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Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work


Imagine your best day. Imagine the day that you were so in the moment and so ignited, so alive, and then try to make it every day. That’s what Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal are trying to teach people how to do in Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Altered states of conscious, and most especially flow, is the name of the game. They’re trying to share the secrets from diverse explorers of the mind and body experience in a way that we can all begin to drink more freely from the fountains of experiences that release us from our normal limitations and push us to ecstasis – the act of stepping beyond oneself.

Fundamentals of Flow

I’m a follower of flow, having read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Finding Flow books. I’ve also read Steven Kotler’s previous work The Rise of Superman that speaks to the extraordinary feats that people who are in flow can accomplish – and the triggers that are useful to get into that state. While Kotler spoke of group flow in The Rise of Superman, it’s really in Stealing Fire that the attention is focused on group flow and getting people to work together. (If you want another reference for group flow, Group Genius also speaks of it.) While the point of Stealing Fire isn’t group flow, there are many groups that are using flow and group flow to deliver results.

Flow is a powerful state, allowing people in the delicate balance of challenge and skill to operate 5 times more efficiently than they might be able to operate in their out-of-flow states. The long-term side effects of flow seem to be creativity and happiness. All in all, flow seems to be the key to unleashing our human potential. Getting groups to operate in flow together can be a visceral experience.

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA)

Most of us would acknowledge that the world is moving faster and seems more uncertain than it did a generation – or even a decade – ago. In business, we see industries getting crushed in a heartbeat. We’re seeing the death of the wired telephone, as we call people on their mobile phones instead of places like their house or work. However, these conditions are nothing in comparison to the challenges that the Navy SEALs encounter. Their assignments are often Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) – on an unimaginable scale. They must accomplish a mission when often the way to get that done must be made up on the fly.

It’s not that the SEALs don’t train and plan. They do both extensively. It was Helmuth von Moltke that first noted, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” In the high-stakes world of SEALs, they have to adapt in the moment – and as a unit. SEALs are an expensive machine, perhaps costing $85 million in their training and preparation; but, though expensive, they get results.

SEALs have a reputation for being a hard as nails group, but that reputation doesn’t quite explain the mental toughness that is present in all of them. In fact, it’s mental toughness that is the distinguishing characteristic that makes a good SEAL. Their ability to take on tough challenges and their ability to meld their consciousness into the group is what makes them great. Unfortunately, these characteristics are ones that are mostly screened for since, despite a wide array of training and technological options, the Navy still can’t train the baseline mental toughness.

So, the SEALs take the raw materials and refine them. They have learned how to train more effectively. They can take the process of learning a new language and get it done in 6 weeks instead of 6 months. They’ve figured out how to flip the switch individually and collectively to help SEALs get into flow – and to stay there. This refinement process is radically different from the festival in the desert where people go to find group flow.

Burning Man

Surviving in an uncertain world isn’t certain. But the uncertainty that most of us face these days isn’t the same kind of life-or-death survival that our ancestors faced. For the most part, our uncertainty is confined to our success. Our Type-A, control everything personality may get its ego bruised, but we’ll ultimately be fine. (See Change or Die for more about our Ego and its Defenses.)

Sometimes the constraints that we have in our daily lives make it difficult – or impossible – to get into flow. Our inner critic is in control, and she’s got no intent of letting go of control, ending up in flow, or getting silenced. By removing all the trappings of traditional society, including the mundane trappings of personal hygiene, it’s sometimes enough to confuse the inner critic into submission. Sometimes stripping away the rules and structures is enough to drop folks into individual or group flow with others, and sometimes it takes some pharmaceutical enhancement, which is relatively easy to access inside at this festival in the desert.

Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved

Drugs and altered states of thinking have a long history. Stealing Fire opens with the Eleusinian Mysteries – a ritual designed to “strip away the standard frames of reference, profoundly alter consciousness, and unlock a heightened level of insight.” This ritual centered around kykeon, a dark liquid that reportedly packed one hell of a punch. Nature has a long history of animals seeking out ways to “get high,” and humans are no exception to the rule. Most of the time this process has worked well with animals seeking out a brief altered state and then returning to their normal lives.

