The Art of Impossible
The Art of Impossible

The Art of Impossible

This is a book about what it takes to do the impossible. In a very real sense, it’s a practical playbook for impractical people. (Location 49)

Paradigm-shifting breakthroughs. Four-minute miles. Moonshots. Call this category capital I Impossible. (Location 54)

Lowercase i impossibles are those things that we believe are impossible for us. (Location 57)

if you devote your life to accomplishing lowercase i impossibles, you can sometimes end up accomplishing a capital I impossible along the way. (Location 65)

That said, lowercase i impossible is probably not for everyone. (Location 68)

The latter can be significantly more dangerous and a lot less fun. As far as I can tell, the only thing more difficult than the emotional toil of pursuing true excellence is the emotional toil of not pursuing true excellence. (Location 69)

More meaningful does not typically mean more pleasant. (Location 73)

As it happens, if you’re not a professional athlete, and you spend all your time chasing professional athletes around mountains and across oceans, you’re going to break things. (Location 81)

Feats that were, three months earlier, considered absolutely impossible—never been done, never gonna be done—were not just being done, they were being iterated upon. “It was brain-scrambling,” explains snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones. (Location 87)

At the start of this book, when I described the impossible as a form of extreme innovation, this is exactly what I meant. (Location 96)

Almost all of the people I knew came from extremely difficult backgrounds. A great many came from broken homes. They had rough childhoods. They had very little education. (Location 101)

The major lesson of those years was that, no matter how mind-bendingly improbable a trick looked on the front end, there was always an understandable logic on the back end. (Location 137)

The answers I’ve uncovered have been the fodder for most of my books. Tomorrowland was the result of a two-decade investigation into those maverick innovators who turned science fiction ideas into science fact technology, (Location 152)

In Bold, I examined upstart entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, people who created impossible business empires in nearly record times, and often in domains where no one believed you could even start a business. (Location 155)

Neurobiology is the structure and function of the nervous system—meaning the parts of the nervous system, including the brain, how those parts work, and how they work together. (Location 167)

Put differently, at the Collective, we have a saying: “Personality doesn’t scale. Biology scales.” What we mean is, in the field of peak performance, too often, someone figures out what works for them and then assumes it will work for others. It rarely does. (Location 171)

Biology, on the other hand, scales. It is the very thing designed by evolution to work for everyone. And this tells us something important about decoding the impossible: (Location 178)

Flow is defined as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” (Location 182)

More specifically, the term refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption when you get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears. (Location 186)

Evolution shaped the brain to enable survival. But evolution itself is driven forward by the availability of resources. Scarcity of resources is always the largest threat to our survival, making it the largest driver of evolution. (Location 194)

Flow is to extreme innovation what oxygen is to breathing—simply the biology of how it gets done. (Location 199)

Pulling off the impossible—or, for that matter, significantly leveling up your own game—absolutely requires flow, but it also requires training up many of the same skills that flow amplifies: motivation, learning, and creativity. (Location 202)

For these reasons and more, we’re going to spend the rest of this book exploring a quartet of cognitive abilities—motivation, learning, creativity, and flow. (Location 207)

The philosopher James Carse uses the terms “finite games” and “infinite games” to describe the main ways we live and play here on Earth. (Location 212)

Infinite games are the opposite. They have no clear winners or losers, no established time frame for play, and no fixed rules. (Location 215)

Peak performance isn’t something we win. There are no fixed rules, no established time frame for the contest, and the field of play is as big or as small as you choose to live your life. Instead, peak performance is an infinite game—but not quite. (Location 218)

James’s point is that the reason we’re not living up to our potential is that we’re not in the habit of living up to our potential. We’ve automatized the wrong processes. We’re playing the wrong game. And it’s bad. (Location 225)

You get one shot at this life, and you’re going to spend one-third of it asleep. So what do you choose to do with the remaining two-thirds? That is the only question that matters. (Location 232)

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. That, my friends, is the real art of impossible. (Location 241)

motivation, as psychologists use the term, is actually a catch-all for three subsets of skills: drive, grit, and goals. Drive, the subject of the next two chapters, refers to powerful emotional motivators such as curiosity, passion, and purpose. (Location 260)

