I don’t pull any punches, I’m not speaking down, I would never speak down to an audience. I think that’s a dreadful error of arrogance. But the reason I think people believe what I say is that I’m very pessimistic.
Most times when you listen to someone who’s a motivational speaker, … it fills you with a temporary optimism, but you go home and the wiser part of you knows that mostly it’s the painting over of rotten wood with a fresh coat of paint.
I tell my audiences very clearly that their life is going to be difficult and sometimes difficult beyond both imagining and tolerance. That is definitely in your future, if it isn’t in your present, and for many people it’s in their present.
That can be unbearable enough to turn you against life itself. To corrupt you, to drive you to nihilism, to drive you to suicide, and worse, to drive you to thoughts of vengefulness of infinite scope. To not only be turned against yourself and your fellow men but to be turned against being itself because of its intrinsically brutal, in some sense, nature. That it’s worse than that actually because it’s not only that we suffer and that that will necessarily occur, but that we all make our suffering worse because of our ignorance and our malevolence and everyone knows that to be true.
So the discussions start on an unshakable foundation, but then I can tell people … that despite that we’re remarkable creatures. We’re capable of taking up the burden of that suffering and facing the reality of that malevolence voluntarily.
We can actually do that and all of the psychological evidence suggests—and this is independence of your school of psychology, if you’re a practical psychologist. A clinical psychologist of any sort, the evidence is crystal clear that if people voluntarily confront the problems that face them and the malevolence that surrounds them, they can make headway against it. And not only psychologically.
So it’s not only meaningful to do that psychologically, which it is to confront the problems that torment you voluntarily. That’s meaningful psychologically, but it’s also practically useful in that you can actually solve some of the problems that beset you.
God only knows how good we can get at that. I don’t know what percentage of human effort is spent in counterproductive activity. I’m not an absolute cynic about that. But when I talk to undergraduates, I ask them, “How much time do you waste every day by your own reckoning?” It’s somewhere between five and eight hours. It’s a lot of time.
I usually walk … the students through an economic analysis of that. I said, “Well, why don’t you value your time at $50 an hour and calculate for yourself just exactly what you’re doing to your future by your inability to discipline yourself?” It’s worth thinking through.
In any case, people do waste a lot of time and they also act counter productively a lot of the time. Regardless, we do make progress and we can thrive under the difficult conditions that make up our lives and we can resist the malevolence that entices us. That’s within our power.
We don’t know the limits to that and we also know that it’s better to … live courageously than cowardly. Everyone knows that. That’s what you teach people that you love. We know that it’s better to live truthfully than in deceit and you can tell that, too, because that’s also what you tell people that you love and we know that you should pick up your damn responsibility and move forward.
Everyone knows that. It’s part of our intrinsic moral nature and that nature is there. It’s not difficult to communicate to people about this. Everyone knows that you wake up at three in the morning when you’ve let your life go off the rails and that you berate yourself for your uselessness and your cruelty and your failure to take the opportunities that are in front of you.
If you are the master in your own house, in some sense, the captain of your own destiny, if there was no intrinsic nature, that would never happen. You’d just let yourself off the hook. There’d be no voice of conscious tormenting you. But no one escapes from that and what that indicates to me is that at least psychologically we live in a universe that’s characterized by a moral dimension and we understand that well.
Moral failings have consequences and they’re not trivial, they destroy you. They destroy your family, they destroy your community. You can tell people that and they listen because they know. They don’t know they know. That’s the thing and maybe that’s the thing about being an intellectual. You have the opportunity to articulate ideas that other people know, they embody, but they can’t articulate and that’s what people tell me.
They say, “Well, you help me give words to things that I always knew to be true but couldn’t say.” Or they say, “I would be trying to put some of your precepts into practice, responsibility being a main one, vision another, honesty.” … It’s the remarkable part of doing all this.
I have people tell me constantly wherever I go—it’s so delightful that they were in a pretty dark place and they tell me why, and there are plenty of dark places in the world, and they decided, well, maybe they were going to develop a bit of a vision and take a bit more responsibility and start telling the truth and putting some effort into something and they come up and they say, “Wow you can’t believe how much better things are.”
It’s like I got three promotions. I had one guy tell me—this was a lovely story. Fifteen seconds. He came up after a talk, he said, “Two years ago, I got out of jail, I was homeless.” He said, “I own my own house. I have a six-figure income, I got married, and I have a daughter, thank you.” And that was the whole conversation. It’s like he decided he was going to put his life together.
So you can look at that pessimism that constitutes … I think, the core religious message, really is the tragic nature of the world, the reality of suffering. It’s part of the core religious message. But what emerges out of that properly conceptualized is a remarkable appreciation for what human beings are capable of. We are unbelievably resilient and able creatures. We do not have any conception of our upper limits.
Wood: … Is that hope that you’re talking about, that you’re giving people hope, young people hope, is that one of the secrets to reaching them?
Peterson: It’s a funny kind of hope and it’s such a perverse sort of hope because I would say for the last 45 years we’ve told—psychologists have been certainly to blame for this, at least in part—”You’re OK the way you are,” that’s what we tell young people. “Oh, you’re OK the way you are.” … There’s nothing worse … you can tell someone who’s young than that, especially if they’re miserable.
Lots of them, if they’re miserable and aimless, it’s like, “Oh, I’m miserable and aimless and sometimes I’m suicidal and I’m nihilistic and I don’t have any direction … in my life.” It’s like, “Well, you’re OK the way you are.” It’s like they don’t want to hear that. They want to hear, … “You’re useless. You know nothing, you haven’t got started. You’ve got 60 years to put yourself together and God only knows what you could become.”
That message is so … funny because it’s such an attack but it’s so positive because there’s faith there in the potential that makes up the person rather than the miserable actuality that happens to be manifesting itself at the moment. Young people respond extraordinarily well to that.
… If you’re a parent and you love your child, your son, your daughter, what you’re trying to foster is the best in them. You want that to manifest itself across the course of their life. You want them to become continually more than they are to see what they could be.
And I think that’s part of the great message of the West is that that’s the ethical requirement of individual being, in the proper sense, is to constantly know that you’re not what you could be, to take responsibility for that, and to commit yourself, body and soul, to the attainment of that ideal.
Wood: We’re going to get a question here from our members, right here in the front row. Bob Grantham had a couple good questions right here. He asked, “Much of your effort today is trying to help people improve their lives.” You’ve just been talking about that. “Why does the establishment attack you, rather than try to support your efforts?”
Peterson: We should be nuanced about that. A group of newspapers in Canada called Postmedia—that’s 200 newspapers strong—they supported me. I’ve had a lot of support from journalists, and I would say I’ve had more support from the higher quality journalists, which I’m quite happy about. So, it’s polarized.