Criticized by the left and claimed by the right, Jordan Peterson’s ideas are a defense of traditional morality and leading a purpose-driven life. The Canadian psychology professor has become a YouTube and IRL sensation, garnering tens of millions of views seemingly overnight. His claim that hierarchies help individuals create goals for themselves (and that goal-setting is a good life skill) seems to deprioritize equality—at least equality of outcome—as the primary goal of society. Such counterintuitive ideas run throughout his newest book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Jordan Peterson: If you don’t have anything to look up to, you don’t have anything to do, right? A lot of the meaning that people find in their lives is purpose driven. And in order to put effort into something, to work towards something, you have to assume axiomatically that what you’re working towards is better than what you have. Because why else would you do it?
And there’s a relationship, like, if it’s way better than what you have, it’s obviously proportionally difficult. So you try to balance difficulty with positivity, let’s say, something like that. But you’re always aiming up if you’re aiming. And if you’re not aiming then you don’t really have any purpose, and that deprives your life of meaning, and that’s not good because if your life is deprived of meaning then what you’re left with is the suffering. It’s not neutral, right, it’s negative.
So now the problem with having to aim up is that produces a hierarchy, because if you posit and aim then everyone arrays themselves along a hierarchy of “better at it” to “worse at it”.
And it doesn’t matter—if you create basketball as a game, 100 years later you create people who are hyperspecialized at basketball and they’re great at it, and virtually everyone else is bad. So it doesn’t matter. As soon as you produce a value proposition, you produce a hierarchy.
The problem with a hierarchy is it produces inequality. The problem with inequality is it produces resentment. Right, but you can’t get rid of the damn hierarchy just because they produce inequality and resentment, because then you don’t have anywhere to go. So that’s not an answer.
Okay, so let’s say you’re trying to deal with the fact that you have to put up with a hierarchy if you’re going to have any values. Well, how do you escape from the resentment trap? And the answer is you do an intelligent multidimensional analysis of your life.
It’s like, by the time you’re 30, I would say, you’re a pretty singular person. You’re unique and particular and your life has multiple dimensions. And you’re more or less successful—or not—along many of those dimensions.
But it’s a completely ridiculous game to pick someone else arbitrarily, who’s doing much better than you on one of those dimensions, to assume that you’re a failure because of that, or that the world is unfair because of that, without knowing in full detail all of the rest of the elements of their lives. I mean, look, we’re absolutely awash in stories of unhappy celebrities mired in interminable divorces or in affairs or in addictions. And that’s par for the course.
It’s not helpful. It’s helpful to have a goal. It’s necessary to have a hierarchy. It’s not particularly useful to compare yourself to other people. But it is useful to compare yourself to yourself. That’s the right baseline, right? That takes everything else into account.
And it’s really practically useful. And I’ve done this in my clinical practice very frequently. It’s like okay, let’s take stock of where you are and then let’s hypothesize about where you would like to be. It’s a complex conversation because we want to figure out what’s not so good about your present situation—exactly, precisely—and then come up with a hypothesis about what your life would look like if it was better. And then we can work on incremental improvement.
And the idea would be there’s some step you could take, that you would take, that would make today or tomorrow fractionally better than yesterday. And then you can iterate that. And that’s actually unbelievably powerful. You hit the effect of compounding interest, let’s say, very, very rapidly if you do that.
So there’s real utility in incremental progress. And you don’t have to improve your life much in increments to start hitting the effect of compounding interest. You make one thing slightly better, and that increases the probability that you’ll make the next thing slightly better—as well as having its positive side effects.
And so even if you make small steps forward and you do that regularly, that can turn your life around very rapidly over a one- to two-year period. I mean, that’s a long time, one to two years, but it’s not a lifetime. And it certainly beats the hell out of going downhill precipitously, which tends to be the alternative. It’s better and it keeps you out of the resentment, you know.
It’s also more realistic because it’s not like everyone else doesn’t have their problems. You know, we have these fictitious, successful people that it’s easy for us to compare ourselves to detrimentally and to become jealous and bitter about that, but also to be very hard on ourselves because we’re not successful. If you talk to successful people, let’s say—and I’m not trying to say that there’s no such thing as genuine accomplishment because obviously there is—but even people who are successful have lives that are very difficult, and they have an ill family member or aged parents or they’re suffering from some serious illness themselves which is very, very common. Or they have a psychological problem that’s not trivial or they have traumatic past. It’s like—life is brutal. And becoming resentful about your relative position is a way to make it more brutal. It’s not helpful to you, and it’s not helpful to anyone else.