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 something of an orchestra, and there’s many instruments playing in all of the relationships that we have. As that orchestra is going, we get a song going. Usually, most of the instruments in that orchestra are out of tune, and it creates a kind of order. It creates a song. There’s a point, sometimes, where, by tuning your instrument to truth, you’re going to throw the entire orchestra off, because your instrument will be playing that perfect tune, and everything else will have to adapt to that truth. I think that, ultimately, that is corrective. But, temporarily, it can throw everything into chaos, because people have to adapt to that.

JP: That’s when heroes get crucified.

AM: Yeah, exactly. They’re playing a note that’s true, and the whole orchestra of society is playing a note on faulty instruments, and that thing stands out, and they want to kill that thing.

JP: That’s what Caiaphas says: something like, "it’s expedient that one man die, for the sake of the rest of the crowd." You think, "well, yeah, unless the man is right. Then you made the wrong choice." So that can definitely happen.

AM: Is there a place for strategy? Is there a place for strategy in the amount of time it takes you—do you tune your instruments slowly true?

JP: That’s what I think. Yeah. Incrementally, man.

AM: How does strategy and truth kind of interplay? Because, ultimately, that’s the goal; that’s what you aim at, no doubt. That’s the target: truth. But I think getting to where you are to truth… How much do you think people should pay attention to the external effects that that attunement will cause?

JP: That’s a good question. Here’s a way of thinking about it. This is what I used to do when I graded essays. I kind of formalized it. I thought, "what is an essay, exactly? and where can you make mistakes? and where can you get it right?" "Well, there’s the word. You can pick the right word and spell it properly. You’re going to get the right word. You’re going to put the word in the right phrase. You’re going to put the phrases properly together in the right sentence. You’re going to organize the sentences in the proper manner in the correct paragraph, and then you’re going to sequence the paragraphs properly, so that you make a coherent argument, so the whole thing works." Like an orchestra, again. Like an orchestral piece, there’s many things happening simultaneously, and they all have to be correct. They all have to attuned to truth.

Now let’s say the same thing is the case when you’re acting in the world. There’s you in the immediate present, and then there’s the future you, and then there’s your family in the immediate present and your future family, and then there’s the broader community. There’s more levels than that, and you have to take all those levels of analysis into account. If you’re really going to go after the truth—which is why I really like your metaphor. The orchestral metaphor is a really good one. In fact, I think that’s why people like orchestras, actually, because that’s what they play out in some sense. So if you’re going to do things right, you have to do them at all those levels simultaneously. And then you might think, "well, I’m going to radically depart at this one level and be more truthful. I’m going to tell my wife what I really think of that dress." It’s like, "well, don’t be so sure that that impulse, which happens to be true at one level of analysis, is sufficiently sophisticated so that it’s optimally true at all levels." That’s the white lie problem. People sometimes say, "well, I needed to bend the truth a little bit, so that I didn’t hurt someone worse at a more important level of analysis." Well, sometimes, you find yourself in a situation like that. I would say that you should strive not to find yourself in situations like that. It’s probably already too late.

AM: Typically, you anticipate that there’s going to be more of a problem with telling the truth than there actually is. Usually, the orchestra, even if it goes out of balance—actually, since reading your book and really looking at that, there was one area where I was kind of operating with a lie of omission. The question hadn’t been asked. My answer hadn’t been told.

JP: Those are particularly dangerous.

AM: This was actually last night. I’m reading this, and I’m trying to come into this with as clear a heart as possible. I’ve just finished [inaudible] reading your book, and I knew there was something that was unexpressed. I knew that for some time—I didn’t know how much time—that would throw the little duet that we were having out into chaos for a while. But I just had this faith that it’s going to go out into chaos, but, ultimately, the harmony that will come will win the day, because I won’t have that little bug.

JP: That is faith in truth, I would say. I think that’s exactly right, but I also think that it’s importantly separate from the strategic problem. I’ve had people write me, and say, "here’s some things that are happening at work that I really can’t tolerate. Should I quit my job?" "Well, let’s not rush into that as a solution, because, first of all, what makes you think you’ve lived your life carefully enough so that you get to quit your job? Do you have people depending on you? What the hell are you going to do with them? Are you just going to have them flap out in the wind? Maybe you don’t have the right to clear your conscience right now. Maybe you have to set the circumstance up so that you have enough autonomy. Maybe you’ve already sold your soul enough so that you don’t get to break out of prison today. Now, I might be wrong, too. Maybe it’s time for you to quit your damn job. But you don’t want to carelessly risk to free yourself from a moral obligation impulsively. It’s not smart." So I would say, "OK, now you want to tell the truth at work. Maybe you’re getting bureaucratized in a variety of ways, or maybe the social justice warriors have invaded your enterprise; and they’re playing crooked games with your enterprise, and you need to stand up and say something about it. Well, is your CV in order? Have you got some job applications out there?"

