When I heard that Jordan Peterson was coming to Auckland on his 12 Rules Of Life Speaking Tour, I was overseas in Manila. After enthusiastically jumping around for a few minutes (New Zealand is quite far down for a lot of artists, creatives, singers or other performers to travel to, hence the enthusiasm part) and considering my finances, I estimated the time difference and put on my alarm for 4 in the morning, so that I could have enough time to book a ticket.
Fast forward a few months, the big day had finally arrived and while I usually do my best to read up on an event I am attending, this time I decided against it. The reasons were quite simple really. Jordan Peterson, who for those that haven’t heard of him is a Canadian psychologist and university professor that rose to prominence a few years ago after objecting to using gender-neutral pronouns, has attracted bucket loads of both criticism and praise. His self-help book has remained at the top of the best-seller list and while some are praising him as a free-speech martyr and a messenger of truth others are denouncing him as a bigot, fascist, hypocrite and a man with a dangerous and hidden political agenda.
Now, these are all big words with big meanings behind them and while I am sure I could manage at least a rough definition of all the political, ideological and philosophical concepts that make up a big part of what Peterson supporters and opponents
discuss fight about, my simple mind was less concerned with taking a stand and more interested in entering the room with no baggage.
In my house of four children and two adults, the better part of my education was done in our at home classroom. So, as a homeschooled kid that was regularly and consistently thrown into debates about abortion, stem cell research, types of government and 9/11, which at times I hardly understood, I was up for the challenge.
Hear a man out, then go do some research, then maybe form an opinion. Easy!
This, by the way, may or may not be Rule 9 of Jordan Peterson’s book.
ASSUME THAT THE PERSON YOU ARE LISTENING TO MIGHT KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON’T
Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book yet, so I was following this rule way before I heard about it. Mostly because my mum drilled the same concept into my head from a young age. Yay, for mums!
While we are in the spirit of confession, I must add that I am neither a die-hard supporter of Peterson nor a critic. I have browsed his writings and watched his lectures, read about his opinions and saw him debate political correctness with Steven Fry with great curiosity and interest. I have found value in some of the principles he encourages others to follow and been left with a quizzical expression after reading some way too long sentences with words that require constant dictionary checking.
So, that is how I entered into the beautiful Auckland City Hall on a Monday evening with a notebook in one hand and my ticket in the other. Bringing a notebook serves a lot of purposes in this situation. It makes you look like you are a journalist on assignment, you can write down notes when you are bored and you might even write down something important you will want to remember later.
For all my talking about entering the room with no baggage, the first thing I noticed was the number of men that were present.
A minute later, a woman opened the door and held it open for 5 men to pass through. I was the sixth person to go past, muttering thank you and trying to think about whether there is some sort of deeper meaning behind this simple action of a woman holding the door open for a group of men. Could I be overthinking and looking for gender stereotypes everywhere? (made a note of it in my book for further reflection)
The stage was set with a single armchair, a glass of water and a laptop. The classical background music helped set a relaxing mood, which was much needed after having to wait 30 extra minutes for Peterson to make his appearance. As soon as that happened everyone stood up, clapped and cheered.
I had been distracting myself by attempting to estimate the men and women ratio in the room. Most rows were about 10 to 2. There were old men and middle-aged men, young boys, really young boys, men with suits on, probably straight from their corporate jobs, men with long hippie hair, dudes, lads, groups of lads, men with their girlfriends, men with their families, men that looked like they came straight from the skate park, college-aged men that you wouldn’t think read books, men covered with tattoos, men that had an emo thing going, men that you would call white, men that you would call not white, and my absolute favourite, a barefoot man that was sitting right next to me and reminded me of what it is like to live in New Zealand. Yes, even in a fancy City Hall, you are free to take your shoes off and walk around barefoot!
Okay, so you get it. There were people from all walks of life and while I have focused on the men there were lots of women as well that were equally diverse. We all settled in for the next 2 hours of talking. It was a lot like being in a lecture theatre but only this time the majority of the room wanted to be there and were paying attention.
Peterson made a brief introduction and delved straight into the 12 rules of life in his book. He was everything I imagined him to be and more. Captivating, eccentric, polarizing, critical, opinionated, humorous and his trail of thought often moved in ways that were hard to keep track of.
I frantically kept notes and tried to suppress conversations running inside my head. Rule number 2 was simple enough to understand, “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping”. I can do that! There is always more room for some self-help motivation to remind me to take care of me. Great start!
On to rule number 3, which talks about making friends with people who want the best for the best in you. Here, Peterson briefly explored the nature of friendships and touched on the subject of a therapist/patient relationship as one with a similar ultimate goal. I was feeling very good by this point, mostly because none of what I was hearing was new to me and there was no controversy in sight. Could it be that I was not looking hard enough to find the controversy? Or is it possible I was focusing on things that only applied to me?
I am leaning towards the second as an answer to my question. I paid a hefty price for a ticket, to hear someone talk for two hours. Whether or not there are controversial aspects to this person that I may or may not agree with, I will follow my mum’s advice and Peterson rule number 9 and try to learn something new and see how it could benefit me.
Rule number 4 is “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today”. Nothing groundbreaking about this one either. Especially at an age where we are bombarded with the achievements and picture-perfect lives of those around us through curated social media feeds and status updates. I found this a timely reminder to focus on my path and see my timeline as a separate entity to the timeline of those around me.
