Apr 272009

Welcome! Here are some links: I’ve tried to write a concise introduction to his ideas of order and chaosThe Necessity of Virtue is an excellent lecture. To watch lectures of his Maps of Meaning class (based on his book), click here. I’ve watched all of them 2-3 times. He is a regular on TVO, especially on The Agenda with Steve Paiken. His lecture on the nature of evil can be watched here and I’ve seen it likely over 20 times. He teaches three courses at the University of Toronto.

Regular readers know I love clinical Psychologist and lecturer Dr. Jordan Peterson. I took one of his classes last year and sat in on it again this out, purely out of interest. It’s different every year and you also get something new out. For example, this year, he showed the class an interview with cops of Paul Bernardo, who is a serial murderer, rapist and psychopath. Then he proceeded to dissect all the various body language/relationship dynamic games he was playing. It was mind-blowing to see this guy say with a straight face, “Fine I made some mistakes 17 years ago” as if talking about an affair, when he’s really talking about murdering many women. The scary part is no one objects–that’s how well he’s controlling the room. I spent that hour and half with my jaw literally dropped.

More recently, I took one of his courses and write an essay about what Jordan Peterson has taught me and I wanted to share his work with you. It’s amazing how much I’ve learned from about such diverse topics as improving your relationships, how to think better, how to live life in an authentic way and so forth. Here it is:


What Jordan Peterson Taught Me

Personality transformation is a key theme in the courses of Dr. Jordan Peterson. He teaches this through teaching about the nature of human beings and reality, so that the new personality is better equipped to deal with that reality. The following are some of the most important things I have learned from Dr. Jordan Peterson, my thoughts on them and how I have applied them to my life.

Winning an Argument Doesn’t Mean You’re Right

This was a comment Dr. Peterson made in a Personality Psychology class last year. He was talking about relationships and I realized that this is something I was doing with those around me. I have a fairly strong personality, and sometimes I can accidentally bulldoze over my friends’ opinions without taking the time to understand them.

Growing up in our culture, which emphasizes reason as the source of truth, made me assume that winning an argument equated to being right. That is not always the case because you can win arguments not by convincing the other person of the correctness of your position but by tiring out the other person until they give up. Dr. Peterson has been similarly critical of an over-reliance on reason. As he said, reason is a tool and it should be used as such. It is a great servant but a terrible master. He points out the many millennia that human kind survived before the Enlightenment placed reason on a pedestal a few hundred years ago. Reason, as he points out, has mythically been associated with pathology and tyrannical order. Pure rationality is great for dealing with what is already known, but it can not begin to handle not knowing what is not known. The extent of our lack of knowledge is unknown and may well be infinite, and pure reason cannot get a grasp on that. Reason as the enemy of emotion is also a mistaken dichotomy. The two work together and if one person does not have a balance between the two, they suffer.

The alternative in relationships is to figure out what the goal is and to listen deeply. Once two or more people can agree on the same goal; the question becomes, “how do we get to that goal in the best way possible?” instead of, “how can I prove I am right for the sake of being right?” If someone feels listened to, as Stephen Covey points out, then they feel a lot more receptive to listening to you. This has radically changed my relationships with other people, greatly reduced conflict and made my relationships much more productive.

Reality is not How We Think It Is

Reality has many ways of perceiving it. This is completely different from the materialist doctrine that I absorbed unconsciously. The idea that the world is composed of objects is a necessary perspective, but it is an incomplete story compared to the phenomenological one Dr. Peterson stresses.

The materialist doctrine also fails to account sufficiently for meaning, which is not a feature of the environment, but the response of a consciousness to the environment. The standard world view is “dead in some fundamental sense” as Dr. Peterson says. This problem is also faced in Cognitive Science and its attempt to understand cognition. It was separated into two problems called the paradox of mechanical reason and the problem of original meaning. How does something completely mechanical handle meaning, which is not physical at all? Despite decades of work, meaning-making machines have not been created and this points to the difficulty of understanding meaning, yet it is ignored by the standard materialist doctrine to the detriment of the people who follow it.