AM: Yeah. There’s the strategy in attunement to truth. Aim at it, but take the time to plot the course, and understand the real life consequences of that.

JP: Yeah, well, otherwise, you just commit harakiri on your boss’ doorstep, and then you’re dead. And maybe it’s time for that, but probably not. I would look at other strategies, before you decide that. The other thing you might be doing is thinking, "well, I don’t really have enough courage to tell the truth, so what I’m going to do is make this little blaze of glory. I’m going to quit my job, and I’m going to tell the truth, and then I’m going to catastrophically fail at that. And then I get to be cynical about telling the truth for the rest of my life, and I can say to myself, ‘well, I tried it once, and it was a catastrophe, so I don’t have any more responsibility.’" That’s not a good game, either.

AM: I was talking to one of spiritual mentors, and I asked something I had been pondering for a while. I was really surprised at the answer. I asked him if Jesus made a mistake in the strategy of what he was saying. For one, his words had been misconstrued and used for all types of malevolence, from the Inquisition, et cetera, for thousands of years. Many people have suffered. For two, he himself was killed, before he could produce more incredible, mystical, powerful work. So, I pondered, "well, did he make a strategic error?" The answer that came back that was really interesting was, "well, the game’s not over yet. We’ve only had 2,000 years. These teachings will last for the next 5,000, 10,000 years, and be revivified. So you can’t judge whether he made a mistake now, because the game is not over." That was really interesting.

JP: I think that’s also tied into this idea that you brought up just before that, about how your faith was when you were going to utter this truth that you had omitted. You knew that it was going to cause disharmony. You think, "why cause disharmony?" The answer to that is, "in service of a higher harmony." Now, you have to watch that kind of reasoning, because it can go astray. But I think there’s situations where that’s clearly justified. But your faith in that situation is that it is the truth that will lead you to a higher harmony. The reason that you have to have faith in that is because you can’t play it across all time frames. All the evidence isn’t in. You have to decide, "what’s best, falsehood or truth? Prove it." "Sorry, it’s dependent on time frame." If you’re a little kid, you’re 8 years old, and you’ve done something you shouldn’t do. Your dad says, "did you do X? and you’re going to sit in your bedroom for an hour, if you did." You don’t want to go sit in your damn bedroom. You want to go play with your friends. You think, "I’ll just say, ‘no, I didn’t do it.’" Well, is that a good idea? Well, if the time frame is the next hour, it’s a fine idea, because you don’t have to go sit in your bedroom. You can go out and play with your friends. You think, "hey, that was a good idea." "Yeah, across that time frame. But as an iterative strategy? I wouldn’t recommend it."

Part of what the profound religious texts indicate to people is, "although you don’t know it—and you can’t, for sure—the best iterative strategy is to tell the truth." Then you think, "well, am I going to take that risk?" "Well, it’s up to you." I mean, it’s not that cut and dried. It’s not like you’re completely in a veil of ignorance. Most people know, if they’re honest with themselves—if they can still be honest with themselves—that lying is something they’re ashamed of. So that’s an interesting fact. And that, if they contemplate the effect of lying in their life, most of the evidence is that it’s not the sort of strategy that makes you happy to be around. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t finally admit to that. In my clinical practice, of course, I meet people who know things aren’t what they should be, and are trying to improve, so they’ve already had that dark night of the soul, so to speak. You meet people, sometimes, who are narcissistic, and who think, "I’m getting away with it. I’m getting away with it. Everything’s good." But even that’s pretty damn brittle.

AM: I think you have to have radical truth as the goal, as the target that you aim for. I think a lot of times we kind of think that the target should be 90 per cent truth. I think we set our sights too low.

JP: No, there’s no such thing as 90 per cent true.

AM: Yeah. Otherwise, it’s just a little bit out of tune. It’s like you’re playing your flamenco a little out of tune, and it doesn’t sound good.

JP: The other thing, too, is that it just makes your life so damn complicated.

