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March, 18 2017

World’s highest achievers use increasingly unusual methods in their quest for ideas

March 12, 2017 — by Andrew Hill

For $250,000 a head, groups of chief executives can stay at an exclusive San Francisco hotel, brainstorming new ideas that a team of coders and innovators fired up on modafinil, the anti-narcolepsy drug, will turn into 3D prototypes overnight.

 

Or they could go to an event like the one I attended last week: a morning in a Swiss conference suite as guests of a business school, discussing better ways to develop leaders, where the only stimulants on offer are coffee and some gentle group bonding exercises.

 

The two events stand at opposite ends of a global quest to improve productivity and creativity. In each case, the grail of organisers is to trigger “flow”. Flow is the elusive but addictive experience of being “in the zone”, enjoying the mastery of a specific task to a degree that is so fulfilling it becomes its own reward. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied flow in athletes, artists and musicians, but the self-propelling high has always been accessible to others, mainly through sport and meditation. Now the rich and ambitious are seeking new ways of juicing up their performance.

 

I had always assumed paragliding private equity partners or bankers who extreme-skiied (chosen pastime of Carsten Kengeter, Deutsche Börse’s chief executive) were just showing off. But Jamie Wheal, who told me about the drug-stoked San Francisco coders, says high-earning thrill-seekers are also tuning up their brains.

 

In a new book, Stealing Fire, he and Steven Kotler lead a mind-blowing tour along the path from sex and drugs to R&D. They identify the sometimes frightening neurobiological, psychological, pharmacological and technological ways billionaires and others are pushing the boundaries of performance improvement.

 

Mr Wheal, talking in between heli-skiing outings (he cannot be accused of armchair analysis), says executives and entrepreneurs are “microdosing” on illicit substances and submitting to transcranial magnetic stimulation — normally used to treat depression — in search of creative highs.

 

At the more conventional end of an unconventional spectrum, it was Eric Schmidt’s visit in the early 2000s to Burning Man — the trippy Nevada desert gathering beloved of Silicon Valley — that convinced Google’s festival-going founders he was the man to provide “adult supervision” to the search company in a critical phase of growth.

 

“If Schmidt could endure the blistering heat, the dust storms, the sleepless nights, and the relentless don’t-give-a-shit-who-you-are strangeness of Burning Man, just maybe, he’d be the guy who could help them grow the dream without killing it,” Mr Wheal and Mr Kotler write.

 

Sir Richard Branson’s kite-surfing, zipwiring Necker Island paradise is another example of a place “built to trigger [a] state of effortless focus”. The entrepreneur tells the authors: “When I do [reach flow], I get an extra two hours of great work done, and the other 12 are really, really productive.”

 

Such experiences seem as far from my Swiss conference suite and bonding exercises with human resources executives as hippy communes are from the suburban commute. Yet efforts to democratise high-net-worth highs are multiplying. Mr Wheal and Mr Kotler have designed a “Flow Dojo” — a cross between a playground and a lab — that simulates and measures the effects of surfing, skiing and high-wire acts. It prompts users to recreate that flow, without the risk of wingsuiting into a mountainside. Ultimately, it may be possible to use such methods, as well as the positive psychology of mindfulness, to create team states of flow — the heightened group awareness that gives special forces on a mission a sixth sense for how to proceed.

 

The big catch is that work priorities have a habit of interrupting flow.

 

One stressed participant at the meeting I attended last week confided, after a “networking break” in which he had sat hunched over his smartphone: “We’re sacking 20 people today.” Look at the patchy take-up of even mundane office benefits, and you will find evidence of how busy lives, with their many distractions, sap willpower. I would bet that applies at least as much to workers at Google, despite the plenitude of perks available to them, as it does to staff at lower-profile organisations. It is one reason Mr Wheal offers desk drones a simple smartphone-based course. It has the more basic goal of getting people off their backsides and helping them take the first steps towards finding the ideal conditions for productive work.

 

This will never be enough for the elite, of course. Stealing Fire conjures the disturbing image of Sir Richard’s “birthing” Virgin Galactic, his space tourism project, in a Necker Island hot-tub under the stars. It is a reminder that once everyone is “in the zone”, the richest and most ambitious will simply blast off to new and riskier zones.

 

andrew.hill@ft.com

Twitter: @andrewtghill