Feb 152012

Jordan Peterson spoke at TEDxToronto. He needed a better introduction to his ideas so I thought I’d write it up.

One of the biggest and lasting changes in the way I see the world has been to integrate Jordan Peterson’s idea of order and chaos. If you want to understand yourself, the world and me, it’s fundamental that you understand this distinction.

Order is a place or situation or state where things are predictable. You’re on solid ground and you know what will happen next. Too much order and this state can become boring, restrictive or even repressive. Too little order and there’s not enough structure for anything to exist at all. The right amount of order though, allows you to relax and feel comfortable (activation of the parasympathetic nervous system–sleep/relax/digest/rebuild system).

Chaos is state or place where things are unpredictable and uncertain. They are outside or under the little islands of order we build around us. We don’t know that’s going to happen next, and that can make chaos quite thrilling. But chaos can also be destructive as well as creative. You are most interested when there’s just the right amount of chaos—maybe even excited. Too much chaos and you are overwhelmed, anxious and afraid (activation of the sympathetic nervous system–fight/flight system).

Myths and old stories are often about the relationship between order and chaos, and something that converts one into the other–usually the hero. Order is often represented as some sort of “safe place” often enclosed by boundaries. The fort, the walled city, the island, the house/home we live in, the village in the clearing surrounded by dark forests. Outside the little speck of order, there is great chaos. This can be the darkened forest, space, the desert, the ocean or the city outside your house.

In Narrative

Order and chaos also show up in stories all the time, especially very popular stories that appeal to a lot of people because they have a mythic substructure. Take The Dark Knight, for example, or superheroes in general. They are our modern myths—our Hercules, Samson or Thor. The Dark Knight made over a billion dollars. $1,001,921,825. I’ve checked and rechecked this figure and it remains a shitload of money. Why would millions of people pay to see a man in a silly costume beat up another deranged man with facepaint and scars? The spectacle certainly has something to do with it, but there’s also the dynamic of order and chaos. The Joker says to Harvey Dent in the hospital room:

“It’s a schemer who put you where you are. You were a schemer. You had plans. Look where it got you. I just did what I do best-I took your plan and turned it on itself. Look what I have done to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple bullets. Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.”

Then Harvey Dent flips a coin to determine if he’ll kill The Joker.

The hero tends to be a creature in between order and chaos. He converts chaos into order and often revitalizes the culture or community he is coming from, but often he cannot stay in that community because he is tainted by chaos. The cowboy must ride away into the sunset from the town he just saved and Batman must be labelled a criminal and never accepted by the society he defends. In other stories, the hero returns to revitalize the community and is accepted at the top ranks of it. He jumps from being the peasant to marrying the princess and becoming the next king after slaying the dragon of chaos.

These stories teach us how to react to chaos–to the unknown. With courage and resolute strength. Looking fear in the eye and battling to the last breath. A good story or myth contains this element of battling chaos or battling order–especially a tyrannical, repressive one–think V for Vendetta, 1984 or Robin Hood, or your parents when you were a teenager.

In Religion

This interplay between order and chaos shows up in religions all the time, especially since religions are a collection of various myths. The yin-yang symbol is the representation of order and chaos, and only in the harmonious balance between them is some sort of perfection achieved. There is a speck of one in the other with the black dot in the white and white dot in the black.

Take the story of Jonah and the whale. Jonah is going along in order and the totality of reality commands him to do something. He seeks to escape from it and flees from safe and dry land onto the oceans. A great storm comes and threatens the ship. The crew throw him overboard at which point he’s swallowed by a giant whale and taken deep underwater until he prays and is let back on onto dry land to fulfill God’s command.

If you take this story literally, you’ll find yourself at odds with a lot of facts. Whales don’t generally eat people nor can you survive in the belly of a whale. Ancient people had no idea what a whale looked like so the depictions of the whale look reptilian. But through the lens of order and chaos you get a much clearer understanding—and a lesson!

Have you ever had an experience when you’re going along and feeling fine but then something happens to throw you completely off-balance? Maybe your parents got divorced, maybe you had a major breakup, maybe you failed a year of school, maybe you broke your leg or someone close to you died. Unexpected and unplanned things happened and you felt like you were drowning and didn’t know when the clouds would ever part. But one day, over time, you woke up and things seemed less dark. Eventually, you even noticed that the sun had broken through the clouds of your life and you felt like you were on solid ground again. This is an experience everyone who’s lived at all has had and that’s the experience this story of Jonah talks about. That’s why this tale has been repeated for over four thousand years—because it says something true about the nature of human existence.

Additionally this story gives a lesson: listen to the decrees of the totality of reality otherwise risk falling into chaos.

In Politics

Democrats and Republicans in the US tend to align to these two mythological positions. Chaos loving democrats run campaigns based on “change” (perhaps some that we can believe in) while Republicans espouse safety, security and order which tends to come from conservatism.

In Psychology

Psychologists have found out that people’s identity is fundamentally a narrative. What links you now to the 7 years old you? Every single one of your cells has been replaced so your body is not the same. But you tell a story that links you to who you are today. Jung once said that we are all living out a myth and it’s a really good idea to figure out what your story is, because it could be one that doesn’t end well for you. Maybe it’s a story of safety and security that your parents want you to live out by becoming an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor, but it’s too much order and boring. Not having a compelling story to live out, though, can cause feelings of living a life that has no meaning. Not the only cause, but one of the most prevalent, especially in the university years.

