Steven Kotler - landscape

My guest today is Steven Kotler, a renowned author and expert in the field of aging and performance. Steven shares his scientific approach to aging, exploring whether it’s possible to teach an old dog new tricks. He talks about his personal experiment of learning new and dangerous skiing tricks at the age of 53 and how he combined a methodical approach with the seemingly impossible to achieve a surprising and inspiring outcome. You can find it all in his new book “Gnar Country.”

Steven also discusses how the choices we make when we are younger can set us up for success in aging, and what we can do as we age to protect our brains and enjoy life to the fullest. With his extensive work with the Flow Research Collective, Steven is well-equipped to explain how to achieve flow, set up the optimal environment for it, and avoid anything that can kill it.

Stephen is challenging the narrative around aging and pushing himself and others to continue to learn new physical and creative endeavors. Tune in to hear more about Steven’s latest book, Gnar Country, as well as his other best-selling works, including The Art of Impossible, The Rise of Superman, Abundance, Stealing Fire, The Future Is Faster Than You Think, and Bold. Plus, check out the Flow Research Collective website and follow Steven on Instagram for more insights and inspiration. I for one came away from this conversation more motivated than ever to not allow the narrative around aging to convince me to limit myself from trying new things, or believing that I can continue to thrive and learn new physical and creative endeavors forever. Enjoy

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Key Topics:

How to Age Like a Badass: Steven Kotler’s Gnarly Guide to Breaking Your Personal Impossible

“The mindset of old, the voice in your head that says, “You’re too old for this.” There are a bunch of reasons it starts to develop and it can start developing in your late 20s. From healthy aging, forget peak performance, it’s deadly. There’s 50 years’ worth of data here. A positive mindset toward aging, like, “I am thrilled with the second half of my life. My best days are ahead. Exciting possibilities lie ahead.” That translates to an extra seven and a half years of healthy longevity.”

“Gateways of adult development. If you want to thrive in the second half of your life, there are certain things you have to do at certain ages. I like to say that peak performance aging starts young. You can make interventions in your late 80s and they’re going to matter and impact the quality of life. If you want to get it right, there’s psychological stuff that you want to start paying attention to as early as your 20s. The first is you need to solve the crisis of identity by age 30.”

My guest is author Steven Kotler. You know Steven’s work in flow research and getting into the flow state. He works with the Flow Research Collective. Some of his books are The Art of Impossible, The Rise of Superman, Abundance, and Gnar Country. This was generated when Steven, at 53, decided, “I’m going to learn a bunch of new tricks in snow skiing.” It’s not only tricks, it’s like, “I got air.” I’m talking about dangerous and difficult tricks.

Even though Steven is a good skier, it doesn’t matter, it’s like, “This stuff is hard.” He gave himself a period of time to do it. He went to extensive lengths and he shares all of this in his book and in the conversation to not only prepare for it intelligently, mitigate risk, physical harm, getting injured, and things like that, but he starts to give you the science of aging and learning as we get older. I appreciated this book because it’s that blend of, “I was scared. I didn’t know how to do it. This is how I approached it. Here’s the data about what happens in your brain.”

For example, around your 50s, both hemispheres of your brain start to fluidly communicate with each other which can make it very conducive for learning. He uses himself as the experiment, gets all the information together, and then once they understood how to proceed towards this goal, they then took a group and shared it with them to make it real.

I appreciate Steven’s work because he’s almost like a reluctant spokesperson. He’s somebody who wants to understand this stuff. He loves figuring out ways to create environments to be in the flow state but yet he’s shy. He doesn’t love doing interviews and he does an incredible blend of bringing humanness with the data and bringing them together and making it not only achievable.

He discusses what we can do when we’re younger to support ourselves in this better and healthy aging and the things that limit us as we get older to either doing new things or doing what we want or feeling like we can. This will be his last book maybe for a couple of years. I always love talking to Steven Kotler. Enjoy.

Steven Kotler.

Gabby Reece.

What do you mean you’re going to put a stop to it? I was commenting on congratulating you on another book. Is it enough madness?

I was joking. I’m going to try to take next year off. It’s not the writing, I love writing, it’s the PR cycles. As soon as the publisher locks you into your books coming out, it starts this whole massive process that I’ve done for almost ten years straight, every year. I want a couple of years off. I had enough.

You’re an introvert. Is it more about constantly exposing yourself and having to deal with that? What is it about the cycle?

There’s a whole bunch of stuff that I want to be able to spend my time on without having to focus on taking six months to do a campaign. I love it and the fact that I have readers and people who like the book, it’s amazing. You should never get to the point where you resent or regret that. It’s been a lot in a row. With world events and other things, there haven’t been breaks. There used to be stretches of time when I wasn’t either writing a book or promoting a book. I want to calm down for a couple of years and learn some new things and have more stuff to talk about.

What you’re saying is important. To be able to grow and have real experiences like your latest book, Gnar Country, you have to retreat and not show everyone, like, “Look what I’m doing. Let me talk about everything I’m doing.” You have to go live it. It’s such an interesting thing because that’s a complete conflict with what our culture is saying. They’re saying, “Don’t get off that treadmill because you’ll lose people, they can’t pay attention, and we just got to keep rolling.” I appreciate that. Laird always talks about, “How do I capture things if I’m doing them?”

It’s true. Of course, Laird would know more than I would. It’s something I’ve learned since Gnar Country. People keep wanting photos or videos of me skiing but that interferes with the skiing and that’s a mental health concern. I’m skiing for my brand and everything else. I end up not filming a whole lot or things like that.

You’re right, it’s the exact opposite of what the culture does. A lot in goal setting theory says, “Don’t talk about your goal, keep them to yourself.” People don’t seem to understand that but it’s demotivating to make that stuff public and it puts a lot more pressure on you. If you’re wired like me, I’ll end up putting a lot of pressure on myself.

Let’s dive into Gnar Country because the book is probably a happy accident to this quest that you decided to go on. You and I are close to the same age, I was like, “I could not imagine learning this type of skiing.” You’re already a proficient skier so you had the wheelhouse. Maybe set up for the audience how you’ve landed yourself into this.

[bctt tweet=”The most insidious thing about progress is when you start making progress, you want more and more.”]

Where it comes from?

Yeah. It’s incredible.

