YouTube Video
Audio published on June 13th, 2018

Keywords: Strategy, Prayer, Wisdom, Child, Judge, Stagnation, Potential, Pinocchio, Job, Joker, Victory

Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on the Jordan Peterson subreddit.

Truth and Responsibility

A Discussion with Aubrey Marcus

Aubrey Marcus: This is a genuine honor, to be sitting here with you. I’ve got the opportunity to listen to you on a lot of different venues, and I got a chance to read through a lot of your book. So much of it is so deeply resonant with things that I felt, experiences that I’ve learned, and interactions with different athletes and ways that I can draw. But your ability to kind of draw these things to their ultimate logical conclusions and anchor them in a deep truth has been really a pleasure to witness, and a pleasure to provide structure to a lot of these fundamental understandings, that I think I felt.

Dr. Jordan Peterson: Yeah, it’s something that, I would say, the more critical readers, the ones who are more dismissive of what I’m doing seem to miss, is that the book has been criticized for presenting these truisms that everyone knows. Well, people know these things for a reason. They don’t know why they know them, and there are deep reasons for knowing them. I wanted to chase those reasons all the way down to the bottom. Something that’s true can turn into a cliche, and it’s not true anymore, because it becomes cliched. But if it contains wisdom, then you have to renew it, so that it gets its force back.

AM: Revivify.

JP: Exactly. Exactly that. Chasing some of these things to the bottom really does that.

AM: Because if they’re not anchored, they can be swayed either way.

JP: Just like us.

AM: Manipulation of words and symbols. Words are dirty things. They get barnacles of mistruth that cling to them, especially when you’re talking about a word like "God" or "love" or "truth."

JP: Or "good."

AM: Yeah. These things become these massive forces, these flotillas of nectar, a kernel of truth in actual meaning, and all this shit that people pile on to them. So cleaning those off and then anchoring them back to their true meaning…

JP: Yeah. They get mouthed carelessly, then they lose their force, then people stop believing that they’re valuable. That’s really not good, because some things need to be valuable, or nothing’s valuable. That’s not such a good outcome.

AM: Yeah. That’s not the outcome we’re looking for.

JP: No.

AM: I think another really brilliant thing I’d love to continue to explore with you is anchoring these truths and how they’ve been expressed in story. I’ve had this great experience of going and reanalyzing, reviewing, all of the stories I’ve enjoyed. I watched Aladdin on Broadway. I remember enjoying that as a kid. I enjoyed the story as a kid. It resonated, obviously, on some level. But then seeing the truth that was actually expressed in it…

JP: It’s fun, eh?

AM: Yeah, seeing the diamond in the rough in the street urchin, and that the outward appearances were actually meaningless. Him trying to put on this fancy show as a prince to impress the princess was all nonsense. She loved him for himself.

JP: It’s like a pickup artist.

AM: Yeah, exactly. Exactly! And you start to see, "oh, man. That was a true story." Not in the sense that there was a Jasmine and Aladdin and a talking monkey and a genie, but true nonetheless. And in all the good stories, you end up finding this.

JP: "Genie" is the root word for "genius," and it’s a really interesting idea, because a genie is something that, as Robin William’s said: "unlimited power! Tiny little living space." But it’s a really interesting idea, because there’s this unlimited power that’s associated with genius, but it’s constrained. That’s really what the human spirit is like. It has this aspect of the infinite, and it is something that can grant wishes. But it’s also constrained terribly. It’s constrained mortally and physically and all that. But the thing is that both the infinite possibility and the constraint are necessary. That’s what makes up the genie. It has to be both at the same time. The idea that, if you find your genie you can have your wishes… That’s right. You have to want what you’re wishing for. You have to make the proper sacrifices to get it. It can’t just be some whim. You think, "well, I wish I had…" whatever it is you’re wishing for.

AM: That’s where people get prayer wrong, as well.

JP: That’s right.

AM: Like hoping that God is the genie, and can just grant you this boon for nothing.

JP: Yeah.

AM: That’s not how it works.

JP: No, that’s not how it works. You have to ask for something you would rather not have, which is usually wisdom. It’s funny. I was talking about that with the audience in Dallas last night. Somebody asked me about prayer. They asked me if I prayed. I thought, "well, it depends on what you mean by that, exactly." I don’t ask God for favours or for wishes. But I do think that, if you sit on the edge of your bed, and things aren’t going very well for you, and you ask what foolish thing you’re doing to make it worse, that you’ll get an answer right now, and it won’t be the one you want, but it might be the one that, if you listen to it, will set things straight. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where, if something wasn’t going right for me and I sat and thought, "OK, I’m willing to figure out what I’m doing wrong," which is a big thing to think, because you never know how much you’re doing wrong. It might be something that you really don’t want to contend with. But if you clear some space to meditate on that, the probability that you’ll figure out something that you did that was stupid, that’s bending you and twisting you in the wind, you’ll get an answer very, very rapidly.