Consider the simplest drive: curiosity. When we’re curious about a subject, doing the hard work to learn more about that subject doesn’t feel like hard work. It requires effort, for certain, but it feels like play. And when work becomes play, that’s one way to know for sure: Now, you’re playing the infinite game. (Location 264)

Goals, the topic of chapter 4, are about figuring out exactly where we’re actually trying to go. For a host of neurobiological reasons that will be explored later, when we know where we’re trying to go, we get there much more quickly. (Location 266)

Grit, the subject of chapter 5, is what most people think of when they think of motivation. (Location 269)

They “stack”—that is, cultivate, amplify, and align—the foundational requirements for producing physical energy. (Location 278)

We know that scarcity drives evolution. Any problem regularly encountered on a quest to gather resources is a problem that evolution already spent millions of years driving us to solve. (Location 282)

On level two, the player must turn those resources into children and help those children survive, either by having so many that there’s no way predators can eat them all (which is what fish do), or by keeping those children safe and teaching them how to obtain resources for themselves (which is the human method). (Location 285)

Either you fight over dwindling resources, or you get creative and make more resources. Thus, when we talk about drive from an evolutionary perspective, what we’re really talking about are the psychological fuels that energize behaviors that best solve resource scarcity: fight/flee and explore/innovate. (Location 288)

Curiosity is another driver because it makes us wonder if there might be more resources across that ocean. (Location 292)

Intrinsic drivers are the opposite. These are psychological and emotional forces such as curiosity, passion, meaning, and purpose. The pleasure of mastery, which we feel as the sensation of a job well done, is another potent example. Autonomy, the desire to be in charge of one’s own life, is yet another. (Location 300)

External drivers are fantastic, but only until we feel safe and secure—meaning that we have enough money to pay for food, clothing, and shelter and have a little left over for fun. (Location 305)

Happiness becomes untethered to income because, once we can meet our basic needs, the lure of all the stuff it took to meet them begins to lose its luster. (Location 309)

After that basic-needs line is crossed, employees want intrinsic rewards. They want to be in control of their own time (autonomy), they want to work on projects that interest them (curiosity/passion), and they want to work on projects that matter (meaning and purpose). (Location 313)

Once baseline needs are met, you can devote yourself to ways to get, well, you guessed it, seriously more resources—for yourself, for your family, for your tribe, for your species. (Location 316)

saying: Okay, you’ve got enough resources for yourself and your family. Now it’s time to help your tribe or your species get more. (Location 318)

Motivation is message. It’s the brain saying: Hey, get off the couch, do this thing, it’s super important to your survival. In order to send this message, the brain relies on four basic components: neurochemistry and neuroelectricity, which are the messages themselves, and neuroanatomy and networks, which are the places those messages are sent from and received. (Location 322)

Yet, neurochemicals aren’t intelligent. When we say neurochemicals carry messages—do more of this or do less of that—they themselves are the messages. On the inside of synapses, which is the little gap between neurons where neurochemicals do their jobs, there are receptors. (Location 330)

When the brain wants to motivate us, it sends out a neurochemical message via one of seven specific networks. (Location 343)

There is a system for fear, another for anger/rage, and a third for grief or what’s technically known as “separation distress.” The lust system drives us to procreate; the care/nurture system urges us to protect and educate our young. (Location 344)

Yet, when we talk about drive—the psychological energy that pushes us forward—we’re really talking about the (Location 346)

two final systems: play/social engagement and seeking/desire. (Location 347)

The play/social engagement system is about all the fun stuff we used to do as kids: running, jumping, chasing, wrestling, and, of course, socializing. Scientists once assumed the point of play was practice. (Location 348)

Flow may be the biggest neurochemical cocktail of all. The state appears to blend all six of the brain’s major pleasure chemicals and may be one of the few times you get all six at once. This potent mix explains why people describe flow as their “favorite experience,” while psychologists refer to it as “the source code of intrinsic motivation.” (Location 376)

