Peak Experience

Nan Xiao October 2, 2019 3 min read

Photo by Elena Prokofyeva.

I feel that we have previously talked a lot about the material world in this blog. Today I want to briefly discuss something more spiritual, something in my mind for a while: peak experience.

This concept belongs to the self-actualization part described in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”. The peculiar thing is, I knew what the feeling was but cannot express it verbally, until the day I knew the term coined by the psychologists.

As a personal anecdote, I think I was fortunate enough to have (probably) experienced this in two cases. I haven’t experienced anything remotely similar for a long time though. Who knows that “being an adult” is fun but can be boring at the same time? Well, I have no idea.

The first case happened more recently. It was about a math proof, although it was not anything profound in the real mathematical sense. While at that moment, the feeling of having discovered a tiny, pure, hidden truth of the universe was terrific. I think it was even more satisfying because the nature of constructing proofs is like “playing chess with the devil” (Charles Fefferman). One cannot possibly get to the destination without going through a rough path and getting lost in the middle, at least in most of the situations.

The second case happened more than 10 years ago, and I have only fading memories of it. For some particular reasons, I don’t think I can describe the details here. One thing I can confirm, is that persistence through (intellectual) challenges, like in the first case, was also in the very nature of this one, too. For a brief moment, you may feel like you have finally reached the peak of the highest mountains. Looking down, and you have conquered the world.

The “peak experience” I had was not a one-time physical thrill, but more of a psychological booster of self-confidence that lasted days. I believe they eventually changed how I view myself and the world. However, the experience is so rare that I cannot really expect it, but have to work hard to hope that one day it happens once again.

This may sound corny, but, from the bottom of my heart, it is one reason why I do what I do, and love what I love nowadays. The lesson for me is: always trust your taste, always seek the truth, and always be persistent.

I never imagined that I would write a “crazy” piece like this. At the end of this text, I just want to quote from one of my favorite films Cashback: “The bad news is that time flies. The good news… is that you’re the pilot.”