“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I didn’t take any psychology classes at university. Despite knowing almost nothing about the field, I’d mostly written it off as a soft science riddled with Freudian mumbo-jumbo and cute just-so stories about human nature. The massive replication crisis that arose a few years ago didn’t exactly challenge that perception.
Sure, there are serious problems in psychology. But I made a big mistake in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That realisation came to me courtesy of Dr Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
In recent months I’ve binge-watched countless hours of Peterson’s lectures on YouTube. His class is an esoteric mash-up of mythology and pop culture (sample episode: ‘Carl Jung and the Lion King’) which generates constant mic-drop moments. I’ve had to re-watch most episodes to follow the conceptual leaps – Peterson constantly goes off on wild tangents, but somehow always makes his way back up through the nested layers of abstraction.
All of this is delivered with an endearing eccentricity. Imagine your dad giving you a stern talking-to about the facts of life, except your dad is Canadian, has an IQ of ~150, and is voiced by Kermit the Frog. Unsurprisingly, Peterson’s quirks, catchphrases and little nuggets of life advice have spawned a thousand memes.
When I heard there was an online version of the exercises he’s used with his students – a ‘self authoring’ suite for self-improvement, backed by research – I was intrigued. Now, I’ve never paid for an online course in my life. On the other hand, I’ve also never compulsively binge-watched 40+ hours of academic lectures before. At $15, it seemed like it was worth a punt.
I’ll get into the review of the self authoring program soon (you can skip ahead to it here) but first, a little context might be useful.
I want to achieve mastery over my self in every domain, but I’d never given any thought to what the ‘self’ actually is. Peterson’s lectures filled that gap in the jigsaw puzzle, helping me reconcile the less savory aspects of my personality with my overall perception of who I am.
The most mind-blowing moment was the realisation there is no single ‘me’. Each of us is a loose assemblage of competing desires and traits, many of them ancient and animalistic.
(“Do I contradict myself?” asks Walt Whitman in Song of Myself: “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”)
For anyone who actually took Psych 101, unlike me, this might not be much of a revelation. Jordan Peterson really proves his worth in explaining what to do about it – how to marshal the fragmented self into a cohesive and functional whole, and find a balance between chaos and order.
Sort yourself out
When the oxygen mask drops down on an airplane, you better fasten yours before you try to be a hero, because people who’ve passed out from hypoxia are not known for being particularly useful. We’ve all heard the safety briefing so many times it bores us to tears, but we don’t always apply this principle to life more broadly: If you want to do good in the world, you have to put your own house in order first.
In his clinical practice, Peterson has observed that many people don’t actually have psychological problems – they have problems in living. When he sees a new patient, he asks them about the following factors:
- A job that places them somewhere in a dominance hierarchy
- Physical health
- Drug and alcohol use
- An intimate person they can trust
If you’re not doing well on at least three of these dimensions, there’s no way you’re going to be thriving psychologically. Once you’ve acknowledged any deficiencies, you know where to begin sorting yourself out.
Clean your room
The way Peterson sees it, there’s a constant struggle between chaos and order within society, and within each individual. Even if you don’t believe this literally, it’s a useful metaphor. To make yourself strong and focused, you have to do battle with the dragons of chaos. Of course, dragons are big and scary, so you better start out small.
How small, exactly?
To paraphrase: Every day, you can tackle trivial tasks to make the domain of your immediate experience a tiny bit less chaotic. Maybe it’s making your bed each morning. Whenever you see something you’re capable of fixing, then fix it. Take on small responsibilites. Once you’ve done this 100 times, your life will look very different.
Your armour gets thicker, your sword sharper. Now you can start slaying bigger dragons. Eventually, you’ll have put your house in order, and you can venture out and start helping others in society. In the process of making yourself powerful, you can’t help but accumulate some wisdom along the way. You’re no longer the clueless kid, flailing around with a cardboard sword and trying to save the world. (You’re also much less likely to go and whack something complicated, and then tell everyone you fixed it.)
This is what I’ve been trying to get at in championing the virtues of frugality. Small behavioural changes lead to bigger ones. Financial freedom gives you all sorts of options, which makes you powerful. You’re much better-placed to help other people – but you have to sort yourself out first.
That’s the background out of the way. Onward to the review!
Self authoring review
The self authoring program has four sections, which you can buy individually or as a package (honestly, just do them all – you can get two complete suites for US$30 at the moment, so $15 each if you go in with a friend).
I’ve laid them out in the order I completed them, which is also the order I’d personally recommend.
