Hacking the Transformative Experience

Written by Jeff King, Ed.D. –

In Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal (2017) survey various fast-tracking methods to transformative experiences. It is little wonder in a fast-lane culture that humans, especially in a high-tech age, would seek tools and processes to shave off as much time and effort as possible along the way to the Great A-ha.

Stealing Fire Book Cover

Are there any hacks for Transformative Learning that could work in our classrooms?


Near the end of their book, Kotler and Wheal (2017) offer a cost-benefit equation for hacking transformation (p. 211):

Value = Time x Reward/Risk

Translated, this means one must gauge the potential reward against the risk while also factoring in how long the transformation-prompting process will take.

The authors’ categorization for potential routes to fast-tracked deep insight yields processes built on psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology. Using the cost-benefit equation above, if one places a high value on transformative insights, then the extreme end of the continuum representing the algorithm would be that the experience is so highly valued that any short-cut possible to reduce the time to get to the experience at any risk is worth it.

Pharmacologically, an example might be someone taking unsupervised LSD trips, courting psychological damage, while considering the risk worth it.

The other end of the continuum might be the highly cautious seeker who opts for ten years in a monastery as the route to master that brain- and mind-state necessary for a blissfully transformative realization, an example of a neurobiological approach.

Neither LSD trips nor monastic retreats are particularly manageable in the college classroom. On the other hand, helping students get into a flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) is a potential route in the classroom to help students toward transformation. In such a case, the risk is far lower, though the guarantee of ecstasis is iffy, at best. Still, seeking flow by building a learning environment that supports it is good practice no matter how frequently or infrequently students get into flow or reach ecstasis.

Ecstasis, incidentally, is the word the ancient Greeks used to signify “stepping beyond oneself” (Kotler & Wheal, 2017, p. 11). It was a highly valued ability, and the famous tale of Alcibiades, who stole kykeon, an apparent hallucinogen, for a party attended by, among others, Greek historian Plutach, ends badly for party-boy Alcibiades. His bright idea that his party would be memorable for the group bliss-out that would ensue offered the opportunity for political rivals to have him tried in absentia for a crime punishable by death — that of blaspheming the Mysteries, an initiation ritual into transformative states.

One realizes how important the route to a transformative state was to the Greeks when considering that the Mysteries were lauded by the likes of Plato and Pythagoras, who referred to them as essential to the launch of insights underpinning the world of forms and the music of the spheres, respectively. Cicero described them as the mechanism allowing one to “perceive the real principles of life, and learn not only how to live in joy, but also to die in better hope” (Cicero, as quoted in Kotler and Wheal, 2017, p. 2).

So the Greeks were on to something with this quest for transformative states, and they were willing to participate in a 9-day ritual that would put them there. The Mysteries, however, are also not a practical method in the college classroom.


And that gets us back to flow, Csikszentmihalyi’s term for a highly focused mental state. One key characteristic of such a state is that the learner (whether in a formal education setting or not) has moved into a mental space such that distractions do not cut through, certainly a plus in the classroom. In addition, learners’ sense of time can be lost — what may seem only minutes in duration is actually an hour, so focused are the students on the topic or the work at hand.

Don Wettrick (2017) has four suggestions for inducing flow in the classroom. You can find them here. The first, teaching students mindfulness techniques such a focus on breathing for a minute or two at the start of class, is good for students in many ways, and pays dividends far beyond two minutes’ worth of class time devoted to this practice instead of ‘covering the content.’

After all, if you successfully facilitate a flow-state environment in your classroom, it is absolutely the case that students will accomplish more in 58 minutes than in a non-flow-state hour.

One thing Wettrick does not mention regarding flow state induction, but which is a great resource here at the University of Central Oklahoma, is the labyrinth. If as a faculty member you want/need a little personal stress relief and mindful focus, walk the labyrinth in the beautiful outdoor setting on our campus.



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Kotler, S., & Wheal, J. (2017). Stealing fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and maverick scientists are revolutionizing the way we live and work. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Wettrick, D. (2017, March 28). Flow states: Ecstasis in the classroom? Retrieved October 19, 2018, from https://medium.com/@DonWettrick/flow-states-ecstasis-in-the-classroom-342b3cfa30ba

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