Sort yourself out, says Peterson. But how does one do that, exactly? What does sorting yourself out look like in practice? What can you do about existential crisis—in yourself or in those around you? Is there a correct way to live? And who the hell is Jordan Peterson?
Jordan Peterson. Surely you know who he is by now? Let this be an introduction to those who are unfamiliar, and a reminder to those who are. He is a clinical psychologist with over two decades of deep-in-the-trenches experience; a tenured professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto; and a truly brilliant, remarkably well-learned, precisely spoken and very deep character.
Ever since his first podcast with Joe Rogan back in late 2016, he has been somewhat of an internet sensation—but a sensation that in no way resembles the typical, internet sensation. In that podcast he discussed a couple of things that had recently put him in the spotlight: one was his opposition to Canadian laws ordering people do address people by their freely chosen pronouns (and there were something like 70 to learn); and the other was how he had been attacked, bordering on the physical, by a number of ignoramus university students who were trying to destroy his reputation: the irony, course, is because the exchange was recorded, they caused his reputation grow rather exponentially. Whilst the podcast was originally about that, as Jordan spoke to Joe, it became obvious to listeners that there was much more to this man than the typical guest, much, much more.
Fast track to today and he has hundreds of millions of views on Youtube, a thriving Patreon account, a massive and loyal following on a number of different platforms across the web, a new best-selling book, and a different scale of responsibility; but it is a responsibility that he both deserves and can handle properly. Jordan’s lectures and books have changed the lives, by now, of millions of people—heck, just listening to one of his podcasts or reading a few quotes opens your eyes, gets the juices going, and makes you want to take action—as you’re about to find out.
Seen as there is so much out there from Jordan—not about him, but actually from the man himself—you would think distilling some of it down into a short post would be a walk in the park; but that would be a mistake. It seems that everything Jordan says has utility—and he has a lot to say, and has said a lot, which means that proper discrimination is difficult. Nevertheless, I have produced something for you, which I hope will be very useful: even if you read only the first half.
A quick note about Jordan’s recent book is warranted. It is called 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos, and, I say with almost 100% certainty, it is a book that will change your life; and even if you don’t think so once you read it, it still will, on a subconscious level. Though the title makes it sound somewhat like another self-help book, it is of a different breed to 99% of other self-help books out there: with over 200 references, it is a scholarly piece of work; but unlike most scholarly works, it is profoundly interesting, fun, memorable, practical, and a book worth rereading, perhaps more than once. Being a man who walks the talk, Jordan has a ton of stories and anecdotes that add more brilliance to his already brilliant way of communicating. The style of delivery he uses in lectures is arguably the main reason so many people have fallen in love with his teachings; and he brings this style to the book. I can’t recommend it enough.
What follows are eleven separate sections in which I take one of Jordan’s ideas and conduct a commentary-type-deconstruction. Each section starts with 2-3 relevant quotes, and a few words of elucidation—in differing lengths.
Stop doing the things that you know you shouldn’t be doing
‘Take yourself as if you were taking care of someone you actually care for.’
‘Stop doing the things that you know are wrong, that you could stop doing.’
‘Doing this doesn’t mean you’ll ever be able to form a clear picture of things, but it does mean moving continually away from untruth to truth–and that is not a bad start.’
If you cannot think of anything, then you’re not thinking deeply enough. If you cannot stop doing them, then you’re not taking the consequences seriously enough. Now, you will certainly not be able to stop doing all of them, and some of them, only in part; but taking an active, diligent approach towards doing so can do wonderful things for your life.
Think on paper
‘There is no difference between writing and thinking.’
‘If you can think and speak and write, then you are absolutely deadly–nothing can get in your way.’
‘It is the most powerful weapon you could possibly provide someone with.’
Most of us don’t know what the hell we’re thinking—until we get it out, either in writing or in speech. Depending on the people you converse with, it could be that conversation is not the best option; also, of course, it could be that what you want to say could offend or be entirely inappropriate. This is why writing is a gift; it allows you to know what you are thinking without speaking a damn word.
This is extremely beneficial, essential even, when it comes to important subjects and complex questions, such as those in the political realm, sciences, in philosophy, mathematics, and so forth. Writing is a means of clarifying thoughts, clearing the fog, lifting the overwhelm. If you are having trouble thinking, try writing, or speaking to someone who will listen and try understand you. Speaking is certainly faster, and easier, but writing allows you to say what you want, and it is, in my experience, more fruitful.