The phenomenological perspective is that a person’s experience is real. These things may not correspond to physical things out in the world, however treating them as real is a much better way to handle them. For example, fear is not a feature of the physical environment. This leads to response parents have to children who say they are afraid of monsters under their beds: “there’s no such thing as monsters”. If the fear was to be treated as real, as Dr. Peterson suggests, the parents would help the children check under the bed to find out that there is nothing to fear. The child would become bigger than its fear through facing it and its personality would grow and transform into something greater.

This manner of dealing with features of consciousness, especially emotions, provides a good basis for dealing with them in a healthy way, rather than repressing or disrespecting them. Treating fear and anxiety as real means that a person finds ways to deal with them and get over them, rather than simply trying to fruitlessly ignore them. This has helped proved me with greater inner peace and integration of my emotions, as well as respect for others’ emotions.

Dominance Hierarchies Are Everywhere

When I learn something fundamental about the world, it completely changes my perspective and I see everything anew. I relish these paradigm shifts. This helped me understand what Marcel Proust said, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Dr. Peterson has caused these shifts a number of times. One of them was learning about dominance hierarchies in human beings.

Dominance hierarchies are a pyramid-like organization in many species. In animals, these are often regulated by size or other physical advantages. In human beings, while size hierarchies do exist (a bully, for example), we can form hierarchies over almost anything. This leads to seemingly odd hierarchy games, such as one-upmanship about how bad someone’s day way. In university, implicit hierarchies are often based on intelligence, grades or even laziness. Someone will brag to others in an effort to raise their hierarchy position and gain the approval of others. The concept of self-esteem is almost exactly dominance hierarchy positions and regulated by the same neurochemical: serotonin.

Realizing this helped me get my motivations straight. Instead of being led by my unconscious motives such as status games or self-esteem games, I learned to choose my motivations consciously towards the highest good for all or based on thoughtfully chosen goals. It became easy to tell when I or someone else was playing a status or self-esteem game and this has deepened my relationships greatly. I have been able to be sensitive to others’ egos when necessary.

Hold Your Beliefs Lightly

I learned this from both Dr. Peterson and my study of Bhuddhist thought. Both recommend not to identify yourself with your beliefs but to identify yourself with the thing inside you which changes beliefs. If you identify too strongly with your beliefs, then you are more rigid and less likely to question them, which can be dangerous because beliefs are inherently fallible. Since we are not omnipotent, we make assumptions about the nature of reality which are inherently incomplete and can be wrong. Holding on too strongly to these assumptions and not allowing them to be changed can lead to many negative consequences.

This has been very important to know in my relationships and in my personal development. In relationships, conflict often occurs around different beliefs. If a person becomes too attached to maintaining their sense of the world and proving that they are right, they may stop themselves from learning more accurate beliefs. This can sustain deep conflict for a long time, so being willing to change my beliefs and being with someone who also is resolves conflicts and creates a stronger relationship than before.

In my personal development, changing beliefs has been crucial to achieving my goals. For example, I used to believe that my grades were a direct reflection of my intelligence. This belief created many problems for me, including failing a year through deep procrastination and identity crisis. However, since I have changed this belief, my grades have skyrocketed. My only regret is that I did not let go of this belief sooner, before it hurt my academic record.

I Dont Know What Games Im Playing

I was struck by this realization recently. Despite having spent three years trying to figure myself out, I still do not understand all of the games I play. A lot of the games remain unknown because human beings are extremely complicated, and our consciousnesses simply inhabit a tiny part of ourselves with the rest being unconscious. As an example of unconscious games: a friend of mine claims his goal is to get the best grades he can, however he ignores advice such as to read books by the author of Study Hacks (http://www.calnewport.com/blog/) which I used to get a 92% on a major test with less studying. He claims he does it because he wants to figure out how to get better grades himself. This is a different game and it is likely a game to validate his sense of self-competence. Unfortunately, this game conflicts with his stated game so he does worse on the stated game, ironically lowering his sense of competence at getting good grades. Of course, I can identify this game in another person because I used to play it. There are many games that I am playing right now that I cannot identify because I am blind to them.

