Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work
By Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal
Review by Robert Morris
Throughout history, at least since the Garden of Eden, there have been all manner of rebellions and revolutions. I added “is once again” (in the title of this review) to a reference by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal to human efforts to “steal fire from the gods.” As they observe, “Whatever the case, the rebel sneaks the flame out of the temple and shares it with the world. It works.” Then what? There is a cycle of theft, jubilation, inspiration, revelation, action, disruption, deterioration, and inevitably, severe punishment. For example, Zeus chained Prometheus, “the original upstart rebel,” to a rock so that eagles could rip out his innards throughout eternity. Why? Because he had stolen “the power to seed civilization: language, art, medicine, and technology.”
“Stealing Fire is the story of the latest round in this cycle and, potentially, the first time in history we have a chance for a different ending. It’s the story of an entirely new breed of Promethean upstart – Silicon executives, members of the U.S. Special forces, maverick scientists, to name only a few – who are using ecstatic techniques to alter consciousness and accelerate performance. And the strangest part? It’s a revolution that’s been hiding in plain sight.”
Note the reference to “ecstatic techniques.” Long ago, Robert Anton Wilson observed, “Hedonic Engineering [is] the human nervous system studying and improving itself: intelligence studying and improving intelligence. Why be depressed, dumb, and agitated when you can be happy, smart, and tranquil?" Kotler and Wheal have much of value to say about reaching and then remaining in a state of ecstasis in Part One. That is, “a very specific range of nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSC)...that can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously, in the middle of everyday life.”
I was (and am) intrigued by the correlations between and among hedonic engineering, ecstasis, and what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has characterized as “flow”: “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best…those ‘in the zone’ moments where focus gets so intense that everything else disappears. Action and awareness start to merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time as well. And all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.” This heightened sense of awareness is what Ellen Langer has in mind when explaining her concept of mindfulness. In competitive athletics, Tiger Woods makes every putt and Michael Jordan makes every three-point shot…at least for a limited, exceptionally intense period of total engagement. This is also what creative artists such as Jackson Pollock describe.
Kotler and Wheal suggest a five-step process by which to turn ecstasis into long- or at least longer-term practice:
1. “List everything you love to do (or would like to do) that gets you out of your head [because] putting it all in one place can lend some fresh perspective.”
2. “Use the Ecstasies Equation (Time X Reward/Risk) to rank this list for value. For example, think a ten-minute meditation versus a trip to see a Peruvian shaman.”
3. Sort your activities into one of five buckets: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Seasonally, and Annually. More intense experiences typically provide more information but they do so at a higher level of risk.”
4. “Research shows that we’re more likely to keep habits that are tied to cultural milestones. So connecting practices to preexisting traditions can make them easier to stick to.”
5. “Lastly, remember you’re playing with addictive neurochemistry and deeply rooted drivers. So, as your practices start building momentum, how do you know if you’re pursuing a deliberate path or becoming a bliss junkie? Short answer? You don’t.”
But yes, there is a Long answer: “Once a year, set your indulgences on a shelf, go thirty days cold turkey, and use this time to recalibrate. Attach the hiatus to traditional seasons of forbearance — Lent, Yom Kippur, Ramadan — or impose your own.”
So, what we have in this remarkable volume is an exploration of various mythological thefts over several millennia that precede efforts by a string of 21st century Prometheans who have “taken up the torch” and “this may offer the greatest hope of all. We no longer have to rely on someone stealing fire for us. Finally, we can kindle that flame ourselves.” Navy SEALs, Green Berets, maverick scientists (e.g. Sasha Shulgin and Amy Cuddy), and visionaries in Silicon Valley (e.g. Eric Schmidt and Elon Musk) have launched a revolution unlike any other that I can recall. This book invites us to join it and, at the very least, helps us to understand it.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Robert Morris. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.