STEALING FIRE. How Silicon Valley, The Navy Seals and Maverick Scientist Are Revolutionizing The Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler & Jame Wheal


Very interesting (for unexpected and surprising) book I bought in Miami airport while I was in-transit attracted by the promising title of one of the passages of its chapter Two: Wicked Solutions to Wicked Problems.

As I am myself in the business of helping companies to solve wicked problems creatively, I wanted to double check that “the recipe” given there was a known one, and ensure I was in the latest fashion with regard to that!

So I began to read it: “Solving wicked problems requires more than a direct assault on obvious symptoms [...]The ability to find solutions requires holding conflicting perspectives and using that friction to synthesize a new idea.”

Nothing new so far (I felt confortable and a bit relieved I have to admit because that fit my own speech) and continued reading just in case the surprise came later…

“developing opposable mind -a concept developed by Roger Martin of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management- isn’t easy. If you want to train this kind of creativity and problem solving, what the research shows is that the either/or logic of normal consciousness is simply the wrong tool for the job”.

I did agree 100%! I felt excited!

And then it came without warning: “Scientists have discovered a better tool”
Aren’t you as intrigued as I felt then?
Here it goes:
The amplified information processing and perspective that non-ordinary states provide can help solve these types of complex problems, and they can often do so faster than more conventional approaches.”

The key words there were: “the perspective that non-ordinary states provide”.

Non-ordinary states?! What did they mean?!…Enough to decide to buy the book and read it in depth!

And here you can find the main ideas extracted from the book.

Harnessing rare and altered/controversial states of consciousness to boost in information and inspiration to solve critical challenges is paramount to outperform competition. Stealing Fire is the story of Silicon Valley executives, members of the US special forces, maverick’ scientists, etc. who are using ecstatic techniques to alter mental states (consciousness) and accelerate (enhance) performance. In a few words: to achieve Flow.

Flow is an optimal state where we feel our best and perform our best. Flow refers to those “in the zone moments” where focus gets so intense that everything else disappears: our sense of self vanishes, our sense of time too. And all aspects of performance both mental and physical go to the roof.

The book maintains that the idea that non-ordinary states can improve performance is spreading into the mainstream an many people are nowadays experimenting with “ecstatic technologies”: meditation retreats, zapping the brain with electrodes, tacking off-prescription pharmaceuticals, visiting transformational festivals like Burning Man, and micro-dosing with psychedelics. In other words, trying to steal the kykeon!

Once taboo or marginal themes like using psychedelics or meditate to disinhibit the conscious mind are now being recognized as a way to solve critical challenges and outperform competitors because the insights one receive in those states make all the difference and unlike in earlier times, today they are openly talking. Is as if  achieving ecstasis (the act of stepping beyond oneself, a state where our normal consciousness vanishes completely and is replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence) is coming out of the closet. As this occurs, a number of performance enhancing neurochemicals flood the serotonin system. These chemicals amplify focus, muscle reaction times and new pattern recognition (being this last one what all creative methods want to achieve).

When saying ecstasis we talk about three specific categories of states:

1. Flow states; those achieved by artists and athletes.

2. Contemplative and mystical states where techniques like chanting, dance, meditation, sexuality  are used to shut off the self.

3. Psychedelic states that were mostly sampled by hippies and ravers.

No matter how disparate they seem, thanks to advances in brain science, we have been able to discover that these three approaches share remarkable neurobiological similarities and companies, like Google have started to understand and putting into practice that helping engineers get into the zone and stay longer is an essential investment so they are doing everything in their hands to keep people “out of their heads” and absorbed in their projects. The goal is to find a way to use these states to propel them to levels they didn’t know are possible by making people feeling selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness and richness.

I am not going to go further if you are interested of having more I do really recommend reading the book.

With regard to solving wicked problems more creatively which was what captured my attention at the book store, it is clear that creativity is essential but so far we have tried to train that merely as a skill and perhaps what we really need is to train a state of mind too. No matter what means we use (mindfulness training, technological stimulation or pharmacological) the result is an enhanced pattern recognition which allows seeing more (getting access to new insights) of the pieces at once of the problem tried to be solved.

Thanks to accelerating developments in four fields: positive psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology and technology we are getting insights into the upper range of human experience and now, experiences once reserved for mystics are becoming available to the masses and all of us are discovering that there is more capacity, resilience and creativity in us that we thought. However as usually happens in cases like this not everything in the garden is rosy (in Spanish; no todo el monte es orégano) so I do recommend that you read carefully chapter ten to avoid ruin your life because of the expectations of having more and more ecstasi! ;-)