Hacking Abundance

Since Steven and Peter published Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think we’ve noticed that responses tend to fall into one of three main camps:
  • The Techno-Utopians who are delighted to have their faith in Progress so strongly validated.
  • The Techno-Dystopians who are suspicious of any perceived effort to sweep the excesses of the Industrial Age under rug.
  • The Compassionate Core who deeply resonate with the positive solutions described in the book, but are rightly concerned with unintended consequences, collateral damage and overreaching as we try to get there.
While we’re deeply grateful for the enthusiasm of the first camp, we know that for the book and its ideas to get real traction, we have to be able to speak directly to the concerns of the latter two camps. That got us thinking, about the last bit in particular—as we try to get there—and prompted us to take a crack at a deeper response to the foundational question of how we practically bring Abundance about.
If Abundance is the wonderful Future Possible, what are we going to need to have, be and do to get there? What follows are our initial explorations of a thesis that proposes that Abundance and Flow might just be flip sides of the same coin:
If Abundance maps the exterior domains of technology, society and invention, then Flow states provide the complementary and essential fuel for the interior domains of creativity, culture and innovation.

Said another way: Flow makes sustainable Abundance possible.

We’re going to lay out the skeleton of the argument here and look forward to feedback, pushback and commments.  Over time, we’ll flesh this out into a more mature essay; for now, we’re stoked to get the conversation going.

Big Idea:  While the Future may indeed be better than we think, it will evolve faster and less predictably than anything we’ve ever experienced.  Anyone “fighting the last war” and applying 20th century methods of predict and control management to their projects, products and organizations will be left behind. But those able to harness the fluidity and agility of the peak performance state will be poised to create and share more value than ever.
Abundance examines three emerging forces—the Technophilanthropists, DIY Innovator and the Rising Billion—that are driving us toward a better tomorrow. Here is a quick look at how Flow can impact each in turn:
Key Point 1: Technophilanthropists
Leaders will have to focus on their own vertical development as aggressively as they used to focus on their horizontal skills (conscious complexity vs. categorical competence.)  Flow States are the secret sauce to accelerating vertical development—turbo-charging practice and mastery efforts, as well as providing extended optimum experiences that, in turn, create somatic markers for future development. Leaders who can harness this accelerated learning will be poised to solve more complex problems faster, and play an outsized role in stewarding the future.
Key Point 2:  Harnessing the DIY Ethos: entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship
At the core of the DIY phenomena is an incredibly motivated workforce. What’s driving all of this productivity? In technical terms, the autotelic experience–the irresistible pursuit that has its own intrinsic reward for doing. Since tinkering is its own reward, DIY’ers never need to look for outside motivation. They innovate because they have to. This autotelic drive is something that all organizations, from single-person shops to multinational corporations, need to harness.
It’s for this reason that, in a recent Forbes piece: Five New Management Metrics You Need to Know, Greylock Partners’ venture capitalist James Slavet advocates that the amount of time your knowledge workers spend deep in Flow states is the single biggest indicator of value creation.
In light of this, managers will have to reconsider their role—from tuning cogs in machines to curating conditions for innovation. Experience designers and culture architects will rapidly outpace mechanistic managers as they attract and engage employees, freelancers, partners and customers to collaboratively generate content and design. Rather than extracting value from human resources, companies will need to leverage compounding value from human capital.
And it’s not like the current state of the art in org design is  getting us there. Open workspaces, extended team projects, doorless offices–all sound great in theory but suck in practice.  In the New York Times’ Rise of the New GroupThink , Flow founder Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that many of the well-intentioned effort of the last decade to foster workplace collaboration and teamwork have been woefully counterproductive, and companies should replace them with a combination of light socializing butressed by long stretches of uninterrupted deep work (doors closed).
Whether we’re talking about large organizations, or startup incubators, it’s clear the output of knowledge workers and innovators is non-linear and non-fungible–meaning, the best contribute outsize value, but they can only do their best when they’re at their best.  Crappy conditions will shut down innovation much faster than they would the more durable skills of computation and assembly.
Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Mark Zuckerberg argued when asked why he was willing to pay $47 million to acquire FriendFeed, a price that translated to about $4 million per employee. “They are 100 times better.” 