AM: It’s stressful.

JP: Here’s something. People don’t think about this. They think, "isn’t it good that divorce laws were loosened?" "Yeah, maybe—if every time you have a fight with your wife, if you want to think, ‘oh, I could have a whole new life,’ then it’s a good idea." But you want to ask yourself, "do you really want to think that every time you have a fight?" Maybe you don’t want to think that. Maybe you want to think, "I’m bloody well stuck with this. I’d better fix it." I mean, it isn’t obvious which of those two things leads to more contentment. The fact that everything could always be up in the air, completely, every time something goes wrong—imagine if a kid felt that. Imagine you had the right to walk away from your kid. And so your kid thinks, "well, Jesus. I’d better not have a fight with dad, because he might just leave and never come back." Not helpful.

AM: I agree. I think that is your own personal responsibility, to not throw that up in the air. I don’t think there should be an oppressive force that’s saying, "you can’t get out of this contract."

JP: Fair enough.

AM: You should have that responsibility on yourself, to not even allow yourself to think that.

JP: That’s a reasonable point. You could say the optimal situation is where you can but don’t. That’s an interesting point, too, because one of the things I’ve thought a lot about—there’s an old theological question: "why would God allow evil to exist in the world?" I think it’s like that. Something like, "well, you can, but you shouldn’t. But if you couldn’t, then there would be no free will. You’d have no agency. You’d have no choice. So the possibility of evil has to exist. That doesn’t mean you have to actualize it." One of the things I thought through—and I wrote a lot about this in 12 Rules, maybe even more in Maps of Meaning, my first book: "what amount of the evil of Being can be laid at the feet of God?" My conclusion to that was, "maybe none of it." Earthquakes, cancer, disease—all of that is built into the structure of reality, and there’s no doubt that that’s terrible. But malevolence? To me, that looks like something that people choose, and that we could not choose. We could actually choose not to do that.

AM: That’s an inevitable consequence of free will.

JP: Yeah. It’s the price that is paid for free will.

AM: And I think that’s a differentiation between order and chaos, which are the two balancing forces, which set the game board, which allows free will. We get to come as God represented, here, as man. We have the choice of which path we go, because we have these opposing forces.

JP: I think that is how it is. I think that the fundamental landscape is order versus chaos, and the drama that’s played on top of that is good versus evil. I think that’s correct. I think that in every choice you make, that’s basically the choice: you’re either going up to the right-hand quadrant, or you’re going down. I also think that you know that. That’s why the devil stands at the crossroads, right? The old blues idea: meet the devil at the crossroads. Of course you do. Where else would you meet him?

AM: I think another really important point that you make is that we are neither, by nature, good nor evil. We contain the proclivity and possibility of all those possible options. We are devil and Christ in one—an angel with devil’s horns, if you will. It’s our choice and our actions that determine, posthumously, whether we were good or not, because those forces are inside it.

JP: That’s what it looks like, to me.

AM: The denial of those forces actually allows those forces to steer you even further. The unrecognition of your shadow and unrecognition of your aggression and lust, and all of these other…

JP: That’s why Christ meets the devil in the desert. That’s exactly that. That’s part of the recognition of you as the source of malevolence—actually you. Actually. This is really quite something. One of the things that I’ve tried to do in my teaching is—I’ve taught a lot about what happened in Nazi Germany, and one of the things I really tried to do is to remove the students’ illusions and certainty that they would on the side of good, had they been there. It’s like, "no, probably not. At minimum, you would’ve been complicit in your silence. Everyone is like that, with tiny exceptions." It’s like, "you think you’re not like that? You might be right. But I wouldn’t count on it. I wouldn’t count on it."

AM: The numbers suggest otherwise.

JP: They certainly do. Yes. Of course, it’s not just Nazi Germany. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union, and in Eastern Germany—all over, in the 20th century. "No, you’re probably a perpetrator."

AM: I think the way that good triumphs over evil in all of these stories is that there’s a… Truth, love, God, I’ve found to be synonyms. When you start to interchange those, you find this real solid place.

JP: That’s right.

AM: The solidity that you can orient to, and then that feels real, and everything else feels illusory and slippery—

JP: Yeah, I think that’s right.

AM: —and painful, like you’re walking on this thing with barbs. Sometimes it feels good: the power, this rush that you feel from the darker impulses. But it doesn’t last. It’s not solid, and you can’t really stand on it. It’s like a humor that envelops you, then goes away and leaves you more empty on the other side. So ultimately, when you explore these honestly, and you honestly take stock, and you’re conscious and aware, the only thing solid is that path towards the good.

