1 The Way of Flow
Danny Way And The Shortest Path Toward Superman
It’s the last day of the women’s team gymnastic competition in the 1996 Olympics. In the history of the games, the United States has never beaten the Russians in this particular contest, but that record looks about to fall. Going into the final rotation, the US has a significant 0.897-point advantage. Only a complete collapse on the vault stands between these women and their dreams. Then the unthinkable begins to happen. The first four American gymnasts all take extra steps on their landings. Next, Dominique Moceanu falls on her first vault, then again on her second. That commanding lead has been erased. It’s down to Kerri Strug, but hers is a difficult trick, and she underrotates, lands awkwardly, and hears a loud snap. Her ankle is now badly sprained. She is limping, in considerable pain, but if she doesn’t stick her next attempt, the Russians will take home gold.
The United States is in a tough spot. Strug, a four-foot-nine gymnast from Tucson, Arizona, has always been their weakest link. As ESPN The Magazine once wrote: “Strug . . . does not possess the fearlessness, the toughness, the aggressiveness, the heart and the threshold of pain as her teammates.” All of this changes on her second attempt. She tears down the runway, nails her back handspring, flawlessly flips over the vault, and perfectly lands a difficult twisting dismount. On impact, she hears another snap. Gingerly, like a dancer, Strug tucks that leg behind her, never losing her balance. She hops in one direction, then another, both times raising her arms in the traditional judges’ salute. An instant later she collapses, but not before scoring a 9.712 and taking home the hardware.
I mention all of this in a book about action and adventure sports because, again, comparisons are helpful. Strug’s vault is considered one of the greatest moments in gymnastics history and the defining moment of the 1996 games. The entire women’s team is now remembered as the Magnificent Seven, and Strug herself earned the athletic trifecta: her face on a Wheaties box, a Sports Illustrated cover, and a trip to the White House. Danny Way has none of these things. In fact, unless you are a serious skateboarding devotee, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t know his name, let alone what he accomplished on July 12, 2005. So let’s return to Strug’s final vault. Imagine a similar set of circumstances with a few key differences. Instead of a bad sprain, the ankle is shattered. Fractured into pieces. The foot is the size of a cabbage and the knee isn’t working quite right. Instead of having to weigh an injured joint and stumble fifty feet to the start of the runway, imagine having to climb ten long flights of stairs on a broken bone. The pain is agonizing, but the view from the top even worse. The launch pad is a wobbly platform a couple hundred feet off the ground. No safety nets either, so any fall could be fatal.
Just to keep things interesting, let’s make a few more changes. Strug later told reporters she’d performed that exact trick over a thousand times, a fact not difficult to understand because the vault doesn’t change between attempts. But what if it did? Instead of the same old apparatus, imagine a brand-new one — the largest ever constructed: longer than a football field, with a springboard capable of pitching a human body some seventy feet into the air. Suddenly, this is not a vault that anyone has done a thousand times — it’s a “megavault” no one has ever done before. A completely de novo experience, an unknown, an impossible — and one with exceptionally dangerous consequences. Now, hopefully, you’re starting to understand what Danny Way was up against when he attempted to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard.
If not — well, you’re not alone.
Danny Way, considered by many to be the greatest skateboarder of all time, first introduced the world to the MegaRamp in the 2003 skate flick The DC Video. Very few knew what to make of it. At first glance, the contraption is utterly befuddling, more like an outtake from a surrealistic painting than anything anyone would ever skate down. “It was like three times the size of anything I had ever seen in skateboarding,” pro Australian rider Jake Brown told the New York Times. “It was crazy. It still is crazy.” Brown, it should be mentioned, once crashed fifty feet straight down on a MegaRamp miscalculation. He hit so hard that his sneakers shot off and he was knocked out cold. Many who witnessed that fall thought he was dead.
In 2004, Way convinced the X Games to make the MegaRamp the center of their skateboarding competition, claiming it was the only way he’d ever consider competing in the event. Not surprisingly, he took home gold. That same year, he also saw the Great Wall from an airplane window and decided that jumping over it was the next thing he wanted to accomplish. He went to China on an inspection trip, trying to find a suitable launch point, finally settling on the majestic Ju Yong Guan gate. “It’s the widest spot in the wall,” said Way, “which I think does the most justice to skateboarding and the possibility of breaking a world record.”