And while we’d all do well to hold Zuckerberg’s HR strategy loosely, he’s not the only seasoned Silicon Valley entrepreneur who thinks like thiis–Netscape and Ning founder Marc Andreesen argues “Five great programmers can completely outperform 1,000 mediocre programmers.”
So one Great can outperform many Mediocres (think massive returns on payroll).
But if the conditions aren’t right (think Death by Meeting and distraction riddled open-plan workspaces that Csikszentmihalyi details) many Greats can be reduced to just Pretty Goods–wasting whatever investment it took to land them, and missing whatever exponential value they could have created.
So creating Flow based work environs offers tremendous opportunity to unlock maximum innovation and performance from teams–keeping top performers at their peak, and bringing the rank and file well above the collective mean.

“The only sustainable competitive advantage is to create an organization that learns faster than the competition”  —Arie de Geus, former executive Royal Dutch Shell and author of The Living Company
Key Point 3: (Rising Billion–Blunting the Blow of Disruptive Innovation)
Here’s our argument for that last camp of readers of Abundance–the Compassionate Core–the ones who are willing to try on the ideas of salvation-through-Progress, but need some credible assurance that it’s a big enough tent for all.
Maslow had it wrong–the strive for transcendence doesn’t wait until all other needs are fulfilled, instead, it co-arises with the lumpy and imperfect unfolding of human experience.
Bluntly stated–
Transcendence–it’s not just for the housewives of Marin

