I Spent Last Year Training with Steven Kotler—Here’s What Happened Next.
What You Should Know About Flow States and Peak Performance Training.
People reacted differently to 2020's extended quarantine. My response was to devote the extra time at home to personal development.
My path to training with the Flow Research Collective—the research and training organization started by best-selling author Steven Kotler, was an unusual one (more on that further down).
If you’re not familiar with Steven Kotler, he was a top journalist for GQ, Wired, and over 70 other publications. He turned his experience in the field covering extreme athletes like Laird Hamilton and Danny Way (breaking many bones in the process) into becoming one of the world’s leading experts on ultimate human performance.
He’s authored or co-authored twelve books on the subject to become a perennial best-selling writer.
That expertise led Kotler to found the Flow Research Collective—a team of leading scientists, performance coaches and psychologists with the mission to understand the science behind ultimate human performance. FRC uses their knowledge to train up individuals and organizations.
I had already read some of Kotler’s books: The Rise of Superman (2014) and Stealing Fire (2018, Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal) and watched his presentations at places like Google where he describes the neurobiology of flow — the state of the brain and body when humans are performing at their best.
Kotler and his team believe that achieving high performance through flow states aren’t just for surfers riding giants or billionaire entrepreneurs taking moonshots. The concept at the core of the Collective is that anyone can learn to decode flow and recode themselves using positive psychology and neurobiology. What does that look like in practice? I explain below.
My first experience with the Flow Research Collective was in applying for a job. I came across an ad for an opening with their marketing team and applied in 2019. At that time, I only knew about FRC from what I could find online.
I made it through several rounds of interviews before not getting the position. However, my curiosity about the work that the Collective was doing peaked as I got to learn more about the roles of members on the team. Everyone I interacted with seemed like they had recently captured lightning in a bottle.
In the Summer of 2020, I applied for and got accepted into the Flow Research Collective’s flagship training: Zero to Dangerous. Their acceptance rate of applicants is not made public, but I’d assume the biggest obstacle to admission is probably the cost. At the time of this writing, the 8-week course cost around $5,000 USD. That’s comparable to what someone would spend on credit hours and books for a semester of online college—but is it worth it?
You’re Not Just Taking a Training Course—You’re Joining a Community
The first surprise I got after gaining access to the course is that I was also added to the “Decode/Recode” network. Everyone who takes a Flow Research Collective course becomes part of their online community of coaches and fellow flow hackers. It’s a very open, supportive and inspiring group. Some members are well-established in their careers, others are just starting out. There’s none of the biting sarcasm or shock-posting in the comment threads that’s invaded social media. All of the chats are constructive and goal-oriented.
In addition to the daily classes for Zero to Dangerous (which all contain a community chat component), my calendar soon filled up with additional live Q&A Zoom calls and invitations to Masterminds with Kotler and other leading voices in peak performance. At first, it was more of a time commitment than I had anticipated.
These live sessions enabled me to better get to know the other course participants (who were located all over the world) and to ask follow-up questions about things covered in the course.
Most of the coaches who moderate the Q&A sessions are clinically-trained psychologists. Whenever a course-taker suggested something that was unproven or seemed a little off-base, the coaches would gently steer the conversation back to science-based research. That’s one of the principles that the Collective takes very seriously: everything a coach tells someone to do must be backed by science.
Never Trust the Dopamine
Kotler repeats this phrase again and again in his pre-recorded videos and live sessions. He may have even put it on a t-shirt. He always speaks with a candor bordering on irreverence that suggests: I don’t have time for b.s. and neither should you.
Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that makes humans want things. It influences everything from mood to motivation. It feels great!
Too much of it can cause spending sprees or worse, risk-taking behavior that can be life-threatening.
Kotler often warns trainees that dopamine, along with the other neurochemicals that make up the cocktail of drugs released by your brain during flow, is more powerful than any street drug ever conceived.
For that reason, flow is something that has to be approached with discipline and respect. Too much flow could just as easily land someone in the emergency room or have the opposite effect of achieving peak performance.
There’s a whole session devoted to “the dark side of flow” where flow hackers are warned against becoming flow junkies—chasing dopamine highs while losing sight of their ultimate goals.
Kotler even suggests that the ultimate performance is being able to do something out of flow that you first learned to do in flow.
The Zero to Dangerous course will teach a person how to induce a flow state (that’s what most people who sign up are seeking), but it also devotes many lessons on how to get out of flow, how to get better sleep, how to set effective goals, how to accelerate learning and avoid distractions and how to properly recover after work.
Zero to Dangerous is more about taking a holistic approach to total life-management than learning how to ride some bio-chemical wave.