AM: I remember, for me, prayer is one of those things that’s like, "in case of emergency, break glass." I love to actually use that practice when times are more calm, when it’s like the absolute last resort. But in those situations where I’ve just had no other way that my mind can figure anything out, no other way that I can see any sense of clarity, any sense of direction, any way out of the current state of chaos or conundrum that I’m in, then I’ll start to pray. It’s this deep, like, "please, give me any kind of clarity, any way to see out." Like you said, remarkably, that wisdom comes through.

JP: It’s funny. Obviously, if you have a problem and you think about it, you can think up a solution. It’s not obvious how you do that. It’s not like you know how you’re manipulating your neurons, or something. It happens of its own accord in some sense. You can participate in it, I guess, and you can interfere with it, and it seems to take a certain amount of will power. But it still all happens mysteriously behind the scenes. I would say this sort of attitude towards, let’s say the "prayer" that we’re discussing, is just an extension of that. It’s something like—well, you admit there’s a problem, first. Then you ask for the minimum necessary intervention, which would be, "well, I’d like to move forward on this some small amount, that someone like me could actually manage, and I’d be willing to carry it out." Then you reorient the way you’re thinking as a consequence of that, and something usually pops out of the abyss, to guide you. It’s very strange, but it’s not really any stranger than the fact that we can think at all. The fact that we can think is actually very strange. It’s strange like the fact that we can dream is strange. That’s strange beyond belief, that you can dream, or that something in you dreams, which is a much better way of thinking about it, because it’s not like you’re in control of your dreams. It just sort of happens.

AM: I think people can also get kind of tripped up in this idea that it’s the external God that you’re praying to, necessarily, and it’s an external force outside of you that’s piping this wisdom straight in through your earholes, and that’s where it’s coming from. But when you pray, you could also be praying to that higher part of your self, that divine spark inside your self, your higher self, the higher wisdom that you hold. And I don’t think there’s really a necessary distinction that we have to draw from that. This could be just you surrendering to your own higher wisdom, saying, "look, I’m stuck in this hedge of mazes. I can’t figure it out. Is there some illumination that can help me at least point the first step in that direction?" And then I can start to plod my way through. That’s universally what happens, but you almost have to admit, "OK, I’m stuck."

JP: Yeah, that’s it. That’s why, in most religious systems, humility is stressed, because humility says, "I have a problem, and I’m stuck." And humility says, "whatever I’m doing isn’t working, and therefore I’m wrong." As soon as you say that—and you don’t have to get metaphysical about it…

AM: In my case, I not only say it, but I’m usually weeping in deep pain and laying on the ground.

JP: Then you know you’re really saying it. Hah.

AM: Yeah, that you mean it.

JP: Right, right. And so what you do in some sense, psychologically, is you admit to yourself that your current frame of reference is faulty, and then you start opening the door to a different kind of thinking, which is more creative thinking; it’s more lateral thinking: "I’m wrong, but that’s not necessary a problem, because I could be right, if I thought some other way." That’s great. Often, it works. There’s almost no end to the utility of trying to figure out which ways you’re wrong, because there’s lots of them, and every time you discover one, you don’t have to be quite so wrong anymore. That’s a good deal. One of the things I was trying to stress in 12 Rules for Life, and also in this first book that I wrote, Maps of Meaning, is that you need to decide, at some point in your life, whether you’re more in love with what you know or what you don’t know. People tend to be in love with what they know, because you don’t want to have that shaken and challenged, and it’s not surprising. The problem with that is that you don’t know enough. Unless everything’s going perfectly for you, and everything around you, you set in order perfectly, your ignorance outweighs your knowledge. So you should make friends with what you don’t know.

AM: And even what you’ll know, you’ll forget, and you’ll need to reimagine that in a different way, and use a different metaphor and understand it—because, you know, in that deep prayer, in the same story, I’m in New York, in this hotel room, and everything’s gone to hell, and I just can’t find my way out. The message that came through—without getting into the specific details—was, "the sun does not measure its light by the shadows that it casts." I never thought of that metaphor like that.

JP: So what happened?

AM: I was measuring my own worth and my own validity, as a person, by the external things that were happening, the consequences of my acts, like what was going on.

JP: Yup.

AM: I was using that to create my own hell of unworthiness. That metaphor came in: "the sun does not measure its light by the shadows it casts."

JP: That’s a hell of a poetic statement, that. That’s a good one.

AM: And I was like, "oh, shit." And then from there—so this was a five-day descent into hell that kind of crescendoed in this moment in the hotel room, and then that one statement, which I never imagined before… It seemed greater than anything I could think of at the moment.

JP: It’s a good one. It’s really poetically put.

AM: It led me out, and that’s led me through since then, honestly.

JP: It’s also not self-evident what it means. It has to be unpacked. I have a chapter about that, which is, "compare yourself to who you were yesterday, and not to who someone else is today." It’s the same basic idea: you have to get your markers for success right, because you can end up in the situation you described. There’s always people out there who are doing far better than you on pretty much anything you want to imagine. If all you’re doing is seeing yourself in their reflected light, let’s say, then it’s going to be pretty damn dismal. But it’s not a good comparison, first of all because there’s dangers in comparing yourself to others, period; because they’re not you, and God only knows what struggles they had to undertake to get to where they were, or what burdens they are currently carrying that you are not aware of. You just don’t know any of that. But you can certainly contrast yourself with yourself, and that’s a lot better.

