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Audio published on July 8th, 2018

Keywords: Sport, Aim, Pain, Discipline, Weakness, Timeframe

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Responsibility and Meaning

A Discussion with Lewis Howes

Lewis Howes: Welcome, everyone, back to the School of Greatness Podcast. We’ve got the legendary Jordan Peterson in the house. Good to see you, sir.

Dr. Jordan Peterson: Good to see you.

LH: I’m very excited about this. You’ve got a book out called 12 Rules for Life. Make sure you guys check this out. You probably already got it, but if you don’t, I’m telling you, go pick it up right now. An Antidote to Chaos. You’ve had so much attention over the last couple years, and I’ve been digging into the research, and I’ve just been fascinated by everything that you’ve been up to. I just love your stance and the vision you have for humanity, in terms of how we can all live better lives. I think you simplify a lot of things in this book, which, some things, people don’t like to simplify; they like to complicate. I think that’s what’s gotten you a lot of attention, is that you try to really simplify a lot of these things.

JP: Well, I try to make everything concrete, so it’s actually implementable. I mean, there’s a lot of high level abstractions in the book, because it ranges up into the theological and the philosophical, but it’s always grounded in what you can actually do in your life, practically. You want to bridge that gap, from the highest abstraction down to the lowest level of behaviour, so that it becomes implementable. That’s how philosophical concepts take on their meaning. They have to have some impact on the ways you see the world and the way you act in the world, or they’re not fully realized, they’re not understood. Partly, what we mean, I would say, when we say that we understand something—it’s kind of a strange phrase: "to understand something." But it means to be able to embody it, and a shift of view, and a shift of action. And then you’ve got it. It’s graspable. It’s in your hand.

LH: Embody something, and a shift of view, and a shift of action.

JP: Well, they’re the same thing. Your perceptions are very tightly linked to your actions because, of course, when you’re acting, you’re aiming at something. You have to be devoted towards some aim, some target. We play that out in sports all the time. That’s why sports are so entertaining for people, because they dramatize the idea of aim. And not only of aim, but of the pursuit of excellence in pursuit of that aim. That’s the game, and the reason it’s a spectacle and the reason people participate in it is because it dramatizes something absolutely essential about life. And so you want to take philosophical abstractions, and you want to use them to structure your aim,. And then your perceptions organize around that aim, and then you act it out, and then you’ve got it. Then it’s become part of your life. It’s not just a philosophical abstraction that floats free in space.

LH: Why is there so much conflict in the world? Is it because there’s so many different perceptions that people have, and that they think should be right?

JP: There’s conflict because we have real problems. Life is actually difficult, independent of psychological foolishness, let’s say—independent of the obstacles that we put in our own path.

LH: It’s already challenging.

JP: It’s already fatally challenging. Life is the ultimate challenge.

LH: We will die.

JP: Yes.

LH: And there is a challenge: uncertainty, fear, pain, all of those things.

JP: Yes, everything that goes along with suffering is a challenge, and it’s the full challenge, because it takes everything you have. Part of the reason we disagree is because there are complex problems to solve, and then we also disagree because we’re wilfully blind and because we’re more ignorant than we should be, and we’re not everything we should be, and we tilt towards malevolence from time to time, and we betray each other and ourselves. So we take a bad lot, in many ways, and make it worse. Now, not always, obviously, and we don’t have to. But that’s sort of the baseline that we’re working against. I think people are most disappointed in life when they’re disappointed in themselves. They see that they’ve made things worse than they had to be, even though the baseline can be pretty brutal. So the book—and all my lectures, I suppose—are put forward in an attempt to take the high level philosophical abstractions and to make them into something that’s actionable.

LH: To take the next best action in your life, to improve your life, so we don’t have to suffer as much.

