What Happened When I Went To Hear Jordan B. Peterson Speak
They say that you’re more likely to regret the things you don’t do, rather than those that you do…
I tend to commit to things far in advance when they seem like a good idea, but by the time they come around I’ve lost enthusiasm. More often it’s that I’ve had enough time to persuade myself out of them.
It’s particularly galling when it involves buying tickets to an event, months in advance. On many occasions I’ve given tickets away or sold them for a loss after losing enthusiasm or talking myself out of going.
And so threatened to be the case when I bought a pair of tickets to see Professor Jordan B. Peterson when he spoke at a theatre in Manchester, England. The event took place last week and the day before, I’d concluded that I wouldn’t go.
In the unlikely event that you haven’t encountered him before, Jordan B. Peterson is a divisive and somewhat controversial person — I count myself as one of his fans.
The Canadian clinical psychologist is the kind of intellectual heavyweight that I cannot help but admire, even though there are many who consider him the devil-incarnate.
There’s a refreshing lack of pomposity in how he speaks, only an impressive depth of reasoning. When he describes his theories and principles it’s in a way that’s simple, straightforward, and hard-hitting.
A few of the comments beneath one of his YouTube videos summarise it perfectly:
I discovered him through his bestselling book ’12 Rules For Life — An Antidote to Chaos’. I’ve read it at least twice through and it’s the book I’ve gifted most often. I’ve since watched many of his lectures on YouTube, read his book ‘Maps of Meaning’ and regularly listen to his podcast too. I’m an unashamed fan-boy.
I’m not oblivious to the controversy that surrounds him — he courts it through his plain-speaking and a refusal to hold back on issues about which he’s passionate. Gender politics, anti-fragility and political-correctness-gone-mad are a few of the subjects that he speaks passionately about. His freely expressed (and in my opinion, well-reasoned) views have earned him fans and enemies in almost equal measure.
Personally, I’m drawn by his philosophies on life and how these can be applied to navigating the inherent craziness that prevails today. I’ve found a great deal of sense and reassurance in his work.
I took the plunge
As much as I was enthusiastic about attending the event when it came around, I also found myself doubting whether I should go. I had nobody to go with, and aside from that I also wondered if there would be protesters outside the venue or hecklers within it. Either would have been uncomfortable to encounter.
Encouraged by my sister — herself a fan of Peterson’s work — I took the plunge and went along. Here’s a picture of Peterson taken from my seat:
The event was everything I could have hoped for, and there was none of the heckling or hassle that I’d feared. Instead, it was just a pleasant evening spent with a diverse audience — men and women of all ages — gathered to hear Peterson speak in person.
He was good-natured and humble. He thanked those in attendance for their support of his work, and for risking their personal reputations by attending the event: he knows that he is hated and vilified by many, and that many of his fans are judged for admitting to it!
The Q&A with which the event concluded even closed with a question that I could have submitted myself — addressing how one should re-orient their life and find new purpose when suffering the sense of loss when their kids leave home. I’m still digesting his response to that one and the serendipity of hearing him answer the question still blows my mind; I’d written on the very same topic only the previous week.
An Antidote to Chaos
The event prompted me to revisit Peterson’s original 12 rules and how each has had an impact on my life, either in modifying how I live or in helping explain things that I was already doing.
Perhaps this will provide a useful on-ramp for those yet to discover Peterson’s work — those who’ve struggled to make sense of the inherent and unsettling chaos of human existence. For those who think he’s a tyrant or somehow evil, perhaps you might see a little sense in what he has to say?
The 12 Rules for Life
Reviews of the book when it came out varied in their tone and enthusiasm. A review published in The Times in the UK described it as follows:
“a hardline self-help manual of self-reliance, good behaviour, self-betterment and individualism”
That aligns pretty closely with how I approach life and what I see as essential for getting through it — maybe it explains why I appreciated the book from the off. It also begs the question of whether its impact was borne from it having been radically life-changing for me, or whether confirmation bias was the biggest factor?
