Last night I went to see Jordan Peterson at the Beacon Theatre. As he walked onstage to thunderous applause he remarked how bizarre all this attention was. Why is a Canadian clinical psychologist talking to sell-out crowds, with the most popular book in the world, heralded as the ‘most influential US intellectual’ and garnering tens of millions of YouTube views?
I had a sudden realization that I think I understand why. And I think it might be quite a big deal.
Here’s a passage from his dense first book Maps of Meaning.
‘At the same time, something odd was happening to my ability to converse. I had always enjoyed engaging in arguments, regardless of topic. I regarded them as a sort of game (not that this is in any way unique). Suddenly, however, I couldn’t talk — more accurately, I couldn’t stand listening to myself talk. I started to hear a “voice” inside my head, commenting on my opinions. Every time I said something, it said something — something critical. The voice employed a standard refrain, delivered in a somewhat bored and matter-of-fact tone:
You don’t believe that.
That isn’t true.
You don’t believe that.
That isn’t true.
The “voice” applied such comments to almost every phrase I spoke. I couldn’t understand what to make of this. I knew the source of the commentary was part of me, but this knowledge only increased my confusion. Which part, precisely, was me — the talking part or the criticizing part? If it was the talking part, then what was the criticizing part? If it was the criticizing part — well, then: how could virtually everything I said be untrue? In my ignorance and confusion, I decided to experiment. I tried only to say things that my internal reviewer would pass unchallenged. This meant that I really had to listen to what I was saying, that I spoke much less often, and that I would frequently stop, midway through a sentence, feel embarrassed, and reformulate my thoughts. I soon noticed that I felt much less agitated and more confident when I only said things that the “voice” did not object to. This came as a definite relief. My experiment had been a success; I was the criticizing part. Nonetheless, it took me a long time to reconcile myself to the idea that almost all my thoughts weren’t real, weren’t true — or, at least, weren’t mine.
All the things I “believed” were things I thought sounded good, admirable, respectable, courageous. They weren’t my things, however — I had stolen them. Most of them I had taken from books. Having “understood” them, abstractly, I presumed I had a right to them — presumed that I could adopt them, as if they were mine: presumed that they were me. My head was stuffed full of the ideas of others; stuffed full of arguments I could not logically refute. I did not know then that an irrefutable argument is not necessarily true, nor that the right to identify with certain ideas had to be earned.
Last night he said that 25% of the 50,000 letters he has received in the last few months are from people effectively saying he is articulating something they always deeply understood but never knew quite how to express. Listening to him talk you can tell he really believes everything he’s saying. It might not always be right, but he believes it fervently.
Peterson’s more accessible second book, 12 Rules For Life, is full of great advice. But the one piece that has really stuck with me is the utterly paramount importance of telling the truth.
The fairly terrifying reason offered by Peterson is that nobody gets away with anything. ‘If I’ve learned one thing in 20 years of clinical practice, it’s that. I swear I’ve never seen anyone get away with anything in my whole life.’ He exhorts us to tell the truth, all the time, and if you don’t always know the truth, at the very least not to lie.
The more positive effect is that by telling the truth we will come to know ourselves better. If you find yourself debating only with your own arguments or only expressing truly your own opinions, you will come to better know what you really believe. Conversely, there is a voice in our heads that doesn’t want the best for us, the ‘saboteur’ that tells us we cannot be what we want to be.
But maybe deep down we are sensitive to the truth and we can detect when we are being authentic to ourselves. By speaking that truth we are both manifesting our potential and silencing the saboteur.
Jordan Peterson’s surprising fame and fortune might be a clue that this is actually true.