Every day, I wake up at 4:00 A.M. and start writing. Does this demand grit? Occasionally. But mostly, grit takes care of itself because I have curiosity, passion, and purpose. When I wake up, I’m excited to see where the words will take me. (Location 386)

And if you asked McConkey how he pulled this off, his answer frequently stressed the importance of intrinsic drive: “I’m doing what I love. If you’re doing what you want to do all the time then you’re happy. You’re not going to work every day wishing you were doing something else. I get up and I go to work every day and I’m stoked. That does not suck.” (Location 392)

Over the next two chapters, we’re going to learn to stack—that is, cultivate, align, amplify, and deploy—our five most potent intrinsic drivers: curiosity, passion, purpose (chapter 2), autonomy, and mastery (chapter 3). We’re focusing on this stack of five both because they’re our most powerful drivers and because they’re neurobiologically designed to work together. (Location 397)

Thus, we’ll next learn to turn that flicker of curiosity (Location 403)

into the flame of passion by adding a lot more neurochemical fuel—norepinephrine and dopamine—to our intrinsic fire. (Location 403)

Finally, once you have a purpose, you need to layer on the two remaining intrinsic drivers: autonomy and mastery. More specifically, once you have a purpose, the system demands autonomy, which is the freedom to pursue that purpose. (Location 407)

But built correctly, life will feel exciting, interesting, full of possibility, and thick with meaning. This uptick in energy is one of the reasons why stalking the impossible might be easier than you originally suspected: With intrinsic drivers properly stacked, our biology is working for us rather than against us. (Location 410)

Start by writing down twenty-five things you’re curious about. And by curious, all I mean is that if you had a spare weekend, you’d be interested in reading a couple of books on the topic, attending a few lectures, and maybe (Location 424)

having a conversation or two with an expert. (Location 426)

The specificity gives your brain’s pattern recognition system the raw materials it needs to make connections between ideas. The more detailed the information, the better. (Location 429)

The point is that curiosity, by itself, is not enough to create true passion. There’s just not enough neurochemistry being produced for the motivation you require. Instead, you want to look for places where three or four items on your curiosity list intersect. If you can spot the overlap between multiple items, well, now you’re cooking. There’s real energy there. (Location 434)

First, dopamine is a powerful focusing drug. When it’s in our system, attention is laser-targeted on the task at hand. We’re excited, engaged, and more likely to drop into flow. (Location 442)

The reason we tend to fill in multiple answers in a row? That’s dopamine tweaking the signal-to-noise ratio and helping us detect even more patterns. (Location 447)

By stacking motivations, that is, layering curiosity atop curiosity atop curiosity, we’re increasing drive but not effort. (Location 458)

Devote twenty to thirty minutes a day to listening to podcasts, watching videos, reading (Location 463)

articles, books, whatever, on any aspect of that overlap. If you’re interested in supply-chain management in the health care industry and you’re also curious about artificial intelligence, then it’s time to explore the advantages and disadvantages that artificial intelligence brings to supply-chain management in the health care industry. (Location 463)

The goal is to feed those curiosities a little bit at a time, and feed them on a daily basis. This slow-growth strategy takes advantage of the brain’s inherent learning software. (Location 469)

Yet to increase your chances of making those connections, pay attention to two sets of details: both the history of the subject and the technical language used to describe that subject. (Location 479)

both the history of the subject and the technical language used to describe that subject. (Location 480)

If you pay attention to historical details as you play around in a new subject, your brain will naturally stitch these details together into a coherent story via our biological need to link cause with effect.11 It’s automatic. (Location 483)

Once the brain constructs that narrative, it functions like a giant Christmas tree. All the little details you learn along the way are the ornaments. (Location 487)

The technical language that surrounds a subject is the second place to put your attention. Why? Jargon, while annoying, is annoyingly precise. Often, large chunks of the explanation of a subject are contained within the technical language that surrounds that subject. (Location 491)

Most important to our quest is where this process leads. Knowing the history of a subject and the technical language that surrounds that subject helps you converse with others about these ideas. Those conversations are critical for the next step. (Location 497)