Either way, it challenged me to evaluate my life as an individual and in how I relate to my closest family and in my roles as husband, father, and provider.
Each rule seemed immediately applicable and relevant to many aspects of my life.
Rule 1 — Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
Our posture, stature, appearance, and energy directly shape what we get from life and how others perceive and relate to us. If we’re timid, slumped-over, and appear downtrodden by life, people will tend to relate to us as though we’re defeated and broken. If we stand tall and present an air of confidence and resolve, others will react accordingly.
I’m over 6 feet tall and have long been conscious that poor-posture isn’t merely a physiological problem but that it influences how I’m perceived and whether I succeed (or fail) in life. It’s easy to read into my physical demeanour — if I’m annoyed, frustrated, angry, or cynical it’s apparent on my face and in my body language.
In the past, I’ve been chastised by managers and have burned bridges with influential people when I appeared demoralised or skeptical. I’m certain I’ve lost credibility in my job and as a writer by sharing my frustrations, insecurities, and slumps of mood too freely.
Perception matters. The image that we portray, counts.
Sometimes we have to toe the line of corporate and public expectation — there’s no getting around it. What others think based on our appearance can matter more than the reality based on our accomplishments, outlook, or credentials — whether we appear smart, confident, motivated, effective, or approachable outweighs the reality of whether we are or aren’t any of those things. I have to remind myself constantly to play my emotional cards to my chest more closely and to keep my back straight and my shoulders back.
Rule 2 — Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping.
I’m a bit of a people pleaser and love putting my friends and family first. I’d claim that my motives are pure, and driven by altruism — others may legitimately call me a martyr. I’ve learned it’s not always as altruistic as I’d like to believe. I’ve struggled often with feeling taken for granted when my efforts haven’t been acknowledged or reciprocated.
I’ve often neglected to prioritise my own need and put my own priorities to the back burner. Money, time, and energy were diverted from things that might have contributed to my own happiness and peace of mind in favour of others. The net effect was to feel downtrodden and demoralised — heightened by knowing I was responsible for the problem at its root.
This rule is fundamentally about self-care — if we can’t do what’s necessary to keep ourselves healthy, functioning, and fulfilled then how can we expect to be there for others? Too often we focus on helping others as a salve for the pain we feel inside, rather than addressing that at the source.
I see it in my wife too — she’s diabetic and would confess to not always managing her condition as closely as she should. Yet she’s selfless in caring for her family and her kids. She struggles to extend that same kindness and consideration towards herself and her needs.
We are all responsible for ourselves first and foremost — accountable for sorting out our own issues before we dabble with anyone else’s.
Rule 3 — Make friends with people who want the best for you.
We need to surround ourselves with the people who have our back and who are rooting for us to succeed. We also need to be challenged to achieve our full potential. Sometimes we need cheerleaders and at other times, those who are willing to give us the tough-love that prompts the difficult choices. I’m fortunate and grateful that I’ve always many such people in my corner.
We all need supportive and understanding friends and family behind us — no person is an island. Quality matters more than quantity and I know of only a handful of people that fall into such a category in my life.
A handful is enough though, and they are equally able to depend on me as I am for them. Our support is mutual, and we are equally and mutually willing to provide tough-love when needed.
It comes down to having a deep and genuine understanding of what makes each other tick. Fundamentally we want the best for each other.
Rule 4 — Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today.
I’ve thought and written extensively on the subject of comparison and how it has affected me in the past. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Theodore Roosevelt — I think he was only partly right.
When we compare ourselves with the wrong people, it can trigger uncomfortable emotions — jealousy, despondency, inadequacy, rage or demoralisation. We have a tendency to look upwards and fixate on those who’ve achieved the greatness we crave. While such examples are inspiring when envisioning our future, it seems pointless to compare ourselves to them when measuring progress.
I’ve felt pangs of jealousy towards those whose achievements were modest, deserved, and hard-fought, simply because they were doing better than me. I’m ashamed that some of my deepest feelings of insecurity have arisen from comparisons with some of my dearest friends. Closeness doesn’t prevent the toxic effects of comparison.