JP: Yeah. Again, it sort of falls into the realm of self-evident, at some point. "Do you want things to be better or worse?" That’s the first question. You think, "better." It’s like, "no, no. That isn’t what I mean. I mean, you really got to think about it, because there’s parts of you that want things to be worse. You dance around in the flames, like you’re glorying in it." Hitler, when he committed suicide and Europe was in flames—he got what he was aiming at. You think, "he was aiming at victory." "That’s one theory, but I wouldn’t count on that being true. Do you really think Hitler was aiming for victory? Really? That’s your analysis? He was aiming for mass murder and death and everything in flames."

AM: It’s like the Bane archetype in Batman.

JP: Yeah, sure. The Joker would be better. Who knows if that killed Heath Ledger.

AM: Accessing that force, that utter extreme force of chaos.

JP: One of the things that’s so interesting about his performance—and he really tapped into this—is that you really saw that, when he burned the pile of money. It’s like, "no, no. You don’t understand. I want everything to be worse than it is. Everything." It’s like, "you don’t want the money?" Those guys weren’t evil. They were just criminals. They’re barely even on the path. You want your car; they want your car. The means of achieving it differ, but they’re in a value structure. The Joker character? No. He’s outside the value structure, completely. So it’s, "you don’t get it. I want to make an art of pain."

AM: Thinking about it now, it seems like even a more extreme polarity of the devil than the usual archetype of the devil. Usually the archetype of the devil is, "king of the demons, into power, likes making deals, likes bargaining."

JP: Right, right. That’s Milton's Satan.

AM: This Joker could actually be taking it even a little farther. He absolutely just wants maximum suffering.

JP: Right, for the sake of suffering.

AM: For the sake of suffering itself.

JP: Evil is the worship of suffering for the sake of suffering. Ledger played that out quite nicely in that role. It was quite brilliant.

AM: It was, calibrating that side. I think it’s good to see those archetypes, and then calibrate when you have a truer understanding of the Christ consciousness, which has obviously been misconstrued in a lot of ways. And then you have these two anchors on either side, and you get to understand, "all right, here’s the spectrum." I think that’s helpful for orienting yourself.

JP: Well, that’s at least part of the reason why people are so enamoured of bad guys. The thing about a bad guy is that he’s actually more understandable than a good guy, and easier to believe in, in some sense. You can really believe in the existence of a bad guy, and that’s a good guide post, because if the guy that you believe in is actually bad, that’s an indication that there’s such a thing as good. It’s just the opposite of that. What the opposite of the Joker is, is not so easy, because it’s not Batman.

AM: No.

JP: And Batman knows it, and that’s actually part of the complexity of that interaction, in that particular movie. The Joker knows that Batman’s not his opposite. He’s not the Joker; he’s not the devil incarnate. He’s actually a good man. But he’s no Christ. So the Joker’s constantly reeling him in, saying, "you’re more like me than you think, and there’s no doubt about that." And so then, what’s the opposite of suffering for suffering’s sake?

AM: Love for love’s sake.

JP: Well, I guess it’s something like that. Yeah. You see that in the Sermon on the Mount, too. As far as I can tell, the basic message of the Sermon on the Mount is something like, "assume that Being is good, and that your role is to further that good, and that the most appropriate way to do that is to tell the truth and to concentrate on the day." Something like that. That strikes me as… Well, it strikes me as extraordinarily wise.

AM: Tell the truth, tell love. I love using those words interchangeably: "truth" and "love." I don’t think you can be in love with someone without being in truth with them. I don’t think you can be in truth with someone without expressing that love. That’s why, when people use that analogy of, "oh, your dress is ugly," well, that’s truth on a very fractional level, because it’s not containing the love, and the love says, "it doesn’t matter what the fuck you wear, because you’re beautiful, not because of your dress. You’re beautiful regardless. If you want to wear a fucking sack, wear a fucking sack. We’ll laugh." That’s a higher truth. That’s a higher love. I think recognizing that and holding that as that ideal, and not getting lost in, "well, this is my judgemental opinion, based upon some very small aspect of the self."