AM: It’s the only way.

JP: It is the only way. It’s also the only way of really measuring anything approximating proper improvement. You can actually tell when you’re a little better than you were yesterday, and you can actually do that. That’s another thing that’s so interesting about it. You can actually make yourself a little better, in some way, pretty much… Well, I don’t know if it’s at every moment, but you can certainly do it every day.

AM: It can go two steps forward and one step back. It can go in this kind of spiralling. But as long as you’re going from low left to top right on the graph—with the volatility of the market, which will certainly go up and down.

JP: That’s absolutely right, and it’s a necessary thing to factor in. That’s also a part of what gripping yourself too tightly or not putting the constraints on too hard is—you’re exactly right, so you’re moving up to the top right-hand corner, but you do it like a thermostat, going back and forth, looking for that center line. You have to overshoot on both sides to find it. You have to allow yourself a certain latitude for error. That’s a useful thing to know, too. One of the things I tell people when they’re trying to develop a vision for their life and implement a plan is, "make a bad plan. Make the best one you can, but don’t get obsessive about it. Make a plan, implement it. You’ll figure out when you implement it why it’s stupid, exactly, and then you can fix it a little bit, and then you can fix it a bit more, and then, eventually, you get a good plan, even if you start with something that’s not the best."

AM: But you have to do it hard. You have to go—I think a lot people make mistakes, because they’ll have a plan, and they halfway do it. A failure or success is both success, because you learn from both of those. What you don’t learn shit from is going, and going part of the way, and having that fallback position of, "well, I didn’t really try. I didn’t really go for it."

JP: There’s a statement in Revelation. It’s a very strange book. Christ comes back as the judge. Jung commented about that, Carl Jung. He said, "look, the Christ in the gospels is very, very merciful. The problem with that is that he’s an ideal, and an ideal is always a judge, because you compare yourself with your ideal. So the ideal has to have a judgemental element." He said that was missing in the gospels, and that’s why Revelation was tapped on to the end of the Bible. Christ comes back as a judge, and one of the things he says is, "if you were neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth." He actually uses the word that refers to "vomit," so it’s a disgust phrase. But it’s exactly relevant to that. The people who are judged most harshly aren’t the ones who make the worst mistakes or do the best things; it’s the ones that stay in the middle and never commit themselves, who want to have it both ways. That’s a hell of a thing to know: that it’s OK to fail, as long as you’re in it—as long as you’re all in; that the more all in you are, the better, and that failures are OK. But hedging your bets, nope.

AM: It doesn’t get you anywhere. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from some of these top elite performers. We’ll have someone like Tim Kennedy in here, who’s like tip of the spear in the special forces and also a top UFC fighter. Just a top performer across the board. He’ll talk about, "when I go do something, I’ll try to fail as quickly as possible. I’ll try to push myself to the point where either my body breaks down or the system breaks down, or something goes, and so I know. And the longer I can push that out, ‘maybe that’s a really good plan, if I haven’t been able to fail quite yet.’" But he sees that as a goal, almost.

JP: I think one of the things I learned, when I was in my 20s, was how much work I could do. When I was in graduate school, I basically worked myself to the point of exhaustion. I got curious. It’s like, "well, how much work can I do?" It’s a complicated question, right? because it’s "how much work can I do today, but it’s not just today. It’s a succession of days. If I work this hard, will I work myself out in a week, a month…"

AM: Borrowing tomorrow to pay for today.

JP: Right, so you’ve got to figure that out. But I think it’s really something to do in your 20s, to push yourself to your limit, so you know where it is, and then you back off a bit, so that it can be sustainable, because you don’t want to die when you’re 27, even though there’s a romance about that, and lots of people, even successful people, do that. It’s not really a good plan, so you want to push yourself to that extreme and see what you can manage, and then pull back and iterate it. But you don’t know where that is unless you push yourself past what you can bear, really.

AM: Even when you’re in an indulgent situation—let’s say you’re having drinks. There’s a certain point where the return on having those extra two drinks at the end of the night is going to cause an irreparable amount of pain, that’s going to come the next day, that’s not worth it. So even the lessons that you’ve applied to the positive aspects of life, you can also apply to these other simple things, like, "OK, at this point, these tequilas are going to maybe make me feel this much better, and tomorrow they’re going to make me feel this much worse. I’m not doing it." That’s, I think, a wisdom that you get just by applying… I guess it’s kind of like an arithmetic. It’s almost like doing math, at the end: "all right, this much pleasure for this much pain at the end—this much work productivity now for how much recovery I’m going to need later."