It turned out the spot was actually a little wider. A few weeks into the ramp’s construction, the architects realized they’d made a measurement mistake and the distance required to jump the wall was considerably greater than first imagined. Way, now back in the States, was reached via satellite phone. “I think you’re going to have to clear more than seventy feet to make it,” he was told, “isn’t that, I mean, just too gnarly?” Danny didn’t even pause. “No,” he said, in a statement that has since ended up printed on T-shirts: “Nothing’s too gnarly.”
Still, when completed, the Great Wall MegaRamp was pretty gnarly. The roll-in stretched more than 100 feet, roughly the same size as an Olympic ski jump. This led to a seventy-foot gap jump over the wall, which dropped into a thirty-two-foot quarterpipe, the largest ever constructed. According to Way’s calculations, the pipe would launch him some thirty-five feet straight up — almost seventy feet off the deck — so, of course, there’s no margin for error. But here’s the tricky part: skaters make errors.
“Skateboarding is a game of failure,” says Way. “That’s what makes this sport so different. Skaters are willing to take a great deal of physical punishment. We’ll try something endlessly, weeks on end, painful failure after painful failure after painful failure. But for me, when it finally snaps together, when I’m really pushing the edge and skating beyond my abilities, there’s a zone I get into. Everything goes silent. Time slows down. My peripheral vision fades away. It’s the most peaceful state of mind I’ve ever known. I’ll take all the failures. As long as I know that feeling is coming, that’s enough to keep going.”
And Way keeps going. That is his trademark. He arrives in China one day before the event and climbs to the top of the MegaRamp. The platform is unsteady. He bounces up and down; the whole structure starts to shake. This is not a good sign. Two years prior, a BMX rider tried to jump the wall, but shoddy ramp construction sent him over the landing pad and into the side of a mountain. He died from massive internal organ failure a few hours later. Despite all of this, Way decides to take a practice run.
It will be his only one.
Way trained in the desert, where the air was thin. In China, with the humidity, it is far too thick. The denser atmosphere slows him down and Way under-jumps the gap, pancakes hard, and rag-dolls for more than fifty feet. His ankle is fractured, his ACL torn, his steering foot swollen beyond belief. He is rushed to the hospital, but, not wanting to know the extent of the injury, hobbles out before treatment. While this is going on, construction workers get busy. The roll-in is lengthened, the gap is shortened, and, if Way decides to try again, it’ll be another first descent.
Of course, he tries again. Twenty-four hours later and barely able to walk, Way climbs those ten flights of stairs a second time. He moves slowly, his breathing labored, his head hanging down. More than 125 million Chinese are watching; most hold their breath. Atop the launch platform, Way paces like a caged animal. Finally, he decides it’s time. A one-arm salute to quiet the crowd, a shift of his weight forward, and the lonely thump of his board contacting the ramp.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi . . .
It takes five painfully long seconds for him to hit the edge of the jump. Five seconds after that it is over. Danny Way, under ridiculously adverse conditions and with considerable aplomb, just became the first person to leap the Great Wall of China on a skateboard. He broke two world records along the way.
And if this were typical athletic fare, this is where our story would end. But the triumph of the podium is rarely what drives action-sport athletes. Way doesn’t skate to break records or win championships. He skates. Period. Plus, MegaRamps cost over half a million dollars to build — so the opportunity to play on one doesn’t come along every day. Thus, with nothing left to prove and his life on the line, Danny Way drags his sorry ass up ten stories once again, this time throwing a perfect 360 over the gap. And just to make sure that one wasn’t a fluke, he did it three more times.
“Look,” says freestyle motocross legend Travis Pastrana, “on that ramp, with totally healthy limbs, Danny’s risking his life. But he destroyed his steering foot and knee. Once he sets himself on the board, if either the ankle or the knee gives by even a fraction of an inch, he’s going to fly off the side and die. If you want to talk about pushing limits, most people can’t even stand on a broken ankle. Danny not only stood, he withstood four Gs of pressure going into that quarterpipe — five times in a row.”
One G is the force of Earth’s gravity — the force that determines how much we weigh. Formula One drivers, when cornering, pull two. Astronauts, on takeoff, suffer three. Most people black out at five. The four Gs that Way experienced equate to more than 800 pounds of added pressure — all supported by a shattered limb.
And forget the external pressures; what about the internal ones? Way, believe it or not, is afraid of heights. “I’ve been with Danny on location scouting trips,” says Darryl Franklin, one of Way’s managers, “we’ll be up high and he’ll turn white as sheet. He’s terrified, can’t wait to get down.” But to keep that fear in abeyance while standing atop the Great Wall MegaRamp — 200 feet up and wobbly? To have the confidence to make that run, when no one has ever done anything like this before? On a broken limb? When the last guy who tried died for his effort? Again, the question at the heart of this book: How is any of this possible?
