Have you been stuck in a rut for awhile? Have you been there so long that you feel like there’s no use in trying to get out of that slump? Maybe you even start telling yourself, “Things can never get better. This is just the way things are. Is there even a point to all of this?” And as you ruminate over these questions over and over, you feel more and more depressed and maybe even start to feel a bit resentful. Resentful towards others, resentful towards life itself.
Well, my guest today says that perhaps the way you start to get out of that rut is to clean your room, bucko. His name is Jordan B. Peterson, and I’ve had him on the show before. Peterson is a psychoanalyst and lecturer, and he’s got a new book out called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Today on the show, Dr. Peterson and I discuss why men have been disengaging from work and family and why his YouTube lectures resonate with so many modern men. We then unpack why it’s so easy to get resentful about life, before spending the rest of the conversation discussing rules that can help you navigate away from resentment and towards a life of meaning. Dr. Peterson explains why he thinks a meaningful life isn’t possible without religion or myths, what lobsters can teach us about assertiveness, and why a simple act like cleaning your room can be the stepping stone towards a better life.
- Why Jordan thinks men, in particular, are so drawn to his message
- The harm in withdrawing from society
- Why life is actually pretty hard
- How living virtuously and honestly pushes back against life’s natural hardships
- Can a meaningful life be had without religion and/or myths?
- How to discover your values, and why they can’t be forced
- How Jordan’s 12 rules set the groundwork for finding meaning in life
- What can a large sea bug teach us about life?
- Why your physical posture can change your emotional and spiritual posture to the world
- How to break a vicious cycle of status defeats
- Why you should clean your room and how vastly important it is
- How do you know if the story you’re telling yourself is the truth? Can you know for sure?
- Why you should, within reason, assume the fault if you’re unhappy
- Why sacrifice is the greatest human invention ever
- How to learn the skill of sacrifice
- What do you do when your sacrifice doesn’t get you what you want?
- What you can do to get ahead of life’s natural tendency towards chaos and entropy
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first show with Jordan about “maps of meaning”
- Podcast: Is There Anything Good About Men?
- Why Are So Many Men Missing From the Workforce?
- Life Is Hard; Get Drunk on This
- Life in a Secular Age
- A Primer on Nietzsche’s Big Ideas
- How to Develop a Mighty Moral Code
- AoM series on Social Status
- Self-Authoring: Plan a Better Life
- A Place for Everything and Everything In Its Place
- Groundhog Day
- What Do You Want to Want?
- The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot
- Matthew 7:3 in the Christian New Testament
- The Law of Sacrifice
- Make Your Bed, Change the World
Connect With Jordan
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
The Strenuous Life. The Strenuous Life is a platform for those who wish to revolt against our age of ease, comfort, and existential weightlessness. It is a base of operations for those who are dissatisfied with the status quo and want to connect with the real world through the acquisition of skills that increase their sense of autonomy and mastery. Sign up for email updates, and be the first to know when the next enrollment opens up in March.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art Of Manliness podcast. Have you been stuck in a rut for a while? Have you been there for so long you feel like there’s no use in trying to get out of that rut? Maybe you even started telling yourself things can never get better, this is just the way things are. Is there even a point to all of this? As you ruminate over these questions over and over you feel more and more depressed and maybe even to start to fill a bit resentful. Resentful towards, resentful towards life itself. Well my guest today says that perhaps the way you start to get out of that rut is to clean your room, bucko.
His name is Jordan B Peterson, and I’ve had him on the show before. Check out episode number 335 if you haven’t heard it yet. Peterson is a psychoanalyst and lecturer, and he’s got a new book out called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Today on the show, Dr Peterson and I discuss why men have been disengaging from work and family and why his YouTube lectures resonate with so many modern men.
We then unpack why it’s so easy to get resentful about life, before spending the rest of the conversation discussing rules and guidelines that can help you navigate away from resentment and towards a life of meaning. Dr Peterson explains why he thinks a meaningful life isn’t possible without religion or myths, what lobsters can teach us about assertiveness, and why a simple act like cleaning your room can be the stepping stone towards a better life. After this show over check out the show notes at aom.is/rulesoflife. Dr Peterson joins me now via Skype.
Jordan Peterson, welcome to the show.
Jordan Peterson: Thanks very much for the invitation.
Brett McKay: So we had you on the show about five months, kind of talked about your work in general, and your ideas and what you’re trying to do. I’d encourage people to listen to that episode to get a big picture view of what Jordan’s doing. You’ve got a new book out, 12 Rules of Life: Antidote to Chaos. So I’d like to get in some specifics this time, build of what we talked about last time into more specifics and talk about what you do in the book.
This podcast is The Art Of Manliness so I wanted to start off with this. Your primary audience tends to be men. I think you’ve mentioned in interviews that about 80% of your YouTube viewers are male. What do you think is going on there? Why do you think men are so drawn to your message?
Jordan Peterson: Well, I’m not sure. It could be just a side effect of the fact that most of the YouTube users are actually men, so that’s playing a role. Although … and so it’s hard to separate out that basic baseline fact from whatever more specifically might be going on. But I think that assuming that there is something specific that is attracting men, I think that what it is is a call to responsibility essentially.