So, what creates a life of excitement? The feeling of battling chaos (or order) and succeeding—even if slowly. It can also be the excitement of expanding the realm of order and knowledge. The right balance and timing of order and chaos in your life. A compelling story that provides context and meaning for your actions today. You of course need more than this, but this is the big stuff.

More technically, Dan Seigal makes a compelling argument in his book in Mindsight, that if you take almost every psychological disorder you find either an excess of chaos or an excess of order.

In Dynamical Systems Theory

I believe order and chaos represent a particular kind of dynamical system and since our world is infested by dynamical systems; myths and stories teach us how to deal with them. Evolution, for example, is the interplay between chaos and order. Chaos generates new possibilities through mutations and the like. Order selects within the possibilities through environmental, social and sexual pressures. This process keeps going back and forth in order to continually produce organisms fitted for a particular time and place. There is no single definition of “fitness”. The biggest or strongest don’t always win and are often at a detriment (think dinosaurs).

In Personality Transformation

Similarly, human personalities transform through contact with chaos. Things go wrong and we wake up. The unexpected happens and you’re forced to rethink your life, how you interact with it and what your future will be. You fail a test and maybe that means you fail the course and maybe that means your GPA is very low and maybe that makes you wonder if you’re a smart person at all and maybe if you’re not a smart person than you can’t be a success in life and maybe that means that people will always judge and look down upon you. But after dealing with all this, maybe you wake up and realize that what people try to convince you is important in life isn’t actually important, so you don’t worry as much about climbing some social ladder anymore and impressing people, and because your goals are different, your methods become different, too, and you start taking only interesting courses and change majors to something that actually interests you (and perhaps has just the right amount of chaos in it to be interesting) and maybe you turn getting good grades with the minimum work possible into a fun game and figure out ways to hack grades and start doing really well in school anyway.

My old personality died and a new one arose from the ashes, like a Pheonix, and this new one is robust to this sort of chaos.


Our bodies evolved for those two “realities” of order and chaos. We parse up the world as being made up of objects because of the very powerful lenses provided us by the enlightenment and the success of physics. But the world is more complicated than that and has an infinite ways of looking at it (meaning it is chaos) and we’re constantly adjusting the way we look at the world (converting it into order). The other big change I’ve been making is recognizing that objects don’t end at their boundaries. I don’t end at my skin. I’m a combination of my past, my future, my friends, my work, my peace, even the weather and how you see me today is dependent on all those things.

Nov 182008

There’s fascinating data out there suggesting that you don’t actually have most of the emotions you feel you do. You have a response in your body and later call that response an emotion. This is called the Singer-Schachter theory of emotion. I’ve written about an experiment about it here. In the same blog entry, I talked about Tim Ferriss‘ reattribution of certain physiological states. In my memory, there’s two he does, the first is about eustress (positive stress that helps you grow) vs distress (negative stress that weakens you), and the second is when he’s fidgety before a big dance competition. Most people would look at his behaviour think about how we’d be feeling in that situation and say that he’s nervous, but he asserts that he’s not nervous, he’s excited. And he’s perfectly right, because if I recall correctly both nervousness and excitement feel the same way, but I’ve been trained to act, think and feel a certain way about each that’s very different. If I attribute my physiological state to nervousness, I’m supposed to be worried, however if I attribute it to excitement, I’m suppose to be happy and at my best.

Steve Pavlina recently did the same sort of thing in a recent blog entry called Fanatical About Growth. He wrote:

The goals that interest me most are the ones that cause me to say to myself, “Wow… I’m really not sure if I’m cut out for this. This looks pretty damned tough. I’m going to have to push myself to a whole new level in order to make it to the end. I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to pull this off.”

But then I think to myself, “What if I fail? No big deal. At least I’ll know where my limits are. But what if I succeed? How awesome would that be? I’d gain an incredible new reference experience for the rest of my life. I’d have an amazing experience to share with others. And what new challenges might I tackle beyond this one?” That’s the kind of thinking that excites me.

I find this interesting because if I was in the same position, I’d have very different self-talk. It would be more along the lines of, “What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t measure up? What if I’m not good enough? I’m not sure I can handle that.” Notice, oddly enough, my self-talk isn’t specific, it’s universal about all of me rather than, say my level of self-discipline, and it doesn’t include anything about being able to improve things, as if failing this once means that’s the end of the game and that’s only as good as I can ever be. That’s the epitome of taking it personally. Additionally, I wanted to point out that I asked “what if I don’t measure up? What if I’m not good enough?” while Pavlina said “I’ll know where my limits are.”

According to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, at the bottom of every one of your fears is that you can’t handle what life throws at you, or what you throw at yourself. In the above example, Steve Pavlina has turned a physiological state of arousal into an exciting challenge. I might have seen it as a fear of the unknown, but he sees it as excitement and discovering and mapping out new territory.

I’ve been exposed to a new theory of what emotions might be. They may be a way to size up a situation or a problem quickly, formulate the problem and then try to solve it. However, you can obviously size up things differently and your emotional gut reaction might be different from the one that you might choose consciously. So, I suggest you question your initial gut assumptions and sizing up of a situation, perhaps you will find that what you interpret as a fear or failure or a fear of the unknown into excitement over discovery or exploring new territory, knowing that as you explore, the territory actually grows bigger and there’s more to explore.

What I want to emphasize with all of this is that your emotions are not just your emotions and they’re not all-knowing and always “right”, you can have some conscious control over them. You can see things not as fear inducing, but as exciting, and they’re both “right”. I would choose exciting because that is simply more empowering for me. I hope this helps, and I’d really appreciate your thoughts in the comments to let me know someone’s reading. :-p