Well, to start where most start, the psychological: the undisputable fact that the ghosts that hunt for Danny Way are unremitting. They are legion. The ghosts of his injured brother, his alcoholic mother, his dead father, his dead stepfather, his first coach, the man who saved him from himself, T-boned at a stoplight and dead also, his best friend in jail for murder, his broken neck, his broken back, his umpteen surgeries, his anger, his pride — a relentless roar only truly silenced by the salvation of the edge.
The edge is the one place these ghosts can’t follow.
And, to be certain, this alone provides plenty of motivation, but it still doesn’t answer our question. The weight of Way’s past and his desire for escape merely explain part of the why — why he started skating, why he kept skating — but little of the how. Way feels the same. “You want to know how I did something like jump the Great Wall on a fractured ankle,” he says. “I can’t really answer that. All I can tell you is what I already told you: When I’m pushing the edge, skating beyond my abilities, it’s always a meditation in the zone.”
This, then, is our answer. This is our mystery: a rare and radical state of consciousness where the impossible becomes possible. This is the secret that action and adventure athletes like Way have plumbed, the real reason ultimate human performance has advanced nearly exponentially these past few decades. The zone, quite literally, is the shortest path toward superman.
And this is a book about that zone.
Albert Heim, William James, Walter Cannon, And The History Of Peak Performance
Albert Heim found the zone as well — found it when he fell off the side of a mountain. This was in the early spring of 1871. Heim, his brother, and three friends had set out to climb the Santis, the twelfth-highest peak in Switzerland. All five men had been playing in the Alps since childhood, but none were considered experienced mountaineers. That issue was historical — almost no one was considered an experienced mountaineer in 1871.
While the first recorded climb in history was Roman emperor Hadrian’s 121 CE scamper up Mount Etna (to watch the sun rise), historians date the sport to Sir Alfred Wills’s 1854 summiting of the Wetterhorn. For certain, local guides had already topped that peak, but Sir Alfred was an Englishman, and it was the English who were then keeping score. Either way, Wills’s conquest marked the birth of “systematic mountaineering” and the start of the “Golden Age of Alpinism,” a decade-long stretch wherein most of the first ascents in the Alps were completed.
Albert Heim, meanwhile, arrived a few years too late for the Golden Age. No peak-bagging exploits are credited to his name. In fact, he’s not remembered for his contribution to mountaineering history. Rather, he’s remembered as the point when that history took a turn for the weird.
The events that earned Heim this distinction took place just above treeline, at the point where the Santis’ verdant lower flanks give way to an enormous blade of rock. By the time his party had reached the bottom edge of this massif, sunny skies had turned to heavy snow. Whiteout conditions trapped them in the middle of a rocky ledge. The way forward was down a dicey slope, steep and narrow, with cliffs on all sides. An argument broke out about what to do next, but they were underdressed and overexposed, and Heim decided to push on. Just as he lifted his leg to take a step, a gust of wind snatched his hat from his head. And Heim, without thinking about it, tried to snatch it back.
The sudden motion unbalanced him and the angle of the perch did the rest. Heim fell sideways, flipped upside down, and spun around backward. Before anyone could react, he was rocketing toward the lip of a massive cliff, no way to slow down. His ice axe was out of reach. He tried driving his head and hands into the ground, but his skull slammed into rocks, his fingers ground to pulps. Even before that pain could register, he was airborne.
Heim’s actual flight covered sixty-six feet and lasted no more than a few seconds, but that wasn’t his experience. The first thing Heim noticed was that he’d dropped into another dimension. His senses were exquisitely heightened, his vision panoramic. Time had slowed to a crawl. He could see his brother and his friends and the horrified look on their faces, but — as he explained later — felt “no anxiety, no trace of despair or pain . . . rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance and a dominant mental quickness.”
With his life unfolding in slow motion, Heim had time to survey the territory and begin making rescue plans. He imagined scenarios for slight injuries, others for serious injuries: where would he land, how would he bounce, and how his companions would make it down to his body. Then he realized he was never going to survive this fall and thus would be dead and unable to deliver the lecture he was supposed to give in five days. At Oxford University, no less, his first major Oxford lecture. He’d have to find a substitute. Then again, he’d be dead, so someone else was going to have to find a substitute. Next he tried to take off his glasses — to protect his eyes, of course — but was unable to reach them. Instead, he said goodbye to his family and his friends, and was that heavenly music he heard? But wait, if he did survive the fall, then he probably would be stunned by the impact. Since he didn’t want to go stumbling off another cliff, the first thing he needed to do was revive his senses. A few drops of vinegar on his tongue should do the trick, and on and on until, as he later recounted: “I heard a dull thud and my fall was over.”