Let me back up one step because it’ll make it easier. The book is about peak performance aging. Think about this, you got to start with the traditional view of aging, which is the long slow rot theory. All of our mental skills and physical skills decline over time and there’s nothing we can do to stop the slide. This is the dominant theory of aging in the 20th century. Around the late ‘90s, it started appearing but nobody notices or talked about them and there are eleven different fields. They start cohering into a thing that you might call peak performance aging probably around 2018 or 2017, and that’s all backstory.

What the new theory says is all the old stuff that we used to think declines over time, we now know they’re all use-it or lose-it skills. If you never stop using them, the research shows you can hang onto them and even advance them far later in life. That’s all backstory. Before COVID, I’m on the phone with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the godfather of flow psychology. It’s our last conversation. He died during COVID. He’s the godfather of flow psychology, which is a field I’ve worked in for 30 years. I’ve worked on mostly neurobiology.

I had called him up. He’s old, he was in his 80s, he had a stroke, and I was a little worried about him. Also, he’s an outdoors guy, he was a lifelong hiker, lived in Montana, was a mountaineer, and did some studies on rock climbers. There were a bunch of interviews that got translated and in these interviews, he’s namedropping classic ‘60s Yosemite valley climbers. I’m looking at this and I’m like, “There is no way you know these names if you weren’t a much more serious rock climber.”

I’m thinking all these things and I start talking to some of his students and they tell stories about how Mike would come back from a weekend in the outdoors with bruises on his face. He was getting after it. I called him up, I wanted to check on him, and I blurted it out, I was like, “Mike, you got to tell me about the role of action sports in your career. I know you tell everybody about the concentration camp story in your TED talk and you talk about your work with artists and I get it.”

I laid it out for him and I asked him this question and there’s a long pause and all I think is, “I’ve offended my mentor.” After a couple of minutes, he says, “Steven, you got to be careful.” I said, “What are you talking about?” I have no idea what he’s talking about. In my brain, I’m thinking, “Has he lost the plot?” I’m like, “Mike, careful with what?” He’s like, “You do something your whole life for flow and then you get through my age and forget about climbing rocks, forget about climbing mountains. Some days I can’t get out of bed. You need a backup plan for flow. You’ve got to be careful.”

It was like one flow junkie to another. It wasn’t like a mentor and mentee. It was one flow to another telling me that if I’m interested in flow as I age, which I am, have as many ways into the state as possible. Because of that and a handful of other reasons, I decided I was going to teach myself how to park ski in my 50s. Park skiing is the discipline in skiing that involves doing tricks on jumps and rails. It’s acrobatic and pretty dangerous.

There are about eleven different biological reasons that say it’s supposed to be difficult for anybody to learn once you’re 35 and pretty impossible once you get to 40 or 50. There’s all this stuff in peak performance aging that, on paper, if you combined it, older adults should be able to onboard new motor skills and even do complicated ones. I ran a giant experiment and tried to see if I could teach myself park skiing. I made a bunch of criteria, for reasons that we could talk about later, why it was a backup plan, and all stuff, I thought it would take five years. It’s like, “I’m going to learn how to park ski. It’s going to take five years.”

I made a list of twenty tricks and that was how I was going to judge progress and that was zero to intermediate. Once you get to intermediate, a lot of the danger and the dumb things stops happening. It’s a little safer. I figured that if it took five years, great, and it took less than a season. I learned how to park ski faster than I’ve almost learned anything in my entire life and that was wild. My ski partner was a former sponsored athlete who had retired from park skiing after a bad injury and had raised a family and had a career. He took the same protocol and applied it and he got faster than he has ever gone before. This was wild. This was also not evident.

It was the most radical experiment in peak performance aging but it was a pilot study. The next year he took seventeen older adults using the same principles. I was a good skier and my ski partner was a good skier but most of these folks were intermediate. In four days, using the same protocol, we taught them how to park ski, and snowboard. We did a bunch of other stuff with it. That’s the story in Gnar Country and that’s the backstory and the story of the book.

A lot of times, when people get good at something, it was play first and then it was like, “This is fun.” You then build upon it. You do talk about, in the book, how when you’re older, you can be a better student. Two people had a background in something, both of you, in skiing and even in a different type of skiing, there was a specific approach. It seems like you guys systematized things. Also, talk about the importance of doing this with a partner because you talk about having someone to do something with and how that impacts it. Also, how do you take a goal like this, which is scary, dangerous, and big, and then go, “We’re going to break it down and we’re going to go step by step.”

The protocol, what did we do? The first thing is we took a play-oriented approach. It was a dynamic and deliberate play, that underpinned our approach. There are a bunch of physical skills that decline over time and you want to train them. Dynamic is a catchall term for the five categories of functional fitness. Dynamic means strength, stamina, agility, balance, and flexibility. Deliberate practice is repetition with incremental management, it’s Anders Ericsson’s big idea on Expert Performance. It’s a good idea but there have been a number of challenges to it. The truth is it’s great for learning certain skills.

If you want to learn math or how to play an instrument, those things make a lot of sense. It turns out that in most learning circumstances, deliberate play outperforms deliberate practice all the time. Deliberate play is repetition without repetition, it’s repetition with improvisation. It works better for a couple of key reasons and the obvious is when you’re playing, you’re less self-conscious. There’s no wrong, there’s no shame, and there’s no embarrassment. There’s less fear. All that stuff is off the table.

The second reason play releases a ton of neurochemicals, you get dopamine but you also get a ton of endorphins from play. The more neurochemicals that show up during the experience, the better chance it’ll move from short-term holding to long-term storage. You don’t get endorphins from deliberate practice, maybe at the end if there’s pain relief that comes in, or maybe if you’re eight hours in. Most of the time, you’re not getting endorphins and they’re big pleasure drugs and they cement experience and learning.

Deliberate play is better that way. The other thing that I always like to point out with deliberate practice is one right answer. I did the same thing I did perfectly with a little variation. With deliberate play, there’s only one wrong answer. You did the same thing you did last time. Every other answer is right. When we get the answer right, we get some dopamine, we get some of these motivating feel-good chemicals that drive behavior forward. Deliberate play tends to wildly outperform all the other kinds of learning and was key for these skills. That’s the backstory.