This realization that I play games and that I often do not know which ones I play has humbled me and pushed me to seek out my true motives. Prof. Vervaeke claims that the parts of our cognition that we are conscious of are a tiny part of our total cognition. The part that is conscious or “our self” is run similarly to a computer on a neural network, and we are only aware of the computer part, while the rest is dark to most of us. Some meditaters can access deep functions such as controlling their body heat, heart rate or brain wave activity. A lot of implicit but important patterns are formed in the unconscious parts and while our conscious minds lulls us into believing that we know what we are doing; this is an illusion.

Become Bigger than Fear, Listen to your Conscience and Be Authentic

According to Dr. Peterson, becoming a fully realized person is supremely important. An actualized individual is a powerful force that, “when they say no all of society stops”. He cites Nelson Mandela and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who wrote the Gulag Archipelago which helped bring down the Soviet Union) as fully actualized individuals. A fully realized personality is powerful enough to stop lying in the face of tyranny and bring it down. Lesser personalities cave to tyranny and can commit horrible acts in the name of following orders. This personality is essentially the highest mode of being and an excellent goal to be aimed at.

The way to become this personality, according to Dr. Peterson, is to become bigger than fear by facing it. Hiding from fear causes the creation of a weak personality while facing fear creates a courageous one. This is important because one needs to have courage to face the big problems that challenge humanity, while being a small, vulnerable human being.

Another important way to develop a stronger personality is to listen to your conscience. Your conscience is a pretty good, though fallible, guide to what will expand your personality. So, if your conscience is bugging you a bit about something in particular, do it.

It is extremely important to be authentic to create a deeply resilient personality. Dr. Peterson suggests watching your actions and your words for a week and figure out how much of what you do and say is yourself. It is possible to feel a sort of internal rift when you say something other than what you truly believe. If, however, you communicate from this place of deep authenticity, people listen and pay attention.

To be sure, many different systems of thought have a highest sort of personality to be aimed at however there are commonalities that include Dr. Peterson’s ideas. Buddhism has the enlightened being and the Dalai Lama is certainly a powerful person within Dr. Peterson’s criteria.

I have learned a lot from Dr. Peterson. I often learn gain new insights by going over the same material again, such as his videos online. I want to continue to learn more and more from him that can help me to live my life in a better way.

  28 Responses to “What Jordan Peterson Taught Me”

  1. Thanks, it was a good read.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  3. i recently saw a lecture by Jordan Peterson on TVO’s program Big Ideas. enamoured with his perspective on reality i came to the internet to find more and here i am. really enjoyed this article and am delighted to find this website with hours and hours of reading!

  4. have you read his book, Maps of Meaning? the title may not be exactly correct. i’m just wondering how academic it is, and whether a layperson such as myself would find it accessible.

  5. Heard him lecture on big ideas on TVO last week. Enjoyed reading your blog. Would love to learn more from his teachings.
    Thank you

  6. Hello. Yea, I’ve read most of the book. It is not overly academic, so a layperson could understand it. However, it is written in a verbose manner and in a slightly convoluted way. Its similar to how he talks in that its associational and often includes words that mean the same thing using an “and”. That said, lecture recordings of his class, Maps of Meaning based on the book are online here:


  7. thanks for the link – most kind of you!

  8. Hello.

    I enjoyed reading this. It is refreshing to hear these ideas through fresh phrasing.

    My friends and I have developed our little micro-fan-club for JBP after he pulled those lovely and traumatic paradigm shifts on all of us at U of T. So we google him every so often.

    “Peacemaking among higher order primates” is my favourite article he’s written (and its GOOGLE-ABLE) but for the newbies, I would recommend this video-lecture:


    One reason JBP’s lectures/articles helped me so much is that he presented a way of thinking about psychology that enabled me to connect all of the different sub-sections of psychology together. They CAN FIT TOGETHER, and that is very useful for a psychology student. But it goes farther than that. I was not only provided with a reference point for psychology but for so much more: I can’t really say I understand the extent of it yet… But I can say this: it actually provided me with a MAP OF MEANING where so much conceptual territory made sense and fit together.