JP: I met Glenn Beck last night, after my show. He was watching the lecture, and he said that he’s met lots of celebrities, and that many of them don’t like their audience. They don’t like them. I like my audience. I’m happy to see people come out to the show. I’m happy to meet them afterwards, because most of the people I meet are trying to get their lives togethers. It’s like, "good work, man. Do it. Do it." That’s partly that acceptance.

AM: What a weird discord. I think the disharmony that you see in a lot of these celebrities, the suffering and the angst, must come from that. They’re performing for people they have no connection to, and actually a distaste for.

JP: Well, you certainly see that in media. One of the things Dave Rubin and I have been talking about is this Intellectual Dark Web, whatever the hell that is—Eric Weinstein’s interesting coinage. We’re trying to figure out, "well, we all got grouped together. Why?" It’s not obvious, because there’s a lot of diversity of opinion, like Ben Shapiro and Sam Harris are a good example. There’s very little they agree—or there’s very much they disagree about. But I would say that one of the things that unites everybody in that group is that they don’t think their audience is stupid. There’s no talking down. Rogan’s like that, too. Well, you’re like that, as well. Not only are you not assuming that your audience is stupid, you’re actually not assuming that you’re any smarter than your audience.

AM: Absolutely.

JP: Which is a really good thing to assume.

AM: Always something to learn.

JP: Yeah. I think the reason that I get away with I do is because, when I’m talking to the crowd and talking to people about how they might conduct their lives, it’s not like I’m not talking to me. I’m in that group of people who could wake the hell up and act more appropriately and aim a little bit higher and improve things. It’s like a constant reminder. So there’s no lecturing down. You want to be very careful about lecturing down about such things, because then you’re adopting the idea that you’ve already got that mastered.

AM: Good luck with that.

JP: Yeah. Hah. A very little bit of that goes a very long ways.

AM: It’s mistaking the very fundamental truth that we are all, each other, living different lives. That is like the basis of all compassion and all love and any real connection, is seeing self in another person, and saying, "oh, that’s the same…"

JP: It’s your version.

AM: Yeah, that version making different choices, having different influences, having different genetic structures, and different forces that have acted upon them. But that’s self. It’s the same.

JP: That’s one thing you really learn if you work as a clinical psychologist. It’s like, "well, what advice do you give to your patients?" "Well, I don’t give them advice. They’re a client, first. They’re not patients. But I actually try not to give them advice, because I don’t know what the hell’s right for you." I mean, you can talk about things like the necessity, on a global level, to appreciate beauty and seek truth and live as if being is justifiable and good. Those are pretty low resolution, and they don’t really qualify as advice. They’re principles, in some sense, that might guide people. But I was always leery to suggest to my clients what they should do, because I don’t know. It’s like, "I don’t know what you should do. I don’t know what your problem is. You don’t even know what your problem is. We’re going to spend six months talking about what your damn problem is, before we get that straight. And then we’ll lay out some strategies together, but I’m going to listen to you, because I don’t know what the medicine for your particular brand of suffering is. We’ve gotta go through that very carefully, and I don’t want to steal your victory from you and make you mine. And I certainly don’t want to be put in a position where I have an idea, you implement it and fail, and you bear the burden of the failure." That’s not helpful. It’s a real form of theft.

AM: They can externalize everything that happens. They can say, "oh, I’ll just get a new therapist. If it’s your idea, and it fails…"

JP: Well, and they also have to do the suffering. I can say, "oh, that wasn’t a very good idea." I should have shut the hell up about it, then, and not had the poor person go live it out. They have to be committed. One of the things I’ve tried to establish with my wife over the years is—we have a rule: don’t agree to anything you don’t agree to. One of the things I didn’t want was—who wants to have this conversation? "Well, five years ago you pressured me into this." It’s like, "oh, God. Five years ago? Really? Really?" I don’t ever want to have that conversation.

AM: What a great rule. And being mindful of squashing the other person’s opposing position… I’m CEO of this company. If I squash dissenting opinion, we’re going to go straight to the fucking toilet. In a relationship, if you squash the other person’s opinion and volition…

JP: Then you get to live with a person whose volition and opinion has been squashed. That’s really fun. They’re half dead, bitter as hell. They’re going to undermine you at every possible moment, and you deserve it. That’s not a good idea. Plus, there’s always the off chance that the annoying person who’s criticizing you is right.

AM: Yes, especially if you get angry by it. That’s a good sign that they’re probably for sure right.

JP: Right—"I don’t want to hear that!"

