We are the fire, we don't have to steal it

We are the fire, we don't have to steal it. 

I read The Rise of Superman (by Steven Kotler) when it first came out. It was a compelling read, exploring the altered states extreme athletes reach when they do the impossible. Kotler used these examples as a lens to explore how important these shifts in consciousness are and how we reach them. The idea that we (humans) have an internal shortcut to perform and feel better - not just better, our best - is tantalizing. Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal are the founders of the Flow Genome Project, a bold initiative that aims to understand altered states, how they relate to achievement and to teach people how to access flow 'on demand'. They've written a new book, Stealing Fire, and that's why we are here.

I think Steven and Jamie have created a body of thought that is interesting and intelligent - piggy-backing the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who created the modern term and investigated its origins. But I've got a beef with this book and I'm going to lay it out here - and hope that it diffuses into the flow-space to increase people's access to and understanding of flow.

The authors define flow as an "optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best". It's a moment where our focus is intense, we lose track of time, things just make sense and we find answers to problems, connect deeply with others or find a streak of creativity or athletic ability we didn't think was there. It's the zone. Csikszentmihalyi first found this experience happening in people who were experts in their field. Their deep knowledge, combined with intense focus led to a place where the expert could see patterns or make physical moves that would never come easily to a novice, that might even seem superhuman to an outsider. Flow started as a theory of expertise. The image below explains where flow exists within the scale of effort and skill. 

Unfortunately, the titles of both books imply that flow is hard to reach, The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire (they wrap the book around the myth of Prometheus stealing fire and giving it to humanity). And, to be fair, their focus is peak human performance, not average performance. Which is why they spoke to SEAL Team Six, Google executives, uber-elite Burning Man participants, Richard Branson, Red Bull executives, Nike, Dave Asprey of Bulletproof (biohacking) fame and United Nation's advisors. The book relies heavily on appeal to authority (i.e. multiple references to the military), technology (i.e. swooning passages over Google) and celebrity (OneTaste [possibly a cult], The Summit Series and a romanticized, drooling, homage to Burning Man*). To be blunt, I think that if you frame flow as hard to reach, then shore that idea up with logical fallacies that appeal to authority, technology and celebrity, it's much easier to sell services, supplements and exclusive technology to us commoners (with enough money to even access this stuff) and I don't buy it. 

Noah Berlatsky says it well in his critique of Stealing Fire, "if success is a predictable algorithm, hackable through skill and knowledge, then it follows that those who are most successful are also most skillful and knowledgeable". Keep in mind this is circular logic (a favorite logical fallacy of mine). Basically, if everyone in Silicon Valley is micro-dosing LSD this must be a component of their success, and therefore critical to my success. And while there are a lot of articles and guides on how to do this, there isn't much on why and almost no research. (That said, psychedelics do seem to have some legitimate healing powers, MAPS is a good place to look for current info). 

Even though the authors state that "...the responsibility to democratize ecstasis falls squarely on us" nearly every single example of flow is in the extreme category: extreme sports, the upper echalons of tech, or a crazy lab scientist creating the next wonder drug (oh and Burning Man, Burning Man, Burning Man). I find this curious because a healthy human being can easily reach flow (mild, moderate definitely, maybe extreme needs a push). That's right: EASILY. You do not have to suffer the lottery of Burning Man, put on an nnEMF VR helmet or attend an EDM festival. You do not have to throw yourself off a mountain. You CAN, but you do not have to. 

I claim that ecstasis (flow) is normal, our right and easy to access. Why? Evolutionary biology, that's why. Have you ever seen a mountain lion run? A buffalo stampede? An intense thunderstorm? It's hard for modern people to imagine the evolutionary pressures that got us here. It's actually not superhuman at all to get a huge dump of brain chemicals that gives you an advantage when attempting to outwit a large, dangerous animal or climb a tree to get away from a flash flood. It's survival. But these big dumps are neurologically expensive. Any ancient human would know that after taking down a water buffalo, outwitting an angry bear or crossing 80 miles of frozen tundra you need a meal and a nap. 

But that's big flow. Most of our (and I mean all of us non-Google, non-famous, regular people) time in the zone is little flow. Gardening, nursing a baby, singing with our friends and sharing a great meal all put us in little flow and this also has an evolutionary advantage. These mild states of altered consciousness make us feel good, and reinforce all those important little behaviors that help us raise healthy children, make strong bonds and keep our wits sharp. Basically, it's all the little stuff that made us a successful species. So far. 