I think that people are, especially young men are sick and tired of being fed a constant diet of, “You’re good enough. You should feel happy with who you are.” An endless diet of rights and freedoms will give you a meaningful life, and that’s on the sort of, pat you on the back even though you don’t deserve it, side of reality. And then there’s the lack of call to adventure I would say, and the accusation that men face increasingly that their active presence in the world does nothing but contribute to tyranny and oppression. Which I think is absolute … It’s not only nonsense it’s pernicious and destructive nonsense of the worst kind.
And so I’ve been telling men instead, or suggesting to them, explaining it more than telling, that it’s necessary for them to grow up and get their act together and to adopt some responsibilities and to bear a burden and to speak truthfully and to take responsibility because there’s important things to do in the world, and that the world will be a lesser place if they don’t allow what’s within them to come forward. I think that that’s true, and so I think that that’s a message that reasonable young men who are somewhat lost are desperate for.
Brett McKay: So if men aren’t getting this message, why … We’ve had people on the podcast discuss how different economists, psychologists, sociologists discussing how men are dropping out of public life, dropping out of school, the workforce, et cetera. Not getting married and doing all that stuff. Why do you think that message that you think is getting passed on to men through the culture is causing men to basically withdraw from society?
Jordan Peterson: Well, if you’re not going to be rewarded for your virtues, and instead you’re going to be punished for them, then what’s your motivation to continue. Especially when it takes a fair bit of effort to say truthful things and to shoulder responsibility, and if the consequence of that … So there’s reason to avoid it to begin with as a consequence of the difficulty, but if the net effect of doing that is that you’re accused before you even do anything wrong of being an upholder of rape culture and the patriarchal tyranny and the oppressive west, then why in the world would you want to contribute to that. Especially if you start to believe it.
You know, some of it’s just a matter of accepting excuses and taking the easy way of out, and some of it’s a matter of becoming guilty enough to actually believe it, withdrawing from active engagement in the world. The people who are going after masculinity, let’s say, as toxic, can’t distinguish between tyrannical power and competence. In fact for them there is no distinction between those two things, which shows you how addled they really are, because it’s extraordinarily important to discriminate between competence and power.
The post-modern types, especially the neo-Marxists, think, “Oh well, competence, that’s just how you justify your claim to your position. It’s really just power. You’re just defining competence in a way that benefits you.” But that’s idiotic, so it doesn’t really require much of an argument, and certainly no one never acts like that. If you have a car and it doesn’t work you take it to a competent mechanic. If your father’s heart is failing you take him to a competent surgeon, and you don’t think, “That person is just there because of the western patriarchy and the privilege of the oppressor.” So it’s nonsense, it’s resentful, cowardly, ideologically possessed, pathological nonsense, and it’s extremely dangerous. And so I’ve been saying that about as bluntly as I just said it, and I think that more and more people are realizing that it’s gone far enough. I’m sure hoping they are.
Brett McKay: One of the other dangers too of this sort of resentful attitude that you’re talking about is that the men who do withdraw, or even just people who withdraw, it could be a woman too. It tends to lead to nihilism and resentment themselves, right? They withdraw and it starts to fester. What’s going on there?
Jordan Peterson: Yeah. Well the thing is, the thing about … life is very difficult. One of the most ancient of religious ideas that emerges everywhere I would say, is that life is essentially suffering. What that means is that while people are fragile and vulnerable and mortal and prone to physical decay and mental illness, and to a fair share of malevolence as well. We’re fragile creatures and that means that life is hard and painful and anxiety provoking. You need something to set against that that’s worthwhile. That’s your destiny in the world, say your positive destiny in the world.
If you don’t have something positive to set against that and your life is nothing but struggle and pain, and with the occasional foray into malevolence or victimization by malevolence, then all you do is suffer stupidly and that makes you bitter and resentful. And then, you know, that’s just the beginning of your trouble because bitter and resentful, that’s just where you start the descent into you hell. You go from bitter and resentful to vengeful and to cruel, and way passed that if you really want to pursue it. And people pursue that all the time, it’s not like it doesn’t happen. It’s not like this is some abstract dream. All those high school shootings, all these mass shootings, they’re all carried out by people who walk down that road a very long distance.
I wrote about that in chapter six. Rule six is called, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” It’s about the motivations of people like the Columbine High School shooters and the mass rapist, the serial rapist Carl Panzram who features very heavily in that chapter. It’s a meditation on people’s motivation for evil, which exists in all of us. And no wonder, it’s understandable. That doesn’t make it right.
So the book, 12 Rules For Life, is a very serious book. There’s elements of humor in it but I’m trying to struggle with things at the deepest possible level and to explain to people why it’s necessary to live a upstanding and noble and moral and truthful and responsible life, and why there’s hell to pay if you don’t do that. That seems to be bizarrely enough an attractive message.
Brett McKay: Tell people life is hard and here’s how to handle it.
Jordan Peterson: Well that’s it. Well, everyone knows life is hard, and it’s not just hard it can be unbearably hard. It’s worst than hard because sometimes the hardship is inflicted upon you by yourself or by someone close to you or sometimes by an enemy, but sometimes by a friend, you get betrayed. It’s not just that it’s hard, you’re also subject to evil, you’re subject to malevolence, and that makes it even worse.
Everyone knows this. So you need something to set against that. You need a noble way of being to set against that. The thing is, all of eventually I’ve said so far in this program I would say in some sense is very dark and pessimistic. But what’s optimistic is that having established the truth of the matter, the suffering of life and the malevolence that’s part of it, you can also discover that living a meaningful life in the face of that, a responsible meaningful truthful life, is actually possible and it actually works. That’s the thing. That’s the optimistic thing.