Develop a routine—Make a schedule—Write a plan
‘Make a damn schedule–and stick to it.’
‘Set the schedule up so that you have the day you want.’
‘If you have any sense, you’ll want to set up your day so that at the end of the day, you are not in worse shape than when you began the day–because that is a stupid day. If you have a bunch of those in a row you just bury yourself in a hole.’
Write lists, make plans, set schedules—and do so in such a way that everyday you are doing the things that you want to do. Of course, there will be things you have to do that you don’t want to do, else things will fall apart in the future, immediate and long-term; but these things can be scheduled in too, and you really don’t need to spend that much time on them. Need evidence? Look at every person you would consider successful, and realise, you do have enough time.
Sort yourself out, at the fundamental level
‘The reason you’re sane, as a fully functional and autonomous human being, is not because you’ve organised your psyche, even though that is important; the reason that you’re sane, if you have a well-organised conscious and ego, is because other people can tolerate having your around…’
‘Partly what you’re with your routine is establishing yourself as a credible, reliable, trustworthy, potentially interesting human being, who isn’t going to do anything to erratic at any moment.’
‘What happens to people if they don’t have a routine, is they become isolated, and start to drift–and they drift badly, because the world is too complicated for you to keep it organized all by yourself.’
‘Sanity is outsourced.’
Why is this important? Well, consider a compulsive liar: this person has built a life around themselves, a character, habits and ways of being that are largely in accordance with his philosophy of lying: this life supports and fuels the philosophy. Now, without getting deep into the problems with lying, we know that it is not good—that sooner or later, one will run into a brick wall, and hard, and possibly fatally, so it is better to stop as soon as possible. If this person were to try to stop lying, not only would it be extremely difficult and painful, but his whole world would fall apart: the life that he had been living—a support system for his lies—will have to die, and he will have to rebuild. This process could take a very long time, depending on how deep-rooted the philosophy was. This is an example of fundamental addressing.
It is a matter of ethics, morality, values, principles, philosophies of living, rules, standards: all these things matter because they determine the person you are today and who you will become; and the life you live today, and the life you’ll have in the future. Getting them right—strong, moral, in alignment with what you want to do—is therefore crucial; if they are weak, cracked, twisted, ulterior, then everything built on top—your habits, thoughts, speech, your life—will be, too. Sort yourself out.
Adopt responsiblity; bear a burden: you develop meaning through struggle
‘The probability that you are going to stumble on success randomly, is zero.’
‘My experience is, if people figure out what it is that would be good for them, and then the aim at it, they get it.’
‘The pathway forward is to adopt a mode of being that has some nobility so that you can tolerate yourself, and perhaps even have some respect for yourself as someone who’s capable of standing up in the face of the terrible vulnerability and suffering.’
What is a meaningful path? How do you discover meaning? How do you find your purpose? Well, we think about these things all backwards. For meaning, purpose, passion—these things cannot be found: life is not a game of hide and seek; life is a participator sport. Meaning is a emergent property of following something that interests you, taking on some responsibility, and enduring the inevitable toil and pain that comes your way as you walk the path. Passion is something that, unless you’re exceptionally lucky, you cannot think up, discover, or understand in forthought; rather, it is an emotion, lying nascent in the core of your being, that can only come alive once it has been given enough time, fuel, experience. It is an out of reach, abstract idea as long as you have no sensation of it in your bones; and only at the point of critical mass will it become real, something you feel, something cannot deny.
One day, in the distant future, in a moment of contemplation, you will turn around and say, ‘you know what?… this, right here, I really think, is my passion’. But this can only happen, if you do things right today: if you live as if everything you do matters—because it absolutely definitely crucially and fundamentally does.
Embrace the struggle; confront the dragon; face the truth; jump right it, and make things happen. Hardship is the fertiliser of the seed that is the human spirit; only through blood, sweat, tears, discipline and specificity, can it flower it something unique, powerful, beautiful.
