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From Fear to Flow

Scott Carney The Wedge Excerpt: From Fear To Flow
Photo: Jake Holschuh
Excerpt from "The Wedge" out now

I’m crouching low and squared off against a predictably gorilla-esque man. We’re on a hill in San Francisco where gangs used to settle scores with bats, knives and whatever other weapons they could get ahold of. My bare feet grip sand that once was speckled with blood clots. I’m holding 25 pounds of cold iron in my hands. He wants me to throw it at him. The kettlebell would make a lethal, if cumbersome, weapon. And right now, in this moment, the thought of what happens next makes me nervous. Will I kill him? Will he kill me? My hands sweat on the handle and my heart thumps rapidly in my chest. This isn’t something that I’ve ever done before.

Obviously, we’re not really fighting. But I can’t help but dread what could go wrong. The two of us lock eyes. I swing the kettlebell low and backward between my legs. There’s a pause, and then it reverses direction. As the bell swings forward, I feel it build momentum. I see him stretch his hands out in front of him. I swing the bell back a third time. As it arrives at the apex, I release my grip. The bell flies out of my grip. I watch as it flips perfectly backward over itself in the air. It traces an arc across the empty space. And then the bell lands in his grasp. It follows the pivot of his shoulder along a delicate sine wave though his legs. He guides it through his legs, and the force of my throw exhausts itself. His forearms press against his thighs. Then, with only the slightest twitch of force, he swings the bell forward and releases it. It flies through the air in a perfect arc toward me. Jesus! I think. I pucker, ready for a potential impact on my leg. But my hands grab the handle. I catch the weight and let it fall between my legs. And then return it to him again.

A slight misstep could mean a weight missing its mark and crashing down onto a knee, shin or foot—at best leaving a nasty bruise, at worst crushing delicate bones. But somehow, that’s not what is happening. Despite the threat—or rather because of it—we’re focused. The potential for someone getting hurt is the wedge that forces us into coordination.

"Normally, the only time that men face off against each other is when they are adversaries," the gorilla, also known as Michael Castrogiovanni, tells me later. Thank goodness for small favors, because if he were my adversary, I’d be dead. The man is built like a truck. He waits for the next pass with his legs rooted into the ground like tree trunks, arms like ham hocks in front of him and his butt projecting backward. The position makes him look more simian than human. "If we throw kettlebells like we’re trying to win, then we both lose," he says, finishing his thought.

We continue in this way, playing catch with an iron ball. As we play catch, my anxiety falls away. I relax. The great battle that this felt like a minute earlier feels like a dance now.

After five minutes, what I thought would be a dangerous practice is feeling fun—light, even. The thrill of watching the bell fly though the air delivers a mini version of the feeling of a roller coaster just starting its descent after a climb.

A few throws in, and I know this is something special. It’s answering a question that Huberman’s lab left lingering in my mind: What sorts of practices trigger a loud enough emotional volume to train the Wedge? Getting hit with a kettlebell doesn’t meet the same danger threshold of, say, surviving a war zone, jumping out of a plane or rushing into a burning building. I’ll survive if it lands on my foot. But the threat is more real than a virtual shark swimming behind a set of high-tech goggles. The nervousness I felt when I first contemplated throwing the metal at Castrogiovanni was visceral.

I realize that this shift from fear to fun is exactly what the Wedge is about. In a mere five minutes, I’ve dismantled and then rebuilt a neural symbol from the ground up.

Throw. Catch. Return. That’s all that matters. And the kettlebells land beautifully. His pass becomes the logical precursor to my catch and vice versa. I feel as if we are intimately connected to each other—body and mind—by the arc of the weight. We’re dancing. This is what my friend meant by flow.

The risk of injury guarantees that I’m emotionally engaged. At first my mind runs through the worst-case scenarios. I don’t want to get hurt, and I don’t want to hurt anyone else. Yet because we’re engaged in a set of physical movements, the emotion of fear bonds to the sensations of our dance. I’m working on the neural grammar of my brain.

