I’ll be totally upfront: I am probably not the best person to review this book. Actually I may be the worst. While I love learning about peak performance and flow state (which is the running thread through the middle of the book) the majority of the book involves Skiing. I know almost nothing about skiing. I’ve never even been on a dry ski slope let alone one packed with snow. There were many many words I did not understand. In fact there were whole sentences (take “We knew they were steazy in the sick gnar” for example) I didn’t understand. Despite this Kotler’s book was really readable and I did learn lots. It didn’t inspire me to take up any form of skiing but it did trigger my interest into learning more about flow and the neurochemicals that create it.

The concept of the book works; an expert in the theories and concepts of peak performance and flow, attempts to do something that he has been told is impossible at his age, to show what is possible with the right (his) approach. The book does feel rather abstract when you are not a skier but it is a nice way to explore the concepts of performance psychology. It feels similar to how, in the early 2000s there was a real pressure in schools to teach maths differently; to put it into real life contexts to help us think about it in a more dimensional manner. This felt like that.  

In short; A lesson in how to learn new skills as an adult; taking an ‘inch as a time’ approach (constantly building tiny extras on to what you can already do) to be able to have safe(ish), incremental progress.

In long; Acquisition of motor patterns is innate in children but much harder as an adult. As someone trying to learn to Park Ski Kotler suggests is it generally assumed if you haven’t learnt to do it before 30 you won’t be able to. He sets out to prove this wrong using his knowledge of how to develop peak performance skills and flow. He does this through learning to Park Ski, something he had never done before. The skiing stuff did get a little dull to a non-skier but the links to flow kept me reading, as did all the concepts of skill acquisition that Kotler fed in.

Many of the concepts covered:

  • Challenges Skills-Balance – Attention locked onto a task that is slightly greater than the skills we bring to it. Kotler suggests that that challenge skills-balance shrinks over time as “life leaves scars” (loved that phrase) so adults have more subconscious fears and so find it harder to find their sweet spot.
  • Deliberate play – Repetition with incremental advancement that maximises opportunities for improvisation. When we play we are in a failure-free zone; pressure is off and the fun level is high so we follow our curiosity and explore our passions.
  • Deliberate practice – repetition with incremental advancement
  • Dopamine – The neurochemical that releases when we achieve something. Dopamine can increase focus. Kotler argues that dopamine increases our flow state.
  • Embodied cognition – We don’t jut think with our brain but also with our body – and our body often knows more than our brain.
  • Flooding – Exposure therapy i.e. purposefully doing the stuff which scares you.
  • Flow – Flow follows focus and flow triggers amplify attention. Flow has a 4 stage cycle: Struggle, Release, Flow, Recovery.
  • Flow triggers – The psychological preconditions that lead to neurobiological reactions that produce flow. There are individual flow triggers (risk, challenge, novelty, unpredictability and being able to make creative and embodied decisions) and group flow triggers which come from shared focus where a number of you are absorbed in the same experience (like shared risk, shared goals, goal communication, equal participation, close listening) If you are nervous around others then you will have too many stress hormones flooding your body to be able to get into group flow.
  • Goal setting – Talks of needing mission level (lifetime) goals, high-hard (multi-year) goals and clear (daily action) goals. Says if they are all in the right direction and being progressed then dopamine flows.
  • Grit – a limited resource that covers our persistence and resilience. If it is your ‘go to’ coping mechanism you may well burn out.
  • Interoception – How we detect the body’s emotional signals – when we have it we have better internal insight and emotional regulation.
  • Mindset – Core assumptions that orient us to a particular set of expectations, explanations and goals.
  • Repetition suppression – Good athletes have good repetition suppression, whereby when they have done something well once they can fairly easily repeat it and that reduces fear and gives more flow.
  • The Boss – The version of us who sets the goals and prioritises long term interests over short term pleasures.
  • The voice – The commentator in our head.

There is lots in his book about aging and how the theories and concepts of peak performance and flow relate to that. This gave some interesting discussions about how we approach different elements. I loved his description of the different times of our lives:

  • By 30 we want to have figured out our identity
  • By 40 we have to figure out how to make a living that aligns with our intrinsic motivators: curiosity, passion, autonomy, purpose and mastery
  • 50 is when we forget old grudges

Goal setting was covered a lot. One of the things I wondered about reading through all the goals which were being set is that it goes against my rule with athletes that you can only have 1 main goal. 2 or more and they will clash. This is Kotler found. He had 2: to learn to Park ski and to do at least 86 days of skiing. The 86 days of skiing goal meant he overtrained and got injured. There was also a goal to do 16 laps on each day – this felt very process driven. And totally understand why. But it saw him skiing with concussion, with injuries, having to take weed (weed featured a lot) to handle the pain I did wonder if it was all worth it to be able to do some cool tricks?

I really enjoyed his reflections on affordances – this is the way we see opportunities for action. His 18 months spent trying to become more expert saw him be able to say: “I’m not just a different skier; I now see a different mountain.”

I also enjoyed his focus on knowing your own life hack – the thing where you get to feel the best you ever get to feel. His is clearly skiing. It made me wonder what mine might be. He describes how knowing this about yourself means you never have to waste time on less meaningful stuff. It becomes his filter – and filters like this save lots of time and save decision fatigue.   

Overall, it is a really interesting experiment in skills learning in older-middle aged athletes. There was lots of discussion on how being old is a mindset and referencing research that shows that changing that mindset changes our abilities. It concludes suggesting that high levels of athletic performance are achievable later in life yet that success takes its toll on our bodies; and requires a lot of single-mindedness.