Stealing Fire: Summary & Review

stealing fire book cover

Stealing Fire explores how altered states of consciousness can provide us not only with new transcendental meanings of life but also a very practical mental edge for our entrepreneurial endeavors.

Bullet Summary

  • It’s not just grit or working hours that separate the top 1% from the rest: it’s also their access to altered states of mind
  • Ecstatic states help you make connections between ideas you wouldn’t otherwise make.
  • You can also tap into that power with varying methods, learning curves, and risks

Stealing Fire – Summary

Steven Kotler is a journalist and entrepreneur, while Jamie Wheal is an expert in leadership and peak performance.

#1. STER: The Traits of Ecstasy

A state of altered consciousness is defined by four characteristics listed by the acronym “STER”:

  • Selflessness: the paracortex of the brain connected to the self and our internal voices telling us who we are (and all the negative things we are) shut down and we can experience “collective awareness”
  • Timelessness: total inability -or interest- to perceive time
  • Effortlessness: things just feel right and click
  • Richness: when we remove the ego, we allow the subconscious to take over, which is much faster at processing data, and we feel one with the world. We connect with the world in a new and different way, which is richer”

What I found most fascinating is that states of mind, including flow, are not about switching on some specific areas of the brain; they are about shutting down specific areas and functions.

#2. Immersing Yourself In The Present

A recurring theme of “Stealing Fire” is that ecstasy is reached when you are so present in the moment that you forget yourself and lose track of time.

He mentions, (of course) the spiritual guru Eckardt Tolle and the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Eckardt Tolle uses meditation to enter the altered states of consciousness and you can read more about his philosophy in “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth“.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi instead focuses on achieving ecstasy through doing an activity you are so focused on that you lose track of everything else. This state is called “flow” and you can read more about it in his book “Flow“.

#3. The Conduits to Reach Ecstasy

There are many well-known methods for reaching ecstasy, including:

  • Sex
  • Meditation
  • Hallucinogenic drugs (psychedelics)
  • Risky undertakings (extreme sports)
  • Communal experiences (like Burning Man)

How Ecstasy Works

All the above activities activate the serotonin system and release serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, norepinephrine, and anandamide.

They make us feel in love, connected, trusting, and open.

#4. The Four Forces of Ecstasy

The author says that our recent human developments have made reaching ecstasy much easier for everyone.

In particular, they discuss:

  • Psychology

With Martin Seligman’s presidency of the APA (American Psychology Association), he steered psychology towards the study of human potential, giving birth to the field called “positive psychology”.

You can read more in Seligman’s books “Flourish“, “Learned Optimism” and “Authentic Happiness“.
Or just check out the “best positive psychology books“.

  • Neurobiology

It increased our understanding of what’s going on in the brain, making it possible to get more scientific about ecstasy -and how to reach it-.

  • Pharmacology

We have developed an abundance of new substances that make ecstasy possible, from MDMA to LSD to Ketamine.

  • Technology

New technology can allow us to prepare our own drugs, fly, immerse ourselves in virtual reality, or experience sensory loss in flotation tanks

#5. Is It Worth It? The Ecstasy Value Equation

Since we can reach ecstasy with heavy drugs and risky sports, it’s also natural that getting into an altered state of consciousness can be risky.

We can die from our brush-ups with death and we can also get hooked or never come back from psychedelic-induced mind trips.

So before going into altered states of consciousness, it might be worth it to make a very conscious analysis of the risk/rewards.

And this is what Kotler and Wheal identify as the equation:

Value = Time × Reward/Risk

  • Value is the overall score of a certain activity which will tell you whether or not it’s worth getting into it.
  • Time is how long it takes you to get into ecstasy or even to learn how to get into it (meditation requires time for example and learning to master extreme sports is a life goal on its own)
  • Award is what you get out of the activity, either the pleasure or the entrepreneurial “eureka” moments
  • Risk refers, of course, to the dangers to your mind and/or body

It’s also possible to switch from a dangerous conduit of ecstasy to a safer one. The authors talk about an extreme skier who went from skydiving to communal festivals like Burning Man and interactive art.

#6. The Dangers of Ecstasy

The authors also talk about the dangers of altered states of consciousness both for the self and for possible uses by dark forces (ie.: government, brainwashing, etc.).

They say:

Timeless devoid of reference points can feel a lot like paranoia and schizophrenia and it’s been a linchpin of solitary confinement for centuries.

Going to the edge of consciousness can present risks for the body and the mind.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Not everything you think and feel in altered states is realistic or helpful and the authors remind the readers “not everything you feel is real”.

People with more dopamine in their systems are more likely to believe in conspiracies and abduction. 
Such as they are more likely to be paranoid (for more on paranoia read “jealousy paranoia” and “Emotional Vampires“).

#7. Don’t Become A Junkie

Ecstatic states can be addictive.

The authors talk about free diving and how some free drivers get hooked on the feeling of being deep in the water.
And they keep going and going back… Until some of them never come back up.

And of course, drug use can be addictive and take people too far.