With each successful throw, the fear disappears and my brain can focus on other aspects of the practice. Over time, this transforms the sensation of fear into joy. My brain is in this. I’m focused on what’s happening in front of me, and my mind is completely in the moment. Castrogiovanni is, too. We’re both here together. We keep our focus on the bell and then enter into that shared mental state called "flow" that my friend had texted me about. I’ve moved from fear to fun. From fear to flow.

In the past decade, scientists, psychologists, athletes and mental health gurus have looked to flow states as one of the keys to optimal human performance. In flow states, actions don’t originate from well-formed thoughts in the cerebral cortex; they bypass the higher brain and just sort of happen.

University of Chicago psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as a psychological state where the ego falls away and people are able to complete every action with their whole being. It’s a state of peak performance and creativity. While athletes might talk about flow as "being in the zone"—think of Michael Jordan on his best game or Bruce Lee simply knowing the ideal contortion of his limbs to tackle the next threat—flow doesn’t only need to be an individual experience. It can also be something that’s shared, the sort of mental state that multiple people sync into simultaneously. For instance, right now Castrogiovanni and I are focusing our attention on the kettlebell. We’re not exactly thinking about what movements the other person is making; the kettlebell movements direct how our bodies move together. To take part in the dance, all either of us needs to consider is the object between us.

There is something about flow that speaks to the idea of a shared sense of consciousness. And it makes me remember what it felt like to be on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro doing something impossible. The individuals of Castrogiovanni and Carney dissolve into the shared movement we participate in together. Flow offers a peek into what it means to be part of a superorganism.

Most of us experience collective flow states every day. Take, for instance, what happens on a typical American highway. When you’re behind the wheel of your car, you limit your attention to just a few things: what’s directly in front of you as well as the relative movement of cars in your vicinity. It’s so easy that a lot of us feel comfortable checking our phones (bad idea), daydreaming or talking to friends, despite the very real consequence that a mistake could kill you. At any given moment, thousands of cars move together (almost) seamlessly in an incredibly complex system of moving parts. Yet most turns of the wheel and presses on the gas pedal barely register in our conscious brains. On the roadways, we subsume our own egos and contribute to a larger superstructure of the city’s traffic patterns without even realizing its bewildering immensity. Every driver’s attention centers on the things in their immediate vicinity. In this way, all drivers together form a sort of huge attention network.

There’s no way that you could orchestrate a highway by giving instructions to every individual driver from a central command center—instead, those drivers have to make decisions for themselves according to the information in front of them. Together those decisions give an overall character to the entire system.

There’s a relationship between attention and risk. If you can remember back to when you learned to drive—those initial moments on the highway before jamming your foot onto the gas pedal and lurching forward—you probably felt at least a hint of fear imagining what might happen if you made a mistake while surrounded by tens of thousands of pounds of steel all moving at sixty-plus miles an hour. I know I did. Over time, the stakes slipped to the back of my mind once I realized I had mastery of the process. Competence meant that I didn’t have to focus my attention on every detail, and that I learned to trust the patterns of drivers on the highway. The flip from fear over to competence is the moment when the Wedge starts to pay off. The worries haven’t gone away, but my nervous system has accounted for them so I can focus on other things. Now I trust that when I enter into the flow of the highway, I’ll be more or less safe. And this is exactly what happens with kettlebells.

While our attention is locked on the movement of the bell, we instinctively know what the other person is going to do, which forces our minds into a group flow state. Once I learn to trust this connection, the fear and emotion that I felt at first will give way to competency. That’s the sensation of the Wedge working. And it could never have happened if I wasn’t first afraid of getting hurt. Castrogiovanni has opened my eyes to a technique that I think will allow anyone to break into a flow state.

This was an excerpt from The Wedge: Exolution, Consciousness, Stress and the Key to Human Resilience To read a sample chapter go to

The Wedge By Scott CarneyScott Carney is the author of the New York Times bestselling book What Doesn’t Kill Us, his new book, The Wedge and two other books. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or read a sample chapter on his website at