JP: And, hopefully, also so that people around you don’t have to either. So one of the things I’ve been talking to my audiences about is the relationship between responsibility and meaning, which is… What would you say… It’s a constant refrain in the book. It’s one of its underlying messages, let’s say—themes is a better way of thinking about it. If you start with the presumption that there is a baseline of suffering in life, and that that can be exaggerated as a consequence of human failing, as a consequence of malevolence and betrayal and self-betrayal and deceit, and all those things that we do to each other and ourselves that we know aren’t good, that amplifies the suffering. That’s sort of the baseline against which you have to work. It’s contemplation of that that often makes people hopeless and depressed and anxious and overwhelmed and all of that, and they have their reasons. But you need something to put up against that, and what you put up against that is meaning. Meaning is actually the instinct that helps you guide yourself through that catastrophe. Most of that meaning is to be found in the adoption of responsibility. So if you think, for example, about the people that you admire, well, you think about when you have a clear conscience, first, because that’s a good thing to aim at, which is something different than happiness.

LH: A clear conscience is different than happiness.

JP: Yeah, it’s better.

LH: Yeah. You’re not guilting yourself, you’re not feeling bad about yourself. Clean.

JP: That’s right. You feel that you’ve justified your existence, so you’re not waking up at three in the morning in a cold sweat, thinking about all the terrible things that you’ve involved yourself in.

LH: What you said to someone that you shouldn’t have said, or how you acted or lied.

JP: Or what opportunity you lost, or the things that you’ve let go that you should’ve capitalized on, and all of that. And so when you think about the times when you’re at peace with yourself, with regards to how you’re conducting yourself in the world, it’s almost always conditions under which you’ve adopted a responsibility. At least, the most guilt, I think, that you can experience, perhaps, is the sure knowledge that you’re not even taking care of yourself, so that you’re leaving that responsibility to other people; because that’s pretty pathetic, unless you’re psychopathic, and you’re living a parasitical life. That characterizes a very small minority of people, and an even smaller minority think that’s justifiable. But, most of the time, you’re in guilt and shame, because not only are you not taking care of yourself, let’s say—so someone else has to—but you’re not living up to your full potential. And so there’s an existential weight that goes along with that.

LH: So you suffer even more, when you don’t take care of yourself or take the best actions or do the work that you know you can do, and you rely on someone else to support you financially, emotionally, physically, home, whatever it may be.

JP: Yeah, because you’re not only not being what you could be, you’re interfering with someone else being what they could be. So you’re not only a void, you’re a drain. Jesus, that’s a catastrophe.

LH: We usually don’t even know it, when we’re in that situation, because we’re in a depressed state, or we’re…

JP: Or we don’t want to see it. You admire yourself—or, perhaps, you can at least live with yourself—when you’re taking responsibility, at least, for yourself. That settles your conscience. And then, if you look at the people you spontaneously admire… The act of spontaneously admiring someone is the manifestation of the instinct for meaning. This is partly why people are so enamoured of sports figures, because the sports figures are playing out the drama of attaining the goal—of attaining a certain kind of, let’s say, psychological and physical perfection in pursuit of a goal. That’s the drama. And to spontaneously admire that is to have that instinct for meaning latch on to something that can be used as a model, and then that model should be transcribed into something that’s applicable in life. In an athletic performance, you really like to see someone who’s extremely disciplined and in shape—so something physically remarkable—and to stretch themselves even beyond their previous exploits, because you really like to see a brilliant move in an athletic match. But you also like to see that person ensconced in a broader moral framework, so that not only are they trying to win and disciplining themselves in pursuit of that victory, and then stretching themselves so they’re continually getting better, but they’re doing it in a way that helps develop their whole team and is good for the sport in general and reflects well in the broader culture.

LH: They’re a great leader on their team, they’re positive, they’re good competitors, they’re not negative towards other people that are lifting them up, too. They’re like the ultimate human.

JP: That’s right, so that they can work for their own improvement in a way that simultaneously works for the improvement of the team, and for the sport, and then, to the degree that that spills over into the broader culture, so much the better. So that’s all been dramatized in an athletic event. It’s not philosophical. It’s concrete. It’s dramatized in the world, and that’s what the games represent. It’s partly because, well, in some sense, life is a game.

LH: It is.