We then did a couple of specific things. In flow science, there’s something called the challenge skills balance, it’s often called the most important flow trigger. If you want more flow in your life, the state has triggers and pre-conditions that lead to more flow. They all work by driving attention to the present moment, they maximize focus. There are a bunch of different ways but that’s what we’re doing here. Challenge skills balance is one of the most important. We pay the most attention to the task at hand. The challenge is about 5% greater than the skills we bring to it. You want to stretch but not snap.

Steven Kotler caption 1

Steven Kotler – Your body is aging, that’s happening. You want to work with it. You want to work with your biology, that’s peak performance.

What we realized with older adults is because of what’s known as allostatic load, which is the impact of trauma over time on physiology and psychology. That 5% sweet spot can shrink down to 1% and often without anybody noticing it. It’s unconscious. You feel like the same person you’ve always been, the same athlete you’ve always been, or the same performer, or whatever It’s, but there’s this crucial factor. If you get out of that challenge skill sweet spot, we always like to say it’s between boredom and anxiety.

Boredom is not enough stimulation, “I don’t care about paying any attention.” Anxiety is you overload it. If you’ve got a one-degree sweet spot before you get overloaded, overloaded means more norepinephrine that blocks fast-twitch muscle response. It blocks full-scale power. There are a bunch of physical properties. It retargets the performance. You get conscious, you start thinking about what you’re doing. You want to avoid that.

Our motto is one inch at a time. Start with something you do 100% of the time with zero fear and no conscious interference and build on it one inch at a time playfully, improvisationally. That was first and foremost. The second thing is nothing was about trying to learn how to park ski. We broke park skiing down into eight foundational motions, crouching, jumping, flashing, grinding, 180, 360, backward skiing, and such. The goal was to learn how to interpret terrain features in novel ways with new body motions.

Creativity is another flow trigger. When you link ideas together in a new way, that’s creativity, and that’s pattern recognition. You get some dopamine and it’ll drive focus. As a writer, I’m putting a sentence in order and something clicks, like, “I see the pattern.” It’s a surfer looking at the lip of the wave going, “That’s perfect for a cutback into a floater.”  That’s pattern recognition. Our idea was flow massively amplifies learning. Studies by the US Department of Defense find that we learn 250% to 500% faster than normal in flow.

The last bit of the protocol and this is the ski partner came into play is we didn’t talk a whole lot. There was no verbal destruction. We played follow-the-leader games. There’s this interesting thing that happens when you’re playing follow-the-Leader games. Let’s say, Ryan, my ski partner, was in front and he threw a 360 off a jump. 360 is a little above my pay grade so maybe I threw a nose dive 360 or I scaled it down so it was only one inch out of my sweet spot. We played those games a lot.

When you watch somebody else do an action, your mirror neurons and the motor system run the same pattern. Your brain runs that pattern and you get a little squirt of dopamine if you can do the move and you get a little squirt of norepinephrine, fear, or anxiety if you don’t have the move. Most people take that anxiety as, “I shouldn’t do this at all.”

Anxiety means don’t do that thing, dial it down until you’re in your sweet spot, and you can do it playfully and execute it with no fear. By creatively interpreting terrain features, sooner or later, you’re going to drop into a flow. Once you’re in flow, then you’re performing your best and maybe you do have that move. That will be the time to try if you’re going to push but not until.

There’s so much good stuff. I would want to connect on one idea that you mentioned because it is important and I want people to understand it. You say, “We didn’t talk a whole lot.” You say in the book that if you talked, it was about where you were, what you were doing, or whatever, but you didn’t talk about the home talk or all this other stuff because it impeded the process.

When you’re in flow, one of the core things that happens in the brain is the prefrontal cortex deactivates, it’s a part of your brain that’s right behind your forehead. Normally, it’s a powerful part of your brain. Logical decision-making is there and a sense of morality, willpower, and all that stuff is in the prefrontal cortex. It tends to deactivate a lot in flow, that’s why time passes so strangely in flow. Time is the calculation formed all over the prefrontal cortex and when it goes away, you can’t separate the past from the present and the future.

We get that deep now experience, that eternal present that happens in flow. You want it turned off. When you talk about yourself, when the ego gets activated, the ego is all about the prefrontal cortex and it turns it back on. When you get too emotional, the prefrontal cortex turns back on. We did it with both ourselves and then when we taught people or ran that experiment, this was a rule. It was weird for people. This was one of the hardest things for most people. In skiing, nobody talks on the run.

What we said is, “You can’t talk about yourself. You can’t ask personal questions because that will force people to talk about themselves and the ego’s going to get activated. You can’t talk about current events or anything that could scare you.” All that stuff. The rule is you can talk about your skiing or you can make people laugh, that was it. Everything else during this learning period is off the table. It’s funny because if you look at what we did, it’s not what we did, it’s what we didn’t do. We pulled a lot of stuff that most people put into learning. Especially with complicated and difficult skills like this, we did a lot less.

I thought that was important. The other part of that is when we talk about meditation or doing things like that. How do we shut that voice down that’s always about me, I, and all these things? Interestingly, I thought that not only would that enhance what you were saying and what you were doing as far as trying to approach getting into flow but if we even had that practice in life.

It’s like, “This would be a good time for me to not be so I centric and think about all my stuff.” I would imagine it would also open up the learning about your inhibitions, about, “I’m too old for this.” It’s like, “I’m just going to be here and do it. I’m not going to worry if people think I look weird or if I’m the oldest person in this group or any of that.” I thought you could extend out that part.

At the training park, 90% of the people are kids with their parents or teenagers. I’m decades older than almost everybody else in the training parks. It was getting over the self-consciousness. The other thing about Ryan that worked so well in our favor is we have similar learning preferences. Both of us are a little introverted, we like to learn in private, and out of sight. We would go high on the far edges. We’d turn natural features into our training park so we could learn out of sight.

That was helpful because of the shame and self-consciousness. The other side of that also is self-expectation. The most insidious thing about progress is when you start making progress, you want more and more. I went to North Star for the first day of the season in a big train park where they finally got everything set up and we could head at it. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had in a training park. I learned eleven new things.

We came back a week later and the expectations are through the roof. Even though I kept doing everything I can to check myself, there was a part of me that was like, “What are you going to do today? What are you going to learn today?” Self-consciousness and self-expectation, both of them get blown down the water when you’re using play, which is why play is important because those two things are deadly.