As the authors say:

The point is not to keep going until you find it all, but to come back before you lost it all

 The authors link vulnerability to ecstasy and say that the goal is to balance the lights of the ecstatic path with the darkness of the human condition.

stealing fire book cover

Real-Life Applications

  • Watch out for brands

Brain scans found out that the same brain regions light up for religious icons and powerful international brands like Ferrari and Apple.

That’s something that big brands are working on to improve their advertising (and manipulation) and it’s something we might want to be careful of (also read “Hooked“, “Buyology” and “No Logo” for a treaty on the effects of marketing brands).

  • Very good for creative endeavors

Experimenting with meditation, psychedelics or flow could be a worthwhile pursuit for people working in 
What happens is that the higher cognitions of the prefrontal cortex shut down and the brain makes connections that it wouldn’t otherwise do.

Stealing Fire Criticism

As much as I deeply enjoyed “Stealing Fire“, there are also some parts that didn’t I didn’t enjoy as much or that didn’t convince me much.

At times sensationalistic more than scientific

Stealing Fire sometimes seems to see sensationalism more than it seeks to divulge good information.

For example, it says (I paraphrase):

SEALs are the most expensive warriors in history, and their training is largely designed to make ecstasy possible

But based on this, what do the authors say?
I didn’t find an answer.
And reading the books from Navy SEALs such as Jocko Willink and David Goggins, it didn’t feel that way.

Or about Google looking for their new CEO:

Get it right and they own the search engine space for decades to come. Screw it up and it’s game over. Back to grad school.

Google founders were going to be wealthy anyway and never going back to grad school anyway.
And I highly doubt the choices were so Manichean anyway.

And about Burning Man, the authors really forced the connection with Obama, who instead said that “he’d never go, maybe Bernie Sanders will”.

At times shows a cheerleading approach

At times the authors seem to glorify the subjects they introduce instead of properly analyzing them.
For example, they say of SEAL:

At their best they’re always an anonymous team.
“I do not seek recogniztion for my actions”, reads the SEAL code, and this ethos is reinforced every time they flip that switch when egos disapper (…)

That must be why David Goggins met so much racism in the top SEAL team and why the SEAL themselves joke about former SEALs writing books of their own heroic war deeds.

Skin-dip on important topics

The author touches upon several important concepts but often does not go deep enough.
On ego disintegration, for example, he just says “ego is just a network and things like psychedelic, flow and meditation disintegrate that network”. I wish he had gone more in-depth here because it’s not really clear.

Sometimes some pop-psychology

There is quite a bit of pop-psychology in “Stealing Fire“.

The authors say that power posing changes our hormonal levels, a claim which has been thoroughly debunked in the psychology replication crisis and labeled as “pseudo-science”.

They also say:

Grit is the term psychologists use to refer to that mental toughness

Not really true: it’s mostly Angela Duckworth who talks about grit and she has been severely criticized for rebranding “conscientiousness” into a new term to get more media exposure.

Burning Man correlation failure

There is much talk about Burning Man and how it helped its attendees including Elon Musk, Tony Hsieh, and Google founder Larry Page

The author talks about how Google became incredibly successful as if to suggest it’s because of Burning Man attendance and ecstasy.

But I don’t see the causation.

Sociopath Elizabeth Holmes was also at the Burning Man, shall we then conclude that Burning Man leads people into committing massive frauds?

Evolutionary psychology unfounded conclusions

Stealing Fire describes how animals also take advantage of available psychedelics in nature to enjoy altered states of mind.

That’s interesting.

But then it makes the case that altered states of mind must have been driven by evolution for a reason.
And that reason is to get stuck out of their rut of mindless habits and find new ways of doing things.

That makes no sense.
Not everything we or animals do must be because it helps move our species forward.
Read some good scientific evolutionary psychology here.

Altered state of mind accounting

The authors reach the conclusion that the industry for altered states of mind is to the tune of 4 trillion.

But they include cigarettes, social media, VR, coffee, alcohol, etc. 

That seems to me like an altered state of mind type of accounting. 
Sure coffee and social media have something in common with drugs, but they don’t help us reach the STER that the authors themselves mention as the conditions for ecstasy.

No data to link billionaires’ success to ecstasy

The authors make big claims by saying that the top world performers and entrepreneurs differentiate themselves also thanks to the use of ecstatic states. 

But they have no way of corroborating it and they don’t even attempt to.

They mention Tim Ferris (of course) saying that “most billionaires he knows” trip with altered states of consciousness, but that’s no proof of anything.
Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Workweek and The 4 Hour Body is a notoriously “hack-seeker”, so he’s heavily biased.

And attention: this is not to say that ecstasy cannot be helpful, because it probably is. Especially in creative endeavors. 

But there is no proof whatsoever that most billionaires leverage it and/or that it will help you come up with a genius idea or invention and become more successful. 

Stealing Fire Review

Steven Kotler co-authored Bold with Peter Diamandis, which I very much enjoyed.

And I liked “Stealing Fire” even more.

I have to say that I am not a big fan of the ecstasy of “losing yourself in the crowd”.
I certainly see the appeal in it and I’m not immune to it either, but I prefer healthy individualism, instead.

I also wished for less cheerleading, deeper analysis, and more science. But I can still recommend it.

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