JP: The analogy is that in life, like in sports, you’re setting forth an aim and then arranging your perceptions and your actions in pursuit of that aim—and that you also, generally, do it while cooperating and competing with other people. So that’s also the game-like element, as well. All of that’s dramatized in athletics. That’s like philosophy for people who aren’t philosophical, and I’m not being smart about that. It really is philosophy for people who aren’t being philosophical, because it’s played out. You can see the spontaneous appreciation for the human spirit manifest itself when you see people rise to their feet spontaneously in a sports arena, when they see someone do something particularly remarkable—see an athlete who’s extremely trained stretch themselves beyond what you think is a normative human limit. Everyone celebrates that spontaneously, so it’s quite something to behold.

LH: Coming back to responsibility and meaning, when we’re watching sports or someone do this act, what does this do for us in terms of responsibility and meaning?

JP: Well, it helps us figure out what we can imitate.

LH: It gives us a model.

JP: Yes, it’s a model.

LH: "Here’s a model of something I respect."

JP: Well, what philosophy is—or even theology, for that matter—is an abstract model. It’s laid out in the words. Now, the problem, often, is that it becomes so abstract that people don’t know how to bring it back down to embodiment, whereas something like the drama of a sports event is sort of midway between philosophy and action. It’s not entirely abstracted, because it’s not only coded in words. It’s acted out.

LH: It’s visual. You can see an example of what happens, and you can try to reverse engineer how they did that.

JP: Well, yes. Exactly. At least, the fact that you admire the person means that you might try to start to act like them—and maybe that would mean that you start to discipline yourself with regards to a particular sport. But it might also be that you start to mimic or, at least, are affected in some way by their sportsmanlike behaviour, which is the ground of a certain kind of ethic; because if you can play well with others, which is sort of the hallmark of a good sport, that actually means that you're a reasonably sophisticated and civilized person. It’s really important to learn to play well with others. That’s the ground of ethics.

LH: If you can do it there, in that setting, hopefully you can translate it into a life setting.

JP: That’s exactly right. That’s what you hope for. If the goal of the game is to put the ball into the net, then the goal of having games is to produce people who can take proper aim no matter where they are. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with athletics. So I’ve been talking to my audiences a lot about that. And there’s more to it, too, because if the background of life is—there’s an ineradicable component of suffering, and that’s complicated by, let’s say, malevolence and the proclivity of people to betray themselves and others, which complicates it and makes it worse, then, if you don’t have a noble aim. If that isn’t imbuing your life with sustainable meaning, then you fall prey to all the catastrophe, the pain and the anxiety and the anger that that suffering generates. That makes you bitter.

LH: What I’m hearing you say is that—and correct me if I’m wrong—we must have an aim in our life, no matter what stage of life we’re in, and if we don’t have some type of aim, even if, for a few months, of an aim of going somewhere, some direction, the suffering’s going to be even more suffering—

JP: Pointless.

LH: —because we’re already going to face the greatest challenges in life.

JP: That’s right. You’re stuck with it.

LH: We’re already struggling.

JP: That’s right. There’s no way out of that.

LH: Adversity’s coming no matter what. We have big goals or a small little goal, whatever it may be, but it’s going to be less suffering, if we have an aim.

JP: Yeah, well, it’s worse than that, even, because the suffering is pain and the suffering is anxiety and uncertainty and the suffering is hopelessness, but the consequence of all of that is that you get bitter, and when you get bitter, you get mean, and you get cruel, and you start to hurt yourself and other people. So it’s not only that if you don’t have a goal you suffer, it’s that if you don’t have a goal, you suffer and then you get cruel and bitter and resentful, and then you start to actively make the world a worse place. You can’t suffer pointlessly without becoming bitter, and you can’t become bitter without becoming cruel. So you need an aim. Then the question, of course, is what you should aim—

LH: A bitter aim.