Drug stores used to sell the same pharmaceuticals that are now illegal over the counter. Those drugs certainly weren’t harm-free, but used in moderated doses, they harmed less than they relieved people. In our grand failure of an experiment with depriving Americans of alcohol, we accidentally unleashed a force for suppressing all kinds of drugs. It’s not surprising that the most destructive substance – alcohol – should foreshadow the problems that we’d have when we criminalized other substances. (For more on how we ended up with our current drug enforcement mess, see Chasing the Scream.)

One man, Sasha (Alexander) Shulgin stood in consistent contradiction to the changes happening in his world where more and more substances were becoming “controlled.” As a chemist, he would make compounds and, ultimately, test them on himself, his wife, and close friends. They would record then their experiences. In the end, he and his wife, Ann, wrote two books, PiHKAL and TiHKAL, or in expanded forms, “Phenethylamines I have Known and Loved” and “Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved.” That is, they cataloged the development and experimentation with two classes of drugs which had mind-altering effects.

These drugs have the capacity to temporarily knock the normal functioning of the brain just a bit out of sync so that the experiences that are normally denied to us are suddenly available. Another way to do that is to trick or allow the body to do that on its own. Sasha and Ann Shulgin mixed their love of chemicals with their love of each other.

The Sexual Revolution

When it comes to biological imperatives, not even the trio of food motivators – salt, sugar, and fat – can compete with the drive for sex. The competition for, and therefore scarcity of, mates makes this reproductive drive intense. Sex can and does create the same kind of transcendent experience as meditation – or medication (drugs) – without all the knee crossing or needles. The chemicals released during sex (and particularly orgasm) are as good as it gets in the neurological world.

In the past, the consequences of unprotected, unrestricted sex meant babies and diseases. Human offspring have the longest period of dependency of any animal, so making a baby is an expensive endeavor from a biological standpoint. That caused the earliest forms of power and control – both the state and particularly the church – to try to control when people could have sex and with whom. (If you’re interested in how the church evolved to support our biology, Spiritual Evolution is a wonderful walk through how our biology and the structures of church have coevolved.)

Though some groups argue that positions on sex (not the kind in the Kama Sutra) are changing very rapidly, it’s taking decades to slowly divorce the stigma from sex that has persisted for centuries. As I mentioned in my review of America’s Generations, sex has moved from something that was a duty for the GI generation to a recreational pastime for millennials of today.

Many churches still teach that sex before marriage is a sin – thereby creating the guilt-control that they need to mitigate the risk of babies and diseases. We’ve long since developed other means to mitigate the outcomes of unwanted pregnancies through contraception and a level of protection from diseases through the effective use of condoms. We’ve also learned that this guilt-control approach is less effective than the use of contraception. (See my review of Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together for more.)

Another problem is that, in my research of the Greek, I don’t find support for the point of view that sex must be after marriage. (I won’t even try to defend that position in the Old Testament Hebrew, where there are several R-rated passages related to sex.) Even the Amish, as a part of rumspringa, have an allowance for “sharing a bed.” Absolutely, there’s clarity on sex outside of a marital union – when you’re in a marriage.

The problem is that this can confuse the reward systems by mixing in fear and creating either a less-enjoyable experience, or a more intense experience – based on the types of fears and the makeup of the person. There is after all a certain charge out of doing the forbidden.

Absent the guilt imposed by the church or by society, and the performance anxiety of new relationships, sex can be a truly transcendent experience – one way to get beyond ourselves.

Meting Out the Good Stuff

It’s not just the church or the state that keeps us in check and slowly doles out enough transcendent experiences to keep us happy. Certainly they do but others do this as well. In my review of Intimacy Anorexia, I recounted the idea of “starving the dog”. That is, giving the dog just enough food to stay alive, but alive as an angry animal who doesn’t have the energy to break free of his bonds. This is what the institutions do – and what we do to ourselves.

We ourselves have decided that some ways of accelerating our growth and our performance should be out of bounds. We’ve decided that performance-enhancing drugs should be off-limits for those who want to do better. However, the decision about what is inside and outside of the line is random and sometimes schizophrenic.

