Skip to main content
power points

Steven Kotler has spent the past 30 years trying to uncover the formula for achieving the impossible. Much of that has come from reading research and interviewing scientists, but the journalist has also hung out with extreme athletes and dabbled in their sports, breaking his collarbone twice and both arms, tearing his rotator cuff three times, shattering his thumb twice and racking up 65 fractures in his legs.

Chasing the impossible has cost him. But it may open up a golden future for you.

He defines the “Impossible” as stuff that has never been done before and most believe can never be done, like the four-minute mile before Roger Bannister came along. But he contrasts such big-I Impossible feats with small-i impossible things that we believe are impossible for us – beyond our capabilities. He insists far more of that is achievable than we realize. And if you devote your life to accomplishing the lower-case impossible stuff, you can sometimes end up accomplishing a capital-I Impossible exploit as well.

It takes four skills: motivation, learning, creativity and flow. “Motivation is what gets you into this game, learning is what helps you continue to play, creativity is how you steer, and flow is how you turbo-boost the results beyond all rational standards and reasonable expectations,” he writes in The Art of Impossible.

He notes that grit is what most people think of when motivation is mentioned. But you also need curiosity, passion, purpose and goals. Studies in many different fields by University of Toronto psychologist Gary Latham and University of Maryland psychologist Edwin Locke found that setting goals increased performance and productivity by 11 to 25 per cent. And the best goals are big ones, offering major transformation or steps in that journey. A habit of ferocity will also help – the tendency when facing difficulty to lean in and confront the challenge.

He says life-long learning involves a growth mindset and a truth filter. The growth mindset is an appetite for learning and absorbing new knowledge, including seeing mistakes as opportunities for improvement. The truth filter helps you assess and evaluate what is being learned. “You can’t get to impossible on bad information,” he insists. And you can’t get there without an interest in reading – in particular books, which offer the highest return on your time.

Creativity is a recombinatory process. It occurs when the brain takes in novel bits of data, combines it with older information, and provides something startlingly different. Constraints help. Instead of thinking outside the box, he argues you will be more effective thinking within the box – having limits that you must overcome. An exception is with time: He warns that being time-strapped “is frequently kryptonite for creativity.” You need idle, vacant time, alone, for ideas to arise.

Flow is critical because it allows the three major brain networks that underpin the creative process to work together, focused and hyperactive. A key to flow is a rich environment, with novelty, complexity and unpredictability. He notes that Steve Jobs sought this when he designed the offices of Pixar, forcing people to bump into one another in a central atrium. But you can also gain the same benefit from a walk in the woods, since natural environments have high concentrations of novelty, complexity and unpredictability. Other tricks are reading or working in a coffee shop far from home, or both. “Whenever I’m trying to learn a new subject, for example, I always take my textbooks on the road. The novelty, complexity and unpredictability of the new environment drives flow, and flow makes learning the subject much easier,” he writes.

There’s your formula. Now seek the impossible.

Quick hits

  • Best-selling author and professor Brené Brown starts every meeting by asking people to name two emotions they are feeling. It gives permission to share honest descriptions of current feelings rather than asking your team how they are feeling and getting vacant stares.
  • Calgary consultant Michael Kerr suggests creating a “highlights” jar where every day you write down one small thing you are grateful for or a small win of the day. At the end of the month, randomly pull out some of those slips of paper to remind you of the positive moments.
  • Instead of asking how many tasks you can tackle given your working hours, ask how many you can ditch given what you must do to excel, says management professor Morten Hansen.
  • Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont, advises having a high “say-do” ratio: If you say you’re going to do something, do it – and do it well.
  • If you tend to have a lot of browser tabs open on your desktop, tech writer Jared Newman recommends using the Hare extension, which lets you search those tabs.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.