    I think the most important way his class changed me was that I really realized that that ideologies will fail as final answers to problems and that instead of arguing which ideology to support, it’s individual personality development that we should strive for. For me, this meant that I had to stop living the illusion that my left wing ideology was “THE SOLUTION”: instead of trying to persuade others that such-and-such is RIGHT, I needed to work on myself first.

    His assigned reading of the chapter “the Soul and Barbed Wire” from the Gulag Archipelago really hit me hard.

  9. I should also say, to whom it may concern, that the way I use the phrase “map of meaning” does not mean the same thing as the title of his book, “maps of meaning.”

    I am using it to describe how his lessons have given me a reference point or a framework that helps me put many different ideas into an integrated, consistent, meaningful context.

    But I think for JBP’s book, “Maps of Meaning” refers to the diagrams he uses which illustrate how certain concepts are related territorially to each other.

    (Example: Individual inside Great-Father inside Great-Mother inside Chaos)

  10. dunno if my last comment got through.

    here goes again:

    Just to avoid misunderstandings:

    In my comment above, I used the phrase “map of meaning” differently than Jordan Peterson uses it in the title of his book.

    I used it to describe how, after taking his courses, I had a reference point or framework that helped me make sense of a lot of different things (science, religion, politics, neuroscience, humanities, etc).

    The title of his book seems to refer to the use of the diagrams which help illustrate the relationships between fundamental elements of meaning or “the architecture of belief” as he says.

  11. I enjoyed your thoughts. I think that everything can be summarized by simply realizing that since we are all equal in our humanity, we all deserve, crave and need to deliver respect to others. Only true respect can defeat resentment…it is the key to not only peace, but also understanding.

  12. Hi there, I hope my post is taken as a reasonable constuctive criticism. I find the lectures I have watched of this guy to be extremely long winded and full of false logic which I think can be easily and successfully argued against. An example of a long winded waffle is at the beginning of his lecture on the nature of evil. It takes him around 15 minutes to describe the difference between “evil” and a “tragedy”. Surely a dictionary would suffice. I will give my description in one sentence – tragedies are accidental, evil is intentional. Please point out if you disagree. If I accidentally crash my car and kill someone it’s a tragedy; if I deliberately run someone over you could say it is evil. He then goes on to talk about evil as some kind of actual real thing that exists. Surely evil is just a construct of the human mind. If there were no people left on earth would evil exist? No, only a human brain can look at an event and DESCRIBE it as evil, a bit like other human constructs like justice and of course good. You could say the same thing – justice does not exist without human minds to judge something as just or unjust. Obviously I can’t go on all night questioning and rebutting, but I feel I could with this guy. I’ll just say finally that I find the comments about reason to be utterly ridiculous. It sounds as though the author of the above believes that we may be able to somehow overdose on reason. Yes the enlightenment happened 400 years ago and people survived before that BUT not as well, as long or with such great odds!! I believe the best cure for this kind of romantic atavism is to watch the highly entertaining series hosted by Balderick from Blackadder called “Worst Jobs” I think you may then find a renewed appreciation for the enlightenment and the hundreds of tireless, brave geniuses who suffered and were often mocked or even tortured for their original and heretical discoveries which allow us to lead lives more comfortable than the richest of ancient kings.
    As a last challenge perhaps someone would like to think of a situation in life where it would be against ones best interests to apply reason or a rational approach – I can’t think of a single one.

  13. Hi Martin.
    You are unreasonable and irrational!

  14. I hope my post is taken as a reasonable constuctive criticism.

  15. Hi Will,
    I will certainlly take your criticism as reasonable if you could first elaborate and clarify, untill you do that I don’t see it as constructive. If you are saying that my notions of what is rational and irrational are rendered null and void by the fact that they are the products of a primate brain created through the process of natural selection which results in minds which are necessarily equipped to survive and replicate rather than minds which are equipped to know any real truths about anything, then I can accept that. Anyway, please elaborate.