By building on the explosion of information and communication technologies, more people, from displaced blue collar Americans, to refugees in sub-Sahran Africa (see TED talk on the boy who built windmillsMITs new online certificate programsKahn AcademyIDEOs open source innovation tool kit, etc.) have an unprecedented opportunity to cultivate Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (Dan Pink’s Big Three from Drivein service of fulfilling their more basic needs lower on Maslow’s pyramid.
That’s an incredibly powerful one-two punch–harnessing our highest need for transcendence to our most immediate needs for survival.  And those three factors that Pink describes–Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose overlap pretty neatly with the exact factors that precipitate Flow.
Sure, the Times are indeed a-changing and millions are finding themselves on the sharp end of Schumpter’screative destruction, but that doesn’t mean it’s a downhill slide into McWorld. People all over the globe have access to information and communication tools that didn’t exist even five years ago. Once trapped behind centuries-old walls of language, race, class, faith, gender and geography–world citizens can now find their tribes of choice beyond their tribes of birth.
If Pink is describing how to Drive, then Flow simply tells us how to hit the turbo button.
And this presents a tremendous opportunity for Flow to serve the accelerating collective commons. Chris Anderson’s hugely popular 2010 TED talk on how YouTube is amping up the rate of innovation maps the snowball effect that tech-enabled cross-pollination can have on otherwise disparate communities of practice.  Whether it’s skateboarders, breakdancers, or social entrepreneurs, the impact is the same.  I get better faster because I see what you’re doing sooner.  We all borrow to build better quicker.
With the dematerialization of knowledge and training (moving from within the walls of the Ivory Tower and the IP vaults of corporations, to beyond the constraints of place and time) more people have more access to what lights them up than ever before.
And when they find that essential combination of Needs and Dreams, they learn, create, share, and iterate with others just like them around the world–for pennies, not fortunes, and in days, not decades. But the value they might create–whether it’s a skylight made of an empty water bottle from the shantytowns of Brazil or an electric windmill from the African plains–can ripple back out into the very same rising tide of humanity that prompted the need in the first place.
A billion pesos here, a billion rupees there–pretty soon, you’re talking real money–and real impact.
But if the technological, demographic and geopolitical tsunami that Abundance predicts and celebrates is truly coming, we’re all going to need to learn to ride giants–fast.  That, or risk getting buried by them.
Abundance spends a fair amount of time cataloguing the impact that the radical wealth transfer to younger, more engaged winners of the information economy has had on global philanthropy (see Steven’s recent Forbes piece for a great short summary). But it doesn’t unpack why the Gates, Omidyars, and even Zuckerbergs of the world, may be choosing to spend their fortunes differently than the Robber Barrons of prior booms.
That shift hints at entrepreneurs with world views and self-senses not merely satisfied with a stable of fancy cars, or a hall full of exotic hunting mounts–of leaders who thrive in solving complex problems, within and beyond their chosen industries, and within and beyond their own immediate spheres of concern. Put simply, it seems like les enfants terrible of Silicon Valley are growing up, and just in time to make a big difference.
Many academic and popular writers are taking this developmental theme a step further, arguing that to stand any chance at all of succeeding on an increasingly chaotic global stage, leaders, and not just the Davos set, have to take on increasingly complex perspectives to keep up. Stanford’s Carol Dweck convincingly argues in Mindset that a rigid mindset creates a world of problems for rapid learning, and that an open, growth-oriented attitude is essential to keep pace.
In Five Minds for the Future Harvard’s Howard Gardner proposes that leaders can’t just improve their current mind, they’ve got to develop five coordinated perspectives–the Disciplinary, Synthesizing, Creating, Respectful and Ethical minds. Popularizer Dan Pink shrewdly boils down his recommmendations in A Whole New Mind to a more user friendly marriage of Left Brain/Right Brain and proposes that all of those artsy fartsy qualities overlooked in engineering and business school are now the new currency (take that Poli-Sci/Econ majors!).
Rotman Business School’s Roger Martin echoes the theme in his Opposable Mind making his case for the integrative thinkers behind Proctor and Gamble, eBay and the Four Seasons who could “hold two opposing ideas in their minds at once, and then reach a synthesis that contains elements of both but improves on each.” And just so this doesn’t come across as the latest wave of pop-psych self-improvement-in-a-business-suit, Bill Torbert (Yale by way of Boston College) describes an exhaustive study in his Harvard Business Review article that demonstrated that more developed leaders “succeeded in generating one or more complex change initiatives over a four year period, improving their company’s market share, profitability and reputation.  By contrast, only 40% of the other CEOs (all scoring lower on tests of complexity) succeeded in transforming their organizations.”
Any way you cut it, to be a successful leader today means juggling a lot more open windows on your browser, and upgrading your OS so you don’t crash and lose everything right when it matters most. It’s no longer adequate to be a code wizard, spreadsheet jockey, or smooth pitchman.  Leaders will have to focus on their own vertical development as aggressively as they used to focus on their horizontal skills.
Conscious Complexity trumps Categorical Competency.
Flow States are the secret sauce to accelerate this vertical development–turbo charging deliberate practice/mastery as well as providing glimpses of future abilities that create essential reference points for further development.
The problem is, with the ever increasing rate of change, and the general overwhelm that most of us feel just keeping up with the mundane–who’s got time to train like Superman?  Who can even imagine what it takes to stare one of those watery beasts in the maw and not flinch? We feel more like the hapless surfer ambushed by an unusually large swell breaking much further out to sea than the ones he’s been trying to catch.  The Cat Bird seat quickly devolves into the Impact Zone, and his efforts either to escape out the back or drop into the face both come to nothing.

That’s always been one of the biggest problems in keeping up with radical change of any stripe–it moves too fast, and breaks too unpredictably for all but the best-positioned, superhuman, or just plain lucky to catch. And here’s where we’d do well to explore the analogue a little more thoroughly, as what’s happened in the real sport of surfing in the last few decades might offer us a few insights into the next few decades of what’s coming.

Since the early days of surfing’s modern incarnation, at the beginning of the last century, wave faces in excess of 40 feet had been the outer limits of possible. As author Susan Casey explains in The Wave, “Anything bigger is simply moving too fast; trying to catch a 60-foot wave by windmilling away on your stomach is like trying to catch the subway by crawling.”