You know, it’s not so bad to say to people, “Look, we’ve got a real problem here. It’s no joke. It’s a dead serious problem. It’s the fragility of your life and hell all balled up into one thing.” But that’s okay because there’s an antidote to it. There’s something you can do about it and you could start today and, well, that’s what I try to detail out in 12 Rules For Life and in my lectures online as well, and I believe it to be the case. As pessimistic as I am about the nature of human beings and our capacity for atrocity and malevolence and betrayal and laziness and inertia, and all those things, I think we can transcend all that and set things straight. I think that people can literally start today.
And you know, I’ve had thousands of people write me now and thousands of people talk to me as well because it’s up in those numbers now. They’re saying, “Well look, I’ve been watching your YouTube videos and listening to the information that you’re providing, and I decided to start putting my life together. So, I tried. I’ve been trying really hard for the last three or four months, and it’s really working. I’m getting along better with my girlfriend, and maybe we’re getting married. I have a job now and I’m pursuing it. I’m out of nihilistic pit of despair.” And you know, thank God for that. What a lovely thing to hear from people. So, hurray.
Brett McKay: Hurray, yeah. Well I mean, in your work and your lectures and in this book, you look to myths and stories from around the world, but primarily from the Bible. You did a whole lecture on the Old Testament. You use these to provide a framework for a meaningful life. I’m curious, we live in a sort of post, a secular age as it’s been called. Do you think it’s possible to chart a meaningful life without resorting to religious or mythical stories? And if not-
Jordan Peterson: No.
Brett McKay: … why not?
Jordan Peterson: No, I don’t believe so, because the story of a meaningful life is a religious story, by definition. So no, it’s not possible. People have oriented themselves with stories forever, and the greatest stories are about the proper way to orient yourself in life. The deeper they are, the more accurate they are let’s say, and the deeper they are, the more they move into the territory that is religious in nature.
What religious means essentially in the final analysis is something like profound or deep or eternal. There are eternal truths that are necessary to … It’s necessary to live by eternal truths. It’s an eternal truth that life is suffering. It will never go away that truth. And it’s an eternal truth that living in truth and living responsibility is the proper antidote to that.
And when you talk about things at that level of generality, let’s say, and applicability and depth, you’re in the religious domain, like it or not. Now you might say, “Well, does that have anything to do with God?” That’s a separate question I would say. I think you can have a reasonable difference of opinion about that, but the religious is part human experience. It’s part of everyone’s experience. It’s what you experience when you listen to a particularly moving piece of music, or when you’re deeply affected in a play or at a movie, or even by something that someone tells you, or when you’re deeply engrossed in your life, something engaging that you’re actively … something meaningful that you’re actively engaged in.
These are all religious experiences and they’re part of the instinctual landscape of human beings. It isn’t even a question, we know this. You can evoke mystical experiences in the lab. It’s part and parcel of the human condition. We don’t know the metaphysical significance of that, but I would say it’s a bit too early to say that there’s none. I do believe that the appropriate way to conceive of human beings is that we’re part material and mortal and finite, and part immaterial and metaphysical and divine.
I believe that’s the most accurate way to think about human beings, and I also know that the cultures that are predicated on that view of the human being are the ones that work. When you interact with yourself, if you treat yourself in part as if you were a transcendent being capable of much more than you are currently managing, if you treat the people around you like that and you act like that in the world, you’ll be radically successful in your endeavors. Everyone loves to be treated like that, and perhaps it’s because that’s the way that they really are.
Brett McKay: So, to see if I’m getting you, you think that, or you’re suggesting that, we need to tap into a meaning that’s outside or external to us. Because you talk about Nietzsche, Nietzsche said, “with the death of God we have to create our new values, our own meaning, become the Ubermensch.” Is that possible?
Jordan Peterson: No. I don’t think so. See, you asked me at the beginning of this conversational string whether it was possible for us to live in a completely secular manner without let’s say returning to the religious depths, and that was Nietzsche’s suggestion, that we do so. That we discover our own values or create them. He had just started to work out that idea in the few short years before he died. I think the psychoanalysts criticize that idea to death by discovering that there were forces that operated within us that are not under our control.
I don’t think that you can create your own values. I think you can co-create them, but a huge part of it is discovery. You know, you can’t make something in your life meaningful if it isn’t meaningful. You can’t force that on yourself, you have to discover it. Because I could say to you, “Why don’t you watch your life for the next month and notice when what you’re involved in is deeply meaningful? Just notice it, as if you don’t control it or understand it. And then strive to start doing more of that.” What you’ll find is that you have to discover it, you can’t make it happen. It sort of comes upon you rather than being something that you can command.
Brett McKay: So I guess we can get into the rules, what the 12 rules do. Of course this list isn’t exhaustive. I guess it sets up the parameters for you to discover that meaning. It doesn’t force it but it sets the ground work for you to actually have those meaningful experiences in your life.
Jordan Peterson: Well, it also helps explain that that’s what’s happening. We could look at this way. I believe that the experience of meaning is an instinct. You could think about it as the ordering instinct. It’s more like the balancing instinct but we’ll start with ordering. There’s a lot inside of you that needs to be ordered and set straight, like you’re a collection of motivations and emotions and thoughts and proto-actions and desires. Well, I suppose those are the same as motivations.
