the world’s most complex religious organization. Enough said. Two final notes: First, this is an exercise meant to help you learn subjects, not skills. If you want to learn a skill, playing piano, for example, you can’t read your way to proficiency.

3. The Übermensch Era

“I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” Nietzsche wrote these words in 1883, in his masterwork, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s worth mentioning here because Nietzsche was the original high-performance philosopher, the first truly modern thinker to consider the question of peak performance. That’s the “superman” in the above quote, the “Übermensch” in the original German, and how to become this “Übermensch” was Nietzsche’s core concern. Nietzsche earns this title not because he’s the first philosopher to ponder peak performance. There’s a lot of history here: the Stoic creed of the ancient Greeks, the perfectibility of man of the Enlightenment thinkers. But Nietzsche was the first philosopher to care about the issue after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species—which means he was the first to believe that peak performance came down to biology. But Nietzsche felt we could escape that chaos. We could replace the struggle for survival with the “will to power,” the battle for self-actualization, for self-creation and self-overcoming, for mastery, excellence, and meaning. In other words, all the things that used to come from God must now come from us. Okay, Nietzsche, so how to do that? And this is where the story gets interesting, because Nietzsche had a plan, a fairly practical plan for tapping one’s will to power and becoming the Übermensch—and his plan should sound awfully familiar. Nietzsche’s first step toward Superman: find your passion and purpose, what he called “an organizing idea.” An organizing idea is a mission, a central theme for one’s life, and it doesn’t emerge all at once. “The organizing idea that is destined to rule [our lives] keeps growing deep down. It begins to command, slowly it leads us back from side roads and wrong roads; it prepares single qualities and fitnesses that will one day prove to be indispensable.” Nietzsche was also very clear about the next step: learn to suffer. Peak performance demands grit, and suffering, the philosopher maintained, was the fastest way to acquire that skill. “To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities. . . . I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.” Or, as he bragged in The Will to Power: “I am more a battlefield than a man.”

This takes us to Nietzsche’s step three: learning and creativity. Take it all in, transform it into art. Learning and creativity are about self-expression, self-overcoming, and the discovery of meaning. Nietzsche felt art was the antidote to nihilism. If God is dead, and there’s no divine meaning to life, then we need to make meaning on our own. This is the will to power, the existentialist mandate. We take responsibility for our choices, we act, we create, and we alone bear the responsibility of our creation. And this brings us to the final step in Nietzsche’s process: flow—though he didn’t use that word. Nietzsche’s word was rausch, a word originally coined by Johann Goethe that translates to “the acceleration of movement leading to a flowing joy.”6 In The Will to Power, Nietzsche describes rausch as “the great stimulus to life,” both an unconscious, biological process and a higher mode of being, characterized by power, strength, and vision, where our modern pondering self is replaced by the “animal vigor” of an older, primal self. Nietzsche thought rausch was one of the most powerful experiences we could have, and a foundational requirement for tapping our inner creative genius. “For there to be art,” he wrote in Twilight of the Idols, “for there to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological precondition is indispensable: Rausch. Rausch must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine, else there is no art.”

Become wiser in four minutes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Thanks for joining our newsletter.
Oops! Something went wrong.