JP: Yeah, hah. A bitter aim. That’s for sure. So then the question is, "what should your aim be?" Now, we have a program. It’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about today. I have this website called, and that program helps people write about their life. There’s a Past Authoring Program. To establish your aim, you have to know where you are. It’s like you’re trying to orient yourself on a map. You can’t orient yourself on a map unless you know where you are. You also have to know where you’re going, so those are the two relevant things. The Past Authoring Program helps people write about their lives, so it’s a guided autobiography. We ask people to break their life up into six epochs, six sections, and then to write about the emotionally important events in those epochs, and to detail out the positive things and why more of that could conceivably happen in the future, and to detail out why the negative things happened, and to try to understand why, with an aim to not replicate them in the future. The purpose of memory isn’t to remember the past. The purpose of memory is so that you figure out what went wrong when something went wrong, so you don’t duplicate it in the future. That’s the purpose of memory. The Past Authoring Program can help people catch up, and you know you have to catch up if you have memories that are older than about a year and a half that still cause you emotional pain when you think about them. Or if you dwell on them, they come spontaneously back to mind, it means that there’s part of your life that you haven’t mapped out properly, and it still has emotional valence that’s gripping you.

LH: You’re still holding on to that story.

JP: Or it’s still holding on to you.

LH: Interesting. You have to let it go.

JP: Yeah, well, you haven’t been able to navigate your way through it. There’s a pitfall, there, that you fell in, and you don’t know how to avoid similar pitfalls in the future, and that’s why your brain won’t let it go. That’s what the anxiety systems do. It’s like, "this happened to you, it wasn’t good. This happened to you, it wasn’t good. This happened to you, it wasn’t good. Fix it, fix it, fix it, fix it." That will never go away, unless you fix it.

LH: How do you fix it?

JP: Well, you have to figure out why it happened. That’s the first thing. It’s like, "how was it that that situation arose to pull you down?" And that’s not simple. That’s why we have the writing program, because it’s complicated to think it through. But if you face it, and you meditate on it, let’s say, and you do this voluntarily, there’s a pretty high probability that you’ll be able to decrease the probability that it will be repeated in the future. The second part of the program helps people do an analysis of their virtues and their faults—same sort of idea: "what’s good about you that you could capitalize on? What’s weak about you that you need to fix, so it doesn’t bring you down?" That’s the Present Authoring Program.

The Future Authoring Program is probably most relevant to you and your listeners, because you’re interested in helping people establish aims. So we already talked about the fact that you need an aim in life, or that’s where you derive your meaning; and, without that, things go to hell, as literally as that can be taken. But it’s not easy to ask people to say—well, it’s easy to ask them, "what do you want in your life?" It’s a very hard question to answer, because it’s too vague and grand. In the Future Authoring Program, we help people break that down. Put yourself in the right frame of mind. "Whats the right frame of mind?" Rule 2 in this book: "treat yourself like you’re someone who you’re responsible for helping." What that means is you have to start from the presupposition that, despite all your flaws and insufficiencies, it’s worth having you around, and it would be ok if things were better for you. So you need to take care of yourself, like you’re taking care of someone you care for. There’s a bit of detachment, in that. The next thing is, "OK, look three to five years down the road. You get to have what you need and want, assuming you’re being reasonable and you actually want it, which means you’re willing to make the sacrifices that would make it possible."

LH: What do you mean by "reasonable"?

JP: Well, that’s the next thing. "Within your grasp." That would be something.

LH: What if it’s out of your grasp, but you still push hard enough to potentially get it?

JP: Then you need an incremental plan. You need to break that goal down into steps.

LH: Not some crazy goal within a year that you haven’t even done the work to master a skill at.

JP: Yeah, well, that’s it. You can have a high-end goal, and more power to you if you do, but you need a pathway to it.

LH: Absolutely.