This is where I feel the Flow Research Collective differentiates itself from other popular life-coaching approaches. There is real on-going research being performed by the world’s top neuroscientists and psychologists forming the foundation of everything they teach.
“Never trust the dopamine” means that just because a certain supplement, yoga practice or music playlist works for you—it may not be a universal solution sold to the masses (these types of trendy “life hacks” are not endorsed by the Collective.)
The training teaches you not to chase the high, but focus on the goals you’re crushing.
There’s Amazing Research Going on Behind the Scenes
If you listen to any of the Collective’s podcast episodes, you’ll discover that in addition to training people and organizations, they’ve teamed up with several leading universities and business organizations to tackle some lofty goals.
They’re currently working with the University of Southern California to find connections between flow states and creativity.
There’s research going on between FRC and scientists at UCLA to examine the effects of CBD on flow.
They’re using fMRI and PET at Jefferson University Hospital to explore the neurobiological signature of flow.
Plus, many other collaborations and research studies are currently happening all over the world.
Whenever there’s a scientific breakthrough, it’s eventually put in a new book or added to the training. Kotler and the Flow Research Collective are democratizing peak performance—making the methods that were once known to only an elite few more widely available. We’re really at the beginning of this phenomenon — it will be interesting to see how their training evolves.
How Was My Personal Experience? Did it Change My Life?
I completed Zero to Dangerous in the Fall of 2020, then took the shorter “Flow for Writers” course a few weeks later.
For me, the most valuable components of the training are the one-on-one coaching sessions, the supplementary resources available from FRC’s vast library (which are called “rabbit holes”) and the lifetime membership in the Decode/Recode community.
Even now, whenever I feel “stuck” I sign up for an upcoming session or jump on the chat and one of FRC’s coaches or a fellow course participant is available to help me.
The only thing about the Zero to Dangerous training that didn’t exceed my expectations was the production quality of the course itself. Many of the ZtoD lessons are a combination of poorly edited cuts from a pre-recorded live workshop Kotler gave a few years ago dropped into newer slide presentations created by the Collective’s co-founder Rian Doris.
While the information that Kotler and Doris deliver is extremely valuable, the delivery method could use an upgrade (I’ve heard that they recently updated the course to improve this aspect).
Even with a few awkward rough cuts and sound glitches, I still found this training to be far superior to a popular Mastermind I once attended by a well-known motivational speaker. That course hid its lack of actionable content behind Hollywood-style production techniques. While I wouldn’t describe the Collective’s production style as blockbuster, I’ll take substance over style any day of the week.
Doris teaches the bulk of the lessons in Zero to Dangerous. He comes across as one of the most focused and disciplined people I’ve ever encountered (his Irish accent was also fun to listen to). This is a guy who owns his time and routine.
I was initially overwhelmed by a few of his sessions on goal setting and technology management—but that’s where the one-on-one coaching really helped. With guidance, I was able to find a balance of habits that worked for me; it wasn’t quite at the level of Doris’ extreme approach to life management but way more effective than my previous undisciplined work style and habits.
At the beginning of Zero to Dangerous, I was asked to fill out a lengthy personal survey that focused on my goals, values and personal definition of success. In my final coaching session (where I received my completion certificate) I was given charts and graphs of how my mindset had changed over the 8-week sessions. Reviewing these results with one of the coaches was enlightening. It was proof that Zero to Dangerous had changed me in several impactful ways.
Shortly after completing Zero to Dangerous and the Flow for Writers course, I accomplished some professional goals that had previously alluded me for years. (I’ve chatted with several other course grads who experienced similar results).
I’m not sure if these career advancements were because the Flow Research Collective instilled in me new confidence in my abilities, or if my understanding of flow states and peak performance had improved the quality of my work that quickly (I think it’s likely a combination of both).
Whatever happened during my year of taking a deep dive into training with the Flow Research Collective has allowed me to thrive. I have a network of inspiring leaders I can reach out to; I continue to gain insights from re-visiting the course materials which are mine to keep, while attending network virtual events and reading Kotler’s latest best-seller, The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.
Like any personal development training, individual results will vary and you will only get out of training what you are willing to put in (be prepared to spend at least 45 minutes a day, 6 days a week studying for the eight weeks.)
I do believe that the Flow Research Collective offers something uniquely positioned to help anyone reclaim their time and feel more in control of their life. Like me, it may help you achieve a major life goal.
The Flow Research Collective is refreshingly free of the “cult of personality” or “yoga-babble” approach to personal development. Everything they taught me was based on science.
The ceiling for what someone is able to achieve with this training is excitingly high.
The opinions offered here are my own. I am not paid to endorse the Flow Research Collective in any way. If you’re interested in applying to train with them, go here.
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