To get around this problem, in the early 1990s Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, Dave Kalama and a handful of other mavericks invented the sport of tow-in surfing. Instead of paddling into monster waves, these surfers, using boards with straps on them, would hitch a ride on a towline hung behind a Jet Ski. The vehicle could then whip the surfer into the wave with exacting precision and more than enough speed to keep him moving.  Once off-limits waves were suddenly open for business.

(last two paragraphs excerpted from Steven Kotler’s new article Superhuman)

That’s what we’re trying to figure out right now–how do we keep up with the bigger, faster, altogether more powerful and scary waves of change we collectively face?

(and where’s our Jet-Ski ?)

Fortunately, the possibilities described in Abundance raise the bar with one hand, and offer us a lift with the other.  At the same time that the pace and scope of novelty are blowing off the charts, our insights and access to the accelerants we need to help us keep pace are too. Once we accept that our old methods of self-propulsion–specifically how we’ve learned and developed as leaders and people–don’t move us fast enough, we can start tinkering with better options, just like Hamilton and the Strapped  crew did in their Maui garage.

One of the more promising hacks lies in accelerating our learning curve–if we can figure more stuff out faster, we at least stand a chance at staying on our feet. And what’s one of the best ways to learn faster?

Flow more.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago researcher and father of Flow studies, realized that when learners drop into Flow states, they concentrate more deeply, pick up information more quickly, and progress towards Mastery sooner.

Like Laird Hamilton getting towed in to waves far too big to paddle into, we can use Flow to keep ahead of the curve of change–learning fast enough not to get pounded.

So what’s the secret–how does Flow help us get better sooner?

To understand that, we need to define a few terms:

First off, in terms of human development, we need to think very specifically about two different categories of experience–States and Stages.  Flow, by its very definition, is a state.  That means it has a beginning and an end.  It is an experience, often fleeting, that picks us up for a moment, then sets us back down, more or less where we left off.

Being awake is a state.  So is going to sleep or dreaming.

Since it doesn’t happen routinely like napping, Flow is considered a special kind of state–a non-ordinary state of consciousness (NOSC), and even more specifically, a peak state.  That means it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does–it’s a keeper, a deep fulfillment of possibilty and potential–one for the scrap books.

stage, on the other hand, is a more durable and stable experience–it’s the foundational way we make sense of the world, and we can develop over time through increasingly complex stages that reflect our growing skills and abilities. The “terrible twos” is a stage.  So is adolescence.

After puberty though, all subsequent human development is optional.

If I’m really dedicated to the pursuit of the mediocre, I can remain fixed at the stage of complexity I left college with–never reading anything thicker than a magazine, and never shifting the way I view the world from how it looked through a foggy pair of beer goggles.

But the little known reality is just because subsequent, higher stages of adult development are optional, it doesn’t mean they are imaginary.  In fact, movement from conventional ways of engaging the world to post-conventional ways is predictable, measurable and suprisingly easy to achieve--and offers massive benefits to our abilties to anticipate and respond to complex change.

That’s at the heart of why we’re suggesting that Flow states play such a central role in achieving Abunance.  We’re going to need to learn to learn faster.

To stick with our practical example, I might be an unremarkable intermediate surfer (my stage of development) who one day, in the water with my best mates, manages a rare moment of grace (a Flow-like state) where everything goes right.

I pull into a glassy barrel, the wavepeeling over my head, I zoom down the line, bursting back out into the light, carve up the face, catch air off the lip, land on my board and ride out into the whitewater, laughing and amazed.

That fleeting Flow state felt fantastic–so good in fact, that I can’t stop thinking about it–after beers that night, and replayed a thousand times on the drive back from the coast.

Drawn in by that intoxicating glimpse of my Future Possible pro-surfer self, I spend more time than ever daydreaming about surfing, watching my favorite surf movies, replaying my own hero moment again and again, and getting out for sunset paddles every night I can after work.

It takes me almost a year of this kind of incremental practice for me to even glimpse another peak experience of Flow on my board–but by the time it does, I have now trained my game–gradually raising my stage of surfing ability, to better be able to experience the Flow state when it all momentarily comes together.