A public success is nothing more than positive feedback from others. Any kind of social reinforcement increases feel-good neurochemistry, which increases motivation. (Location 503)

You want to spend a bit of time playing around at the intersections of curiosities before taking this public. There’s a lot of excitement that builds up as you start to investigate these intersections, but it’s important to keep it to yourself for a bit. You want to enter any conversation with ideas of your own and something to say. There’s nothing very fulfilling or passion-cultivating about being an absolute beginner. (Location 513)

Passion is a potent driver. Yet, for all of its upside, passion can be a fairly selfish experience. Being all consumed means you’re all consumed. There’s not much room for other people. But if you’re going to tackle the impossible, sooner or later, you’re going to need some outside assistance. (Location 518)

As social creatures, humans have an innate desire for connection and caring. We want to be connected to other people and we want to care for other people. (Location 525)

More recently, researchers have extended this notion, expanding the idea of “relatedness,” the need for caring and connection, into the concept of “purpose,” or the desire for what we do to matter to other people. Purpose takes all the motivational energy found in passion and gives it an extra kick. (Location 528)

All these changes seem to have a profound impact on our long-term health, as having a “purpose-in-life” (the technical term) has been shown to lower incidences of stroke, dementia, and cardiovascular disease.16 Additionally, from a performance standpoint, purpose boosts motivation, productivity, resilience, and focus.17 And it’s a specific type of focus. (Location 535)

Finally, there’s an even greater benefit to purpose: outside assistance. Purpose acts as a rallying cry, inspiring others and attracting them to your cause.19 This has an obvious impact on drive. Social support provides even more neurochemistry, which produces an even greater boost in intrinsic motivation. More crucially, other people provide actual help. Financial, physical, intellectual, creative, emotional—they all matter. Simply put, on the road to impossible, we’re going to need all the help we can get. (Location 544)

Now for the practical concerns: When it comes to crafting your purpose, dream big. This is going to become the overarching mission statement for your life. Your capital I: Impossible. (Location 549)

Massively means large and audacious. Transformative means able to bring significant change to an industry, community, or the planet. And purpose? A clear why behind the work being done. An MTP is exactly the kind of big dream you’re hunting. (Location 552)

Write down a list of fifteen massive problems that you would love to see solved. Stuff that keeps you up at night. Hunger, poverty, or, my personal favorite: protecting biodiversity. Again, try to be as specific as possible. Instead of just “protecting biodiversity,” take it a step further and add in the details: “Establish mega-linkages to protect biodiversity.” (Location 554)

Curiosity into passion; passion into purpose; and purpose into patient profit—that’s the safest way to play this game. (Location 566)

Curiosity, passion, and purpose are a launching pad toward the impossible. They’re the moves that get your pieces on the board, the place where this game begins. (Location 571)

Toward those ends, we’re going to take the drivers we examined in the last chapter—curiosity, passion, and purpose—and add autonomy and mastery to our stack. (Location 573)

Autonomy is the desire for the freedom required to pursue your passion and purpose. It’s the need to steer your own ship. Mastery is the next step. It drives you toward expertise; it pushes you to hone the skills you need to achieve your passion and purpose. (Location 576)

Psychologists also viewed this motivational energy as a singular characteristic. You could measure quantity of motivation—the amount of motivation a person felt—but not quality or the type of motivation a person felt. (Location 585)

But they also discovered that one of the more critical divisions was found between “controlled motivation,” a type of extrinsic motivation, and “autonomous motivation,” a form of intrinsic motivation. (Location 592)

Autonomy is always the more powerful driver. In fact, in many situations, controlled motivation doesn’t produce the desired results. (Location 596)

The energy company decided that the best way to motivate its employees was to give the best performers stock options—an example of motivation by seduction. But people quickly figured out that the best way to get those bonuses was to artificially inflate stock prices, committing corporate fraud and ultimately bankrupting the company. (Location 598)

This is also why we started our exploration of drive with curiosity, passion, and purpose. This trio establishes interest and enjoyment—via curiosity and passion—and then cements core beliefs and values via purpose. (Location 604)