Protein shakes are OK but steroids are not. We can eat a healthy diet but not take some supplements. We can’t embed technology because somehow that breaks who we are as a person. We’ll ignore people with pacemakers. We’ll side-step those with insulin pumps. We’ll leap past those who have ports to ensure that it’s easy to dispense medications without damaging blood vesicles. Those devices are all to support those who “can’t” reach their full potential – to support life. So, they’re OK in that context.

We’ll allow ourselves to use this medical device – but not that one. We’ll accept this therapy but not another. This is how we keep control of ourselves – like the institutions do.

The Good, The Bad, The Self

In a strange twist of nature, we see ourselves partially by perceiving our world and then identifying the self from that world. John Lilly in 1960s began experimenting with sensory deprivation tanks to eliminate our focus on ourselves and allow our consciousness to expand. When you deprive the brain of the sensory inputs that it needs to distinguish itself from the world, it dials down our sense of self. In general, we think that our sense of self is a good thing. It provides identity – but in doing so, it constricts our ability to think without the inner critic constantly nagging us. In one sense, our self helps us be who we are, and in another sense, constrains us to being who we are. Sensory deprivation tanks, meditation, and drugs can reduce the sense of self – both for good and bad. In these cases, we’re talking about triggering transient (temporary) hypo-frontality (low-frontal). That’s good news if we want to shut up the inner critic.

It’s all about energy exchange. The brain has a fixed maximum amount of glucose (power) that it can consume. If you want to over-engage one part of the brain, another part of the brain must shut down to keep the maximum power consumption in balance. (The Rise of Superman covers this exchange and so does The End of Memory.) If we can focus energy consumption where we want, some other places have to shut down. That’s why we experience STER.

Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness (STER)

With sensory perception narrowed to the important pieces, we’re depriving the brain with sufficient input to map out the true edges of our self. Our internal timing, as it turns out, is calculated by multiple places across the brain, coordinating activity; take one of them offline and you’ve got a clock without a pendulum and the resulting timelessness. With the inner critic silenced – or at least muffled – we don’t see the effort in what we’re doing resulting in effortlessness – even if it’s physically exhausting. With the “default mode” network – the network of inner voices – offline, we’re free to attend to what we’re doing instead of worrying about what the voices are saying.

STER is a way to know that you’re in – or rather, have been in – flow. In the moment with the selflessness, it’s awfully hard to be self-aware enough to realize you’re in flow. But once you drop out of flow, many can feel the euphoria of having been in it – and the loss that you’re not in it any longer.

Getting Lost

Getting beyond ourselves, our world, our lives, necessarily involves some risk. Perhaps not as much risk as those action-adventure athletes that find flow as they’re hurling themselves down a mountain (whether there is snow or not) – but risk nonetheless. Explorers get lost. Some will die. It’s safe(-ish) at home. No one gets lost when they walk inside the edges of their map.

The problem is that the map never gets bigger. We never become more if we’re always inside the lines and the bounds. As explorers are lost – we who remain mourn them. Everyone mourns in their own way. (See On Death and Dying for more on that process.) Some try to create new rules – new stronger barriers – to keep the future explorers inside the map. If they don’t explore past the edges, they can’t become lost. If they can’t become lost, there will be no morning – or so the thinking goes.

The mourning will be the loss of living if not the loss of life. All of us have experienced some level of loss in our lives, some more than others. We’ve seen family members, friends, pets, and people leave us, and it’s painful and wrong and necessary. In the pain of losing our loved ones’ lives, we can’t give up living – truly, fully living. If we do that, we’ve extinguished the fire, rather than having stolen it.

Stealing Fire for a Reason

Prometheus stole fire to give warmth to humans. We look for ways to go beyond ourselves to make ourselves and all of humanity better. There are those who are explorers on this journey, who steal fire to keep it to themselves. Bliss-junkies who want to tune in and drop out. There are those who want to explore ecstasis simply for their own enjoyment and reward. However, having been honored to get to know Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, I can say that they want to give fire to all of us, to ignite in us the fire that has always been burning, the quest to be something better. That all starts with Stealing Fire.