You’re a loose collection of all those things and something has to bring all of that into a functioning order. The experience of deep engagement, the experience of meaning I think is the manifestation of the instinct that orders you. It orders you and it orders your family and it orders the world, the broader world as well. That instinct isn’t some secondary consequence of some more important biological function, let’s say, it is that very function. I think we know enough about neuroscience now, I think we know enough about how the brain operates to just make that statement categorically.
So my hypothesis has been, and this is not a fully original hypothesis, it’s based on the work of neuroscientists whose research I know well and respect greatly, very hard-headed people. They believe framework that the left hemisphere is specialized for operation in explored territory, and that the right hemisphere is specialized for operation in unexplored territory. Or that the left hemispheres handles things that have been routinized and practices, and the right hemisphere handles things that are novel. You need practice things. You need to know what you’re doing and you have to have a place where that works. That would be explored territory or order or routine. And so part of your brain works well there, but then that’s surrounded always by things that you don’t understand, and so there’s another part of your brain that has to work with the things you don’t understand.
The sense of meaning occurs when you get those two systems working properly together so that you’re partly stable and secure and operating where you know what’s going to happen next, and it’s going to be something that you want. But also expanding your competence at the same time and pushing yourself and stretching yourself, so that if things shift on you, then you’re going to be ready and prepared. That’s a deep instinct. That’s the instinct of meaning as far as I can tell. It’s an unerring guide to proper action in the world. See, we’ve lost faith in the idea of meaning, intrinsic meaning, but I think that’s a big mistake. I think it’s a big mistake. I don’t think it’s warranted by the facts.
Brett McKay: So let’s get into some of your specific rules. The first rule, you ask readers to consider the lobster. What can a giant sea bug teach us about living a meaningful life?
Jordan Peterson: Well, it can teach us something very profound about life itself. One of the criticisms that’s thrown forward very commonly today by the postmodern neo-Marxists social constructionist types, who believe that human beings don’t have any real nature and that everything is only a construction of the social world, is that the observation that animals live in hierarchical structures and have for a third of a billion years. So the idea that the patriarchy let’s say is somehow a cultural construction is preposterous nonsense. It’s an idea that has no bearing, no grounding whatsoever in the facts of the matter.
Now, the particulars of a human hierarchy can be shaped by cultural forces, clearly. But the fact of hierarchical organization is something unspeakably ancient, and so ancient that even these giant sea insects that you describe, the lobsters, the crustaceans from who we separated about a third of a billion years ago in the evolutionary climb forward. They live in hierarchies as well, and the same neurochemical systems mediate their behavior in the hierarchies, that mediate our behavior in our hierarchies.
So, one of the amazing things, this amazing demonstration of biological continuity, is that if a lobster is fighting with another lobster for a position in a hierarchy and he loses, then he’ll make himself small and crouch down and collapse physically and run off and hide and won’t fight again. But if you give him antidepressants, to oversimplify slightly, if you give him antidepressants then he’ll stand up straight and go out and fight again. The reason I wrote about that is because it’s definitive proof, and not the only source by the way, that existence itself, social existence itself is deeply hierarchical and that your hierarchical position governs your posture. There’s a reciprocal relationship between the two, and your emotional wellbeing.
So knowing how to conduct yourself in a hierarchical relationship, in hierarchical relationships is extremely important. One thing you can do is improve your posture. If things aren’t going well for you, if you feel put down and victimized and if people are picking on you, it might be that you’re broadcasting the wrong signals. To stand up straight, well that starts to regulate your nervous system right then and there. To stand up straight and face the world forthrightly means that people will treat you with more respect and you can get a virtue of spiral developing. It’s an injunction to paying attention to how you hold yourself in the world, and an explanation of why that’s deeply, deeply important, and not merely a consequence of some sociological process. That’s rule one.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What do you do, I mean because, suffering these status defeats over and over again, it creates a vicious cycle. It causes you to do things that actually hurt you more in the long run. How do you find it in you when you … Say someone’s listening to this and they feel like a loser. How do they find in them to stand taller and face the world and fight the world, when they’ve suffered those status defeats over and over again?
Jordan Peterson: Well, I would say that much of the rest of the book is about that, about what you can do to put yourself together. The first thing I would say is that it’s a very dangerous thing to construe yourself as a particularized victim. People definitely encounter defeats over and over again, I would say that’s even part of life. Hopefully you can learn from them and you can stop making the same mistake over and over. I would say, I think it’s rule eight is tell the truth, or at least don’t lie. That’s a really good place to start.
If you’re suffering continual defeats there’s a high probably that you’re not saying the things that you need to say and you’re not living your life in an integrated, and what would you say, an integrated and forthright manner. There’s things that you’re leaving undone. Now I know sometimes people find themselves in terrible situations and everything that’s happening around them is arbitrary and unfair, but that’s very rare. It’s very rare that people are in a situation that’s so terrible that there isn’t something they’re doing that’s making it worse.
And so rule two is treat yourself like you’re someone who’s worth helping. That’s a good attitude to adopt yourself, to adopt with regards to yourself. You might start to think about what it would mean to help yourself. So we have this program online, called the self authoring suite. There’s one component it, helps you write an autobiography so that you can figure out where you are and how you got there. That’s helpful. Another component helps you analyze your personality, faults and virtues, so you can figure out who you are in it.
