The Retirement Wisdom Podcast

The Retirement Wisdom Podcast

Growing Old, Staying Rad – Steven Kotler

June 11, 2023

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Some people believe that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Steven Kotler has been studying human performance for thirty years, and has taught hundreds of thousands of people at all skill levels, age groups, and from walks of life, how to achieve peak performance. Discoveries in cognition, flow science, and neuroscience have revolutionized how we think about peak performance aging. To see if theory worked in practice, Kotler conducted his own experiment in applied neuroscience and later-in-life skill acquisition. He set out to try and teach an old dog some new tricks – himself – by taking up a sport deemed impossible to learn at his age. His new book Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad tells the story of his experiment and the cutting-edge research on peak performance aging that he put to the test. His story will change how you think about aging and open to your eyes to why you’ll want to jump in and double down on flow activities and lifelong learning.

Steven Kotler joins us from New Mexico.



Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author, an award-winning journalist, and the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective. He is one of the world’s leading experts on human performance. He is the author of 11 bestsellers (out of fourteen books), including The Art of Impossible, The Future is Faster Than You Think, Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman, Bold and Abundance. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, translated into over 50 languages, and has appeared in over 100 publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, TIME, and the Harvard Business Review.

A lifelong environmentalist and animal rights advocate, Steven is the cofounder of Planet Home, a conference/concert/innovation accelerator focused on solving critical environmental challenges, the cofounder of The Forest + Fire Collective, a network of individuals, organizations and institutions dedicated to ending catastrophic wildfire and restoring forest health to the American West. Alongside his wife, author Joy Nicholson, he is also the co-founder of Rancho de Chihuahua, a hospice care and special needs dog sanctuary.

PS: Steven once flew a MIG-17 Russian fighter jet—but that’s a different story.


For More on Steven Kotler

Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad


Flow Research Collective


Podcast Episodes You May Like

Breaking the Age Code – Dr. Becca Levy

The Expectation Effect – David Robson

Ready to ROAR? – Michael Clinton

The Joy of Movement – Kelly McGonigal


Wise Quotes

On Peak Performance Aging

“At the Flow Research Collective, where I’m the Executive Director, we’re a peak performance research and training organization. We define peak performance as the following: Peak performance is nothing more or nothing less than getting our biology to work for us rather than against us. And this is, by the way, not a new idea, right? You go back a hundred years to William James, in the very first psychology textbook said the great thing in any education is to make our nervous system our ally and not our enemy. And by nervous system he meant brain and body basically. So it’s not a new idea, but that’s really what we mean by peak performance. Peak performance aging by extension is getting our biology to work for us rather than against us when applied to the challenges and opportunities the second half of our lives.  Very simple. What I mean by that bigger picture, the old idea about aging, I like to call it the long slow rot theory, right? And I’m sure you guys have talked about a ton on this on this podcast is the idea that all of of our mental skills and all of our physical skills decline over time. And there’s nothing we can do to stop this slide. And this was the story, unless you happen to be in your twenties, and then it might have changed a little bit, but this is the story we all grew up with. This is the story we were all told, right? I grew up with it. You grew up with it. And most of us believe parts of it, or all of it, but it’s there in our thinking, in our culture and dangerous idea. But it’s also not true. That’s the cool part.”


On the Power of Mindset

“One of the deepest findings if you get into research on aging right now, is that the mind-body connection is so unbelievably tight. All the major levers, all the biggest things we could reach for are actually psychological tools. They’ve got neurobiology underneath them, which is why they work. But those are the huge interventions. And nowhere is this clear than in the work on mindset. Now, this is very old research. It dates back to Ellen Langer at Harvard in the seventies and goes all the way through today to Becca Levy her student, now at Yale. She’s brilliant and she has carried a lot of that forward. So, what do we know? A positive mindset towards aging meaning my best days are ahead of me. I think the second half of my life is going to be filled with thrilling, wonderful, exciting possibility. That’s all we’re talking about, right? It translates to an extra eight years of healthy longevity. This means if you’re morbidly obese and have a [lousy] mindset towards aging and you want to change, if you can only change one thing, change your mindset. It’s gonna have a bigger impact. It has more or as much of an impact as quitting smoking if you’re a chronic, an over a pack a day smoker. These are big, big impacts. And here’s the flip side. We also know you grew up suffering ageism – the most acceptable stereotype in the world.  Becca Levy’s work at Yale tells us by the time you’re 60 years old, if you were exposed to ageism or you have a bad mindset towards aging, you have a 30% greater memory decline after 60. That’s shocking, right? That’s insane. And you don’t want to mess with those odds. Now there is a deeper question about how do you shift a mindset? Mindset and robust social connections are probably the first two things you want to reach for if you’re interested in peak performance aging.”

On Finding Flow

“So in flow science, there’s something called your Primary Flow Activity. This is really whatever you’ve done most of your life that drops you into flow. For me it’s skiing. For my wife, it’s hiking the dogs in the background. For my best friend it’s playing guitar. For other people, it’s learning how to samba or salsa or take your pick: write code for computers, read books, ride horses, whatever that thing is for you. Research shows that you want to double down on it. What does that really mean? If you can engage in your primary flow activity about four hours a week, two 2-hour sessions or one four hour block – it makes a huge difference. Let me give you a four reasons. We talked about the the anti-stress stuff. So you’re resetting your nervous system every week that has huge anti-aging benefits, right? Huge, huge quality of life and mood benefits. So those further cascade into lower stress better, et cetera. So the more flow you get, the more flow you get. And here’s the cool thing that heightened creativity and heightened productivity that tends to outlast the flow state. Work out of Harvard says the heightened creativity can outlast the flow state by a day, maybe two. And there’s ways to work with it to really ensure that this happens in a better way. But my point is, I go skiing on a Saturday. It means that I show up and work on Monday and I’m more productive and I’m more creative – it’s like a bonus, right? So there’s a lot of reasons to double down your primary flow activity, but the, the most importantly is it brings back that fire in the belly. It brings back that joy, that passion, that it revitalizes, it wakes us up again. It makes us feel young in a lot of real ways. And it’s so, so, so important if you can figure out what drives you into flow. By the way, challenge is a flow trigger. Creativity is a flow trigger. Proper social activity is a flow trigger, group flow. A lot of that novelty is a flow trigger. But the simplest way to start is just double down your primary flow activity. And the problem with this it is exactly what we stop doing as we age, right? We set down childish things. The skateboard gets put away, the surfboard gets put away and I got to work all the time and provide for my family. And this is the stuff you stop doing and it’s literally killing you.”


About Retirement Wisdom

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About Your Podcast Host 

Joe Casey is an executive coach who also helps people design their next life after their primary career. He created his own next chapter after a twenty-six-year career at Merrill Lynch, where he was Senior Vice President and Head of HR for Global Markets & Investment Banking. Today, in addition to his work with clients, Joe hosts The Retirement Wisdom Podcast, which thanks to his guests and loyal listeners, ranks in the top 1.5 % globally in popularity by Listen Notes. Business Insider has recognized him as one of 23 innovative coaches who are making a difference. He’s the author of Win the Retirement Game: How to Outsmart the 9 Forces Trying to Steal Your Joy.