The authors dutifully avoid mentioning all the common flow triggers for your average person. B-O-R-I-N-G and also, will not get you a keynote at the Healthcare Marketing and Physician Strategy Summit or an invite to DEVGRU or Summit Series or Apple and it certainly won't make you money. But, accessing these non-extreme zones is our best "training for non-ordinary states" (another term for flow). This is important because the last part of the book recommends "hedonic calendaring" using the formula (yes, math) of Value = Time x Reward/Risk. The fastest way to get me out of flow is 1) load up my calendar with obligations and 2) make me do math! The reason we want to access mild/moderate flow via common activities (i.e. forget the calendar and build a life based on regular, mild flow) is that it trains us to crawl before we walk. We are not a culture that values or encourages the non-ordinary state. Most of us have little or no practice. So before you take mushrooms, jump out of airplane or buy a new app, try being a biological human - we are BUILT for this. That's why we chase it at every opportunity - it's normal. If you have great body/brain health** (and you must for the cascade of hormones to happen easily) ecstasis is available to you via many average and boring channels. There is also no downside (or dark side) to this level of flow engagement. 

Now that's democratic. 

Here is a short list of activities that will get most humans into at least mild flow: 

  • Sharing food with others (dinner with wine and people you like)
  • Sex 
  • Gardening
  • Being outside, in nature, for any period of time beyond 20 minutes doing almost anything 
  • Yoga or almost any kind of body movement, Tai Chi, etc. 
  • Team sports 
  • Playing with children
  • Nursing your baby (if you're lucky enough to be a nursing mother)
  • Making things with your hands (any expert stonemason or glassblower will report flow in their work)
  • Childbirth (possibly one of the most extreme flow states)
  • Art - any kind
  • Writing 
  • Music - listening, playing, learning
  • Helping animals, humans or the environment 

This list could be hundreds of items, easily. And we are all triggered by different things. It's not a math formula you need, it's 1) knowledge of self, 2) time and 3) access to nature. Sorry, but you don't need to steal fire. It lives inside you, waiting for more oxygen - YOU ARE THE FIRE, breathe. I love that there is a conversation about this, largely due to Steven and Jamie's efforts. However, the current conversation is elitist and maybe a bit fantastical. The rarified air these guys (and it's almost all guys - another issue with not just the book, but the body of work - where are the women?) are breathing just isn't in the realm most of us operate in. 

Jamie and Steven have excellent warnings on the stickiness (addictiveness) of these big states, and also a great section on keeping an eye on authority and 'the state' because these triggers are already being deployed against us (and have been for a long time). People's deep and dangerous addiction to sugar and cigarettes is an example of purposeful deceit by corporations to hack that bliss state to make money. Do you think Google wouldn't pull the same bullshit? Listen to Tristan Harris, a former technological ethicist, and you quickly learn that this knowledge is being deployed for monetary gain by any company with the power to do so, especially the tech industry. Why do you think they needed an ethicist in the first place? 

Basically, if you don't have some time everyday with a little awe of nature, a sweet connection to your kids or partner, work you love or a meaningful conversation with a friend or stranger then you are missing out on flow and all the benefits. We don't need to force altered states, we can gain access to them easily, because they are our biological heritage. You're the fire, just light it up, big or small, you own it. 

 

Notes:

* Re: Burning Man - The authors state that "the hardest and grittiest lessons of building a city from scratch" in the desert is what makes Burners so incredibly special. I pose that it's possible many of these people are highly educated and have access to money, resources and power as well. Many people spend a lifetime in the harsh desert (jungle, large city, frozen tundra) living on practically nothing and are not able to accomplish what Burners have. It's not the 'harsh' experience, it's the environment they spend the rest of their time in. To miss that this is a self-selected group of people that are incredibly advantaged is a blind spot of huge proportions. Please tell any U.S. Marine that a Burner, who spent a week in Nevada without running water, has incredible survival and problem-solving skills. I spent 16 weeks last summer camping (in CO, AZ and CA) with no running water or electricity with TWO CHILDREN but you won't catch me claiming some kind of 'new intelligence' from the experience. Humans have done this forever. If someone was bombing Burning Man and everyone had children and then they had to survive (i.e. Syria) - I'd be more impressed. I am glad they are doing good things with their experience, but it doesn't make them a new breed of human with superhuman capacity.  

** Re: Brain Health - Our culture is also incredibly unhealthy, taken as a whole, and that explains why people are so indiscriminate in their flow-chasing. Booze, drugs, too much screen time, random promiscuity, violence, etc are all an outcropping of our need for non-ordinary states being sought after by a sick population. 

Additional Reading

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/one-among-many/201502/flow-and-happiness

https://qz.com/943314/stealing-fire-by-steven-kotler-and-jamie-wheal-our-obsession-with-self-help-is-actually-fueling-global-inequality/