Third component helps you write a plan for the future. You might say, “Well, if your life isn’t going the way you want it to, then start to think about what you want.” What do you want from your friends? What do you want from your family? What do you want from your intimate relationships? How are you going to educate yourself? What are your career goals? How are you going to handle the temptations of drugs and alcohol, other forms of temptations? If you were to take care of yourself properly, how would you put your life together across those dimension? What would your vision for yourself look like three to five years down the road if you were taking care of yourself?
Rule three is make friends with people who want the best for you. Well that’s another thing that you can put straight. If you are surrounding yourself with people who are happy when you’re defeated and unhappy when you’re successful, even if they call themselves your friends, perhaps even if they call themselves your family, you should step away from people like that because they’re not looking out for what’s best in you. You have every right and even an ethical responsibility to surround yourself with people who are going to be happy when good things happen to you for good reasons. There’s lots of things you can do.
One of the things that I’ve suggested to people is that they clean up their rooms instead of protesting in the street. That’s become a bit of an internet meme. If things aren’t well for you then I would say start fixing the little things that are in front of you that you can fix, and don’t stop, and see what happens. Try it for a year. Try it for two years. Really dedicate yourself to it. Quit lying and saying things that make you weak and sort out what you have right in front of you that you can fix. That can remove the bitterness to. You can at least run it as an experiment. Say, “Well, I’m not going to be bitter and nihilistic for a year. I’m really going to hit this hard. I’m going to make make a goal, going to develop a vision, and I’m going to play the game as hard as I can for a year, and then I’ll reevaluate.” It’s like, well that’s a good plan man. That will help.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So yeah, fixing those small things is a way to increase competency, power. Making competency equal power. I think there’s a Nietzsche quote like, “Joy is the feeling of power increasing,” right, “Joy is the feeling of competency increasing.” So as you clean your room and to other little small things, you start to feel better about life.
Jordan Peterson: Well they’re also not so small. If you live in a house that’s really chaotic, your parents are alcoholics and you’re an overgrown child and the place is a filthy hellhole and everybody’s aiming down and there’s always carping and bitterness and resentment everywhere. You try to clean up your room in a place like that, you’ll find that there’s nothing small about it at all. It’s really hard. It’s really difficult. It will take a lot out of you. You’ll face unbelievable opposition from the people around you. You’ll have to fight through that too.
So these things that people think are small, like sorting out their own household, it’s like that’s not small man, that’s really hard. It’s really hard. And if you get good at that, if you get so that you can put your room, put yourself in order and then put your room in order, and then put your household in order, you’re well on the way to being unstoppable.
Brett McKay: I want to go back to that idea, that rule of speaking the truth. You said that in reference to figuring out where you are now in life and using the self authoring tools that you have to help you do that. How do you … What’s the advice you give to people to ensure they’re actually depicting reality as it is? Because we’re story-
Jordan Peterson: I don’t think- That’s a great question.
Brett McKay: We’re storytelling animal, so we could say the story, “Well, I’m here because of such and such thing, and I’m a victim of blah blah blah blah.” But you ignore the things that you contributed.
Jordan Peterson: Well, okay. So you’ve got two questions there. One is how do you know that what you’re saying is the truth, and the second is how do you test the stories that you tell yourself? Those are both really good questions, so let’s start with the first one.
I don’t think you can know if you’re telling the truth, because who knows the truth? The truth is, in some sense is an unreachable goal. But one thing you can do, and you can do this right away, is you can stop saying things you know to be false.
So the chapter’s actually called, “Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.” I would say it’s very difficult to have your vision clear enough so that you can see the truth, but by the same token virtually everyone knows when they’re lying, at least some of the time, and could stop doing that. And that’s good enough, if you stop saying things that you know to be lies, then you’ll start clarifying your vision and you’ll get better and better at perceiving the truth, even though you’ll never get to the point where you have it in your grasp. It’s an ever-receding goal.
And then with regards to the story that you tell yourself, this is what’s made me into a pragmatist technically speaking of the William James-CS Peirce type. What’s the purpose of memory? People ask. Well, it’s to remember the past. That’s the wrong answer. The purpose of memory is to help you stop doing the stupid things you did in the past that hurt you.
And so if you have an accurate representation of the past and its failures, then you won’t repeat the failures into the future. Let’s say you have a lot of resentment about women, just for the sake of argument. You’ve had a lot of bad relationships and you have a lot of resentment about how women are and how they’ve treated you. You have a theory about women and men and about their relationship in the world. You keep telling yourself that theory and acting it out in the world, and all that happens is you have one bad relationship after another. It’s like, “Well, clue in. There’s something wrong with your theory.”
If you keep applying it and the same pathological things keep happening, then perhaps there’s something wrong with the way you formulated the story. And you can’t complain about women, you know what I mean? Women is not a category that you get to complain about, because women for men present a huge part of the challenge of life, and it’s up to you to reconfigure yourself so that you can have a successful relationship with a woman. And if you don’t then you’re wrong, it’s as simple as that.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s like that saying, “If everyone you meet is an A-hole then you’re probably the A-hole.”