AM: Your work certainly gets people motivated and fired up. I mean, touring you through Onnit… We’ve had world champions, Stanley Cup winners, Super Bowl champs, celebrities… I haven’t seen a stronger reaction from the people as when we were going through there. I think that’s a testament to how motivated your work is.

JP: It’s such fun. What’s so fun for me right now is that, wherever I go, I meet the best in people. That’s what comes out. It’s so fun. I walk down the street, and someone will come up to me. I don’t know who the hell they are. They’re very polite, they’re happy to see me, and they have something really good to say about something that’s going on with them, and they’re pleased that they have someone to share it with, and it’s real. That’s really good. That’s really fun. It’s perfect. You get to go around and see the best in everyone. That’s so cool. It’s ridiculously cool.

AM: It’s the idea that that vibe that you put out, that message that you put out, calls forward that same aspect of the other peoples’ self. Like attracts like—those deep fundamental rules. That message that you constantly push will draw out. It’s not the anger and the hate that draws out the good. It’s the love that draws out the love. It’s inspiration that draws out the inspiration.

JP: After a talk, people will—well, for a while they were lining up to have my book signed. But I had to stop doing that, because there were too many—the venues got too big. But I still see about 150 people after each talk. What’s really cool is they will come up to me and tell me—it isn’t so much they’ll tell me what problems they had. They will tell me that, but that’s not the thing that’s so remarkable. What they’ll do is say, "here’s a bunch of problems I had, and here’s what I did to fix it." The reason they’ll tell me is because they trust that I’ll actually be happy about that. They automatically trust that, and that’s such a nice thing to see. It’s so good to see people come up and tell you that they’ve done something difficult and good, and trust that you’re going to say, "man, I’m just thrilled to say that," which is what I always say. Somebody comes up and says, "I was suicidal a year ago." Somebody told me this last night. "I was suicidal a year ago—in jail and homeless a year ago." That was the story. "I was listening to your lectures; I got my act together; I went back to school; I got a career; and here’s my girlfriend. We just got married, and I have a little kid." It’s like, "whoa! Good work, man!" And that’s like a 15-second story. He says, "do you mind if I show you a picture?" It’s like, "sure, man! Show me a picture." That’s great. So, yeah. That’s really something.

AM: Well, on behalf of myself and listeners, thank you for doing what you do. It’s great to have your voice out there, and may your heart be full. I know it’s hard sometimes, because you have to protect yourself from the attacks, and there’s ways you shell up, and ways you don’t even look at the effects of your actions and how deeply that’s affected people, because it’s hard to hold all that in space.

JP: It’s OK. The right amount of controversy isn’t zero. The attacks are interesting because—well, it’s challenging to stay… What would you say…

AM: True.

JP: Well, also not to be knocked down by it or angry about it. But I think, "well, we’ll see how this goes." What I’ve seen so far is that—there’s a statement in the New Testament that you should turn the other cheek. It’s like, "ugh, really? What the hell does that mean, exactly?" It’s really easy to confuse that with not having enough courage to stand up for yourself, for example. But it isn’t that. I’ve really been thinking about that, for about two years. That means something, and I don’t understand it. But one of the things it means is that, if you don’t respond too impulsively when people accuse you… You let that whole thing play out, and there are times when they reveal far more about themselves than about you. So if you can just shut up and take it, so to speak, and listen, then… A false accusation says more about the accuser than the person who’s being accused. The accused person has to make sure that they don’t fold and apologize and manifest excessive signs of guilt, and all that.

AM: Imagine this. Imagine you go up to someone, and you slap them in the face, and they don’t react. They look at you with a warm smile and turn the other cheek. Is that more intimidating than the person who’s like, "ow! Why did you do that?" and gets all fired up. That person you understand. With the other person, it’s like, "holy shit! That person just turned the other cheek. That is a bad mother fucker." I do not want to mess with the guy who’s like, "oh, that was your best shot? That was cute. I love you anyways." That’s a different thing. That’s recognizing the true power of who you are, the invincibility of the spirit and soul, and being grounded in something that can’t be buffeted and battered around by the opinions of others.