When we talk about practice, you used language and instruments. When we talk about play, you’re on the mountain. Do you think you can bring that same notion of play in a less physical environment?

For sure. It’s hugely important in any environment. Read Catherine Price’s book, The Power of Fun, which is all about it. Catherine is great on this topic. This is an old writing trick. When I got stuck, I would find an author that I liked who was inappropriate for the subject matter. Let’s say I was writing about genetics, I would find a book by Charles Dickens and I would try to write an article about genetics in the style of Charles Dickens and get it past my editors. It was ridiculously playful and you learned a lot. Dickens did a bunch of cool things.

[bctt tweet=”Fighting your biology never works in any way.”]

That was a common thing. Especially when I was a journalist, every time I got stuck, I would take these playful and creative learning approaches to get unstuck. Somebody had taught me a writing exercise years earlier that presage that, which was helpful, and which is why I came up with it. I do that all the time. I’ll give you a novelty. Novelty is important in play. I’ll give you a simple example, novelty drives flow, and it drives focus. When I have to read neuroscience textbooks for work, which I have to do all the time, I like them as a general rule. You want to be in flow and you need to pay attention.

I’ll often leave my office and go to a novel environment, usually a novel outdoor environment, or get a hotel room with a balcony that looks onto mountains or beach or whatever. That novelty, that complexity, these are all flow triggers. They drive dopamine into my system and drive focus, which means that I have to read this challenging thing. Sooner or later, as I’m reading, there’s going to be creativity and there’s going to be pattern recognition.

It’ll drive me into flow eventually but I got to be trying to get there. The novel environment with its novelty, with its complexity, with all that stuff, unpredictability, these are all flow triggers. It allows me to get into flow and I make way more progress. I’ll stack up 3 or 4 neuroscience textbooks and go away for two days and do this and I’ll get through all of them. My retention is way up as a result. You can use it all over the place. It’s a playful approach to learning a subject like neuroscience.

I can’t help but think about your affinity for punk rock, that relationship of flow and punk rock, what is it about it that’s in you who is more shy, quiet, or introverted but gravitates towards these dynamic and powerful areas?

Punk was whatever people think about punk from the outside. I say this in the book, people think about punk and they think about Mohawks, anger, and drug abuse, and those things are true but you’re looking at the window dressing and not the window. Punk rock was about DIY creativity. They locked punks out of the music industry so punks had to create their own labels, bands, and flyers, and book their own tours.

The first thing I ever worked for was a zine that I started because I had weird hair and nobody was going to give me a job. I was a punk rocker. In the ‘90s, I had dreadlocks, and earings, and nobody was going to hire me. In an ad agency or a magazine, nobody looked like that back then. This was what we did, DIY creativity. We took the anger and turned it into creativity and that was the real salvation of punk. That’s present in my Gnar-style quest.

I went on this quest. I had unfinished business in skiing. I had unfinished business in general but it had carried into skiing. I always say this Gnar-style quest is great for peak performance aging. We can talk about it for a lot of different reasons. Not everybody is going to learn how to park skiing. Everyone is going to have their own thing and some of them don’t even have to involve action sports at all. We took all these ideas.

After we ran the second experiment, we stripped out action sports. We replaced dynamic physical activities so people would train their bodies. We trained 350 people with two goals, one, can we explode their mindset towards aging? A critical point about peak performance aging is the mindset of the old. The voice in your head that says, “You’re too old for this,” there are a bunch of reasons it starts to develop. It can start developing in your late 20s.

From healthy aging, forget peak performance, it’s deadly. There’s 50 years’ worth of data here. A positive mindset towards aging, “I am thrilled with the second half of my life. My best days are ahead of me. Exciting possibilities lie ahead.” That translates to an extra seven and a half years of healthy longevity. If you’re morbidly obese and have a crappy mindset toward aging, in your mindset, it’s more important. You’ll live longer, it’s that fundamental.

We wanted to explode people’s mindset around aging and we wanted to see if we could put them on a Gnar-style quest. When I said Gnar-style quest, I mean something that is a personal impossible that feels like an impossible challenge for yourself. If you would accomplish it, it would explode your old mindset around aging. We ran it as a training for 350 people and people did everything. There was one woman who went from being a mediocre artist to having her first solo show.

There was a guy in his 60s who learned how to kite surf for the first time. There was a woman who decided to learn how to be a triathlete. There was physical stuff, intellectual stuff, and a lot of creative stuff. One of the other reasons action sports matter is because it’s a one-stop for dynamic movement. There have been great studies that have been done where they’ve looked at different activities for longevity.

If you join a gym, you’ll get about an extra year and a half of life, and healthy longevity. Swimming is 3 years but badminton is 7 and tennis is 9 and action sports appear to be 10. Why these other sports won, they’re social so that’s important for peak performance aging. Two, they’re dynamic. You’re not leaving any categories untrained. They also work on things like fast-twitch muscle response and hand-eye coordination, which are also good skills to be trained over time. There’s an advantage to these dynamic things and you don’t want to skimp on that even if your quest is intellectual, creative, or emotional for that matter.

That’s such an important point. I’m working more in the meathead section. When you work in health and wellness or whatever, the meathead part of it is on the low end of wellness. You’re saying it’s these other things. It is your mindset. You talk about Ellen Langer about mindset. If people want to go deeper into that beyond Gnar Country.

Let’s tell the Ellen Langer counterclockwise story. If peak performance aging had parents, it would be Ellen Langer and Jean. Ellen Langer is a psychologist. She was at Harvard forever. She’s awesome. Her early work is on language and priming. She starts to suspect back in the early ‘80s that ageism is a common stereotype. It’s still the most common stereotype in the world and the most socially acceptable stereotype.

I go outside these days with any other stereotype, I’m canceled. I can go outside and be like, “You’re too old for that,” and nobody even blinks, it’s socially acceptable. “I’m too old for that,” those aging stereotypes. Becca Levy used it at Yale. They’re deadly. We’re killing older people over 50s with how we talk about them. It’s damaging to their health, longevity, and everything else. Early on, long before we knew any of this stuff, Ellen starts to wonder, “There’s something about aging. Are we priming ourselves into old age? What’s the relationship between mindset and aging? Nobody asks these questions.”

