Steven Kotler, co-founder of the Flow Genome Project. (photo/Knack Factory)

Steven Kotler, co-founder of the Flow Genome Project. (photo/Knack Factory)

It turns out entrepreneurship is a lot like adventure sports — at least when it comes to neurobiology.

When looking at what’s happening in the brains of serial entrepreneurs, it turns out they’re chasing the same thing as big-wave surfers and free solo rock climbers — peak performance, or what’s called “flow,” according to Steven Kotler, co-founder of the Flow Genome Project. He gave the Maine Startup and Create Week keynote address on Thursday afternoon at the Maine College of Art.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow,” which attempts to describe the state where time seems to slow down, self criticism and awareness recede and action and awareness merge. Other recognizable lingo for the experience is “being in the zone” or having a “runner’s high.”

Why is peak performance relevant to entrepreneurs and business people? Because of the astounding lack of it in workplaces, said Kotler, who’s also co-author of Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World. It turns out that 68.5 percent of U.S. workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at their jobs, according to a recent Gallup poll. Imagine what that means for productivity?

Kotler said employees who are actively engaged in their jobs — or, in other words, have jobs that generate “flow” — are five times more productive than everyone else. That means an employee could go to work on Monday, spend Monday in flow, then take the rest of the week off and still be as productive as their peers, Kotler said.

“That’s astounding,” he said. “It’s also why in a recent issue of Forbes, James Slavet, who is a VC with Greylock Partners, called ‘flow state percentage,’ which is defined as the amount of time employees spent in flow, the number one management metric for building great innovation teams. It’s also why major companies — Toyota, Patagonia, Microsoft — have put flow at the very center of their corporate culture.”

So what is “flow” and how do you reach that state? While it sounds like esoteric, metaphysical hocus pocus, it has a solid grounding in science, according to Kotler.

“We’re not talking about magic fairy dust,” he said.

I won’t get into the neurobiology in this post, but suffice it to say that research has shown that the so-called flow state is the only time our bodies create all five performance enhancing drugs: norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin.

“It’s something of a technical term,” he said, “but when you look under that technical term, flow, what you’re really looking at is high-speed, near-perfect decision making. For every action, every decision to follow seamlessly, fluidly from the next — that’s what’s got to be at the heart of it.”

Kotler in his talk laid out the various triggers needed to reach that flow state, including passion, rich environment, deep embodiment and high consequences (something shared by entrepreneurs and adventure sports enthusiasts).

“The people with the most passion, purpose and meaning in their lives are the people who have the most flow in their lives, and there’s tremendous amount of data behind this,” he said.

One of the psychological triggers is what’s called the “challenge-skills balance,” Kotler said.

“We pay the most attention to the task at hand, what we’re doing, when the challenge of what we’re doing slightly — slightly is the key word — exceeds our skill set. So you want to stretch but not snap,” he said. “Emotionally this means that flow exists near the mid line in what’s known as the flow channel between anxiety and boredom.”

People working at startups are often able to hit the flow state because of the passion they bring to their jobs, the challenges, being surrounded by passionate colleagues and the high stakes of what they’re doing, Kotler said.

But entrepreneurs are also over achievers, which could cause a problem because they blow by the sweet spot by taking on too many challenges without even noticing, he said.

“You have to go slow to go fast,” he said. “The point is you want a little bit of challenge every day.”

Kotler also laid out the four-stage flow cycle:

  1. Struggle, the rapid input of knowledge and learning stage (“when in struggle, the more frustrated you get, the better”);
  2. Release, which is triggered by low-grade exercise that gets you physically moving, like taking a walk or even taking a shower;
  3. Flow;
  4. Recovery, which is essentially a deep low following the high.

The takeaway for Jess Knox, lead organizer of Maine Startup and Create Week, is that reaching peak performance is accessible to anyone. It doesn’t take going to MIT or Harvard to be successful, he said.

“When talking about aspiration of high achievement, trying to understand the mechanics of how to get there is part of that equation,” Knox said. “So whether you grow up in Fort Kent or Caribou or whatever, you can not only get in flow but that can lead to high achievement.”