JP: I think that is partly wisdom, because one of the things that I’ve been so… There’s lots of different ways to interpret the world, and you can maybe even make the case that there’s an endless number of ways to interpret the world. The problem with that is that it disorients you in terms of what you should be doing. But just because there’s a very large number of ways to interpret the world doesn’t mean there’s a very large number of productive, meaningful, and sustainable ways to interpret the world. One of the things you do have to do is figure out how you conduct yourself today, so that you don’t upset the apple cart in a week or a month or a year. You’re playing an iterating game. One of the things I often tell my clients—this is a really useful thing to know, too. There’s a lot of emphasis in the New Testament, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, on paying attention to the day—something you also see a bit of in Buddhism: to focus on the moment.

AM: That’s my book: Own the Day, Own Your Life.

JP: Right, right. Exactly.

AM: Focus on the day.

JP: The thing that’s so interesting about the day—and the day is like a page in a book versus many in a book, but the page repeats. One of the things I often had my clients do—well, I’ll tell you a little story. I had one client who was spending about 45 minutes a night fighting with his young son about when to go to bed. They weren’t having a pleasant time of it, because it was just a constant battle. That’s common. It’s very common of parents of young children to be locked in a battle that occurs day after day. Sometimes it’s around eating, sometimes it’s toilet training, sometimes general behaviour issues, sometimes it’s bedtime. So we did some arithmetic. It’s like, "OK, 40 minutes a day. That’s 280 minutes a week, so that’s 5 hours. Twenty hours a month, 240 hours in a year. That’s 6 work weeks. That’s a month and a half. You’re spending a month and a half of work weeks doing nothing but fighting with your son. What makes you think you’re going to like him?" You think, "well, it’s only 40 minutes a day." Don’t fool yourself. Everything that’s every day is a significant percentage of your life. You’re away, let’s say, 16 hours. Five of those hours are basically maintenance, so you got about 11. And then 7 of those are work, so now you’re down to 4. So if you’re spending 15 minutes a day doing something painful and stupid, and you do it every day, it’s like 10 per cent of your productive life. So it’s really useful to get—people think backwards. They think, "well, I have a vacation coming up, and that’s really important." It’s like, "no, it’s not. You’re only going to do it once. It’s not that important. How you treat each other at lunchtime, if you eat together every day—that’s your life. Fix that. Get it so that the food’s good. Get it so that you’re happy with the people who are sitting there. Fix that. It’s like, ‘poof,’ 10 per cent of your life is fixed."

AM: I thought, in your book, when you talked about the amount of times that you would see your parents—because you were seeing them a couple times a year. They were 80, they maybe had 10 years—saw them twice a year, I think, so it’s 20 times. I was like, "wow. That’s a very useful thing to actually start thinking about, because actually counting the number of times that you get to see somebody…" It is death that gives us the preciousness of life. It is the expiration…

JP: It certainly hammers it home.

AM: Yeah. It’s the scarcity that makes it really valuable. Actually embracing that and understanding that allows you to align yourself to truth in a way, and appreciation for what that experience is. So whether it’s that or—I talk about it in my book, the time commuting. I use the analogy that Robert Greene had of alive time versus dead time. You’re in your car. Most people in their car are 30 minutes each way to work.

JP: Yup.

AM: That’s an hour a day, 5 days a week.

JP: Absolutely.

AM: So what are you going to do with that time? Are you going to listen to the top 40 or some news radio that’s going to pollute you with narcotizing dysfunction of everything that’s happening? or are you going to listen to a podcast? are you going to learn a language? are you going to listen to an audiobook and level up your life? or at the very least practice mindfulness; do some pranayama, do some breathing exercises that are going to put you in a state so when you go home and you see your wife and you see your kids, you’re not all flustered from work, and you can have that entry back into your life with a big hug.

JP: Right, which is a good way to enter your house. That’s another thing to think about: "Well, how many times are you going to enter your house?" "Well, a lot." "How about you get that right? Maybe there’s something your family should do when you come home, or maybe there’s something you should do with them when you come home." I often council my clients and my students to detach yourself from yourself. It’s like, "you don’t know who you are, and you don’t know what you’re doing, so why don’t you watch for a while? What is it that you actually do every day?" Coming home is a good example. People never think that. "I come home every day." Yeah, OK. It turns out that’s important. It would be good to get it right. That’s why people like having a dog.

AM: Yeah, the dog gets it right every time!

JP: That’s right! The dog gets it right every time

AM: They’re 100 per cent. It’s great.

JP: It’s so funny: because the dog gets that right every day, you will feed the dog for its whole life. You’ll take it for walks; you’ll clean up after it. The only reason is that the dog gets "coming home" right.

AM: Yeah, totally.

JP: If you have little kids and you let them greet you when you come home, they’ll greet you like a dog does. They’re real happy to see you. That’s a good thing to facilitate.

AM: If you come home and you train your kids that you’re a mess, and you’re angry, and you’re frustrated, they’re not going to want to greet you like that. You’ll be training them the opposite way and creating negative patterns.

JP: Here’s something you can really do, if you want to train them to not react to you well at all: come home, and when they bounce up happy to see you, be crabby and criticize them. That really works, because if you really want to punish someone, you wait until they do something good, then you punish them. That’s super effective.

AM: Because it turns their fucking world upside down.