She gets a group of sixteen 80-year-olds and she drives them to a monastery two hours outside of Boston. She decks the monastery out to look like 1961. It’s 1981 and the monastery looks exactly like 1961 with the same magazines and books. They watch movies from 1961. The people are divided into two groups. Group A is going to reminisce about twenty years ago, “In 1961, I did this and I did that.”

The second group has to pretend it’s 1961, they have to talk about it in the present tense, like, “The Cuban Missile Crisis is going on and what are we going to do?” They measure everything cognitively and physically that you could possibly measure before and after. The changes are crazy. Ellen was the one who discovers that aging is as much a mental process as a physical process. This is the first big data. Folks on the other side of the group who pretended it was 1961, their eyesight improved. Their hearing improved in hearing tests. Cognition and eleven different tests improved.

Their gait improved. Their arthritis goes away so much they become taller and their fingers get longer after five days of pretending to be twenty years younger. That was the opening. It was 1981, it was the first time people were like, “We don’t know what we’re talking about with aging. We got to totally reframe everything.”

One thing I want to mention because you touched on meditation for a second. When you look at long-lived communities, Blue Zone communities, and things like that, one of the commonalities among all these communities is they have regular daily rituals for de-stressing. This could be saunas, mindfulness, yoga, or walking in the woods. There’s a variety of these rituals but they all flush stress hormones out of our system. As you know and I’m sure you’ve talked about it a ton on this podcast, mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools for that. De-stressing regularly also matters to this conversation.

Steven Kotler caption 2

Steven Kotler – Creativity is another flow trigger. When you link ideas together in a new way, that’s creativity, and that’s pattern recognition. You get some dopamine and it’ll drive focus.

I was curious how this was possible. I don’t know if it was Gene Cohen. You talked about wisdom as scattered throughout the brain when you were talking about learning. I was trying to guess, I was like, “Maybe wisdom is something that you accumulate over time and it’s spread out.” I don’t know. You said it’s a cluster of neurological traits. Maybe we could touch on that.

The wisdom definitions are all over the place. People are all over the place. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that wisdom is much involved in joy, first of all. He says somebody has wisdom when they have a deep respect for the past yet a huge desire to improve upon it, a respect for self, others, and the planet, and a joyful immersion in life. Wisdom means a lot of different things. In the ‘90s, this is where the holes in the long slow rot theory of aging first started showing up.

When we figure out that if you want to protect against cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, the two best lifelong learning is the secret. Why is that? Why would that be the case? What do you want to learn? It turns out that cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, most of that impact the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain we’ve been talking about. It’s from an evolutionary sense to the newest part of the brain and that’s the most vulnerable, the disruption.

You don’t suffer the consequences of aging and let your brain stem. Other things can go wrong back there but you don’t age back there. The prefrontal cortex ages and a lot of these things are localized. This part of the prefrontal cortex will get attacked. If you want to protect the prefrontal cortex, you want to learn and specifically, you want expertise and wisdom.

There the definitions are different but the way to think about it in a sense is expertise is all the stuff you learn consciously and wisdom is all the stuff you learn unconsciously or not unconsciously. That’s not accurate at all definition-wise but it’s a good way to think about it and go deeper. Here’s what’s important, both expertise and wisdom are these diffuse networks in the brain. You want to protect the brain against cognitive decline. You want to birth new neurons and you want these neurons to form robust networks in the brain that are redundant, lots of redundancy.

Wisdom matters because in wisdom, you don’t just learn the fact, you learn the rules, the systems around the fact, how processes work, and those things. That’s wisdom whereas expertise is more about the fact in this particular thing. Wisdom might be the fact in this particular thing and the dynamics in the room about all the people who were there. Did they like each other or not like each other? All that stuff that we notice all the time, a lot of that is wisdom. These are diverse networks in the prefrontal cortex and both matter.

Wisdom is interesting. You mentioned this earlier. As we enter our late 40s and early 50s, Gene Cohen figured out that there are profound shifts in the brain and how the brain processes information. These are good things, not bad things. In our 50s, certain genes only turn on over with experience. Genetics turns on. The two halves of the brain start talking to each other like never before and cooperating. They’re antagonistic but they start to cooperate and then the brain starts to recruit these underutilized regions.

All of these things lead to whole new levels of intelligence, creativity, wisdom, and empathy. If we do this stuff right as we enter our 50s, wisdom, which is protective against cognitive decline, is part of the aging brain now. There’s a bunch of stuff you have to do beforehand to get access to those. If you want to hang on to them, there’s a bunch of stuff you have to do to hold onto them. Wisdom, empathy, creativity, and intelligence are four of the most crucial traits for thriving in the 21st century.

It’s funny because this reminds me that Arthur C. Brooks wrote a book that talked about the second part of your life where you can synthesize information better.

That’s big-picture thinking. One of the things that happen in your 50s if you get it right is systems thinking. That’s what Arthur was talking about in that book. You get systems thinking. Relativistic thinking is one name for it, which is you learn that things aren’t black and white, everything is a shade of gray.

It’s easy to have firm moral lines when you’re 18 and it’s a lot trickier when you’re in your 40s. It’s like, “It’s messy everywhere.” You also learn multi-perspectival thinking so you can see things from other people’s perspectives. The ego quiets is what happens. Our egos get out of the way and we can see things from other people’s perspectives. Those changes unlock all of these other advancements. They’re not guaranteed as I said.

Meaning all your practice is leading up to that and then going after it.

No. This isn’t in our research. This is the Harvard Adult Development Project, which is two of the longest studies. It’s 80 years of studies of adult development. This is where most of this started out and then got built out by psychologists after it. There are gateways of adult development. If you want to thrive in the second half of your life, there are certain things you have to do at certain ages. I like to say that peak performance aging starts young. You can make interventions in your late 80s and it will matter in your life.

If you want to get it right, there’s psychological stuff that you want to start paying attention to as early as your 20s. The first is you need to solve the crisis of identity by age 30 and then know who you are in the world. 40 is a match fit, you need a tight fit between who you are in the world, what you do for a living, and what you do with the bulk of your time. It’s got to align with your values, your strengths, your passions, and your purposes.