JP: If it’s 10 stories up above you, you need a staircase to get there, right? And so you have to build the staircase, too. And so in the Future Authoring Program, you’re asked, first of all, "OK, you get to have what you want and need. That’s the proposition. But you have to aim at it. You have to define it and aim at it." Then the first thing is, "OK, if you could put your family together the way you wanted it to be, what would that look like?" So that might be your siblings and your parents, but that also might be your wife or your husband and your kids, assuming that you're at that point in your life. "If you could have the family you wanted, what would that look like?" Ok—career. Same thing. You get to have the career or the job that is within your grasp, necessary, and suitable for you, if you are taking care of yourself. "How are you going to educate yourself? Because you’re not as smart as you could be. There’s lots more things that you need to know, so you gotta keep learning and moving forward, so you need a plan for that. How are you going to take care of yourself mentally and physically? How are you going to avoid the catastrophic temptations, for example, of drugs and alcohol? because that pulls a lot of people down. You need a plan for that. Are you going to be a social drinker? how much are you going to drink? how much is too much? what about your drug use? You gotta regulate that, so it isn’t a pitfall. How are you going to use your time meaningfully and productively outside of work? You need to plan for that."

There’s one other that’s slipped my mind at the moment. I think there’s seven initial questions, and I don’t remember the last one. Oh, intimate relationship, of course: "do you want a long-term stable intimate relationship, and, if you do, how would you like that to lay itself out?” You gotta have a vision for that, because if you don’t have a vision, you’re not going to aim at it, and if you don’t aim at it, then you won’t even see the opportunities when they arise." That’s the thing that’s so cool. I wrote about this in chapter 10, which is, "be precise in your speech." It’s a chapter about the fact that aims structure your perceptions. So, for example, once you aim at something, the perceptual structures in your brain and your visual cortex reorient themselves to calculate a pathway to the aim. What they show you in the world is obstacles to that path and open pathways to the path. That’s actually how the world reveals itself, just like when you’re driving in a car and you have a map and you aim a particular place, then all the things that related to that place show up in the world. It’s exactly the same thing, because you are travelling through time and space, and you need a map. So after you answer these seven questions—and you’re encouraged to do it badly, because you don’t have to be a perfectionist.

LH: Just complete it.

JP: Just complete it, right, because a bad plan is better than no plan. It gives you something to improve. So even if your aim is vague, and even if it’s off target, if you start aiming, and you see you're off target, then you can shift, and you can make it more precise.

LH: You can start to recognize what you don’t want. "Oh, I thought I wanted this, but I don’t. Let me re-navigate and figure out what I do want."

JP: Exactly.

LH: And you might have to try a bunch of things.

JP: Well, you will have to. That’s why you shouldn’t be perfectionistic about. You absolutely will be wrong, but you won’t be as wrong as would have been, if you were aimless. There’s a bit of humility.

LH: No man’s land is worse than…

JP: No man’s land is worse than a bad path. That’s exactly right.

LH: Oh, I like that one.

JP: That’s a good one, and it’s right: you don’t want to be in no man’s land. Why did you use that phrase? because that’s right. That’s exactly right.

LH: I think, for me, the idea of walking around aimlessly is like the worst idea in the world. It’s zero purpose, zero mission, zero certainty at all. It’s like walking around in no man’s land, aimlessly.

JP: It’s funny, too, because in no man’s land, everyone’s shooting at you—because that’s a military term. No man’s land is the space between two enemy positions.

LH: The middle, where everyone’s coming at you.

JP: You bet. So if you’re aimless, you’re also at a place where everything is shooting at you. So it’s a very good metaphor, that came to mind.

LH: That’s deep. Wow.

JP: That’s very, very cool. So, then, we say to people, "OK, look. Now you’ve thought about this for a while." It’s nice to do this over a couple of days, too, because you get to sleep on it, and that helps to reorient yourself. "OK, now write for 20 minutes. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. This isn’t a composition exercise. You get to have what you want three to five years down the road. What does your life look like, hypothetically? Write it out." That’s the first part. The second part of the exercise—now you’ve got your thing to aim at. You think, "well, now I’m motivated, because I got my thing to aim at." It’s like, "you’re not as motivated as you could be, because you don’t yet have your thing to run away from. If you really want to be motivated, you want to be going somewhere, and you want to be not going somewhere else."