If you use the link above, I get a small commission, at no extra cost to you – read more about supporting Deep Dish here (Update: these are now regular links, with no commission).
Present Authoring (Faults and Virtues)
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
— Aristotle (apocryphal)
This section is basically your classic SWOT analysis, with a few twists. The first step prompts you to select your strengths and weaknesses along various personality dimensions, then narrow them down to the most important.
The faults section was quite confronting. It forced me to look at myself warts and all, take responsibility for my shortcomings, and come up with specific strategies to stop them from sabotaging me in the future.
The virtues section was much more fun, because I got to talk about how great I am. This time, the focus was on capitalising on my strengths, and finding ways to optimise them even further.
From the raw material, I curated a list of about 20 new insights, several of which were directly actionable. Lots of them are deeply personal, so I’m not going to paste them all over the Internet, but here’s a sprinkling of some of the things I figured out:
- It’s important not to just learn things at random, but to learn things you might be able to capitalise on at some later date, or lead to some ‘teachable’ moment.
- Your problem isn’t in getting enthusiastic about new opportunities – it’s about creating the conditions for them to arise in the first place.
- It’s great to be sceptical – it will protect you from harm – but you have to be brave enough to say it out loud sometimes. Remember Nassim Taleb: “If you see fraud, and you do not call fraud, you are a fraud.”
- Trying to bootstrap courage probably won’t work. You also need some external accountability – other people who will challenge you to rise to the occasion, and do the hard work and scary things.
- Get better at saying no. There’s no need to be rude – just politely decline interactions that aren’t interesting or useful. Be fiercely protective of your time.
Past Authoring (Autobiography)
Freud told us to dig up all our old skeletons and ghouls so we can finally confront them. Jung said that what we want most can be found where we least want to look. Carl Rogers insisted we shouldn’t shy away from conversations about difficult things.
According to Peterson, it’s all predicated on the same idea – that voluntary exposure is one of the main ways to get over fears (and also how we learn). The key word is voluntary, so you have to wield the shovel yourself.
In this section, you’re directed to divide your life up into various epochs, and then examine the defining events of each period. The exercise helped me put a few deep-seated resentments to bed, and realise that a couple of things I was still bitter about had actually made me tougher. I connected plenty of dots, and came out with a list of almost 30 insights.
I’m extremely lucky that nothing really terrible ever happened to me. If you have scarier skeletons that don’t come in convenient silver-lined caskets, this would be much more confronting. I know that’s kind of the point, but you should still probably proceed with caution.
(Note: My bullet points from this section are all way too weird and personal to share publicly.)
Future Authoring (Planning)
Peterson talks about an experiment where researchers attached springs to the tails of rats, so they could measure how hard they pulled towards a scent of food in front of them. Then they wafted the scent of a cat behind the rats, and measured that too.
You’d think the rats would be straining their little hearts out in in either scenario, but somehow they stepped it up another notch when they received both scents at once. What the scientists found was two distinct drives – a push and a pull – which are more powerful in tandem.
In the Future Authoring program, you’re the rat.
One of the first exercises is writing a stream-of-consciousness fantasy about your ideal future for a solid 15 minutes. Then you have to spend 15 minutes writing about the future you want to avoid – how life could turn out if you succumbed to your weaknesses, and let things fall apart. That way you’re simultaneously running toward your dream, and away from your nightmare.
Next, you break down each facet of your ideal future into sub-goals, with specific objectives and planning. That includes brainstorming all the ways things could go wrong, and how you’d deal with them (in the business world, this is called a ‘pre-mortem’). When you come out the other end, you have a roadmap for how to get what you want in life, with an awareness of all the obstacles you’re likely to face.
Future Authoring was the most satisfying and positive element for me, and built upon some of the realisations of the Past and Present programs, which is why I recommend doing it last.
I pulled out over 50 specific ideas and insights. I can’t share most of them, but here’s an example of one of the eight dimensions I was working on (these are addressed to myself):
- The world is your bivalve, if you can control your fidgeting and whims long enough to reach out and grasp it. Elon Musk works 17 hours a day – you can manage seven. This constant battle against yourself is the source of much frustration and existential angst.
- You’ll get a lot more enduring satisfaction from this than you lose in simple hedonic pleasures – remember the difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self.
- Scheduling is the most crucial step. You need to refine it so it’s a bit more consistent, then bed it in. If you can just get enough runs on the board, you’ll be able to make it a habit that no longer requires willpower.
- Get a daily schedule bedded in by the end of this 90 day sprint period (3Q17).