By 50, it’s forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others. It matters. If you’ve never done compassion or love and kindness meditation, it’s probably the best tool for forgiveness available. It’s great. You run the script in your head and you don’t even have to do anything, it does the work for you. It’s a phenomenal tool with lots of great research on it but it’s good for forgiveness in your 50s to get past this hurdle of adult development.

Without identity, you can’t figure out how to match fit. If you don’t know who you’re, you won’t know what’s the perfect location for you. If you haven’t forgiven yourself and others, you’re not going to get that multi-perspective thinking, you’re not going to get the empathy, and you’re not going to get the wisdom. Once you have in your 50s, it’s creativity that unlocks these thinking styles.

You could do all this successfully but if you’re not regularly engaged in creative activities in your 50s, the activities that require that pattern recognition we were talking about earlier, you’ll get locked out. If you want to hang onto these things in your 60s, 70s, and 80s, two things matter, you have to fight down risk aversion because that goes up over time. Risk aversion produces fear, fear blocks empathy, wisdom, and creativity for a bunch of different neurobiological reasons. You got to train risk. As Laird says, “Do something that scares you every day.” That’s a simple mantra for training risk.

Physical fertility matters. If your body is falling apart on you, it doesn’t matter what cognitive superpowers you have. We all know, the brightest people in the world, we get sticked, and you’re done. Forget about it. You got to train in the five categories of physical fitness starting in your 50s. Starting in your 50s, you can keep training these and advance much later in life. By the time you’re in your 50s, if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward. You have to do this or you’re going to decline much more rapidly.

Steven Kotler book 1

The Art of Impossible


It’s such an interesting dance. As you become “an official adult” or whatever that means, how do you move closer to who you are?

If you figure it out, would you let me know? I don’t think I know yet.

I know less, believe me. You move closer to your own inner truth. You say, “Know who you are.” Simultaneously, somehow letting go of that and not taking that seriously, it’s this dual thing happening For that wisdom or that acceptance, it’s almost like having a certain amount of larger allowance and less definitive and more gray and more nuance and then simultaneously having some strong truths that show up for you but then you’re not dogmatic. It’s always such a funny dance to me as we’re moving.

You’re right, Gabby. That’s a good description of it because it is true. In fact, older adults who end up dogmatic don’t thrive. That’s not as beneficial. Openness to experience matters throughout but it matters in the second half of our life in a lot of ways. You’re right, you get much more compassionate towards yourself but you also know exactly who you are a lot more. You get to make much smarter decisions about how you’re living. I don’t beat myself up. I look at the voice in my head as a character in my book. I still have it more, the voice in my head. The version that shows up in Gnar Country at 53 is different from the version at 20. At 20, that voice would win the argument. Now, I can win some of it.

It’s a beautiful thing. In a way, that’s a form of flow when you’re able to adapt and keep moving through your life that way because then you don’t set up concrete and you stay that way. It is uncomfortable. For anyone reading this, domestic living, all of that is not working in the favor of what you’re talking about.

We have to fight. You get up in the morning, people have a ritual, they’re going to work, and if they have children, there are some heavy-duty patterns that can lock you under the exact opposite of what you’re talking about. I appreciated this experiment because it’s a strong reminder to people in their own way, you did it your way, that it is possible. I want to go back to Ryan because he seems pivotal, having a partner in crime and someone to go on the quest with. This is true for many things.

It’s true for many things and it was new to me. I’m a solo act. I’m an introvert. It was a new thing to me. What was beneficial? There’s a handful of things I want to talk about and the first is social connection and social belonging matters for peak performance aging. It matters for peak performance and health and well-being and all these reasons. As we get older, it starts to play a bigger and bigger role. One of the things about having the right ski partner is you have the same pathways in the flow, you like the same things. That was one of the things.

We used the same flow triggers in the same order in the same way. We were interested in going to the same place. We had similar goals stylistically. That mattered because I can’t, as an introvert. I’m married to an introvert. My wife and I can go a long time without even talking and we like it that way. I can go weeks and weeks without getting the social connection I need for healthy aging. Forget peak performance and healthy aging or even healthy.

What I want is I want flow experiences because they give you all the neurochemicals you need in much more condensed time. In Blue Zones where people live a long time, some of them will spend six hours a day on social connection hanging out with their friends and family. I don’t have that time, I don’t know if you do. That’s a lot of time. I can’t do that so I have to condense it down and the only way to do that is through group flow experiences.

Having the right partner was great for that. First of all, pushing yourself and scaring yourself over and over again. I did it for ten years almost. When I was living in New Mexico and trying to learn how to big mountain ski, I was mostly solo. It’s a different proposition. It’s lonely out there. It’s so much more fun with somebody else. The main thing with Ryan is immediate feedback is important to progression and learning.

One of the things for me that was most important is the no-go. It’s like, “When am I supposed to go? When am I supposed to do this thing? When is it safe and when is it not?” I developed a system early on where I realized for a bunch of different reasons that if Ryan knew something, I have to do it immediately. I can do it with three caveats. One is if I was feeling too much fear, back off and come back later.

Two is if I was exhausted. Don’t try to push through exhaustion. Exhaustion is tricky in high-flow activities because flow produces a bunch of pain-killing neurochemicals. Endorphins kill the pain. If you’re in flow, you may not even notice. I have signs that I look for with exhaustion. If I start under-jumping jumps or my turn starts sliding, those are signs that I’m exhausted. I may still feel like I got it all but those are signs.

The third one is if I get an ego reaction. If Ryan does something hard, I’m like, “I’m going to do any.” If those three things showed up, it was an immediate no because that’s an easy way to go to the hospital. We did something I hadn’t done and it was mandatory. What was great about that is I set up these rules at the start of my quest and it took choice off the table. In scary situations, I don’t make the best decisions. I wanted to guard against my own bad decision-making process because fear messes with judgment.

In situations I knew I was going to be going into, I wanted to guard against that. I set up these for safety having Ryan lead the charge a lot of the time and knowing based on these rules. We have similar body types, we’ve trained them the same way, and we like to do the same things. Both of us have a fondness for tight openings between trees, for example. That’s not for everyone. It doesn’t bother me at all.