JP: It really hurts people, to have that happen. It’s something to really notice, if you’re married: don’t punish your wife for doing things you want her to do. If you think, "well, I don’t." It’s like, "oh, yes, you do. You do. You have to watch, because it’s really easy to do." Partly, too, because maybe you’re bitter about something, or maybe you’re unhappy because of work. When someone comes along and they’re sort of happy, and that actually irritates you because you’re not really happy, and kind of mad at the world. They’re happy to see you or they’re happy about something, and you snap at them… Do that fifty times…

AM: Watch the downstream effects that it has.

JP: Yeah. That’s not a good strategy, let’s say.

AM: Especially when people are young—and I want to get to one of my questions that I’ve actually prepared, here, and talk about it, because you mentioned it before. Page 205 of your book, you were talking about when you’re kind of reconciling with your shadow, when you were working in the hospital. You said, "I soon divided myself into two parts: one that spoke and one, more detached, that paid attention and judged."

JP: Yeah, I hate that part. Hah.

AM: This happened for me out of necessity. I had, by most rights, compared to what most have done—I have a beautiful child. But my father had a particular trait in which I could say something one day—for example, he was playing ping-pong. I was four years old. He was playing ping-pong, he took a stroke, hit it off the top of his paddle, and just shot across the room. He was going for a forehand smash. It shot across the room, like hit the corner of the wall. I was just passing through, and I go, "home run!" and kept walking. Two days later, he corners me, throws me down in the corner of the room, and says, "how dare you humiliate me in front of my competition. I can’t believe you said that. It threw me off my game." I was like, "holy shit!" I’d forgotten about even saying that. I’d forgotten about how that could possibly be perceived.

JP: It’s actually a pretty good joke, you know, for a four year old. It’s a pretty good joke.

AM: Yeah, it wasn’t bad. I don’t know. It made sense to me. So anyways, that would happen repeatedly, where it wouldn’t even be immediate. It would be delayed. It would fester, and it grew. So he would come at me later.

JP: Interesting. That means you’re touching on a complex. Something was under there, causing all sorts of trouble.

AM: All sorts of trouble. To my dad’s credit, he knew he had issues, and he worked very hard on those. He just couldn’t get himself completely out of the maze.

JP: Oh, yeah. When someone does that to you a few times, you know there’s something in there that needs to be fought through for about a month—a horrible month.

AM: He fought, and he fought hard. But the effect of that gave me this intense judge of everything I said. So I did, I fractured myself into two parts, and everything I say, I have this watcher of everything: "how could this be perceived?" and it splinters into a million different possibilities. Could this be perceived as an insult? Could this be perceived as a slight? Which, in some regards, has made me a very effective communicator. It’s almost one of my superpowers. So that moment of trauma created this superpower of really being able to understand how my words can be communicated.

JP: Did that make you more careful with your words?

AM: A thousand per cent. Hyper-careful with my words. But it also created this watcher that is always watching and always judging what I do, which is a source of suffering. I’ve felt like it’s very difficult for me to get fully engaged in anything, because I’m always keeping some part of me that’s judging everything that I’m saying, so this fracture of self is a sort of sense of suffering.

JP: Are there times when that goes away?

AM: Yes, and those are the things that I’ve sought most in my life. Those are the solutions, and that’s any type of flow. That was basketball. When I was playing basketball, the watcher went away until after the game, when the watcher would come back hard and tell me how bad I sucked. The judge would judge me there, but when I was playing or when I’m making love or when I’m playing music… So I’ve spent a lot of my life finding the ways to unify that. I’m curious… It’s obviously a very useful thing to have that watcher and have that observer, but do you see a point where that watcher and the self kind of comes back together? You’ve almost, like, taken that wisdom and engrained it, so you no longer need that separation?

JP: Well, you know, it’s funny. I think that is well laid out in the story of Pinocchio, in the Disney story, which is a very strange and complicated story, not least because it draws an analogy between a cricket and Christ. Cricket, Jesus Christ, and the conscience: they’re all the same thing, which is very, very, very strange. But the cricket is obviously a higher entity in some sense, because it’s the conscience, so it’s the judge. But the movie’s very interesting, because it presents that as flawed. As Pinocchio stops being a puppet, his conscience stops being a sort of wandering tramp. They both hone themselves, and, at the very end, Pinocchio turns into a real boy, but the conscience turns into something that’s akin to the stars. It’s a gold star.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that. It’s like, "what the hell is that? What’s going on there, exactly?" What it is, is that that judge that you’re talking about—and I wrote a little bit about this in 12 Rules. That judge that you have internally, which is, let’s call it, the voice of conscience, suffers from a certain generic quality. It’s judging you in a cliched manner. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it’s cliched. It’s not fully informed. So what you want to do throughout your life is have a dialog with that, because it needs to learn—just like what it’s judging needs to learn—and maybe, if that dialog… You know, it’s not that much different than having a long-term relationship, like a marriage. You’re continually communicating, with any luck, and you’re modifying each other in the communication.

AM: Yeah.