Jordan Peterson: Well, you’ve got to ask yourself at some point how much of it … and maybe you should hope that that’s the case, because if it’s everyone else , well good luck to you. But if it’s just you, well you might be able to change that. You know, you come out and make a statement, you say, “Every woman I’ve ever known has betrayed me.” It’s like, “Well, you know, you might ask yourself if there’s a reason for that.” “It’s just the way women are.” It’s like, “Well, no. Actually it’s just the way you are.” It’s either you or it’s all women. So pure Occam’s razor, simplicity and humility would all suggest that you’re the one with the problem. And if the world keeps slapping you in the face, at some point you have to wonder if it’s trying to tell you something. You ever see the movie Groundhog Day?
Brett McKay: It’s one of my favorites. It’s a classic.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, Groundhog Day is a great movie. Groundhog Day has the proper mythological structure, it’s a religious movie about death and rebirth. It’s brilliant. Well, if every one of your days is Groundhog Day, then it’s time to wake the hell up.
Brett McKay: Okay. So I guess when you tell your story, you figure that out, maybe a heuristic to use would be question it. Like, “How could this not be true?” Or, “Why would I have this story? What other explanation would be-”
Jordan Peterson: Well, if your life isn’t what you would like it to be then there’s some possibility that the story your telling yourself about it is wrong. You might as well just assume that. Why not assume that? It’s like, “Well I don’t have anything I want.” Okay, well maybe what you want is wrong, or maybe the way that your theory about being in the world is incorrect, your theory about yourself is incorrect, your ideas about other people are incorrect, and that’s why things aren’t working out for you.
There’s a little section in the book. I took a piece from a TS Eliot play called The Cocktail Hour. In that play a woman approaches a psychiatrist as a cocktail party and says, “I need to talk to you for a minute. I’m having real serious problems. My life is not going well. I’m suffering far too much. I have this idea, I really hope there’s something wrong with me and that you can help me figure out what it is.” The psychiatrist is sort of taken aback and he says, “Well, why do you hope that there’s something wrong with you?” And she says, “Well, I’m having a terrible time of it and if there’s something wrong with me then maybe I can fix it, but if there’s something wrong with the world and that’s just how it is, well then I don’t see that I have any hope at all.”
It’s such an optimistic idea. It’s echoed in the New Testament statement, “You should take the log out of your own eye before you worry about the dust mote in your neighbors’ eye.” That’s also right. It’s like, if your life isn’t what it should be then assume that it’s your fault. Now I know that’s harsh because I know that terrible things happen to pp and they’re often arbitrary but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, it’s still the right way to face the world. Face the world as if the excess suffering that you’re undergoing is your fault and you could do something about it. You’ll find that there’s more that you can do about it than you think.
Brett McKay: This kind of ties into my next question, this idea of sacrifice that you’ve lectured a lot about and you write a great deal about. I think in one of your lectures you said that sacrifice is the greatest human invention ever.
Jordan Peterson: Yeah, it’s the discovery of the future. If you only live in the present, like an animal, then you have to do the next thing that’s necessary, whatever that happens to be. But if you’re a human being things are more complex because you have to do whatever needs to be done next in a way that doesn’t interfere with the future, or maybe even makes the future better. What that often means is that you don’t get to do exactly what you want right now. You don’t get to pursue your impulses because you’re going to pay a price for that tomorrow or next week or next month or next year.
Instead, you often have to give up something of value now to obtain something of higher value later. That’s basically the sacrificial motif, these archaic people who were sacrificing something of value to God were acting out the idea that you had to give up something of value in the present so that you could establish a better future. That’s really the motif of work, because work is the sacrifice of the moment for the benefit of the future. The funny thing is, the strange is, is that sacrifice actually works. It actually pays off. You actually can bargain with the future, which is, well I describe why that is in great detail in 12 Rules For Life.
But then you might ask yourself, and I also write about this. I believe it’s in rule seven, which is, “Do what is meaningful not what is expedient.” You have to sacrifice to get ahead. What does getting ahead mean? What would be the best possible ahead? Well, that’s conceptualized religiously in ideas like paradise or heaven. And then you might say, “Well, what is the ultimate sacrifice that you have to make in order to get ahead, to reach paradise or heaven?” Well, you have to sacrifice yourself to what’s good, essentially, something like that. You sacrifice everything weak, everything about yourself that’s weak to the good. It’s something like that, and that’s just accurate. It’s painful because people are generally not very well constituted, they’re not very mature. They’re not very articulate. They’re not aiming very high, and so when they start sacrificing parts of themselves they may find that there’s a lot to burn off, maybe almost everything.
But the end goal, the end consequence of that, hopefully the aim that’s being pursued is of sufficient grandeur to justify that self-immolation. That’s the phoenix, right? The phoenix busts into flame, burns of everything that’s old and is then reborn. That a symbol of the savior, the phoenix. It’s something you do to yourself. It’s like, everything old and dead about you you want to let go off. Let it burn off. It’s painful because it’s alive, but it’s just dead wood. You don’t need it. That’s part of the sacrifice of yourself.
Brett McKay: Right. It sounds like sacrifice is a skills. It’s like something you have to learn and practice at.
Jordan Peterson: It is a skill. There’s no doubt about it. Part of the skill is setting your goal. Think, “What would I say, what’s a good goal?” Well, let’s start from the initial premises that life is dreadful suffering tainted with malevolence. All right, so everyone can agree on that. That’s a little harsh but it seems accurate. Okay, fine. That’s the baseline.
All right, now how do you solve that problem? Well, you have to embark upon an adventure that’s so remarkable that it justifies that. So you say to yourself, “Jesus, this is rough man. There’s a lot of misery along with this, a lot of betrayal, a lot of malevolence.” It’s like, “It doesn’t matter, it’s worth it.”
