November 7, 2022

How to Stack ‘drive’ for Elite Performance

Steven Kotler
Written by
Steven Kotler
In this article:
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Lao-tzu wasn’t wrong: the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

But it’s still a journey of a thousand miles. Uphill, in the dark, both ways.

Since achieving the impossible is always an arduous trek, elite-level performers never rely on a single source of fuel to sustain themselves along the way. And this is true for both physical fuel and psychological fuel.

On the physical side, even though this is not the point of this email, elite performers always try to get enough sleep and exercise and maintain proper hydration and nutrition.

They “stack”—that is, cultivate, amplify, and align—the foundational requirements for producing physical energy.

Equally crucial, elite performers stack psychological fuel sources.

They cultivate and align drivers such as curiosity, passion, and purpose.

By stacking these sources of mental energy, they ensure on-demand access to all of life’s most potent emotional fuels.

So, what drives us?

One way to think about this question is from an evolutionary perspective.

We know that scarcity drives evolution. Any problem regularly encountered on a quest to gather resources is a problem that evolution already spent millions of years driving us to solve.

Think of evolution as a video game with two main levels. To win on level one, a player must obtain more resources—food, water, shelter, mates, and so on—than the other players in the game.

On level two, the player must turn those resources into children and help those children survive, either by having so many that there’s no way predators can eat them all (which is what fish do) or by keeping those children safe and teaching them how to obtain resources for themselves (which is the human method).

At each level, resource acquisition is key.

Only two strategies are available.

Either you fight over dwindling resources, or you get creative and make more resources.

Thus, when we talk about the drive from an evolutionary perspective, what we’re really talking about are the psychological fuels that energize behaviors that best solve resource scarcity: fight/flee and explore/innovate.

Fear is a psychological driver because it drives us to fight over resources, flee and avoid becoming someone else’s resources, or pack up the family and sail across an ocean in a quest to, you guessed it, find more resources.

Curiosity is another driver because it makes us wonder if there might be more resources across that ocean. Passion drives us to master the skills required to successfully sail that ocean. Goals drive us because they tell us what resources we’re trying to find on the other side of that ocean and the reason we’re trying to find them.

And this list goes on.

Drive and motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic) are evolution at work. It’s not that evolution ever lets us stop playing the “get more resources” game, it’s that our strategy evolves.

Once baseline needs are met, you can devote yourself to ways to get, well, you guessed it, seriously more resources—for yourself, for your family, for your tribe, for your species.

As high-minded as something like “meaning and purpose” might seem as a driver, this is actually evolution’s way of saying:

Okay, you’ve got enough resources for yourself and your family. Now it’s time to help your tribe or your species get more.

This is also why, in the brain, there’s really not much difference between drivers. Intrinsic drivers, extrinsic drivers, it doesn’t matter.

In the end, like so much of life, it all comes down to neurochemistry.

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