JP: You have that judge that you need, because it makes you alert, and it makes you watchful, and it makes you consider your actions. But it isn’t God, that internal voice. It doesn’t know everything, so it needs to learn, too. So I think it’s reasonable to engage it in dialog, and to find out—and not to make the instantaneous assumption that, just because the judge says that what you’re doing is wrong, that it’s absolutely correct in its judgement. You want to fight back and say, "no, I’m going to defend myself against that internal voice." Not, "I’m not going to listen to it," because it might be right. You want to listen. But it needs to learn, too, so you can get that dialog going. And then, I think, you can get that union across time.

AM: Because then there’s harmony. I think that’s a brilliant way to think about it, because I think you can externalize, and think that the judge is useful but bad. But if the judge is learning constantly, and evolving, and ascending as you are, as well, then those parts of you can be in this sort of harmony. There isn’t just one self; there’s multiple selves. There always will be multiple aspects of the self.

JP: Even thinking is a multiplicity of selves. If you really think about something, basically what you do is you split yourself into at least two avatars, maybe three. Who knows; it depends on your capacity. Each of them adopts a position and argues. That’s what thought is. You divide yourself into two hypothetical entities and let them fight it out. Then you side with the victor. But it’s definitely the case that we have a multiplicity of selves, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be as flexible as we are. Really, what you’re doing when you’re thinking, is you’re splitting yourself into a multiplicity of selves, many of which you’re going to allow to die, so that you don’t have to.

So you have an idea, and you play it out in your imagination. It’s like a video game, in a sense. That’s why we like video games. But you play it out in your imagination, and if, when you play it out, the consequences are not what you want, then you just kill that thing off. Then you don’t have to die. So that was Alfred North Whitehead. He said, "the purpose of thinking is that our thoughts die instead of us." It’s absolutely brilliant, and it’s a very nice Darwinian take on it. What happens in animals is that animals can’t really think—I mean, they can a bit, but not like us. So the way animals adapt to the universe is they produce a bunch of baby animals, and most of them die. Human beings do that too, but we also produce avatars of ourselves, and then we launch them in a fictional universe. All the ones that don’t manage it die, but we don’t have to. We can identify with ones that stay alive.

AM: It’s almost like the stoic idea of premeditation, where you look at all the different possibilities—"how could all of these things go wrong?"—before you take action. And then, when you take action—I think another area where people get tripped up is, sometimes, they get lost. They don’t add the action part of it. Because you will not have perfect understanding of which way is the right way.

JP: There’s another thing they do, too, which is a mistake. You might think, "well, you don’t want to act until you know." It’s like, "no, you can’t know." So then you say, "how can you think something through?" Part of the answer to that is, "always take into account the cost of what you’re doing now." What people tend to think is, "whatever I’m doing now is risk free, and here’s a bunch of options." It’s like, "no, whatever you’re doing right now has all sorts of risks. You’re just blind to them, because you’re habituated to them. They’ve become invisible." You can’t wait around to make things better on the assumption on what you’re doing already is without risk. This is so useful for people to know.

AM: The stagnation costs.

JP: Exactly. When people come to see me—clinically, for example—and maybe I’m helping them what to do with their career, they say, "well, I think I might need to change jobs." "OK, what’s stopping you?" "Well, there’s lots of things. I have a job. That’s something. It offers me some security. My CV isn’t up to date." People don’t like updating their CVs. It’s partly because it’s hard, and it’s also because they’re not very proud of it. Even if they did update it, it doesn’t say what they want it to say. So updating your CV turns into sort of updating your life, and that’s a complicated thing. And then maybe you don’t like being interviewed, because most people don’t. Maybe you don’t like being judged, and maybe you don’t like the fact that, if you look for another job, there will be fifty rejections for every one acceptance. There’s a whole plethora of terrible things you have to encounter, if you want to change jobs. So you think, "well, I’m not going to do that. The risk is too high." It’s like, "fair enough. What’s the risk of doing what you’re doing?"

AM: Guaranteed suffering.

JP: Yeah, and accelerating suffering. Let’s say you’re 35 now, and you don’t change your job. Well, you’ll be 40 so fast you can’t even believe it. It’ll just happen. It’ll take 5 years, but it happens overnight in the same way. If you haven’t changed, then you’ll be the same, except worse. That’s the alternative. If you don’t find what you’re doing sufficiently productive or responsible or meaningful or engaging or all of that, well, there’s a big risk in changing it. But just try the risk of not changing.

AM: That’s that bad analysis of reality: the cost of staying and the cost of non-action. It’s just chewing up your life force and your vitality.