- Eliminate distractions: Phone is not only on silent, but out of sight. StayFocusd is always active. Netflix is banned except Sunday, as are other time-killers.
- Accountability: Daily or weekly check-ins with an accountability group. You’ll be embarrassed if you don’t do enough.
- Rewards and incentive: Block out time at the end of each day so that you can read a book, watch TV, or goof off without feeling guilty. Batch admin tasks together on a Saturday. Make Sunday a blob-out day where you can do anything, and be a total sack of shit if you want.
To be honest, I didn’t expect the self authoring program to be very useful – not because I assumed it was junk, but because I’ve already spent the last year navel-gazing like crazy.
In between some pretty full-on adventures, my sabbatical has mostly involved a lot of reading and thinking and writing. I’ve already put in place lots of systems to guide me through life, with highly specific goals, and lists and spreadsheets up the wazoo. I mean, that’s pretty much how I got here in the first place.
With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to come out with a list of actionable things to do. I also have a much clearer sense of where I’ve come from, and where I’m going. To put this in Peterson-speak, I’d already slain a lot of the smaller dragons. Now I’m moving onto the bigger ones, and I’m equipped with a much better map to guide me.
Where’s the magic?
The benefits of ‘expressive’ writing and goal setting for mental and physical health, cognitive ability, and performance have a pretty solid body of research behind them. Interestingly, Peterson has co-authored a paper following 700 students who took an early version of the self authoring program.
All groups performed better than the control, which is good to know. The fascinating finding was was that after two years, ethnic and gender-based gaps in academic achievement had almost entirely disappeared. If you’re male or a minority, this might be particularly useful (the paper is here).
So, what’s the secret sauce? As far as I can tell, there is none. The questions and exercises are simple, and nothing you couldn’t have come up with yourself. What matters is the act of writing. This isn’t new to me, because that’s how I crystallise my thoughts about complicated things. But it would never have occurred to me to sit down and write about myself at length. It would feel a bit weird, maybe self-indulgent. To have someone not only give you permission, but hold your hand through a logical progression of exercises with a clear endpoint – that’s why it works.
- In the spirit of frugality: I’ve noticed Jordan Peterson sometimes gives out discount codes on social media (although I don’t think they’re cheaper than the current offer of $30 for two full suites – here’s the link).
- I got the two-for-one deal, and gave the other to a friend. This is cool, because you can do it around the same time, and compare results.
- Don’t just complete the program and then forget about it. When I copy-pasted the raw material into a Google Doc, it came out at 18,000 words and 48 pages. Lots of it wasn’t particularly interesting or insightful, so I went through and curated the most useful bits into bullet-point lists. For the future authoring program, this came out as a nearly perfectly-formed manifesto. Now I can refer back to whenever I want, and it only takes 10 minutes to read.
- Make sure you do it over several days. Apparently you want to be in a sort of reverie-like state, open-minded, and not hurrying or anxious to get it finished.
- I think it’d be useful (although not necessary) to know a little bit about the Big Five personality traits beforehand. Take the test here, and watch the relevant lecture (starts from 09:20) if you want to learn the underlying science.
If you do the self authoring program as a result of reading this review, please email me and let me know how you get on. Personally, I’m excited. My room is clean, my mind is clear, and I’m ready to start slaying some big ol’ dragons of chaos… roughly speaking, of course.
- I realise the irony in having my mind changed about the veracity of psychology by an academic obsessed with Jungian archetypes. While I find these sort of ideas fascinating, others might less charitably describe them as ‘batshit crazy’. Fear not: The core psychometric stuff Peterson talks about – IQ and Big 5 – is solid, and he seems to be acutely aware of the limitations of various other areas.
- Freud called these dimensions the id, ego and superego. These labels have fallen out of favour, but pretty much everyone agrees that the unconscious exists, and that the brain has different planes of thinking (possibly with multiple models of consciousness working in parallel, à la Daniel Dennett).
- This is in no way meant to suggest that psychological problems don’t exist, or to diminish their seriousness. Hopefully that’s obvious, but I’m footnoting it to be safe.
- For more rat metaphors, watch this short YouTube clip on relationship advice. It’s Peterson at his best, and a great way to get a ‘taster’ of whether you like his style.
- The Big Five is super interesting, and maps onto all sorts of things like conservatism vs liberalism, creativity and art, and group-level differences between men and women. It’s covered in depth in the latter half of the Personality lectures. If you have a spare 20-odd hours, I’d watch the whole series, starting from episode 2.