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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: The Rise of Superman

The Rise of Superman is ostensibly Steven Kotler's book about Flow, as experienced through extreme athletes. In reality, it seems to be Kotler's attempt to break into the corporate consultancy/sponsorship world, using pseudo-scientific words (such as his organization's name: The Flow Genome Project) to try to get corporations to buy into his brand of "mindfulness extreme" as the next big competitive advantage.

The way you can tell Kostler's a poseur is that he uses terms like "source code" inappropriately through the book, as though trying to show that he has some deep insight that he is uniquely qualified to tell. No engineer or computer scientist worth his salt would use the words "source code" the way he does, and on closer inspection, it appears that Kostler did a "search-and-replace" for "source" with "source code" throughout the text.

I'm not dismissing Flow or Mindfulness in any way. Nearly every unimpoverished human has experienced flow at one point or another in his life. I've threaded harrowing descents down Italian mountains with inches to spare between my handlebars and a pick up truck coming up on a narrow winding road, and piloted boats out of ports with sidewinds where mistakes would mean disaster, but I don't claim to have any deep insight to flow that are inaccessible to others. More prosaically, nearly every video gamer that has played a perfect level of Tetris or say, Naughty Dog's sublime Among Thieves has experienced flow, since of all the genres of media, video games are the best at eliciting and enabling flow.

Kotler, however, is after the multi-billion dollar corporate contract, so writing about how video game companies engineer flow into their games wouldn't be interesting. Instead, what he has to do is to flatter corporate head-honchos into thinking that they can be compared with such luminaries as Shane McConkey, who pioneered extreme skiing. The reality is, most corporate VPs or CEOs (Richard Branson and Gary Erikson excepted) couldn't do an independent cycle tour in the alps without a supporting entourage, let alone do any of the death defying stunts described in this book. Even the late Galen Rowell would have been happy to tell you that a National Geographic expedition is anything but flow-inducing, with 300 porters toting huge amounts of camera equipment and film.

Now the stories in this book are  interesting, and are the saving grace of the book. Since I'm not a big fan of Surfing, snow sports, or BASE jumping, this was my introduction to athletes such as Laird Hamilton, Shane McConkey or J. T. Holmes. Of course, note that McConkey died trying to do one of those death-defying stunts, as did several of the athletes described in this book. Any sane person would say, "Yeah, this shows that no amount of flow-hacking can eliminate the laws of physics and probablity", but of course, Kostler merely claims that McConkey's survival for so long doing so many insane stunts shows that Flow enables you to be a superman.

Kotler's attempts, then, to link the extreme athlete's in-the-moment flow to the businessman's startup, or investment, or management of a meeting, is laughable in the face of all this. Certainly, nobody's life is at risk when attempting a corporate takeover (though several livelihoods are, the members of the 1% who do this aren't risking anything except next year's bonus, if that), or investing in a startup, or doing the next performance review. As my college class mate Jonathan Blow said, "anyone conflating the risk of business with the actual risk a rescue worker has to take is either stupid or wants to take your money by flattering or impressing you."

All in all, the book is worth reading for the stories of the extreme athletes in it. That's the only reason to read it. All the other business mumbo jumbo needs to be ignored. And for heavens sake don't give Kotler any business if you can help it. Check the book out from the library or borrow it if you're an Amazon prime member. Do not buy!

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