Heim survived the impact, but the mystery never left him. Panoramic vision? Time dilation? Heavenly music? None of this made any sense. He was a scientist by training, a geologist who would go on to do fundamental work on the structure of the Alps and become a member of the Oxford Royal Society, yet his experience seemed beyond the bounds of the rational. Not knowing what else to do, Heim conducted a survey of thirty-two others who had all survived near-fatal falls. A staggering 95 percent reported similar anomalous events. What was causing them would remain a matter of long debate, but Heim’s work marks the first scientific investigation into the fact that high-risk activity can profoundly alter consciousness and significantly enhance mental abilities.
Heim wrote this all up in a long essay entitled “Remarks on Fatal Falls,” which was published in 1892. Historians consider it the first written account of a “near-death experience,” but that term is misleading. Many of Heim’s subjects reported these profoundly altered states without being in actual jeopardy — they only thought they were in lifethreatening situations. This was a key detail. These experiences seemed mystical. If they only arose solely in dire straits, then perhaps they really were communiqués from beyond the beyond. Yet if perception and psychology were the triggers, then the puzzle was more physiological than paranormal — and that opened the door to considerably more interesting possibilities.
One of the first to notice these possibilities was philosopher, physician, and psychologist William James. This was perhaps appropriate. While James taught at Harvard, he was also one of science’s wilder men, an extreme sensation seeker who often ran experiments on himself. In the early 1880s, those experiments involved psychedelics, primarily nitrous oxide, but he toyed with mescaline as well. Concurrently, James had been conducting a broad survey of the world’s spiritual literature, trying to come up with an accurate catalog of all possible types of mystical experiences and their psychological ramifications. He noticed that it didn’t seem to matter what drug he tried or spiritual tradition he studied, all of these so-called mystical experiences seemed to share deep commonalities: all variations on the same themes that Heim reported.
James also noted two more key details. The first was that these experiences were profound — people were radically different on the other side. Happier, more content, significantly more fulfilled. The results were undeniable. No matter the seemingly fantastic nature of the events, James was certain they produced changes that were undeniably psychologically real.
Secondly, high-risk adventure tended to amplify not only mental performance, but physical performance as well. This discovery made James curious about the limits of human potential and led him to his famous conclusion: “Most people live in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger.”
But, James critically realized, people were not doomed to stay that way. “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.”
What is the requisite stimulus? Psychedelic drugs certainly provoke these experiences, as do a host of spiritual practices. But if it’s truly a question of unlocking hidden abilities, James shared Heim’s opinion: high-risk activity seemed the most likely path, once writing, “Great emergencies and crisis show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed.”
The work of Heim and James laid the foundation for a deeper inquiry into human potential, but it was the discovery of one of James’s students, Walter Bradford Cannon, that truly changed the nature of the game. Cannon was interested in the strange physiological changes produced by powerful emotions. In all mammals, rage, anger, and fear produce an assortment of peculiarity: heart rates speed up, pupils dilate, nostrils flare, muscles tighten, digestion ceases, senses perk and sharpen — the list goes on. Around 1916, Cannon decided these disparate reactions were actually a global response by the nervous system to extreme stress, a response with a purpose: increase strength and stamina.
Cannon had discovered the “fight-or-flight response” and this rewrote the rule book. Until then, performance enhancement had always been divine in origin. Want to write a sonnet? Talk to the Muses. Want a better time in the 100-yard dash? Hermes can help. But the fight-or-flight response changed the equation, turning a gift from the gods into a byproduct of standard biology.
And biology was hackable.
The trail of Heim to James to Cannon went from psychology into physiology. It was a trail of mechanism: mindset impacts emotion, which alters biology, which increases performance. Thus, it seemed, by tinkering with mindset — using everything from physical to psychological to pharmacological interventions — one could significantly enhance performance.