JP: It’s funny. One of the things I learned last year, which I thought was quite cool—I was doing this series of biblical lectures, and I went through Genesis. I didn’t know the Abrahamic stories very well, but I learned them when I was lecturing about them. The story of Abraham, in particular, is interesting. It’s really set up, at the beginning, in an absurdly comical manner. Abraham, when he gets the call from God to go out in the world—he’s like 80 already. He’s been hanging around his father’s tent, being dependent, way too long. That’s exactly how the story’s set up. God calls him and says, "look, get away from the security. Get out there in the world." So it’s the call to adventure. That’s essentially what it is. So Abraham goes out in the world, and the first three things that happen to him are absolutely terrible. He encounters a famine, which is no joke. It’s a real famine. People are starving. We don’t know what that’s like. That’s no joke. And then he ends up in Egypt, and that’s a tyranny, and then they try to take his wife. And you think, "what’s Abraham thinking?" He’s thinking, "I should have stayed at home in my damn tent!" But the issue there is that, and the reason the story’s set up that way… I mean, Abraham eventually becomes very successful. The reason the story’s set up that way is because it’s a realistic story. There’s a cost to staying where you are, and there’s a cost to moving forward. The cost of moving forward is real, and it’s nontrivial. But it’s not as bad as the cost of staying where you are.

AM: It’s also kind of brilliant that he’s that old. It reminds people that it’s not too late.

JP: Right! Exactly.

AM: It’s crazy to me, because I remember thinking when I was like 30, before I started Onnit—and I was very frustrated, because I knew I had more that I wanted to give, and things weren’t working out. I was like, "I’m already 30. It’s too late. If I was going to do something awesome, it would have happened already." That was me at 30. You can play that game over and over. No matter what age you are, you can use that rationalization to stay put: "oh, yeah. It’s too late. I missed that boat."

JP: Glory Days. That’s the Bruce Springsteen song, right? People conclude that when they’re 16: "I’m done! High school—I peaked, man." It’s like, "that’s not a good theory."

AM: It’s in that striving towards those things that you’re a little afraid of—and actually looking towards—and the actualization of your potential which is going to be fucking scary. One of the stories I really enjoyed reviewing with this new kind of lens that I’ve put on is the King Arthur myth. Particularly, the Guy Richie telling of it has been pretty compelling for me. I don’t know if you’ve seen that one.

JP: No, I haven’t seen that one yet.

AM: It’s really interesting. In that story, excalibur is the representation of his potential; his ability to create effect on the world; his real potential. There’s a scene in there where, every time he touches the sword and puts both hands on it, he goes into a visionary state, and he becomes not only—he becomes the truest essence of King Arthur. He can slow time. He can actually bend the world. He’s the ultimate disruptor and the ultimate force of order against chaos, which is crashing down on what will be Camelot. He’s trying to touch the sword, and he’s trying to do it. He keeps touching it and looking away. The mage, who’s the wisdom keeper in the story, looks at him and says, "it’s OK. We all look away."

JP: That’s the flight of the hero. It’s a very, very old mythological element. Whenever the hero encounters the dragon of chaos, almost always he takes flight. You even see that in Pinocchio. When Pinocchio finally encounters Monstro, he turns tail and tries to vanish as rapidly as possible. It’s not until then that it’s really real. "Oh, this is way worse than I thought." "Oh, yeah. It’s way, way worse than you thought. But, luckily, there’s more to you than you think."

AM: And you have to go and be willing to figure out and embrace what your potential is. But what is at the root of that deepest fear of our own potential? At the very core, why are we scared of becoming who we really are, and really actualizing ourselves fully?

JP: I think some of it is the responsibility. OK, let’s walk through this. Let’s say you want to become who you could be in the fullest sense. Let’s say you’re someone who’s going to solve some serious problem. The first thing you’re going to have to do is admit to the seriousness of the problems. That’s no joke. The problems are, let’s say, the tragedy of the world, the malevolence of the human heart, and the tyranny of the state. If you don’t understand that you would run from those problems when you really looked at them, then you haven’t considered the problems. And they exist at all levels. It’s not just the social and the political and the economic. It’s also the psychological. Human malevolence: here’s a hellish abyss that plays itself out in the political world, but it plays itself out in your own psychological world, too.

So the first thing is just the terror of the problem itself. That’s enough to paralyze you. That’s the hydra; that’s the Gorgon with the head of snakes. It will paralyze you, like you’re a prey animal, and it will turn you to stone. That’s the basilisk in the Harry Potter series: you look at it, and it turns you to stone, and it lurks underneath everything, and it’s malevolence and tragedy. And so there’s that. The next is, "well, you’re going to take responsibility for that? You’re really going to do that, are you? That’s a hell of a load, man." It’s daunting to even consider that, and then there’s the discipline and responsibility that that necessities, which is also daunting. It’s like, "oh, my god. The problems are that serious? I’m really going to have to get my act together, to not contribute to it—much less solve it." And so the problem is terrible, and then the solution is daunting. But the upside of that is… Well, there isn’t anything better to have than a problem that’s really worth solving. The more of that you take on, the more you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, no matter what: "I’m getting up and trudging forward. It doesn’t matter what I’m suffering from. I’ve got things that need to be done. They’re necessary." That gives you that sense of purpose that is the antidote to bitterness.

I’ve thought for a long time—imagine you have a choice in front of you, because you do. So here’s the choice. Your life is either meaningful or meaningless. So let’s go through the meaningless part first. You think, "of course, I don’t want it to be meaningless." It’s like, "yeah, just hold on a second." Nothing you do matters, so impulsive pleasures are the order of the day. No responsibility. You can do whatever you want. It’s like Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, or it’s like Neverland in Peter Pan. You’re still a kid. You can play all the time. Impulsive pleasure and no responsibility. That’s the reward for meaninglessness. You think, "well, you know, there’s something to be said about that."