Be specific about what you want
‘Ask yourself specific questions … and then maybe you develop a vision of a life you’d like to have … and then you break down the goal into microprocesses that you can implement. Theses microprocesses become rewarding in relation to their causal association with the goal–and that tangles in your incentive reward system … which is the thing that keeps you moving forward. It works better when it is producing positive emotion because it can see you moving towards a valued goal. The lesson? Better have a valued goal.‘
‘You need a family, friends, career, educational goals, plans for time outside of work, attention to your mental and physical health. You don’t need all these things, of course, but you better have most of them, because if you don’t, all you’ve got left is misery and suffering.’
‘Often people specify their goals because they don’t like to specify conditions for failure. Keeping yourself vague and foggy, which is real easy, means you don’t know when you fail. … Avoid willful blindness.’
Specificity is rewarded, in life. If there are things you want to do in life, if there is a type of person you are trying to become—if there are improvements you want to make—then there is arguably nothing better than getting to it: doing the work and trying to make things happen. Or is there? Actually, there is: it is being seriously specific about what you want: about where you want to go, what you want to achieve, the person you want to become, the targets you want to hit. Specific questions give you specific answers; specific goals will illuminate real-world, realistic, achievable, practical problems and challenges—or better put, sub-goals—that you can start working on pretty much right away.
If you stay hazy and indefinite about your goals, however, everything will seem like a problem, and everything will demand your attention, and you’ll constantly find yourself attending to petty, fruitless trivialities; for life, by nature, is chaos—and overwhelmingly so—which means that you absolutely have to determine, clearly and seriously, what it is you are trying to do. This is the purpose of routines: they decrease the amount of thinking you have to do about X, Y and Z, and therefore free up resources to be spent on (ideally) more important matters. You’ll know all about this: remember a time (perhaps you’re in this situation now) when you have no routine, and think about how much thinking goes into making everything goes to plan—and wastefully so, for most of the things the average person has to do on a daily basis can be made easier by routine. Once again, the reason is because life, in its natural state, is chaotic; and the only way to swim, to thrive, to make things happen—to not sink, to not be rendered totally helpless, to not kill your spirit before your actual death—is to categorise, plan, systematise, discriminate, forge habits, live by principles, and develop routines
Think very carefully about the words you use
‘I had to learn to stop saying things that made me feel weak … I’m still trying to learn that … When I first started, I had to stop almost everything I was saying. … It was a shock.’
‘If you say things as true as you can say them, then it’s like they come up out of the depths inside of you.’
‘It is a helluva shock to wake up and realise that you’re mostly dead wood … And you might think do you really want to burn all of that off–leaving only nothing but a little husk–when there may only be 5% of you left? Well, if that 5% is solid, then maybe that’s exactly what you want to have happen.’
Be very cautious with your words. Words are the world’s most powerful weapon; for there are only two mechanisms we have with which to move civilisation forwards: these are conversation and violence. And we do want to and we do need to move forwards. But this is not the only reason: the words you speak are directly responsible for the strength of your character. An example of this could be when you extirpate ignorance pertinent to your own lifestyle: for example, the harms of eating sugar; once you are conscious of the this, no longer will you be able to consume sugar (or speak in favour of it) without feeling guilty or pitiful.
Consider the event in which you find out about an affair your best friend is conducting behind his girlfriend’s back, and she asks you about it one day: you could lie, but doing so would make you feel extremely guilty. This is what it means, to say things that make you weak. The ineluctable feelings of guilt manifest, literally, in a sense of physical weakness; you feel it in your bones. The upshot, then, is that self-consciousness, whilst it can be crippling, is actually your best friend—but as long you do the right thing. Knowledge is powerful and dangerous: once you know something is right, if you act not knowingly do the wrong thing, you poison yourself; but if you do the right thing, you grow, mature, develop fortitude, make progress.
Live the truth
‘Adopt the mode of authentic being. That means refusing to participate in deception and the lie; to orient yourself as much as you can towards the truth; and to take responsibility for your own life, and perhaps the lives of other people. … And there’s something about meaningful, and responsible, and noble; but also that serves to mitigate the very suffering that produces the nihilism… or the fleeing into the arms of totalitarianism to begin with.’
‘You need to something to shelter your against your own vulnerability.’
‘The things that pose the greatest threats to your survival are the most real things.’
