Altered States to Altered Traits

Excerpt from “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 (Copyright ©2017 by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers).

One summer day, while working in the garden with his young daughter, Nicki, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman had, in his own words, “an epiphany.” Seligman was meticulously freeing weeds with a trowel, and neatly setting them aside in a discard pile. Nicki, being five, was just having fun. “Weeds were flying up in the air,” Seligman later said, “dirt was spraying everywhere.”

Seligman, who describes himself as both a “serious gardener” and a “serious grouch,” couldn’t take it. He started yelling. But Nicki wasn’t having any of it. She stomped over with a stern look on her face.

“Daddy,” she said, “I want to talk with you. From the time I was three until I was five, I whined a lot. But I decided the day I turned five to stop whining. And I haven’t whined once since…If I could stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.” Seligman decided to take her up on the challenge, and bring the field of psychology along for the ride.

In 1998, after being elected president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman made positive psychology the central focus of his tenure. “I want to remind our field that it has been side-tracked,” he wrote in his first Presidential Column for the APA’s newsletter. “Psychology is not just the study of weakness and damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken, it is nurturing what is best within ourselves.”

And if those studies on trauma demonstrated that a few instances of ecstasis (non-ordinary states of consciousness associated with peak performance “flow”) can help mend what’s broken, what happens if we deploy these techniques repeatedly, over the course of a lifetime? Can recurring access to these states really “nurture what is best within ourselves?” Can they, as Alan Watts suggested, be used to “cultivate the exceptional”?

Oddly, in the history of adult psychology, the idea that we could cultivate anything over time was considered suspect. After adolescence, the thinking went, adults were pretty much fully baked. Sure, we could learn technical skills, such as going to business school or picking up a musical instrument, but our ability to add psychological capacities—such as the gratitude and empathy that Nicki asked her father to embrace—was believed to be pretty much over and done with by the time we’d graduated from college.

But Harvard psychologist Bob Kegan upended that assumption by doing something psychologists before him hadn’t done too much of: longitudinal research. Kegan tracked a group of adults as they aged. His goal was simple: understand how they changed and grew over time, and determine if, in fact, there were upper limits to who we can become.

Kegan spent three decades tracking this group, seeing what happened to their psychological maturity and capacity along the way. He discovered that while some adults remained frozen in time, a select few achieved meaningful growth. 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 (and Roger Martin’s Opposable Mind). And not everyone gets to be wise. While it usually takes three to five years for adults to move through a given stage of development, Kegan found that the further you go up that pyramid, the fewer people make it to the next stage. The move from self-authoring to self-transforming, for example? Fewer than 5 percent of us ever make that jump.

But in all of this developmental research, buried in the footnotes about those self-transcending 5 percenters, lay a curious fact. A disproportionate number of them had dabbled in ecstasis: often beginning with psychedelics and, after that, making meditation, martial arts, and other state-shifting practices a central part of their lives. Many of them described their frequent access to altered states as the “turbo-button” for their development.

And this isn’t an isolated finding. Fifty years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow noticed that the more peak experiences a person had, the closer they came to self-actualization, his term for the upper stages of adult development. A 2012 study published in Cognitive Processing took it further. When examining the relationship between peak experiences and performance in Olympic athletes and corporate managers, researchers found that the highest performers didn’t just have more frequent peak experiences; they also made more ethical and empathetic decisions.

Boston College’s Bill Torbert found that those at the top of the developmental pyramid not only were more ethical and empathetic; they performed better in the workplace, as well. In a survey of nearly 500 managers in different industries, he found that 80 percent of those who scored in the upper two stages of development held senior management roles despite only making up 10 percent of the broader population. The most developed leaders, as Torbert noted in the Harvard Business Review, “succeeded in generating one or more organizational transformations over a four-year period, their companies’ profitability, market share, and reputation all improved.” Consciousness, it turns out, goes straight to the bottom line.

If the shift in psychology that led us from Esalen to Eckhart was about greater permission to explore, then Kegan and his colleagues have given us the next piece of that puzzle: a map of where we’re going. By bridging the gap between peak states and personal growth, these discoveries validate ecstasis as a tool not only for self-discovery, but also for self-development. So while ecstatic states (which are brief and transitory) aren’t the same as developmental stages (which are stable and long-lasting), it appears that having more of the former can, under the right conditions, help accelerate the latter. In short, altered states can lead to altered traits.

Excerpt from “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 (Copyright ©2017 by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers). For more information, visit:

Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and the cofounder and director of Research for the Flow Genome Project. His books include “Tomorrowland,” “Bold,” “The Rise of Superman,” “Abundance,” “A Small Furry Prayer,” “West of Jesus,” and “The Angle Quickest for Flight.” His work has been translated into 40 languages and his articles have appeared in more than 80 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Wired, Forbes, and Time.

Jamie Wheal is an expert on peak performance and leadership, specializing in the neuroscience and application of Flow states. He has advised everyone from the U.S. Naval War College and Special Operations Command; the athletes of Red Bull; and the owners of NFL, NBA, MLB, and Premier League teams to the executives of Google, Deloitte Cisco, and Young Presidents Organization.


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