What's Up with Jordan Peterson?

My responses to the psychologist's "Rules for Life".

Posted Feb 01, 2018

Random House Canada
Source: Random House Canada

Jordan Peterson is the reigning self-help guru. The genesis of his best-selling (a term thrown around but in this case true) book, 12 Rules for Life was a Quora post in response to the question, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” He listed 42 “rules for life.” Fifteen evoked a response in me: four in substantial disagreement. 11 in substantial agreement.

Here, I quote them unedited plus my response. Then I offer my own 6 Contrarian Rules for Life.

Where I have significant disagreement

JORDAN PETERSON: Nothing well done is insignificant.

MARTY NEMKO: But what about the opportunity cost? For example, people spend time primping a report, doing home repairs to unnecessary tolerances, not to mention perfecting their golf swing. The right advice is to select the appropriate degree of care based on the opportunity cost. For example, “Would spending an extra hour polishing this report be a better use of my time than what I otherwise could be doing?”

JP: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

MN: You could spend a lifetime trying to get “your house in perfect order.” That's true whether it's literally your house or your personal behavior. The right advice is to get started on your efforts to improve the world rather than waiting until you're "perfect" or close to it. Of course, work on yourself but get your house in order sufficient only to the extent needed for you to start to make a difference externally.

JP: Dress like the person you want to be.

MN: Mixed reaction. True, dressing the part can be a positive self-fulfilling prophecy: You feel and act more like your aspired-to self, and other people—lookist, shallow species that we are—tend to treat you as you look. But too many people spend too much time on their veneer. You can gift-wrap a bad product but it’s still a bad product. Most of your focus should be on improving your substance, not your packaging, even if some people would get seduced by your appearance. You want to aspire to quality not hype. Alas, the latter is increasingly the American Way. Marketing is among the fastest growing occupations. Yuck.

JP: Be grateful in spite of your suffering.

MN: Yes, be grateful for the good, but excessive gratitude leads to passive acceptance of the status quo. Both Christianity and Buddhism encourage passivity: gratitude, faith, inevitability. We have more control over our existence than religion would have us believe. As they say, luck favors the well-prepared.

Where I substantially agree

JP: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

MN: Right. Keeping up with the Joneses, materially, careerwise, or avocationally, serves no purpose. Your benchmark should be, as Peterson says, you.

JP: Imagine who you could be and then aim single-mindedly at that.

MN: Yes, most people must focus. Only brilliant people can dabble yet achieve significantly in multiple areas. 

JP: Don't let bullies get away with it.

MN: I agree. We like to believe that kindness is repaid but, in the real world, people are more likely to treat you fairly if you’ve invoked a measure of fear. That’s true not just with bullies: If your boss, romantic partner, or friend knows that you won’t take crap, they’re more likely to treat you well. For example, in negotiating salary, instead of following the standard advice to let the employer make the first offer, which often is a lowball, on average, you’ll do better by firmly asserting that you need (Insert a number that is on the high side of fair.)

JP: Make at least one thing better every single place you go.

MN: Good advice. I’d phrase it as, “Keep your antennae ever out for opportunities to make a difference.”

JP: Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.

MN: That's obviously true, but what’s meaningful? My definition of the life meaningfully led is: Spend as much time as possible using your best abilities toward meeting an under-addressed need that if addressed would make a big difference, for example, tutoring gifted kids in a blue-collar school.

JP: Ask someone to do you a small favor so that he or she can ask you to do one in the future.

MN: I agree. An additional reason to ask for a favor is that it makes the person more likely to want to do more favors for you. That’s commitment bias: The person wants to feel it was wise to have given you something. So s/he chooses to do more for you, which reinforces the “correctness” of having bestowed the first favor.

JP: Make friends with people who want the best for you.

MN: Right. It’s absurd how many people stay friends with people who, at minimum, are mainly out for themselves or, worse, who get off on making you dependent or feeling inferior to them.

JP: Do not try to rescue someone who does not want to be rescued, and be very careful about rescuing someone who does.

MN: Right. Your effort is likely better directed elsewhere. Even if the person wants to be rescued, it’s often a long and not particularly successful slog, not the most productive use of your time, and if you succeed, it creates more dependency or even triggers the bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you phenomenon.

JP: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

MN: Right. Laissez-faire parenting too often leads to life-damaging entitlement, drug abuse, and/or laziness. Children need relatively firm limits. Just be sure that those limits aren't undue and that, at the earliest age possible, you explain the reasons for those limits, listen to any objections, and then render a wise decision.

JP: Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.

MN: Yes, there rarely is a reason to be bored. Look for opportunities to do the most you can, not the least you can get away with. And when someone in authority has shirked, that’s a particularly good opportunity to make a bigger difference than you otherwise would have.

JP: Read something written by someone great.

MN: Yes. For example, I must spend a lot of time in my car. I distract myself from the ever-worsening traffic by listening to an audiobook. My current focus is biographies. I recommend Mencken: The American Iconoclast.

My 6 contrarian rules

Be judgmental.  Discernment is among homo sapiens’ most distinctive and valuable characteristics. It is core to what has enabled us to accomplish so much more than any other species. Yet today’s egalitarian ethos has fogged us into devaluing judgment: “All music is worthy. It’s merely a matter of perspective..” Garbage!  Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto is simply better than Eminem’s Foolish Pride.

Be elitist. This is a corollary of the previous. Spend your time and money on the people not who have the greatest deficit but those with the greatest potential to profit. As every battlefield medic knows, to save the most lives, you must use your limited resources where they’re likely to make the biggest difference. So fight to work with people you respect. Hold out for relationships with superior people. Donate your money to causes that have proven helpful to those with unusual potential to improve the world.

Work hard. Mediocre people tell us not to work hard but work smart. Of course, try to work smart but, except if you were a fool to begin with, working smarter may add only trivially to your productivity. You’ll likely produce far more of value by adding an extra hour or three to your actual work time—Playing on Facebook during the workday doesn’t count. And productivity matters, a lot, much more than “the pursuit of happiness.” I could be happy eating, watching NetFlix, and having sex all day but my life would have been much less worthy than if I were working most of the time on something I'm good and that is important. (See my thoughts above on meaningfulness.)

Recreation is overrated. If you’re doing work you’re good at, you probably derive nearly as much pleasure doing it as when watching TV, playing sports, whatever. But what about those work-life-balance advocates’ warnings about health? If you were hooked up to a stress meter, you’d probably be as relaxed doing that work as when recreating

Accept that you’re at least half genetic. If you’re phlegmatic, it’s not a good use of your time to try to make yourself bubbly. If you’re intellectually lackluster, spending time on “brain-building” activities is likely to be a poor use of your time. If you’re hot-tempered, all the techniques in the world are unlikely to keep you from going from zero to 60 in two seconds. After just moderate effort to improve, it’s better to accept that about yourself and make all efforts to put yourself in situations and with people that are unlikely to make you explode.

Never look back. Always take the next step forward. Classical psychotherapists insist that we must pore over our malaise’s childhood roots but, fact is, we quickly derive lessons from our past, perhaps even without thinking about it. Certainly, continuing to look back is more likely to mire you in the past than to help you move forward  Take the next step forward already!

Not covered in Peterson's Rules are his views on how men are treated today. I strongly recommend you watch minutes 39:45 to 45:20 of his BBC interview.

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