Out of this work emerged one of history’s stranger movements: the epic quest to hack ultimate human performance — a giant, global, mostly underground, often DIY, 100-plus-year effort to decode the mysteries of the zone. Adventurers, artists, academics, bohemian outcasts, maverick scientists, credentialed scientists, the psychedelic underground, paranormal researchers, the military’s special forces, the Pentagon’s top brass, the CEOs of major Fortune 500 companies, all got involved. Yet out of this hodgepodge — for reasons that comprise the bulk of this book — action and adventure sport athletes have become the most advanced practitioners of this art, an elite cadre of zone hackers, masters of the state now known to scientists as flow.
The Way Of Way
Three weeks after returning from Asia, his ankle broken, his knee torqued, his foot still plenty sore, Danny Way has a decision to make. The fifteenth installment of the Summer X Games are being held in downtown Los Angeles, the MegaRamp the centerpiece of the skateboarding competition. Way had taken home the gold the previous year, but with the injuries sustained in China, no one expects him to defend his title. No one, that is, except Way himself.
Way won his first contest at age eleven, was twice selected as Thrasher Magazine’s Skater of the Year, five times an X Games gold medalist, six times an X Games podium finisher, and seven times a world record breaker. He remains the only skateboarder to have his name inscribed in gold in the Great Wall of China, “bomb drop” sixty-five feet off the guitar in front of Vegas’s Hard Rock Casino, or have sideline careers in professional motocross and snowboarding. But of all the things Way’s done, nothing is more impressive than his ability to triumph over injury.
“Danny Way single-handedly invented sports medicine for skateboarders,” says Jacob Rosenberg, who directed the excellent Danny Way documentary Waiting for Lightning. “When he broke his neck — that was a career-ending injury. Athletes retired for far less. But Danny wouldn’t accept that. He found his own doctors. He pioneered his own methods.”
Way’s methods are legendary. On a number of occasions, in order to gain a better understanding of his injury, he chose to have surgery without anesthetic. Big-wave rider Chris Malloy tells a story about the time he and Way had the exact same procedure on their knee. “I have a pretty high threshold for pain,” recounts Malloy, “I kind of enjoy seeing what I can endure. But when I got home from the hospital, I was semiconscious, in extreme agony, about the worst I’ve ever felt. A few days later I called up Danny and mentioned how grueling that was. He said, ‘Yeah, the drive home was gnarly.’ We had the same procedure. I was in so much pain I kept blacking out. Danny drove himself home from the hospital.”
Thus, perhaps not surprisingly, just three weeks after returning from China, Way steps onto the X Games MegaRamp launch platform and surveys the scene. His appearance sends the crowd into a tizzy; he barely notices. “I’ve gotten really good at pulling the veil down,” says Way, “at camouflaging reality, locking out my conscious mind and riding my focus into the zone.”
The same must be true for Jake Brown. Moments later, he kicks off the contest with a seventy-foot, 360 mute grab over the gap and a McTwist — an inverted backside 540 with another mute grab — out of the quarterpipe. There’s an electronic height meter positioned behind the ramp. At the apex of Brown’s McTwist, the meter blinks twentytwo feet — and that’s above a twenty-seven-foot quarterpipe. So yeah, game on.
But not quite. Bob Burnquist drops in next, comes off his board midway over the gap, and goes headfirst into the landing. Typical Burnquist. Known for extremely technical tricks in extremely dangerous situations, he survives due to catlike reflexes and seriously good karma. This time is no different. Burnquist gets his knees down at the last moment and rides the fall out on his pads.
Next up is Way. He sails cleanly over the gap, stomps the landing, and blazes into the quarterpipe. Then everything goes sideways. He soars twenty-two feet into the air, but drops down at a bad angle and smashes his foot on the edge of the pipe — the same foot he mangled in China. The impact rebreaks the ankle, then flips Way upside down. He flies another ten feet, slams hard, bounces twice, and doesn’t move. The medical staff rushes over, the air sucks out of the stadium. Atop the ramp, Burnquist buries his head in his hands.
Eventually, three people help Way to his feet, but he shakes off the assistance, nearly stumbles, then drags himself to the side of the ramp. It’s a brave performance, yet the announcer says what everyone is thinking: “I don’t know how in the universe Danny could come back from that.”
A good question.
In 1907, William James challenged psychologists to explain why certain people can draw on deep reservoirs to accomplish significantly more than others. As an example, he reflected on the idea of the “second wind.”
[F]atigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth “wind” may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.
Danny Way has spent his life pushing past obstruction. Skating gave him a family and a sense of belonging, and he feels strongly that the only way to honor that debt is to continue progressing his sport. To that point, the medical staff checks out his ankle. It’s clearly destroyed. They tell him he needs to go to the hospital, that he should seriously consider calling it a day. Way shakes his head against the idea.