You watch yourself in a week or a month, and you’ll see that there are times when you feel that way about your life. You think, “Man, this is tough. Life is hard, but boy it’s really worth it.” That’s what you want, a want a goal that makes your life worth it. That’s not the same as being happy.
The idea that you should pursue happiness, that’s for children, for naïve children. It’s a foolish idea. You want to instead live your life in a manner that justifies its suffering. And that’s possible. You think, “That’s worth it. I’m going to play this game. It’s a worthwhile game.” I would say I’ve been trying to conceptualize that in a very precise manner. Most recently I would say, “You’re looking for meaning in your life, well it’s simple. There’s chaos to confront, there’s order to establish and revivify and there’s evil to constrain.” That’s enough meaning. You do those things, that will justify the pain and suffering of your life, and it will turn you away from bitterness and resentment.
Brett McKay: This kind of leads nicely into my next question. It’s this, how do you deal, manage the fact that sometimes your sacrifices don’t turn out the way you hoped. You use the story of Cain and Able to highlight this. Cain offered a sacrifice, for whatever reason it didn’t get accepted, and he got super resentful about it. I think that happens in people’s lives too. They have a goal, they make what they think are the requisite sacrifices for it, and then it doesn’t turn out the way they had hoped. So how do you avoid that resentfulness when things don’t work out the way you wanted.
Jordan Peterson: Well, generally if you’re moving forward, in some manner that’s worthwhile, and things don’t work out precisely the way that you expected, you’ll have generally gained something as a consequence of the experience. You should be wiser. What that means is that you might think, “Well, I didn’t get my goal quite right. I wasn’t aiming it exactly the right place and I didn’t make precisely the right sacrifices.” So then you try again. You forgive yourself.
You think, “Well, I gave it a good shot. It didn’t work out, but I didn’t get it quite right.” And then you meditate and you talk to people you trust and you try to reconfigure your goal. You think, “I must have got it wrong. Didn’t work out, I must have got it wrong. I’ll reconfigure my goal and I’ll reconsider my sacrifices and I’ll repeat the endeavor.” If you do that diligently then your vision will become clearer and what you’re aiming at will become better and the sacrifices you make will become effective. So you think, “I’m going to try this. I’m probably wrong and I’m going to have to have a lot to learn, but I can learn.” And then it’s a self-correcting process across time. To become bitter about it, the failure, to become bitter about is another form of failure. It’s a form of meta-failure I would say, because it undermines your faith in the process itself, and then you’ve really failed.
If you’ve just failed, well that’s not such a big deal man. People aim at something and miss quite frequently, although they generally learn something by doing it. It’s like, “Aim again.” If that doesn’t work, aim again. If that doesn’t work, aim again. Maybe you have to aim a little lower. Aim at something you’re more likely to hit. Maybe your goal was grandiose or maybe your discipline was insufficient. So you have to reconfigure and re-implement and try again.
Brett McKay: So, and this is the long term, and that’s another question I have. Is, and you’ve kind of hit on this a bit, is how do … Let’s say someone’s listening and they’re like, “I want to start doing this. I want to start cleaning my room.” But they don’t see the benefit right away, you know, a week, month. Things just feel like, “How do you keep going when you don’t see that immediate-”
Jordan Peterson: They will. They will-
Brett McKay: Do you think they will?
Jordan Peterson: They will see the benefit. If they’re in the game properly, if they open themselves up to the possibility of transformation and they make the sacrifices properly, let’s say. Because you can’t go in your room and say, “Well look, I’m going to clean this up and if my life isn’t 100% better in a month then to hell with it.” That’s not the right attitude.
The right attitude is, “Look, everything around me is quite a mess. I’m going to to work diligently to improve it in the ways that I can improve it. I’m going to stick this out and I’m going to watch very carefully. I’m going to be grateful for small benefits that come my way. I’m going to be attentive and I’m going to see them.” There’s a statement in the New Testament that I wrote about a fair bit in 12 Rules For Life. It says, “You cannot test God.” It’s something that Christ tells Satan when he’s being tempted. “You cannot put God to the test.”
It’s like, you can’t clean up your room and then sit there with your arms crossed and say, “Okay. Tap, tap, tap. When is this reward coming?” That’s not how it works. You have to deeply assume that if things are not working out for you, that you’re at fault. And then you have to work to improve those things you know you could improve, and then you have to be I would say humbly grateful when things start slowly to go your way. That will work, but it’s not, you can’t have the attitude, “Well now I’m finally going to get what I deserve. It’s about time things came around my way.” That’s not going to work.
Brett McKay: I guess another attitude to have is to sort of understand that metaphorically things are going to tend towards chaos or entropy, and so your job is just to consistently keep things in order. Consistently keep cleaning your room. It’s never going to stop.
Jordan Peterson: No. Well, but you can … if you’re lucky, if you’re fortunate … I mean sometimes you can be in a so much chaos that your boat is sinking and you can barely bail fast enough to stay afloat. That happens to people from time to time in their life, but often you’re in a situation where if you put in a decent effort, then you can get ahead of the chaos and start to make, not only to keep it at bay, but to start to establish habitable order.