We’ll jump between trees to between trees. Most people don’t want to do that. That’s an immediate no for a lot of people. There’s a ton of stuff I won’t do in the train park. That stuff doesn’t bother me. We share those things. That was hugely usually important as well. It’s having somebody also to cheer when you do something right. If there’s nobody around and you’ve been working on a trick for months and you finally get it right, it feels good. When somebody else cheers, it’s a big deal.

That isn’t ego. That’s something else, that’s like, “You’ve been grinding it out. Look at this progress.” Celebrating progress isn’t like, “You were badass. You got the trick.” It’s like, “You did it.”

Progression is what you’re celebrating.

That’s the turn-on. People forget that. It’s hard to be a student but that’s where it’s all at. It’s like, “I couldn’t do that yesterday, and today I can.”

One inch at a time. The learning is the cool stuff. If you’re cheering for something super gnarly, get somebody who did something stupid. They may have gotten away with it but you’re cheering the wrong thing. You can celebrate it or not celebrate it. It’s the learning that you want to cement.

Steven Kotler book 2

The Rise of Superman


It’s not the attention or the out outrageousness. It’s like, “You didn’t know how to do that and you’ve been busting your ass and now you can. That’s awesome.” You talk in the book a little bit about your training with cardio, strength, balance, and flexibility. Could you break up what that looked like for you for this approach? You had to build the skills and that took other work off the mountain.

It’s funny to have you asking me this question because I borrowed so much from you and Laird along the way in how I think about some of these things. I’ve been working out. I always tell people that if you’re coming into this stuff, especially older in life, start with a movement professional who can watch you walk and figure out, like, “What do we need to fix first?” You don’t want to get injured right off the bat. If you haven’t worked out in a while, your body will shift workloads to your prime movers, your big muscles, and it’ll neglect your stabilizers.

You’ll come back to a sport and your quads may be giant but your hip flexor hasn’t worked in a decade and you’re going to tear it right away. If you haven’t been doing this stuff, come in slowly. I started training with a weight vest and there were a bunch of reasons why I did it. If you stretch before and after, it will hit all five categories of functional fitness. You get balance, agility, strength, and stamina. I don’t have the time to train in all those things independently. I’m busy and, even better, I have a dog. I have to walk my dog every day anyways. We walk in the mountain. It was the easiest thing in the world. I’m like, “Okay.”

I started slowly and worked up from a 5-pound weight to a 10-pound weight. I kept holding myself back because I’m like, “Don’t get hurt.” If I set out, I say, “Today I’m going to do 40 minutes.” Don’t do 42 or 45. Do 40 minutes and tomorrow, do 41. It’s slow, slow, and slow. I did a lot of that. One of the most important things is we lose bone density over time and this impacts both cognition.

The bones are the mineral factories for the body and your brain runs on calcium. Where do you think it lives? The single most important correlate for preserving cognitive function and physical function is strong legs. Some of it is legs lead to mobility, which leads to better social connection. Some of it is your leg bones are your storehouses of stuff we need to run the brain.

A lot of times, when people talk about declining cognitive function over time, it’s because you’re not training up bone density and that’s the problem. If you don’t want to hike with a weight vest, which is a great way to train, there are companies like OsteoStrong that figured out how to perfectly load bones and increase bone density. No sweat, no pain, you can start there. There are ways and a place for anybody to start with this stuff. Weight vests were my way.

As I moved closer in, I started doing sports-specific movement because you got to train in sports-specific dynamic movement, otherwise, you’re going to end up injured later also. I added as much muscle to my frame as possible because I’m skinny and I didn’t want to break. Also, everything I was doing required strong legs. I wanted my legs in the best shape of my life and I got them there.

In fact, I set my new maximum squad at 55 and it’s still going up, which is fun and cool. I did that because exhaustion leads to injury. I did everything I possibly could not be injured and I didn’t mind that I had to train for eleven months before I started. I did a little bit of park skiing in there and that’s in the book. It was a long process before I was like, “I’m ready to do this.” I wanted to be as safe as possible.

That’s an important point because if someone reads this book, it’s called Gnar Country, it is a gnarly undertaking, and you were doing gnarly things but yet it was still done in a systematic and thoughtful way that had a ton of preparation. I always want people to try new things. Still, you want to have a plan and strategy as you did. You said that these relationships, as we get older, are important.

At one point, you said that even the data lends itself to even over lifestyle, meaning, do you eat perfectly? Do you never eat processed foods? It’s more important for you to have these relationships. I like that because I spend a lot of time in the space talking about mitochondria, processed food, chronic inflammation, and all these things that I do believe in. You said it simply and directly in the book, “This is what’s important.” They talk about, in the Harvard Study, connection and all of that but I wanted to bring that up again because it’s that reminder.

Gabby, if you were to sum up peak performance aging in a sentence, notice that there’s nothing about diet, and there’s nothing about supplements. Most of the things that people think are important don’t show up in the sentence. Peak performance aging, if you want to rock till you drop, you want to regularly engage in challenging, creative, and social activities that demand dynamic deliberate play and take place in novel outdoor environments, that’s peak performance aging in a sentence. That’s everything you need to do on a regular basis.

Don’t get me wrong, there are unknown causes of aging and all of them link back to inflammation. You want to fight inflammation at every level because it’s what ages you. Even the best way to do that is to engage in challenging, creative, and social activities that demand dynamic deliberate play and take place in novel outdoor environments. We can break that down more if you want.

Can we break it down a little more?

Where do you want me to go in?

Sometimes people, if they’re risk averse, it gets weird.

Let’s start at the beginning, challenging social and creative activities. Challenging because of the challenge skills balance because it drives us into flow and flow is the engine of adult development. It promotes health and longevity. We don’t have time to go into why but it boosts your immune system in a significant way. Challenge matters. Social matters because social connection equals mindset. Seven and half years of health and longevity is what you get from a social connection. It’s more important than quitting smoking, losing weight, and those things.

Creativity unlocks the superpowers of aging. Dynamic deliberate play, we talked about it. A novel outdoor environment is the last part. Novelty is a flow trigger, we talked about that, and it’s super important. The outdoor environment is the last bit. Here’s the cool thing. We talked earlier about neurogenesis, the birth of neurons. Most of the neurons in the adult brain that are born are born in the hippocampus, which is a part of your brain that does long-term memory and location, mapmaking, it does place cells, and grid cells, that’s what’s in the hippocampus.