We are now at rule number 5 which advises parents and probably future parents as well, which could be my category, to “not let children do anything that makes you dislike them”. This part of the discussion had a lot of audience laughter, I am assuming from parents that were for the time being free to agree with the statement that while children are amazing, they are not always likeable. While I have no children, I was once one of them and I can definitely attest to the fact that not all children are little people you want to be around. Causes and solutions that surrounded the discussion of this rule touched on matters of discipline and principles as well as the phenomenon of parental self-sabotage in order to bring about dependency. Basically, the more annoying your child is the bigger the chance that nobody will like them, the bigger the chance that they will not be welcomed into other social circles in life, so you (the parent) get to have them all to yourself for as long as you want.
Halfway there now, at rule number 6, which states that you need to “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”. While I don’t remember if Peterson actually commented on whether or not it is possible to have your house in perfect order, I am going to state my opinion which is that “a house in perfect order” is not a thing that exists. Now, if that is indeed the case then criticizing the world is never an option, which would be counter-intuitive to making the world a better place through constructive criticism. The majority of this rule was spent talking about how criticism of others often stems from perceiving the world as an unbearable place, and how the next step is appointing yourself the person responsible to set it right. A path that is often more revengeful that helpful and one that obviously should be avoided.
People that find life unbearable and seek to change it drastically and revengefully may be plagued by the all-time favourite existential question of, “what is the meaning of life?” Here, Peterson offered a simple solution which may be my favourite part of this evening.
When you are asking yourself about the meaning of your life it is not uncommon to disregard your own value and impact with thoughts like: ” I am only one in a billion”, “How could I possibly affect the world” and “I am not that important”. To this Peterson suggested that you never give an answer you wouldn’t give at times of genuine suffering. As an example, he presented a scenario where a child with cancer in a hospital room, tired of fighting for his or her life, voices the belief that their life is of little value. They would say similar things like what you say to yourself, such as they are only one in a billion, they could die and it wouldn’t matter. (For those that may not know this about Jordan Peterson, his daughter has dealt with various health issues since she was little, so this was a topic that was evidently emotional to talk about.)
Obviously, you would never approve of that narrative if it was coming from a dying child, so why do it to yourself? This was a powerful moment and many in the audience were fixed to the stage listening to Peterson’s shaking voice. Undoubtedly, many of us were also thinking of similar scenarios with friends, family or children during their time of immense suffering.
Things got a bit more confusing for me after rule 7, or it could be possible that I had by now reached my limit of nodding and listening to deeply profound ideas and I was daydreaming of dinner and sleep. Rule 7 is to pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient. This rule was a reminder to be disciplined with your goals, to follow through on what you said you were going to achieve, and to pursue the road that will get you there. I don’t know how much this counts, but my way of following through on this rule was that I was going to go home and document my thoughts on this event. So, here I am following this path. Let me tell you it has not been expedient. It is already 1 in the morning and I am still up.
Rule number 8 and Rule number 10 go together quite well, stating “tell the truth or at least not lie” and “be precise in your speech”. These are always a work in progress and by this point, I was thinking of my mother quite a bit. What made this part of the conversation a bit different from similar life advice on “speaking your truth and being careful with what comes out of your mouth” was one phrase Peterson repeated that stayed with me.
He said, “Live the Adventure of your Own Damn Life”.
At that stage, I was back to listening intently. I love adventure, I love living my life, I love reminding myself that there is one life and one day I will be old and thinking back to how I lived it according to my standards, not somebody else’s. I have frankly no idea, whether this was the intended meaning but I highlighted this part on my notebook and wrote it down a few times for good measure. The adventure of my own damn life is being played out every day in every conversation and every time I open my mouth. So, it follows that lying or living by somebody else’s words is denying yourself your own adventure and your own path. Not something I want to do!
We have already touched on Rule number 9 and how you can learn something from everyone if only you are smart enough to stop talking and listen for a minute. Here, I remembered to remind myself in future heated discussions when people are voicing their opinion and attempting to make me agree with them, the best move is to let them talk. Hear them out, give them the benefit of the doubt, learn something new – then disagree with it anyway because they are crazy.
Rule number 12 was at first the most confusing of the lot. It encourages you to “pet a cat when you encounter one” which apparently is less about cats and more about stopping to appreciate the little things in life especially amidst chaos and unbearable suffering. This was a deeply emotional moment for Peterson, who came close to crying on stage. He talked about watching his daughter go through countless hospitalizations and surgeries, fearing the loss of a normal life and seeing how easy it could be for a family to spiral into the depths of blame and despair.
Regardless of all the issues surrounding Peterson, the political agenda, the god-like status, the fervent cultish supporters and all those opposing his views on gender issues, equal pay or free speech, attending a Jordan Peterson event was a weirdly controversy free experience.
Everyone around me was kind and supporting, people opened doors for each other and smiled while they passed you on the corridor. They politely debated their views and engaged in conversations that we are often not willing or even scared to talk about. Groups of men and women left the Auckland City Hall, thinking about the meaning of their lives, their aims, their goals and ways to become better, not just for them but also for the all the ways in which it affects their parents, their children, their partners and their community. Our hearts were a bit warmer, having shared in the story of a parent that has dealt with a sick child. We all silently considered the undeniable list of all our faults and all the ways in which we can and should want to rise above them and aim higher. In the brief Q & A section at the end, we all sat listening about the prevalence of suicidality in New Zealand and knew that the reason this was one of two questions that Peterson brought up, was because it is everywhere around us and we are all trying to find ways to deal with it.
This was not an article to make you like or dislike Jordan Peterson and all he stands for. This was the experience of a simple girl, attending an event. You can make up your own mind on whether or not that is something you would be interested in doing or even if Jordan Peterson is a man whose words are worth listening to. As for me, well I am just glad I have finished writing this article and can now finally go to bed. Also, I need to call my mother for some advice more often.
She will charge much less than what a ticket to see Jordan Peterson costs.