Look, I went to a restaurant … Like, when I was a kid I worked as a dishwasher, when I was about 14. It was a hard job. I mean, the first three weeks I was doing this I was going to school and I was up till like three in morning at this restaurant. Because I’d get so far behind in the dishes that it took me hours after my shift ended to get them all done. I remember talking to my dad about two weeks into the job, and I said, “Look, I’m busting myself in half here and I can’t keep up. I don’t know if I can do this job.” My dad wasn’t someone who was ever happy in the least if I quit, and he said, “Well look, maybe it’s no one can keep up.” I thought, “Well, maybe.”
Anyways, I stuck with it for about another week and then the German chef, who was kind of a rough old guy, finally came over. I guess he thought I’d pass my initiation test or something, and he showed how to do it. He showed me how to organize the dishes and stack them and organize my work place so I could keep up. And then I could really keep up. Then I actually got good at the job and I had quite a bit of spare time, and I learned to be a short order cook. I got along really well with the cooks and the bartenders and all the people that were in the restaurant. I really loved that because I got to work in an adult world even though I was only 14. It was really good.
But part of that was I took the damn job seriously. It was just a dishwasher’s job, but I took it seriously, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t just a dishwasher’s job, it was my bloody entry into the adult world. I learned to cook, and then I could cook, I could take care of myself. I got to be a good cook.
I had this kid, walked into a restaurant about a month ago and the kid that was sitting me said, “Hey, I’ve been watching your videos and I wanted to thank you.” I said, “Why? What’s been going on?” He said, “Well here, I’m working at this restaurant, and in the last six months I decided to really work hard at it. To work as hard as I could at it.” He said, “I got three promotions.” He said, “I can’t believe it.”
It’s like, there’s lots rights in front of you. The whole world is right in front of you. You might think, “Well, other people have more in front of them.” It’s like, “Well, maybe they do, but you’ve got more than you can manage right in front of you.” If you took full advantage of it, it might be the gift that never stops giving.
And you know, you think, “Well that’s naïve. There’s horrible places to work. It doesn’t matter how hard you work you really won’t get rewarded and people will take advantage of you.” It’s like, “Well, if you’re in a job like that then you should find another job.” But in most places, and I’ve had a lot of jobs, I’ve probably had 50 jobs and they’ve ranged from, well from dishwasher to Harvard professor, which is a pretty good range. And my experience has been in 90% of those places if you were honest and you worked hard and you were reliable and you weren’t above the job, then doors would open to you, and a lot faster than you think. I truly believe that that’s the case. It’s especially the case in our culture because our culture’s actually based on competence. If you’re reliable and honest and hard worker and your eyes are open and you’re grateful for what you’ve got, you can advance very rapidly. I’ve seen that over and over and over in my clinical practice.
You know, I’ve had lots of clients, they come to me and they’re doing okay. They’ve got a decent job but they’re not happy with it. Maybe they’re not making enough money and they can’t buy a house. And so we put together a plan, three year plan. It’s like, “Okay. We’re going to triple your damn salary in three years.” But it’s going to take work. Get your resume together, get some more education, figure out what you want, start applying for other jobs, figure out how to do an interview and push.
People move fast. It’s amazing. And it’s not like it’s not hard. It’s hard, but if you don’t waste time being … Well, if you don’t waste time wasting time and being bitter, you can put a tremendous amount of effort into what you’re doing. And then there’ll be people around who are really interested in finding someone who wants to put effort into what they’re doing and they will open the door for you. They will provide you with opportunities, more than you know what to do with.
Brett McKay: Yeah, human beings value competency across the board.
Jordan Peterson: Well, sensible human beings value competence, and there are lots of people like that around and they’re looking around to see, to find other competent people, because it’s kind of rare. The people I know that have been hyper-competent, people who’ve established multiple businesses and sometimes multiple spectacularly successful businesses. One of the things they absolutely love, and this is a place where I think capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism gets a bad rap, they love finding young people who are motivated and giving them opportunities and helping them develop their careers. It’s one of the primary sources of gratification for people who’ve developed successful careers.
You think, “Well they’re greedy and they want everything for themselves.” It’s like, “That’s a psychopath, that person.” Like a solid competent reliable entrepreneurial creator is so happy when he or she stumbles across someone who wants to be competent, that you can hardly believe and they’ll do everything they can to help them build their careers. That’s the real world. It’s not the cynical world of the radical leftist resentful imagination.
Brett McKay: Well Jordan, there’s a lot more we could talk about but where can people to learn more about the book.
Jordan Peterson: Well, they can go to my website, jordanbpeterson.com. They can go to my YouTube channel, there’s lots of lectures there. Including some that are directly about the book. There’s an audio version, because people are accustomed to listening to me lecture and so there was a fair demand for the audio version so I recorded that. They could try the self authoring program. It’s very inexpensive. It works even if you do a really bad job of it. So that’s what I encourage people to do, is like pick up the program, write your autobiography, lay out your faults and your virtues, make a plan for the future and do it badly. It will be way better than not doing it at all. So, those are all possibilities.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Jordan Peterson, thank you so much for you time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jordan Peterson: Thanks very much for the opportunity. It was a pleasure talking to you again. Good luck with your podcast and with what you’re doing.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jordan B Peterson. He is the author of the book 12 Rules of Life. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at jordanbpeterson.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/rulesoflife, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of The Art Of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out The Art Of Manliness’ website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the podcast and got something out of it, appreciate if you take one minute to gives us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continuous support and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to say manly.