We have all these hunter-gatherers. Nothing is more as survival than remembering where you were when you had an emotional charge. Where did that bear attack you so you never go back near that cave again? Where was the ripe fruit tree after the long and hard winter? Where’s that watering hole that we crossed a desert to find? That’s survival and the brain is built for that.

All of these new neurons are birthed in the hippocampus and then they form other memories elsewhere in the brain. Usually, they migrate to the prefrontal cortex as we talked about. If you’re having novel experiences in outdoor environments, outdoor environment, as you know, lower stress and fights inflammation being in nature. It boosts serotonin and does all that stuff. You’re fighting aging and you’re birthing new neurons so you’re preserving cognitive function.

Steven Kotler, I appreciate your new book, Gnar Country. I want to ask you if there’s any last invitation or reminder for people. A lot of times, people might read your book and think, “That was okay for Steven. He was already good at skiing and he’s an intelligent guy. He took this on.”

I want to tell you this story. If you go to the video or you go to, you click on the Peak Performance Aging Experiment video. It had a National Geographic cameraman follow us around. At the end of the video, you’ll see a guy who says, “My name is Rick. I’m 68 years old. I caught some air in the Gnar Country program.” I thought that was pretty good for an old guy. What’s not in that video is the following and this is the story I want to close with.

First of all, he’s an intermediate skier and he’s 68 years old. We had a meeting before the experiment began where I laid out what we were going to do. People volunteered for it, they knew we were going to do it, and they were all terrified. Rick wins the award. I laid everything out were going to do and how it was going to work and all that stuff. He’s like, “I am 68 years old. I’ve been skiing for 50 years and I’ve never caught air in my life but I’m going to start now.” We were like, “Yes, sir. We’re not going to ask you to. Don’t worry about that at all.”

Every time I watch that video, I laugh. I get the joke because this guy was ordinary about it. That’s what I think about.  Park skiing was my thing. The point is that you want a challenging activity that’s going to help you explode your notions about what’s possible in the second half of your life. It can be anything. By the way, park skiing is one thing. I’m also teaching myself how to draw again for the first time since I was in art school years ago. I’m teaching myself the piano. Have a backup plan and have as many gateways in the flow as you possibly can. Park skiing is great, awesome, and super important. I’m also drawing and doing music. I’m not stopping there. Park skiing is where I started.

Steven Kotler book 3

Gnar Country


It’s tangible. It’s extreme that it lays it out to people. It’s like, “What is possible?” That motion was impactful because people can be like, “Whoa.”

It’s because it’s nuts. Most people are like, “You did what? It doesn’t even make any sense.” Even my friends who were professional athletes, there’s a story in the book where I bump into Jeremy Jones, a longtime pro snowboarder who I know you know. I tell Jeremy what I’m doing and he starts laughing at me. He’s like, “How many bones have you broken so far? This is another one of your crazy ass experiments.” Even my friends who are older and pro athletes were like, “You’re doing what?”

I live with somebody, as you know, who lives this message. I want you to know that I was re-inspired by your book because it is an outside source. Sometimes when somebody lives with you, you’re like, “That’s how it is. Laird is gnarly and that’s easy for him to say.” I want you to know that it was a big prod to me to remind me like, “Is my window shortening? Am I down to 3% or 2%? Do I need to open that up?” I want to thank you and I want to thank you for your time. I look forward to seeing what the next accidental project will be.

We’re building Team Geezer. We’re going to build a professional action sports team of over 50s. We’ve got flow or die in the Gnar Country division, Team Geezer. We’ve got a logo already. We’re working out apparel. That’s what’s next. That’s why I’m taking next year off because I’m waiting for Team Geezer. Yeah.

You knew probably about Don Wildman, Laird’s friend, who passed away.

Laird and I have been having these conversations on peak performance aging forever because of him. I met Don the first time I met you guys. In fact, I know I did. He was already old. He was 60 by then. I remember thinking, “I couldn’t keep up with Laird.” I was in my 20s trying to keep up with Laird. Here’s this dude in his 60s who’s keeping up with Laird. I remember talking to Laird when Don was in his late 70s and he was telling me about a snowboarding adventure they went on together.

When I ski at Palisades, at Squaw, Squaw is packed with pros and everything else. Usually, they love big posse of skiers Squaw or Palisades. I don’t understand why they like that so much. It’s like, “Let’s get 70 people in a line.” Tom Day is the guy who’s always at the head of the lawn. Tom Day is the original Warren Miller Extreme skier. He became his cameraman. He’s 66.

You’ve got Olympic downhillers in the posse and Tom is at the front of the line. There was Tom and Don. There were these men and women who you see in your life and you’d be like, “Wait a minute.” It’s either they’re exceptions or we got something wrong. I don’t believe in radical exceptions. Science doesn’t tend to show you. Most of us are pretty average in one way or another. We’ve built on what we have.

I agree with you on that. What I always appreciate about Don is I never felt like Don, and this just goes back to your message, was resisting being older. It’s even that. There are sometimes schools of thinking, “I’m going to show you because I’m 75.” He didn’t even have that. It’s like, “That looks fun and hard. I’m interested so I’m going to do it.” Maybe the other side is for people not to take this on as defiance too but as an embracing of, “Does that turn you on?”

That’s key. First of all, your body is aging, that’s happening. You want to work with it. You want to work with your biology, that’s peak performance. Fighting your biology never works in any way. I agree with you. He was one of the guys I thought about for a long time when I was thinking about this book.

I appreciate you, Steven. Thank you.

I appreciate you, Gabby. Thanks for your interest in this work.

Thank you so much for reading this episode. Stay tuned for a bonus episode where I go deeper into one of the topics that resonated with me. If you have any questions for my guest or even me, please send them to @GabbyReece on Instagram. If you feel inspired, please hit the follow button, and leave a rating and a comment. It not only helps me, it helps the show grow and reach new readers.

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About Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler Headshot

Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author, an award-winning journalist, and the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective. He is one of the world’s leading experts on human performance. He is the author of 11 bestsellers (out of fourteen books), including The Art of Impossible, The Future is Faster Than You Think, Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman, Bold and Abundance. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, translated into over 50 languages, and has appeared in over 100 publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, TIME, and the Harvard Business Review.