Excerpted from “The Rise of Superman” by Steven J. Kotler
In 2000, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, a self-described ordinary woman born in Vancouver, Canada, was introduced to the sport of free diving. Free diving, if you’re not familiar with the sport, involves diving without an oxygen tank; the diver goes as deep as possible and resurfaces on one breath of air.
18 months after taking up free diving, Mandy-Rae performed a no limits free dive in the Cayman islands; she was towed downwards with a weighted sled and an air bag to return her to the surface. This is when she discovered she had no problem equalizing at 100 meters. Physically the only requirement in no limits diving is hanging on for a ride, but mentally, Mandy-Rae described it as playing chess against yourself; a battle of will and technique against panic and pressure. She had to force her mind to stop thinking and just be in a state of flow. If you can’t flow; melt into the water and become the water, you can’t free dive.
A self-described head case, Cruickshank’s brain is like many high achievers – always on. Her husband encouraged her to see if she could achieve something no one else in the world could do, to see what was possible, and no one else had ever done. On September 23, 2001, she set her first world record – a 136 meter no limits decent. The next year Cruickshank set her second world record for a 6:16 static apnea breath hold. The following year, another record, this one in the no fins constant ballast category. Here Cruickshank descended with weights under her own power, setting the world record at 41 meters. In total, Cruickshank set 7 world records in 7 years, including March 24, 2004 when she broke through at 78 meters for a constant ballast dive with fins, beating the previous record by 10 meters, a huge jump; one of the largest single jumps in the history of the sport.
Cruickshank, though, was quite modest. She described herself as an ordinary woman capable of extraordinary things. How did she learn she was capable of extraordinary? She didn’t learn how to do anything. She learned when she was capable of extraordinary.
She took up an activity that demanded she be in the now. 300 feet under water, there’s no WAY to be elsewhere. When she was diving, Cruickshank couldn’t think about the future – running out of air; or the past – a poor decision that may have caused her to use too much of her remaining air. In order to survive, she trained herself to stay fully present, right here, right now. In short, the only time she was capable of extraordinary was in the moment.
But you live in the modern, hyper-connected world of getting things done. You don’t live in the Cayman Islands, where your life is on the line when you enter ‘the office.’ You live in a world where distractions are like sand flies or mosquitoes on the beach – not life threatening, just constant and constantly annoying. Distractions like email, texts, IMs, and so on are ubiquitous. With these distractions, you don’t see the here and now much these days; you have too many reasons to be elsewhere.
Every time you give a distraction your attention, you are there, and not here. That means you are also ‘then’ and not ‘now.’ With the endless to do list, coupled with the incessant distractions and demands for your attention, no wonder you can’t live in the moment.
Instead, you exist in a distracted present, where forces on the fringe are amplified and those right in front of you are ignored. Your ability to plan and follow thru is undermined by your impulse to improvise your way through a myriad of external impacts that can derail you at any moment. Instead of finding solid ground in the here and now, you end up reacting to an omnipresent invasion of desires and demands. The distracted present makes you miserable and is the worst kind of self-sabotage. Your struggle to be everywhere and every-when by multi-tasking results in you being nowhere and never.
The distracted present makes you miserable and is the worst kind of self-sabotage. Your struggle to be everywhere and every-when by multi-tasking results in you being nowhere and never.
Using the mind to silence the mind, aka meditation, is a long endeavor. Tibetan monks can take up to 2 decades to wield this skill reliably. Yet Mandy-Rae went from beginner to world record holder in 18 months because she took a shortcut into the now. She did this when she discovered conditions in her inner environment that created a state of flow. Internal triggers are psychological strategies that drive attention into the present moment. The 3 most critical triggers are clear goals, immediate feedback, and the challenge/skill ratio. Let’s take a, ahem, deeper dive into each of them. ;o)
3 Strategies to Stay in the Moment
Clear goals define immediate success. When the brain is given a clear goal, focus narrows and the unimportant is disregarded to be in the now. Further, clear goals aren’t future focused, but rather now focused. If you are too focused on the future goal, you get yanked out of the now. Clarity, then, gives you certainty because it informs you exactly what to do and where to focus your attention while doing it. High level cognition is replaced by in-the-moment cognition. When Cruickshank dove constant ballast, she didn’t think about breaking a record. She had to chunk it down into minute, clear goals. Her attention was limited to one kick cycle; counting each kick until she reached the next kick cycle, and so on. Her only goal was to keep count. For you this means breaking tasks into small chunks and setting goals accordingly. Think challenging yet manageable so you can shortcut your attention into the now and stay fully present.
Immediate feedback is the next shortcut into the now because your attention doesn’t have to wander, the information you need to course correct is right in front of you. It’s cause and effect in its simplest form. Either Mandy-Rae held her breath, or she passed out trying. Tightening feedback loops in your work environment will help you pull this trigger at work, along with putting mechanisms in place to avoid distractions and asking for input. Instead of annual or even quarterly reviews, consider monthly, weekly, or even daily reviews with your boss to get more immediate feedback and input. Mechanisms such as the Pomodoro method – 25 minute uninterrupted work sprints – force focus and increase productivity. Professions with the most immediate feedback loops show the greatest improvement in skill over time. Surgeons are a great example; screw up on the operating table and someone dies.
The challenge/skill ratio is the most important of the 3 ‘now’ triggers. Attention is most engaged in the now when there’s a specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and your ability to perform it. If the challenge is too much, fear floods your brain. If it’s too easy, you get distracted. Being present in the now occurs at the midpoint somewhere between bordeom and anxiety; that point where the task is difficult enough to make you stretch, but not challenging enough to make you snap. The good news: that point is generally defined around 4% greater than your current skill level. Referred to as the Yerkes-Dodson Law – increased stress leads to increased performance up to a certain intensity. At that point, performance levels off or may even decline. In the real world, 4% is nothing until you are faced with a project or task you’ve never done before. Then, the uncertainty of the outcome is the trigger for now.
Despite the ordinary appearance of these now triggers, if you implement the 3 strategies to stay in the moment like Mandy-Rae Cruickshank did every time she free dived, ordinary will turn into extraordinary in a hurry, and you’ll be setting your own personal records!