LH: Which, typically, is a pain.

JP: Yes, a pain or an anxiety. Some domain of suffering and guilt, let’s say.

LH: "I don’t want to feel this anymore."

JP: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So the other thing we ask people is, "OK, now take stock of your weaknesses, and imagine that you let them multiply. You got hopeless, and you augured in, and things were as bad for you as they could be in three to five years."

LH: What are some examples of weaknesses that people might have?

JP: They lie, they procrastinate, they avoid, they’re grandiose, they’re narcissistic, they’re undisciplined, they’re nihilistic, they’re aimless. All of those things.

LH: Victim mentality.

JP: Victim mentality, they take the quick way out, they pursue impulsive pleasures, they sacrifice meaning for expediency, they don’t take care of their basic responsibilities, they fight stupidly with their parents, they don’t negotiate properly with their spouse, they’re bitter at work because they haven't said what they have to say, they haven’t thought through what they’re doing tomorrow, they drink too much, they smoke too much, they take too many drugs, they don’t regulate their…

LH: They don’t work out. Yeah, got it.

JP: And everyone knows, man. Everyone knows, and everyone’s got a set of weaknesses that they know about. And so you say, "all right…"

LH: What are three weakness that you know right now you could still work on, and three things you think are really…

JP: Well, a lot of things are things that I’ve taken care of in my life—like, I used to smoke. When I was a kid, I used to smoke a pack a day. I used to drink a lot. I didn’t work out. I wasn’t nearly as disciplined as I should have been. I wasn’t as careful with what I was saying.

LH: Your words were loose.

JP: My most likely negative outcome probably would have been—I really liked to drink. Alcohol is a really good drug for me.

LH: Is that why you did your thesis on that?

JP: Well, partly. It was mostly because the opportunity came up for me to investigate drug and alcohol use. But I came from a little town in Northern Alberta, and it was a heavy drinking town. That could have been a real trap, for me. So anyways, we have these people. We say, "OK, you know your weaknesses, and you know what particular hell you would descend to, if you allowed yourself to descend into it, because you probably had a taste of it. If you really let that go, and you’re in a terrible place in three to five years, because you haven’t done what you should do, what does that look like? Write that down, so you know." One of the things you want to have behind you—let’s say you have to do something difficult, like go confront your boss. Well, maybe hope isn’t enough to encourage you to do that. You think, "well, no. If I don’t go confront my boss, carefully and intelligently, then I’m going to hate my job, then I’m going to drink more, then I’m going to end up in that little hell place that I designed for myself." It’s like, "oh, I’m not going there, but I don’t want to talk to my boss, or I don't want to confront my wife or my husband or my father—or my children, for that matter. But if I don’t…"

LH: "Then I’ll resent myself, or I’ll resent…"

JP: "I’m going to end up going down this terrible pathway." Sometimes, when you’re moving forward, you have to do something difficult. You might think, "well, why bother?" The answer is, "well, so I don’t end up in hell. How about that?" "Oh, yeah! There’s that."

LH: If you don’t experience the pain now, or the difficulty now, you’re going to have a deeper pain later.

JP: Yeah, yeah. That’s life.

LH: A much deeper pain later. That’s why—I think that you mention, at one point, that putting ourselves into structured pain, like a structured sense of feeling pain throughout the day, whether it be the tough conversation… "I don’t want to do that because it’s painful, but I’m going to, because I know, afterwards, it’s probably going to feel better."

JP: It’s a bit of a sacrifice. Sacrifice stability in the present for a gain in the future. That’s the big discovery of human beings.

LH: Were you a big athlete growing up?

JP: No. I was a small kid, and I skipped a grade. Although, I skied, and I went cross-country skiing. It’s individual sports, mostly with my dad.

LH: You’ll understand, then, in order to improve as an athlete or in any sport, you have to put yourself through daily pain. If you want to achieve that model of excellence that you watch someone playing basketball as a child, and you see someone living this model, it’s going to be 15 years of deliberate pain.