“That’s not my style,” he says.
Thus, not much more than ten minutes later, Way returns to the top of the MegaRamp, shakes off the pain, and throws a rocket air backflip over the gap. On its own, in his condition, just a rocket air would have been a victory. Invented by Christian Hosoi in 1986, the trick requires a skater to stand with both feet on the tail of the board, while both hands grip the nose, and then, by shoving the board forward, the skater and his board form the rough outline of a rocket. But adding a broken ankle and a backflip to this mix? It’s the rough equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa with a steak knife shoved into his eye.
“That’s part of the problem with trying to discuss the level of performance in action sports today,” says Travis Pastrana. “Danny Way did a seventy-foot backflip on a broken ankle. But how many people in the world can even throw a backflip? On flat ground? Over a seventy-foot gap? How about a rocket air? None of these are everyday skills. To put them together in front of a live audience, in gold medal competition? Most people would say that’s a home run to win the World Series, but Danny wasn’t even done; he still had the quarterpipe ahead of him.”
The quarterpipe throws Way about twenty feet into the air, and Way throws a varial 540 — meaning, at the same time that he’s doing one and a half spins, he’s also reaching down between his legs and spinning his board 180 degrees — then laces (comes in smooth) the landing. Pandemonium erupts. “If ever you say you can’t do something,” shouts the announcer, “remember Danny Way.”
But there’s no need to remember — because Way isn’t done. Over the next hour, he and Burnquist and Brown enter into one of the greatest duels in X Games history. In the middle of it, Way takes another fall, stunningly hard, but comes back a second time. He has one run left. To pull back into first place he needs to pull off something spectacular. He does not disappoint.
Way backflips over the gap and soars out of the quarterpipe and throws . . . well, no one is still sure. He spins around twice and sails too far from the vert wall, then tries to alter his flight path by torquing sideways. This added momentum over-rotates his torso, his feet sail up toward his head, his body spins nearly upside down. He’s fifty feet above the deck and falling fast. The announcer says, “Oh no.” The entire stadium braces for impact. Then Way — as calmly as a geisha pouring tea — sets his feet back on the board and stomps the landing. “I’ve been shooting action sports for twenty years,” says photographer Mike Blabac, “I’ve never seen anyone do something like it.” Not many have. It’s been said that the four-week stretch from Way’s first attempt at the Great Wall to the X Games landing of his 540 miracle is one of the most astounding examples of athletic performance in action sport history. Maybe, some say, the most astounding. Ultimately, it’s probably too difficult to make such comparisons, but, if nothing else, Way’s performance demonstrates the depth of our ignorance. We really have no idea how deep our reservoir runs, no clear estimate of where our limits lie. You want more proof? In the Big Air competition, Danny Way placed second.
Bob Burnquist, on the last run of the contest, busts out a move he has yet to attempt, either in warm-ups or at any point during the contest. He goes switch over the gap and switch into the quarterpipe, then tosses an indie backside 360 off the vert wall — one of the harder tricks in skateboarding (ironically, it’s a trick invented by Way in the early 1990s). Landing one requires coming in backward and blind. Burnquist threw the biggest indie backside 360 ever, falling more than twenty feet before the ramp snapped into view. Watching from the side, Way just shakes his head and starts clapping.
“Every good athlete can find the flow,” continues Pastrana, “but it’s what you do with it that makes you great. If you consistently use that state to do the impossible, you get confident in your ability to do the impossible. You begin to expect it. That’s why we’re seeing so much progression in action sports today. It’s the natural result of a whole lot of people starting to expect the impossible.”
The Godfather Of Flow
It was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high, Chick-sent-mehigh), the former chairman of the University of Chicago Department of Psychology and now at Claremont Graduate University, who first coined the term flow. This was in the late 1960s. Csikszentmihalyi was in the midst of what would soon become the largest global happiness study ever conducted, though this was a somewhat accidental outcome. To borrow Daniel Gilbert’s phrase, Csikszentmihalyi had merely stumbled upon happiness. What he’d really been searching for was the meaning of life.
It had been quite a search.
Csikszentmihalyi was born in Flume, Italy, which is now Rijeka, Croatia, on September 29, 1934. The son of a Hungarian diplomat, his childhood was war-torn, spent in flight from both the Nazis and the Russians. One of his brothers was killed, another exiled to Siberia. When he was seven years old, Csikszentmihalyi was sent to an Italian prison camp.