JP: Yeah. Maybe that’s why it’s better to seek peace than victory. If you have any sense, you seek peace. In the situations I’ve been in, with the journalists that have gone after me, it isn’t that I wished them defeat, because I don’t. I wish that we would actually have a real conversation. That would be much better. But I’m not trying to defeat them in the conversation. Well… I mean, I’ll tilt in that direction now and then, because I get impatient, and all of that. But it’s not something I’m happy about afterwards. It would have been way better if we had just had a conversation. And you see these things coming out on YouTube: "Jordan Peterson Takes Down a Social Justice Warrior." God, there must be 15,000 of those bloody things, by now. They’re obviously clickbait, but they miss the point. It’s like, "no, no. You want peace, if you have any sense. You don’t want to defeat someone—certainly not enough to make them into an enemy, unless you want enemies."

AM: Yeah. It’s aligning to the truth of your principles, not trying to defeat the enemy. "That which you resist persists." If you’re fighting against something, rather than fighting for something, you’re going to be way less effective. Fight for the good, not against the bad. I think that’s a really subtle distinction.

JP: That’s right, and I do think that’s aligned with that idea of turning the other cheek. I’ve been thinking, too, if victory is peace, then the person who attains peace is the person who tells a better story. It’s a competition between stories, and I think that’s also what’s playing out right now, in our culture. There’s a collectivist story that’s being purveyed, and there’s an individualist story that’s being purveyed. I think the individualist story… It’s not selfish individualism, obviously. It’s enlightened individualism. But I think it’s a much more compelling story for people.

AM: Compassionate individualism: knowing who you are so that you can see yourself and everyone else, and have the compassion to truly help everybody else. But it starts at home.

JP: Yes, it has to start where you are. It has to start with the people that you can directly effect. It’s gotta start in a place.

AM: I think you said, "aim at heaven, start at home." Fucking love that. Fucking love that.

JP: It’s funny to see that this whole "clean your room thing" has become—of all the stupid catchphrases! It’s like, "really? That’s become popular?" But there’s a humility that’s in it, plus, it’s also harder than people think. It’s like, "well, try it. Set up your room so that it’s pristine, so that it’s a place you can function, so it says what you want it to say."

AM: I organized that nasty bathroom cabinet that was bothering me, last night.

JP: Yeah? And?

AM: I felt damn good! I felt really good. There were all kinds of weird things, and old razors, and things I knew I should throw away. I threw them all away. I feel better. Some little corner of me feels a little better, knowing that that nasty bathroom cabinet that I’ve been staring at is clean.

JP: That’s right: it is a little corner of you. That’s one of the things I learned from Carl Jung. He wrote a book called Mysterium Coniunctionis. It’s an analysis of the extension of the self. For him, the highest level of moral development was the stage of realization that there isn’t any distinction between you and your experience. Well, that’s a messy bathroom cabinet. That’s true, but it’s also your state of mind, when you go in there and look at it. Those aren’t separable. So you think, "well, I cleaned up the bathroom cabinet." It’s like, "yeah, and you also cleaned up the experience that you have when you walk into that room." Those are the same thing.

AM: There’s 3 per cent more joy in my bathroom now, and I’m in my bathroom 30 minutes of the day. It’s the arithmetic! It took me fucking 4 minutes to clean the bathroom cabinet. I get 3 per cent more joy, for 30 minutes a day. It’s a fucking massive change.

JP: That’s right. That’s exactly right. It’s a massive change. And it’s real, too.

AM: It’s real. I feel it. I feel it now! I feel the joy percolating!

JP: Hah. That’s pretty funny. Yeah.

AM: It’s been an honor. Thank you for stopping by. Hopefully we get to do this another time.

JP: Thank you. Yeah, that was great, and I really liked seeing your place. I watched how everyone was reacting when we were walking around, and it really got—well, you got a place here that’s devoted to everything that’s good about people. That’s a good deal, man. And then you get to live there.

AM: That’s what we’re in it for.

JP: That’s a good deal!

AM: Yeah, man. It’s heaven. And the Self Authoring Program—we’ve got the code "ONNIT".

JP: Oh, yeah!

AM: I super encourage people to dive in there. This is a practice that I’ve done in my own myriad ways. I actually want to go through your structure. I’ve looked into it, and it looks brilliant. Even going back to the basics, you think, "oh, I got most of this shit figured out." Go back to the basics. I promise you’ll find something. For people who are interested, go to The code is "ONNIT"; you get 20 per cent off. Please do it. Do yourself a favor, do the world a favor. Any change that you make shows the world that it’s possible, and then it will allow you to push that out. This is something that I think all of us should do. So I encourage everybody to do that.

JP: Great.

AM: All right, thanks for stopping by.

JP: Yeah, you bet.