This rule is a reminder that the only helpful measure of progress comes from who I was yesterday, last month, or last year, objectively compared to where I am now. This helps as a method for recognising signs of progress, both quantifiable and objective, and the comparison is meaningful — apples to apples, not apples to koala bears.
If I come up short today compared to where I was, I only have myself to blame. If I’ve advanced, I can take the credit. Either way, the comparison serves a useful purpose when it’s with who I used to be.
Rule 5 — Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
Parenting has been the defining and over-arching role throughout my adult life. I’ve been a parent since the age of 23 and raised my daughters as a part-time single parent from the ages of 3 and 7 through to adulthood after divorcing from their mother. I’m a step-parent to two kids as well.
I used to feel burdened by responsibility and expectations to be the kind of parent I thought I should be — I wanted to measure up to the example my own parents had set. Many of these expectations were unrealistically stringent and held me back from experiencing the joys of parenting.
I needed to let go of the guilt that had been built up through divorcing. I needed to get out of my own way.
For all the ups and downs, I’ve been determined to raise kids who were solid citizens, focused, determined, considerate and polite — not entitled or obnoxious. It frustrates me that we seem unwilling as a society to expect discipline or obedience in our kids any longer — instead we seem more bothered about not putting labels or expectations upon them (up to and including behaviour, diligence, or self-reliance).
To hear Peterson speak on this rule was a breath of fresh air to me — it vindicated my approach to how I’ve tried to raise my kids. While I haven’t always succeeded, I maintain that my approach was right for my own kids at least and has turned them into citizens concerned about more than just themselves.
Rule 6 — Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
Closely linked to Rule 2, this rule is a reminder to adopt a stoic outlook and to apply the principles of stoicism in my own life.
- I can’t change the things that happen, only how I react to them.
- If I want to change things, I can only alter myself or how I do things.
- I can’t control others, or the things they do and say — only how I treat them and speak to them.
- I have no influence over how the things I create will be received by others — my opportunity to influence ends once I put them out into the world.
The stoic outlook is about taking personal accountability and responsibility for my experience of life. Complaining or criticising externalities is futile and misses the point.
I can’t change the world — only how I respond to it.
Rule 7 — Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
This rule has become more and more ingrained in my life since first encountering it. It has been my anchoring point during my most testing periods and challenging projects. Put simply, nothing worthwhile happens quickly or easily.
A short-term perspective and unrealistic expectations have proven the reliable formula for frustration and disappointing results.
I’ve yearned for growth as a writer. I’ve felt frustrated that results seemed non-existent while blindly overlooking the growth that has come steadily year-on-year.
I’ve struggled at times to manage my weight and fitness consistently. I overlooked that the greatest accomplishment in terms of a healthy life is to adopt a moderate, lasting, and enduring approach. Instead, I wasted years see-sawing between ‘aspiring olympian’ and ‘sweatpant-wearing couch potato’ — it felt easier to go all-in one way or the other.
In my relationships, I’ve overlooked that true enduring stability comes through navigating the ups and downs, to appreciate the good times and work devotedly through the bad. It seems easier to be romantic and feel contented when times are good and to head for the door when times get tough. The meaningful path is to show-up with equal vigour and devotion no matter what.
Hard work takes time but leads to momentous accomplishments. Things that are easy and quick to achieve seldom last or make much impact.
Rule 8 — Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.
This rule has applied as much to my self-talk — to the narrative that runs through my mind about me, who I am, and what I want, as it has as in my dialog with others.
I’ve struggled to define my personal goals and to reach a genuine understanding of my values and feel peace with them. I’ve gone through many years of adult life feeling obliged to pursue goals and objectives that seemed like the things that I should aspire to. When so much time and money gets spent on pursuing something you feel you should want the sunk cost becomes the main reason you carry on. The only way to freedom was to be honest with myself and to re-evaluate.