The question is, how do you do that; how does one ‘live the truth’? The first step is to stop lying, and stop bullshitting; they aren’t the same thing: lying requires thought, planning, ulterior motive, whereas bullshit is just brainless nonsense. Hence, stopping the latter is far easier and less painful than the former, which, if you’re somewhat expert at it, or just unconcerned about it, can be very tough.
Quitting lying means quitting all kinds of lying—bullshit, black lies, and yes, white lies. This is only one aspect of living the truth; it also means calling out fraud when you see fraud, calling a spade a spade, standing up for what is right, being truthful with yourself all the time and doing something about it. It is hard, but it is the answer; and it is the only way to build a future that is both better and strong. If we build a future—both on an individual and societal level—upon contrivance and fabrication, we build a future upon crumbling foundations; and often, the only way to repair the damage later on, is through revolution.
If, on the other hand, we build a future—again, with reference to ourselves and the civilisation—if we build a future upon truth and reason, then we build a future on strong, flexible, reliable, antifragile foundations; for ignorance, one removed, cannot be reinstated.
‘There’s an endless number of things that can disrupt your plan; and only a tiny number of them that can help you work things out. … And I say, you should work to become the friend of the things that disrupts your plan.’
‘You want to be able to take on the consequences of error–and learn from it, and then you win, constantly.’
‘If something goes sideways, you can think, “there is something to be derived from this”. And that is wisdom, fundamentally.’
If you have a plan, a schedule, a self-defined blueprint for what you want to do, it is far easier to befriend your neuroses and errors—which is a very helpful thing, because it allows you to learn from them. In the case of neuroses, there is often a lot of wisdom—and practical wisdom—to be found inside them; the problem is, if you don’t know how to filter the wheat from the chaff, how to make sense of them—if you don’t have a specific question—if you don’t know what it is that you want——then barring extreme luck, you’re no better off than the one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest.
Plans and specific goal-setting train you to recognise signal—and there is an awful lot of noise in life. The same goes for your errors: if you don’t know what you are trying to do you’ll go around in circles, never going anyplace in particular for the simple reason that you don’t know where you want to do; you’ll drift, which means you could end up anywhere, and the chances of it being a place that you will like are stupidly and, when you consider it, terrifyingly, thin.
If you remind vague or in denial you’ll have no clue as to when you’re either committing an error, on the receiving end of bad luck, simply going through the necessary struggle of hard work and complex problem solving, or just not interested; every important distinction dissolved into each other in the whirlpool of daily life, and you’re left confused, overwhelmed, exhausted and possibly depressed. All this being said, if, on the other hand, you remain as clear-headed and rational as you can, you will be able to see the errors the you are making—which means you’ll be able to learn from them, which is the world’s biggest and worst kept secret all at the same time.
Set audacious but practical goals
‘If you configure your life so what you are genuinely doing is aiming at the highest possible good, then the things that you need to survive, and to thrive on a day-to-day basis, will deliver themselves to you.’
‘There’s no way you can find out if your hypothesis is true unless you do it … It is a Kierkegaardian leap of faith–and a necessary one.’
‘The world shifts itself around your aim. … You are an aiming creature; you have to have an aim in order to do something. You look at a point and you move towards it; it is built right into you. Your aim sets up the world around you.
Aim high. Identify something big, specific, and wild, and go after it. I like to think of this as your north star: a place, very far away, that you can see, and want to reach, really really want to reach, but may never reach, but try you must, because the alternative is a life in the shallows. Not only does this self-chosen north star provide continuous inspiration and meaning, but, at times of struggle, overwhelm, confusion and despair, you can turn your attention firmly on this north star, which will realign your focus and get you back on the path. Of course, spend too much time glaring at this north star and you’ll end up in a ditch, just like Thanes of Miletus. The key is to use it as the captain of a ship would make his way towards the lighthouse in the middle of a dark stormy night: you see it, in the distance, but you must attend to what is right in front of you, else you’ll hit an iceberg and sink.
Some people know their north star from a very young age; most people have fleeting episodes of deep meaning, occasional moments of meaninglessness, and for the most part, just ‘get by’. An increasing percentage of people are also out in search for their north star; the problem with this philosophy, however, is that it implies that you are actually going to find one: you are not; you must choose it, yourself—or either someone else will choose it for you (society), or you’ll drift about aimlessly your whole life never feeling fulfilled. Many a life has been wasted in the search for passion. This is probably not what you want. So…