This cycle repeats, and provided I stick with my incremental practice during my plateaus, I stand a decent chance of continuing to evolve–getting reeled in by my Future Possible.

As Pultizer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder writes:

A High Tower
On a Wide Plain
Climb up Just One Floor
You’ll see a Thousand Miles More

That extra elevation a peak experience affords can reward us with views we might never otherwise glimpse.  We can detect patterns, identify obstacles, and anticipate solutions that beneath the clouds, lay obscured.

The only trouble comes with the Frequency and Duration of those catalytic little Flow states.  If they happen only once in a Blue Moon, there’s a good chance I’ll lose interest over time, slack off on my deliberate practice and settle back into the comfortable rut of my current stage.

If they happen too briefly, I barely have the chance to realize what’s going on before it stops, and never figure out how to do more of it again.  It’s like bungee-jumping–exhilarating and fun, but over so fast it’s hard to learn much.

So the real key to hacking Abundance is to find ways to repeat and extend Flow state experiences, using the information (what it takes to get barreled in a wave) and inspiration (super fun–mustdo again) to fuel deliberate practice.

That’s where we create a virutous cycle between our state experiences and our stage of development. By taking the peaks of our experiences, and intentionally plowing them back into the valleys of our least developed skills, we smooth out our overall profile, and raise the foundation upon which we stand.

But, (and there’s always a “but” when discussing anything that whiffs of the ecstatic or transcendent) it’s crucial that seeking and cultivating Flow states doesn’t become a hamster wheel end-game of its own. Taken to the extreme, we seekers of Flow become Bliss Junkies–moving heaven and earth to grab one more taste of the technicolor Goods, and lying around listlessly on the monochrome days between.

After all, if it’s so clear and effortless during a Flow state and so much seems to get done so fast, why bother with the uphill struggles of the day to day?

It becomes a vicious cycle where we constantly one-up ourselves to make our peaks Bigger, Better, Longer and Stronger so that, if only for a moment (or an evening, or one infamously deranged week in the Nevada desert) we feel like Superman.

The problem is, when the firehose of inspiration is turned off and our Flow state fades away, we go from a Full Bucket to a leaky kitchen colander in moments.  By Monday morning, we’re back to our old self, and our old stage. Thestate we momentarily inhabited becomes either an object of fond nostalgia or bitter disappointment depending on how hard we land, and how optimistic we are about chances of a successful relaunch.

Instead of that well-traveled dead end (thanks Aquarians!) we can become much more deliberate about how we seek Flow states and what we do with them once we find them.  We can, in effect, go from leaky colanders, to water-tight chalices–using the Flow we do experience to patch the holes in our game, and become increasingly efficient with what’s left over.

By increasing the predictable frequency of our Flow states, we can spend less time wandering around waiting for lightning to strike, and more time bottling it.

By extending the duration of time we spend immersed in Flow, we can heed one philosopher’s admonition to not “give in to Astonishment!” and instead engage in self-aware learning while we’re there.

These longer flight times help establish what neuro-marketer Matrin Lindstrom calls “somatic triggers” where we create a lived experience of what it feels like to think, feel, move, and interrelate from a state of hyperperformance. Then, when the dust has settled and we’ve returned more or less to earth, we can rely on those somatic waypoints like training wheels for Ubermensch.

“You got to go There,” Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “to know There!”

We can leverage our altered states and turn them into altered traits.

Or as Harvard scholar Huston Smith once so perfectly put it,

“turn our passing illuminations into abiding Light.”



Flow Genome Project is a trans-disciplinary, international organization committed to mapping the genome of Flow by 2020
and open sourcing it to everyone



The Flow State: Flow states, peak experiences, in the zone, runner’s high, being unconscious—the lingo is endless. The experience though lives up to the hype. Time slows down, self vanishes, there’s a complete merger between action and awareness— it almost sounds like nonsense, but fifty years of serious research says otherwise. Flow states are now known to optimize performance, enhance creativity, drive innovation, , accelerate learning, amplify memory and underpin happiness itself.