AM: And powerlessness, to a certain degree.

JP: The other side is, "OK, let’s say you want your life to be meaningful." It’s like, "OK, then what you do matters. It actually matters. If you make a mistake, it hurts you, it hurts your family, it hurts the world in a deeper way than you think. And you have to be awake to that, and you have to take it on yourself." One thing I understood, probably over the last five years I was trying to understand this idea: There’s this idea that Christ is the person who takes on the sins of the world onto himself. What does that mean? There’s a redemptive idea there. The idea is that the person who redeems everyone is the person who takes the sins of the world on to himself. What does it mean? It means "it’s your fault, man. Everything. The whole bit."

AM: I think people get tripped up also because, at the moment you admit to yourself that you have the potential to change something, you have to admit to yourself that you’ve always had the potential to change something.

JP: All that time you’ve wasted.

AM: You have to go back, and it’s recapitulation of every thing that you’ve done, and actually confront what you haven’t done, and all the people you’ve hurt, and all the ways that you’ve hurt yourself, and all the ways you could have done better. If that judge is too strong and too harsh and wants to punish you too severely, you say, "no, no, judge! I had no power! I’m going to stay here, in hell, in powerlessness, with everybody else, because the oppressive forces that are out there—I don’t take any responsibility." But that fucking courage of going, "hey, I am responsible for myself, and I can make a difference, and I’ve fucked up in the past, and I will fuck up again. But I’m going to own this." That is the true hero’s choice.

JP: Yeah, and the fact that you’re fallible is no excuse for not taking responsibility. When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago, which is one of the things that brought the terrible Soviet Empire to a standstill, he did that: he said that he went over his whole life with a fine-toothed comb, every single thing. When he was in prison, he realized that he had done many things that put him in prison. So he was in two kinds of prisons. He was in the prison the Soviet state produced, and then he was in the prison that the Soviet state produced, that he participated in producing, that then imprisoned him—both at the same time. And so when he figured that out, he thought, "OK, what I did I do in my life to increase the probability that I would end up where I ended up?"

He said he went over his life with a fine-toothed comb. His question was, "is there something I can do now to atone for what I failed to do in the past?" That was a serious question. He wasn’t playing a game. That’s why he memorized a 1,500-page book, essentially. It’s no game. The consequences of that were literally world changing. So that’s an interesting thing. So let’s say you go over your past with a fine-toothed comb, and you decide you’re going to take responsibility for everything you did that was wrong, and everything that you failed to do that you could have done that was right. Does that change the world? It depends on how thoroughly you do it. You might say it changed the world like nothing else possibly can, and I think that that's actually right. That’s also a frightening thought, because it means that things would be way better than they are, if you weren’t so damn useless.

AM: Yeah. Really, the truth of the matter is, even if you’re doing the arithmetic, you can’t actually account in the amount of time and the amount of damage and whatever—you can’t actually make up for it. It doesn’t matter, because all you have is now, and all you have is the ability to charge out and do your fucking best.

JP: Yeah, that’s part of that moderation that you’re talking about. You don’t want the judge to be so harsh that you can do nothing but cut your throat. That can happen to people. They get so guilty and overwhelmed by what they’ve done—and sometimes that’s part of a pathological process; they’re ill in some sense. The answer to "how you pay for your past sins" isn’t to jump off a bridge. It’s the wrong answer.

AM: It isn’t constantly lashing yourself, and keeping yourself in hell for the hell that you’ve created prior.

JP: Right.

AM: The penance is actually striving out forward with love and with heart and with change and with service. That’s how you make up for it—not by punishing yourself, but by actually driving yourself towards your fears, to slay the dragons, to ease the suffering of the world.

JP: Well, I think about it in the way of what you do when you have a child, if you love your child. It’s like, a child makes a mistake, and you think you can’t allow that. So there’s a disciplinary element, there. Well, what’s the purpose of the discipline? To decrease the probability of the repetition of the mistake. That’s all. You use the minimal necessary force—I wrote about that in chapter 5—to attain that. You do the same thing with yourself. "Well, how much do you need to be beat up?" "Enough so that you fix the problem. No more than that. Minimal necessary force." It’s a great English common law principle, maybe the greatest, although there’s a number of them. That one’s really up there. Don’t hit anything harder than it needs to be hit. That’s a good rule of thumb… That is the rule of thumb, I think.

AM: That’s a fucked-up rule.

JP: Yeah, it is. Although, what it replaced was even worse.

AM: To think of that as an improvement is also a scary thing to think about, as well.

JP: Yeah, absolutely.

AM: I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about telling the truth.

JP: Or, at least, not lying.

AM: My question really comes in… To me, truth is always your instrument playing in perfect attunement. That is its own harmony. It’s the instrument playing as well as it can possibly play. But we’re in somethi