In the camp, Csikszentmihalyi learned to play chess. He became obsessed with the game. When at the board, nothing else seemed to penetrate his consciousness: no missing siblings, no armed guards, no prison he couldn’t leave. Chess allowed him forget the tumult, to make the best of a bad situation. This, he noticed, was something of a rare talent.
“In prison,” Csikszentmihalyi told audiences at TED, “I realized how few of the grown-ups around me were able to withstand the tragedies the war visited upon them, how few of them had anything resembling a normal, contented, satisfied life once their job, their home, and their security was destroyed. So I became interested in understanding what contributed to a life worth living.”
After the war, Csikszentmihalyi read philosophy, studied religion, got involved in the arts — all the things that supposedly gave life meaning. Nothing quite satisfied. Then, one Sunday afternoon in Zurich, he attended a free lecture by Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. Csikszentmihalyi enjoyed the talk, started reading Jung’s books, and pretty soon decided psychology was the best way to answer his question.
In the coming years, his studies took him to the University of Chicago, where Csikszentmihalyi zeroed in on one of the hot topics of the time: motivation. After Freud’s unconscious had been dethroned by Skinner’s behaviorism, psychologists began having a hard time explaining why people did the things they did. The behaviorists said it all came down to need and reward. We do X to get Y. This is known as “extrinsic motivation,” but the conclusion never sat right with Abraham Maslow.
One of the greatest psychological thinkers of the past century, Maslow began his career in the 1940s on staff at Brooklyn College, where he was mentored by anthropologist Ruth Benedict and Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer. Back then, most of psychology was focused on fixing pathological problems rather than celebrating psychological possibilities, but Maslow thought Benedict and Wertheimer such “wonderful human beings” that he began studying their behavior, trying to figure out what it was they were doing right.
Over time, he began studying the behavior of other exemplars of outstanding human performance. Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass each came under his scrutiny. Maslow was looking for common traits and common circumstances, wanting to explain why these folks could attain such unbelievable heights, while so many others continued to flounder.
High achievers, he came to see, were intrinsically motivated. They were deeply committed to testing limits and stretching potential, frequently using intensely focused activity for exactly this purpose. But this focused activity, Maslow also noticed, produced a significant reward of its own: altering consciousness, creating experiences very similar to those James had dubbed “mystical.” Except, the key difference: few of Maslow’s subjects were even religious.
So Maslow secularized James’s terminology. “Mystical experiences” were out; “peak experiences” were in — the sensation, though, was the same. “During a peak experience,” Maslow explained, “the individual experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity, and meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers in one’s consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self-determination and empathy.” These states, he concluded, were the hidden commonality among all high achievers, the source code of intrinsic motivation:
The peak experience is felt as a self-validating, self-justifying moment. . . . It is felt to be a highly valuable —even uniquely valuable— experience, so great an experience sometimes that even to attempt to justify it takes away from its dignity and worth. As a matter of fact, so many people find this so great and high an experience that it justifies not only itself, but even living itself. Peak experiences can make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence. They give meaning to life itself. They prove it to be worthwhile. To say this in a negative way, I would guess that peak experiences help to prevent suicide.
Csikszentmihalyi arrived on the scene a few years later. The birth of his happiness study was a more pedestrian version of Maslow’s inquiry. Csikszentmihalyi wasn’t just interested in high achievers, he was curious about what motivated the average citizen: What activities produced their deepest enjoyment and greatest satisfaction? This was the birth of his happiness study — the desire to ask people about the times in their lives when they felt their best and performed at their best.
He started out interviewing experts: rock climbers, dancers, artists, surgeons, chess players, and the like. Next, he expanded his search to include Italian farmers, Navajo sheepherders, Chicago assembly-line workers, rebellious Japanese teenagers, elderly Korean women — a gargantuan assortment in total. Surprisingly, and regardless of culture, level of modernization, age, social class, or gender, all of these people told him the same thing: when they were at their best and felt their best was when they were experiencing sensations very similar to Maslow’s peak experiences.
This was a fairly startling finding. It meant that while the things people found enjoyable varied completely — the Japanese teenagers liked to swarm around on motorcycles and the elderly Korean women preferred meditation — the feeling the activity produced, the why behind the enjoyment, was globally ubiquitous. In fact, when Csikszentmihalyi dove deeper into the data, he discovered that the happiest people on earth, the ones who felt their lives had the most meaning, were those who had the most peak experiences.