The Problem: The people who want to study Flow states aren’t that good at having them; the people who are really good at having Flow states aren’t all that interested in studying them. As a result, researchers are balkanized, their work occasionally marginalized. There are no coordinated scientific efforts, little cross-pollination of ideas and—as a result—no real roadmap towards discovery and application.

STEVEN KOTLER: Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist. A lifelong adrenaline and adventure junkie, Steven has taken “participant observer” to new levels as one of the most trusted voices articulating the leading edge of action sports, and grounding it in the hard sciences of neuro-biology and performance psychology. His articles have appeared in over 60 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Outside, Men’s Journal, Popular Science, Discover and National Geographic. His books include the non-fiction works: Abundance (co-authored with X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis), A Small Furry Prayer, West of Jesus and the novel The Angle Quickest for Flight.  He also writes “The Playing Field,” a blog about the science of sport for PsychologyToday.com


JAMIE WHEAL: Director of Programs for the Flow Genome Project is a culture architect who lives to design and deliver dynamic learning experiences–like taking a bunch of executives ski-mountaineering to learn high risk decision making, or leading a Lord of the Flies wargame  in the Utah canyonlands to explore warrior ethics.

He has worked with Fortune 500 companies including Abbott Laboratories, Fidelity Investments and Affiliated Computer Services, and learning organizations like Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and the Acton MBA, (ranked as a Top Five business school in the country by the Princeton Review).

His love for mashing up the most challenging physical and mental programming possible draws on his work in surf rescue,  wilderness medicine, and outdoor learning theory, as well as from expeditions in the Sierras, the Rockies, and the Himalayas. He is on the faculty of the Esalen Institute where he leads annual programs on Integral Leadership and works actively within the Conscious Capitalism community as a Chief of Staff helping visionary leaders architect and operate impact organizations.

This article originally appeared as several separate posts at the Flow Genome Project blog here: http://www.flowgenomeproject.co See also http://www.flowgenomeproject.co/blog/tag/abundance

4 Responses

  1. Luke says:

    This is the longest string of neologistic b.s. I think I’ve ever stumbled upon. As an analytic philosopher, I don’t have a problem with any kind of new speak, except for when it’s used to divide people into various social groups by simply relabeling a whole bunch of older concepts which are in common knowledge, such that no one without access to education about this language (I’m thinking, in this particular instance, of the management/capitalist class) knows what’s being said anymore.

    If you want to change the world, you need to interact with it directly. This means not inventing new languages, trying to reframe the problem in words you can understand; all you’ll end up doing is losing sight of whatever you were trying to do, disenfranchising all those whom might be interested in your cause but have no idea what it is because they don’t know what you’re saying.

    And how many times in history has it been the management class, themselves, who’ve been world changers? All they do is tell you when and where to put how much of x resource. There’s no actual production involved, just the act of attempting to allocate resources as efficiently as possible to achieve whatever end-goal they develop. All of this newspeak you and your colleagues have coined is nothing more than a way of saying, “we need to allocate resources as efficiently as possible to achieve whatever end-goal we develop”.

    Why not, in order to avert the dystopia that this sort of aimless, autocratic social organizational structure that this will (hell, HAS) bring about, confer with society at large to figure out what our end-goal is, instead of presuming that we all know what our end-goal is and how we ought to work to achieve it? We do, after all, claim to believe in democracy, and as they say, “more hands makes light work”.

  2. Singularity Utopia says:

    “If Abundance is the wonderful Future Possible, what are we going to need to have, be and do to get there?”

    1. Implement #basicincome.
    2. Economic policy-makers must start to think deflation is good, thus the goal is #DeflateToZero, when deflation reaches zero price everything will be free.

    I am in the process of setting-up a blog-site to promote these ideas: Support Our Free Future, which will hopefully be finished soonish. Raising awareness is a big step forward.

  3. Eric says:

    Perhaps a Live-Work-Travel-Learn-Play (LW-T-LP) lifestyle / ecosystem could be one possible approach.

  1. May 14, 2013

    […] By Peter […]

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