Another thing Deci and Ryan discovered is that autonomy turns us into a much more effective version of ourselves. The boost in neurochemistry provided by autonomy increases our drive, of course, but it also amplifies a host of additional skills. (Location 607)

but this has since been shortened to “flow triggers,” or preconditions that lead to more flow.17 To date, researchers have identified twenty-two different flow triggers—there are probably more—yet they all share one thing in common. Flow follows focus. (Location 692)

So that’s exactly what all these triggers do: they drive attention into the now. (Location 695)

Either they push dopamine and/or norepinephrine, two of the brain’s main focusing chemicals, into our system, or they lower cognitive load, which is the psychological weight of all the stuff we’re thinking about at any one time. (Location 697)

those resources if we have a plan for chasing them (curiosity, passion, purpose), the freedom to chase them (autonomy), and the skills required for that chase (mastery). (Location 703)

As a flow trigger, mastery is referred to as the “challenge-skills balance.”20 The idea is relatively straightforward: Flow follows focus, and we pay the most attention to the task at hand, when the challenge of that task slightly exceeds our skill set. We want to stretch, but not snap. (Location 712)

Finally, all of this translates into some extremely practical advice. To really harness mastery as a motivator, take the 15 percent of your life that you’ve carved out for yourself—call it your autonomy time—and spend it pushing on that challenge-skills balance, trying to get a little better at something that’s aligned with curiosity, passion, and purpose. (Location 731)

This is not a new idea. Over two thousand years ago, the philosopher Aristotle noticed that setting goals—that is, the establishment of a desired outcome or target—was one of the primary motivators of human behavior. (Location 753)

the establishment of a goal is one of the easiest ways to increase motivation and enhance performance.2 (Location 762)

Latham and Locke came at this topic organizationally—they were interested in what companies could do to motivate employees to work harder. Prior to the 1960s, the general consensus was that happy workers were productive workers. (Location 764)

And the idea that more stress equals less work was definitely not what their data showed. (Location 767)

Yet, time and again the lumberjacks who had been given targets to aim for ended up gathering far more wood than the controls. (Location 772)

As Richard Ryan later wrote: “Human needs [such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose] provide the energy for behavior; people value goals because the goals are expected to provide satisfaction of their needs.”5 In other words, the need for autonomy is what drives people to start their own business; goals, meanwhile, are all the individual steps required to actually be in business. (Location 776)

It’s always trying to predict what is about to happen next and how much energy will be required by that situation. To make those predictions, three systems come into play: information acquisition, pattern recognition, and goal direction. (Location 781)

Every second, millions of bits of information flood into our senses. Yet the human brain can only handle about 7 bits of information at once, and the shortest time it takes to discriminate one set of bits from another is one-eighteenth of a second.7 “By using these figures,” as Csikszentmihalyi explained in Flow, “one concludes that it is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second.”8 (Location 787)

The system is constantly overloaded, so much of reality is constantly invisible. (Location 793)

Evolution shaped the brain for survival, so anything that could threaten that survival always grabs our attention. But what else is important for our survival? Our goals, and anything that can help us achieve those goals. Because the brain is a prediction engine and consciousness is a limited resource, fear and goals are the basic building blocks of our reality. (Location 795)

That’s why this book started where it did. With passion and purpose properly stacked atop autonomy and mastery, we’re now positioned to get the maximum benefit from goal setting. (Location 800)

“High, hard goals” is the technical term for Latham and Locke’s big goals. These are different from the massively transformative purposes we’ve already discussed. MTPs are along the lines of “discover sustainable ways to end world hunger,” while a high, hard goal (HHG) is a major step along that path, such as “Get a degree in nutrition” or “Create a nonprofit that uses insect-based proteins to feed the world in a more sustainable fashion.” (Location 806)

If you worked the steps of the passion recipe correctly, you most likely came out the other side of that exercise with two or three core passion/purpose combinations. This is the sketch outline for an MTP. Now all that’s required is to turn those ideas into core mission statements. (Location 810)