  16. You want me to elaborate? But before you said “surely a dictionary would suffice!”

  17. I hope you have a dictionary…

  18. Ok, so I think you’ve elaborated enough to show that you’re not interested in any intelligent discussion. I guess I should go discuss the work of someone who actually has some true insights into the human mind like Stephen Pinker. Have you read ‘The stuff of thought’ and The blank Slate’? I have to say that Petersen really hasn’t caused any paradigm shifts in my understanding.

  19. Too bad — for you!

  20. Ok, so I think you’ve elaborated enough to show that you’re not interested in any intelligent discussion.

    The impression you made in your first post was that of an arrogant grudge-maker. Why would anyone want to have an intelligent discussion with that type of person? I’m showing you yourself by copying all of the stuff you say and shoving it back in your face.

    Maybe you’re not an arrogant grudge-maker, but you see, that is the IMPRESSION you made. Did I elaborate enough?

  21. Will, I have read my initial post again and am confused as to how you coulld possibly see it as arrogant or “grudge-making”. I know that it’s often hard to expect intelligent and fair argument on internet blogs and forums but, my post starts by trying to establish that it is meant to be taken constructively and not offensively. I then go on to give some brief examples of what I disagree with and back what I say up. Never did I personally attack anyone or not back up my opinions.
    The reason I asked you to elaborate was that it was difficult to tell whether you had some actual point in mind or you were just plain shit talking when you responded in a few words that aren’t even a complete sentence.
    So, the bal’ls back in your court. You obviously have some objection to my criticisms, brief as they were, so lets thresh it out. Repond to my points and tell me what I am missing so that I may reach a better understanding. That was, arterall, the reason I took time to post.

  22. I would like some discussion over the points made in the above essay about the use of reason. After my first post I lay in bed that night trying to think of situations where it would not be beneficial to apply reason. I actually did come up with a couple of situations in which you could argue that what most of us would consider to be the right choice might not seem reasonable from an objective point of view but these would amount to a very tiny portion of human experience.

  23. Martin, the most recent comment of yours was a nice comment. I’d like to discuss that with you. I’ll respond soon, if you’d like.

  24. Peterson is doing the free Hancock Lecture at Hart House Wed Oct 13, 2010. Get your free tickets here:


    They’re flying fast, so get ’em quick.

  25. Hello, I’m a philosophy student who’s taken a few courses with Dr. Peterson and have read his book, Maps of Meaning. I came across this blog from a Google search on the Hancock leecture and was moved to respond to Martin’s comment, as I feel pretty strongly about the topic of evil.

    In relation to tragedy vs. evil, I think Peterson provides a definition as an introduction to the topic, not as a point of insight. His actual point is more theoretical and it does actually take quite a bit of time to explain (and definitely more than 15 minutes to completely understand). I will do my best to briefly summarize what I understood from his lectures and writings. Just to note, Peterson draws heavily from existentialism and philosophers such as Nietzsche and to some extent Heidegger, the Russian writers Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky as well as the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. So these ideas are not entirely his own and are not unsupported in the wider community. To understand where he’s coming from completely, I recommend reading his book.

    So anyway, back to tragedy and evil. I believe Peterson claims that tragedy is something that cannot be avoided, and is in fact, necessary for our existence as human beings. Evil, on the other hand, is something that comes from us (is intentional, like you said) and that can be avoided if we make moral decisions. Tragedy is a result of the fact that we are limited and therefore vulnerable. But being limited is a necessity of existence, or at least our existence as we know it. I personally can’t really imagine how some one thing can exist without limits, at the very least in time and in space. Anyway, I think he also mentions that tragedy can corrupt people, and in the extreme make someone evil (or at least commit evil acts). Therefore tragedy is also connected to evil.