I stopped lying about what I should want from lifeI stopped believing that what I had and who I am wasn’t good enough
I allowed myself to see the vanity and impracticality of aspiring to be some sort of cliched ‘lifestyle entrepreneur’.
I could finally recognise gratefully all the ways in which my life was already good and weighted in my favour.
Being truthful with ourselves is as important for our credibility and peace of mind as is being truthful with others. It doesn’t mean we have to be ‘painfully honest’ — sparing no feelings and speaking self-righteously and without consideration. But we don’t have to lie. Tact is key.
Rule 9 — Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
For much of my twenties, I flew in the face of accepted wisdom and stuck my middle finger up at words of wisdom and kindly-advice that were offered to me. I was self-righteous and believed that because my actions were guided by good intentions, that would be enough to assure it worked out.
I ignored those who’d experienced more than me, believing they couldn’t possibly know what I was going through. My challenges were more complex and involved than they could ever understand.
I thought enthusiasm and determination were all that was needed to overcome circumstances. I thought I could bypass my own needs for fulfilment provided I did enough for others.
I repeatedly proved myself wrong, demonstrating that I should have listened and heeded the advice of those wiser than me.
I ignored the necessity of a continued attitude of learning and development. I naively believed I was a fully-rounded and finished article. I didn’t believe I needed to invest time or money in ongoing education, learning, or mentoring — I barely read a non-fiction book in my twenties.
This rule reminds me not to be headstrong or to kid myself that I know it all (or much at all). We can always learn more. There will always be others who know more than we do. That shouldn’t be seen as a threat, but rather as an opportunity.
Rule 10 — Be precise in your speech.
Put simply — say exactly what you mean and don’t dress it up. I know I have an issue with finding balance in this regard. I’m told I can be unnecessarily blunt and abrasive. I wonder if this impression is down to my tone as much as what I actually say? Nonetheless, I have work to do in how I present a message as much as what I say.
In my writing, I battle with being excessively verbose (as is no doubt clear). I never struggle with reaching a word-count, only with using too many words and having to edit pieces down. It often hides the message and confuses the reader. In many settings that doesn’t matter so much, but the same tendency can make people switch off in social or business settings.
Brevity is a superpower, as is clarity. It’s another way in which Peterson excels.
Rule 11 — Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding.
The last couple of rules get a little esoteric in their titles, but they’re equally as valuable as the earlier ones. I see this rule as a reminder that along with preserving a stoic outlook (rule 6), I must respect the outside influences and forces that maintain equilibrium in life. They cannot and should not be ignored for they’re important in equipping us for life and helping us find our place in society.
I’ve fought the tendency to be a helicopter parent who swoops in to rescue my kids when I see them struggling. It’s tempting when we see our kids doing something risky (like skateboarding) to want to stop them — or to wrap them in pads, lest they fall. Sometimes though, they need to fall, to injure themselves, to fail before they can figure out the right way.
We all need to fail before we discover the formula for success.
We all need to experience a few disappointments before we can appreciate the wins.
We need to kiss a few frogs before we can find and appreciate our prince (or princess).
It would be cavalier to ignore the risks inherent in life — we need to encounter them, suffer and learn how to handle them as we go and grow through life.
Rule 12 — Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
The cat in this rule represents the things that meander into our lives and which we should take as a prompt to stop for a moment, to get out of our own heads, and to acknowledge them.
Stop over-thinking and pet the cat.
Personal growth and advancement come from not being afraid to dig deep into our own minds. To figure out what makes us tick by looking at our past and working out how and why we did and said what we did. Only through reflecting and analysing what we were can we understand what we are and decide how to become what we want to be.
Much of the self-understanding described in this story was prompted by reading ’12 Rules for Life’. It seems fitting that the final rule should gently remind us that for all the worth in personal reflection and self-awareness, sometimes we need to be brought back to the moment.
Take time to smell the flowers.
Smile and say hello to the stranger in street.
Be kind and honest with yourself.
Stop and pet the cat.
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