Ten Failed Attempts To Write An Answer To The Question: “Who Is Steven Kotler?”
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
I have a new book coming out. I’d like to say upfront that the point of this blog is to tell you that I have a new book coming out.
Of course, the real point of this blog is to get you to click the link below so you can zip over to the pre-order page to learn about the book and the once-in-a-lifetime free stuff we’re giving away should you order the book right now.
I should also mention that some of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities involve spending time with me—which is also why a number of people thought it would be a good idea if I wrote a blog answering the question: “Who Is Steven Kotler?”
One of those requests came via text from my publicist: “We need you to answer the question: Who is Steven Kotler? No big deal. Just something about 850-words long.”
Okay, the first thing to know about me: I am a writer. Asking a writer to answer the question: “Who are you?” in 850 words is like asking a writer to dive naked into a meat grinder.
Second thing about me: I was born in Chicago and grew up in Cleveland. I have plain Midwestern values: Work hard, don’t lie.
I mention this because any 850 word answer to the question: “Who are you?” is probably—and I’m going to use a technical term here—“bullshit.” And if those words are supposed to sell something, then it’s PR-flavored bullshit and that doesn’t jibe with my core Midwestern values.
Third thing about me: I’m the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective. We’re a research and training organization. On the research side, we work with neuroscientists and psychologists at places like USC and Stanford to understand what’s going on in the brain when humans are performing at their very best. On the training side, we take what we learn from the science and use it to train everyone from CEOs of Fortune 100 companies to members of the US Special Forces to the general public.
And I tell you this stuff for an important reason. While I’m allergic to PR-flavoring, I have zero problem with the straight truth. In other words, if you pre-order a copy of my new book RIGHT NOW, those free bonus prizes will include a world-class suite of peak performance tools and trainings developed by the Flow Research Collective.
Fourth thing about me: I miss the ocean. For fifteen years, I was a surfer. Three times a week, rain or shine. I was a serious flow junky, surfing was my drug of choice and the ocean was my dealer.
For flow, for fifteen years, I braved traffic on California’s roads, pollutants in California’s waters, and tempers in California’s surf lineups. This was acceptable. But when the ocean went flat for seven months, I went off the deep end. Let’s just say, when your main high is turned off, California is a dangerous place to go looking for a substitute.
Thus I moved back to the mountains. Not that it was any saner in the mountains. The city can erase you, but it usually takes a little while. The mountains will erase you in an instant. You go out for a walk, you never come back, and no one ever knows why.
Yet, I feel safe in the mountains. I’ve spent more time in the mountains than in any other place. Moving back was like coming home. And no question about it, mountains are paradise for a flow junky. Over the past decade, since I made this move, I’ve been hiking, biking, skiing, star-gazing, animal watching, or just out with the dogs, roughly 250 days a year. But I still miss the ocean.
I miss the ocean every day. I miss surfing every day. I have dear dead friends who I loved, loved, loved. I miss them too. But not every day. Not like this. In fact, I didn’t know it was possible to miss anything as much as I miss surfing. I miss the glide. I miss the feeling of getting caught in the washing machine and beaten senseless and pretty sure I’m gonna drown and then bursting through the surface and getting another shot at this life….
Fifth thing about me: I love books. As one of my first mentors told me: “Books are where they keep the secrets.”
That’s another reason why I’m allergic to writing an 850-word blog about “who I am.” As far as I can tell, there’s very little outside of poetry that is 850 words long and worth a damn. Did I mention, books are where they keep the secrets.
Sixth thing about me: Some of my best friends are trees.
Seventh thing about me: In the years before graduate school, in the early 1990s, when all I did was work on my first novel, learn to surf and take too much acid, I lived at a place called Anti-Matter—which, truthfully, lived up to its name.
Anti-Matter was then the largest performance art gallery in the world. Truthfully, this tells you more about the size of the performance art world and less about the size of the gallery, but whatever the case, we were the dead center of a somewhat peculiar universe.
Anti-Matter was also a big, rundown warehouse in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Mission was rough-and-tumble back then, and our little corner saw the best of the worst. “Devil’s Corner” was what the cops called the corner we called home.
“We” is another loose term.
Anti-Matter was home to an international assortment of artists, writers, musicians, photographers, misfits, outlaws, and a really excellent chef. There were a dozen core tenants, another dozen sleeping on couches and floors. I think someone once lived in the bathtub; I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.