    I think an example would best illustrate the point: A kid crossing the street gets hit by a drunk driver ignoring traffic lights. Kid is badly crippled from the encounter. The tragedy here is from the kid’s side, that he got hit by the car. It resulted because we are limited (don’t have super senses to notice the car, don’t have super reflexes to jump out of the way, aren’t made of something powerful and unable to be broken by cars) and therefore vulnerable (able to be badly hurt). There is irresponsibility (and possibly corruption) on the side of the driver because he put himself in a position where he drank and had access to a car (not to mention he actually did take the car while drunk), so on the driver’s side this isn’t a tragedy as it could’ve been avoided. Continuing the story, let’s say the kid now grows up angry and resentful due to his inabilities (further vulnerability) to live a normal life and his envy of other kids who do. He spends his time on the internet successfully convincing suicidal or depressed users on a forum to commit suicide. This is an act of evil because the kid could have chosen a different life for himself: he could maybe have joined a charity to help victims of drunk drivers or participated in groups dedicated to prevention of drunk driving, etc. Of course, you can take a deterministic view of it and say the kid had no choice but to become the online murderer based on what happened to him, but that’s a whole different conversation which then also brings free will and determinism into question – and that requires extensive discussion.

    About your comment that evil is a construct of the human mind. I think Peterson would acknowledge that as true on one level. If you look at it from an extreme rational view, yes, there is no evil because pure logic has no place for emotional and value-based judgments. But that’s exactly why we can’t rely on extreme rationality to survive. Not to mention that the way we normally act is not rational/logical – acting rationally would take an extreme amount of effort I think (e.g. we’re highly emotional, we have a strong sense of right and wrong, we do (and even like) things we objectively know are bad for us, etc). Eugenics is an example of how extreme rationality clashes with our morality. If you think about it from a pure logic perspective (which doesn’t allow for value-based judgments like right and wrong), why not get rid of the weak, sickly, extra vulnerable, ugly etc in order to make our society more ideal? (And ideal would of course be whatever the ruling majority considers ideal for whatever arbitrary reason). Plato makes a pretty logical argument for eugenics in the Republic if I remember it correctly.

    Finally, I think Peterson definitely wouldn’t say that rationality is bad, avoid at all costs! Rationality is a tool that we use in order to survive. It is necessary and can be very beneficial (as you’ve pointed out, part of the reason we now live better than kings from the past is due to technology) but elevating it to god-like status as the be-all and end-all of all truth is dangerous (Peterson also writes extensively about how extreme rationality is related to nihilism, the inability to see good in life, corruption, bad decisions, etc). And on a quick related note, other than emotion and value-based judgments, rationality can’t really explain other large chunks of reality (which rely on emotion and value-based judgments) except by saying that they’re irrational (which isn’t an explanation)! e.g. the pull of art, drama, music.

    I hope I’ve provided a satisfactory answer to some of your questions. I can see that there is a lot more I could add and clarify but it would require way too much time on my part. For example, in his book Peterson clarifies what he means by rationality, what he means by truth, how meaning is built and destroyed in everyday life, how people can become evil, etc etc. He also talks about the important role of mythology and narratives, as well as art. As you can see that’s a pretty wide range of topics, and the only way to understand them to a satisfactory degree is to read his book and/or published articles. Again, these ideas are not entirely his own (I don’t want to give him overdue credit) but more of a compilation of ideas from philosophy, literature, and science with his own views added in. If you’re interested in his ideas on evil, I would also recommend reading Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

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  27. “If, however, you communicate from this place of deep authenticity, people listen and pay attention”

    What do you know?? It worked! It was a great read, thank you.

  28. @Martin:
    Regarding evil, read Hannah Arendt. The “banality of evil” is not intentional evil, in fact one might argue nobody intentionally seeks to commit evil.
    Regarding reason, I would suggest checking out John Ralston Saul’s “The Unconscious Civilization” or “Voltaire’s Bastards.” Or Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology,” but you don’t seem like the type to appreciate that sort of text. However, if you can accept that humanity is currently greatly endangered by technology, and technological thinking, which amount to the dominance of reasoned calculation above the other aspects of thinking that were considered necessary by the Greeks (ie. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, where he discusses the five different modes of thought), you might begin to understand why reason is not a sufficient tool to get us out of some of these messes we have created for ourselves.

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