Moreover, this did not come down to chance or luck. The happiest people on earth worked hard for their fulfillment. They didn’t just have the most peak experiences, they had devoted their lives to having these experiences, often, as Csikszentmihalyi explained in his 1996 book Creativity, going to extreme lengths to seek them out:
It was clear from talking to them, that what kept them motivated was the quality of the experience they felt when they were involved with the activity. The feeling didn’t come when they were relaxing, when they were taking drugs or alcohol, or when they were consuming the expensive privileges of wealth. Rather, it often involved painful, risky, difficult activities that stretched the person’s capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery.
In his interviews, to describe these optimal states of performance, flow was a term his subjects kept using. When everything was going right, the work was effortless, fluid, and automatic — flowy. So Csikszentmihalyi, in keeping with tradition, renamed “peak experiences,” instead calling them “flow states.” He defined the state as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
And those skills are significantly magnified. Physical skills, mental skills, psychological skills, social skills, creative skills, decision-making skills — the list goes on. A ten-year study done by McKinsey found top executives reported being up to five times more productive when in flow. Creativity and cooperation are so amplified that Greylock partner venture capitalist James Slavet, in a recent article for Forbes.com, called “flow state percentage” — defined as the amount of time employees spend in flow — the “most important management metric for building great innovation teams.”
Flow also has an incredible yet unsung impact on our economy. “When we watch a live concert or a traditional sports event,” says former head of innovation at Yahoo and Singularity University global ambassador Salim Ismail, “we’re essentially paying to watch people in a flow state. Whether it’s Kobe Bryant, Roger Federer, Jay-Z, or a jazz crooner, they’ve all put in endless hours of work so that when performance time comes, they are fully present and in flow. An actor with screen presence is there, too. A great poet can deliver flow to the reader just through the power of words. We pay to watch, read, or be in the presence of a flow experience. If quantified, you’d find it’s a major chunk of the GDP.”
Of course, flow’s effects extend beyond profits turned and abilities enhanced. The data Csikszentmihalyi collected was clear. Flow is more than an optimal state of consciousness — one where we feel our best and perform our best — it also appears to be the only practical answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? Flow is what makes life worth living. “There are moments that stand out from the chaos of the everyday as shining beacons,” wrote Csikszentmihalyi, alongside psychologist Susan Jackson, in Flow in Sports. “In many ways, one might say that the whole effort of humankind through millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them part of everyday existence.”
Flow was a groundbreaking discovery, and one with considerable impact. In the coming years, it would quietly reshape our world, radically altering our thinking about everything from the limits of human performance to the neurobiology of religious experience. It would launch outstanding scientific debate and either wholly create or significantly impact a half-dozen fields of academic research. Corporations like Patagonia, Toyota, Ericsson, and Microsoft would make flow a critical piece of their strategy and culture. Entire industries would benefit: coders in flow built the Internet, gamers in flow built the video game industry, and, of course, the sports world has never been the same.
For athletes hunting the zone, books and training programs appeared by the score. Flow in golf. Flow in tennis. Flow in archery. In 1993, coach Jimmy Johnson credited Csikszentmihalyi with helping the Dallas Cowboys win the Super Bowl, and suddenly, flow in football. Temple University sports psychologist Michael Sachs, who made an extensive study of these states, summed this up nicely: “Every gold medal or world championship that’s ever been won, most likely, we now know, there’s a flow state behind the victory.”
Yet, out of all of these groups, it’s action and adventure sport athletes who have taken things the farthest. Some of this was accidental, some intentional, but if you’re looking for one reason why there has been near-exponential growth in ultimate human performance over this past generation, the first thing to know is the most straightforward: while finding flow may be the goal of every athlete on the planet, for action and adventure sports athletes it’s a necessity.
In all other activities, flow is the hallmark of high performance, but in situations where the slightest error could be fatal, then perfection is the only choice — and flow is the only guarantee of perfection. Thus, flow is the only way to survive in the fluid, life-threatening conditions of big waves, big rivers, and big-mountains. Without it, equipment like the MegaRamp remain a pipe dream or a death sentence. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.
Or, as Danny Way explains: “It’s either find the zone or suffer the consequences — there’s no other choice available.”
Excerpted from The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler. Copyright © 2014 by Steven Kotler.
Published in the United States by Amazon Publishing, 2014. This edition made possible under a licensing arrangement originating with Amazon Publishing, http://www.apub.com. First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.