During my years at Anti-Matter, what am I sure of? I lived on a wooden platform about five feet wide and ten feet long. It was six feet off the ground and tucked between the thin aluminum siding that separated the three-story exterior of the warehouse and the three story interior of the gallery’s main room. When gunfire broke out in the street, the shots would pierce the aluminum and the moonlight would stream through the holes.
Despite the danger, Anti-Matter was always worth it. It was a mecca for the weird and the wonderful. The stories are endless.
One example: In the early 1990s, the art-house take-over of San Francisco’s drag scene was in full swing. A lot of the city’s more famous drag queens would prowl the streets at dawn because, well, meth keeps you up late, and dawn was when people dropped off clothing in front of thrift stores. The drag queens didn’t have much money, but they sure loved the new old clothes.
Sometimes, folks would come over to Anti-Matter after they finished prowling. Think 6:30 am on a Tuesday. No one ever knocked. People just walked in, made coffee and tried on their new clothes in our bathroom. I can’t tell you how many of my mornings began with an improv drag show in my kitchen.
As I said, this wasn’t anything special, it was Tuesday.
Eighth thing about me: The most dangerous words in my world are “on assignment.” This was especially true in the early days of my journalism career. Once I was “on assignment,” well, some things are easier explained by example.
Here’s one example: The Assignment: “Go To Komodo Island, Hang Out With Dragons.” Seriously, that was the full message on my answering machine.
Turns out, the only way to get to Komodo was by boat. Turns out, it was monsoon season. Turns out, the only people with boats powerful enough to sail through a monsoon to Komodo were pirates. Turns out—don’t ask—I was travelling with diamond smugglers. Turns out, the diamond smugglers knew the pirates. Turns out, they agreed to sail us to Komodo.
In my defense, I will say that I didn’t realize they were pirates until the moment we set sail. I will say, the only reason those pirates didn’t slit our throats and take the diamonds is because the monsoon was fierce and everyone had to tie themselves to the boat, survive the huge rolling seas, and bail water like their lives depended on it—because they did.
Ninth thing about me: In the weeks before the aforementioned Komodo adventure, I asked one of those diamond smugglers to teach me about his craft. He took me to a very private bank, opened a very secure vault, and removed a large velvet bag. After telling me to cup my hands together and hold them out, he dumped about a hundred diamonds into my palms.
“First lesson,” he said, “This is what a million dollars looks like.”
Tenth thing about me. I am haunted by a quote from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman: “When you’re young, your potential is infinite. You might be anything, really. You might be Einstein. You might be Di Maggio. Then you get to an age when what you might be gives way to what you have been. You weren’t Einstein. You weren’t anything. That’s a bad moment.”
I’ve tried to spend my life fighting against that “bad moment.” That’s sort of what the Flow Research Collective is all about.
Eleventh thing about me: Over the past thirty years, even when I was sailing with pirates, I was trying to answer one question: “What does it take to do the impossible?”
As a journalist, that was my beat. Those moments in time when the impossible became possible. I wrote about those moments for Wired and the New York Times magazine and about a hundred other publications. I covered these moments in science and sport, art and technology, and over and over again. The birth of big wave surfing, the birth of big mountain skiing, when athletes were extending the limits of human performance on a daily basis, those athletes were my friends. When the world’s first flying motorcycle was invented, the blueprint was unrolled in my living room. The first time an artificial vision implant allowed the blind to see, I was in that room as well. The first private space ship to leave earth—the thing that NASA and everybody else said was impossible, well, four words: Best launch party ever.
Twelfth thing about me: When all this impossible was becoming possible, when we humans were being the very best we humans could be, my mission was always to understand how the hell we did it. I tried to do this with neuroscience because it’s the basic mechanism behind human performance. If we can understand this mechanism, we can fight against that bad moment. That’s the point.
That’s also why I can’t write anything useful about myself in 850 words. As far as I can tell, the very best way to fight against that “bad moment” is to try and live a life that can’t be summarized in 850 words.
How to live that kind of life is also the topic of my new book. It’s called The Art of Impossible. It’s a practical playbook for peak performance. My publicist came up with a nifty tagline: Stop dreaming big and living small.
Also, did I mentioned, there’s major awesome free stuff if you order right now.