Picture of the cover of Stealing fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.

I don’t know how I feel about ‘Stealing Fire’ by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. It’s the sort of book you would find lurking at a store in an airport terminal. Not that airport sales define the quality of the book. I guess it is more the Silicon Valley culture that tumbles from the pages within.

Kotler and Wheal’s basic premise is that you can hack your mind and body to enter a ‘non-ordinary’ thought process. One of ‘peak performance’, where

… all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.

Hack your mind and become a better person. More creative. More competitive. Everything you need to give your startup the edge. So I guess that’s my dilemma, much of Stealing Fire is itching to be lampooned by HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Or maybe Stealing Fire reads more like it is peddling a new fad diet? But instead of crash techniques for temporarily shedding weight, it is geared towards technologists looking for low effort ways to improve their cognitive output. Kotler and Wheal hint at the sort of systemic lifestyle changes that are beneficial:

Take, for example, one of the most common ailments of the modern world - mild to moderate depression. Instead of moping around, hoping for things to get better on their own, we can scan our UI and choose an alternate program to run. We could get on a treadmill (studies show exercise is effective for depression in all but severe cases), or get some natural sunshine (70 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, which has a direct impact on mood), or practice meditation for fifteen minutes (a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association found it as effective as SSRI’s and without the side effects). None of these approaches require thinking about our thinking, but each of them can significantly shift our mood.

Pffft. That sounds like it would take years to master. Isn’t there an easier way? One that. Like. You know? Is less effort? I need that cognitive edge yesterday!

Although to be fair to Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, that is exactly what they are exploring. Can you develop techniques to enable more people to become ‘self-actualizers’, and can you teach them to get there in weeks or months rather than decades:

Right around middle age, for example, Kegan noticed that some people moved beyond generally well-adjusted adulthood, or what he called “Self-Authoring”, into a different stage entirely: “Self-Transforming.” Defined by heightened empathy, an expanded capacity to hold differing and even conflicting perspectives, and a general flexibility in how you think of yourself, self-transforming is the developmental stage we tend to associate with wisdom. Abraham Maslow noticed that the more peak experiences a person had, the closer they came to self-actualization, his term of the upper stages of adult development.

I definitely enjoyed the closing chapters more. The aptly titled section ‘Soma, Delicious Soma!’ was one of my favourites. Exploring how corporations are starting to experiment with peak experiences in advertising:

Yet, it doesn’t take much to bend this desire for personal change in more commercial directions. Consider a recent Jeep campaign, where they built mud bogs at county fairs. With thumping music and flashing lights amplifying the joyride, Jeep let fairgoers hop into one of their stationary rigs, floor the motors, spin the tires, and send dirt flying. The novelty of the experience; the rapid shift in sensations; the lights, music, and cheering crowd, was all more than enough to trigger the brain’s pleasure machinery and get red-blooded twenty-somethings fixating over no-money-down leasing options for weeks to come. The Jeep campaign worked so well because it effectively created a state of peak arousal for its participants and then sold them on an imagined transformation of their lives (starting with the purchase of a 4x4). Under those amped-up conditions, salience - that is, the attention paid to incoming stimuli - increases. But, with the prefrontal cortex down-regulated, most impulse control mechanisms go offline too. For people who aren’t used to this combination, the results can be expensive.

Before getting to the good stuff, I had to traverse a bunch of Silicon Valley tropes, Ritalin, LSD Microdosing and Burning Man first. The sort of stuff that lurks on the fringe of the technology culture in Silicon Valley. Or maybe it isn’t so fringe? One of the opening chapters describes how Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin used the Burning Man Festival as a screening test during their search for a Chief Executive Officer.

I give Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal two and a half stars out of five.

two and a half stars out of 5.


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