JP: Yeah, that’s a discipline, man. Well, I worked out for a long time with weights.

LH: So you know. You’ve felt it every day. You didn’t want to push through pain, but you knew it would get you a greater result.

JP: Yeah, and it’s easier not to do it than to do it, but not in the long run. I’ve really seen the benefits, for example, from weight lifting, because I’m 58… How old am I? 56.

LH: You look great.

JP: I’ve really noticed the difference, when they age, between people who laid down a good physiological platform when they were young and those who didn’t, because if you haven’t worked out—weights particularly, I would say—you start to get pretty soft in your 30s, and your cardiovascular system starts to go really early. The other thing, too, is that the best thing you can do to maintain cognitive ability isn’t to do exercises like Lumosity. It’s not brain exercises that keep you sharp. It’s exercise, both cardiovascular and weight lifting. So if you’re 50, you can restore your cognitive function to the level of a 30 year old through exercise.

LH: Your mental function through physical activity.

JP: Yeah, well, your brain is a very demanding organ, and if your cardiovascular system is compromised, then you get stupid.

LH: Wow. So as you move, and the bigger you get, the more stupid you become.

JP: Well, you compromise its function, because the brain is the organ that uses more—it’s very metabolically demanding. If you’re not in good physical shape, then one of the things that suffers most greatly is your cognitive function. So that’s quite an interesting thing, to see how tight that linkage is. In the next part of the program: ok, now you’ve got a vision.

LH: Even if it’s a bad one, it’s OK.

JP: That’s right. It’s better than no vision at all. It’s something that you can improve. You’re trying to get through a territory you don’t understand, and here’s your options: no map, a map that’s not so good that has some things about it, or a great map. Well, obviously, the great map is the thing you want, but the map that’s something is way better than the map that’s nothing. Plus, as you explore, because of your map, you can start to fill in the details.

LH: You start to learn, and you start to overcome stuff, and you start to master skills on your journey.

JP: Yeah, that’s the other thing, too: let’s say you aim at something, and you develop some skills along the way, and then you get, like, a third of the way there, and you think, "oh, that’s not for me." It’s like, "well, yeah, fair enough, but now you’ve still got the skills you developed. You know exactly why it’s not for you, now, instead of vaguely."

LH: So you’re not thinking of going after that.

JP: Exactly, exactly. And you have the rationale, and then you can bring that wisdom back. Even though it’s not perfect, you can bring it back to your next plan.

LH: Take responsibility for the next step.

JP: Yes, yes. So as you plan, you get better at planning, which is the crucial thing. So then we say to people, "take your positive vision and make it into eight statable goals, and then rank them in a hierarchy, because you need to know…"

LH: A top goal and incremental goals.

JP: Well, that’s the other thing: break the goals into incremental goals, so that you have a reasonable probability of succeeding. What you want to do—this is also what you want to do with a kid. You don’t tell your kid, "here’s an impossible thing. Why don’t you go out and fail?" You say, "here’s something worth going after. Here’s a step you could take that would push you beyond where you are, but that you also have a reasonably high probability of succeeding at." They call that…

LH: Within a timeframe.

JP: Within some timeframe. That’s the other thing: you have parameterize it with regards to timeframe. That’s right. That puts you in the zone of proximal development, and that’s a concept that was generated by a guy named Vygotsky. He was a Russian developmental psychologist, and a smart one. That’s where the idea of "the zone" comes from, to be in "the zone." And, when you’re in "the zone," you’re expanding your skills in a manner that’s intrinsically rewarding, because you’re succeeding. And so you want to set—if you’re ever good to yourself, you think, "OK, I need to set a goal, but I need to set a goal that someone as stupid and useless as me could probably attain, if they put some effort into it." Then you’ve got it perfectly, because it’s not so high that it’s grandiose or impossible, that you fail necessarily and then justify your bitterness. That happens to people.

LH: It happens all the time. You see this all the time.

JP: Yes, exactly: "well, I set a goal, and I didn’t attain it, so I’m not going to set any more goals." It’s like, "no, you set a goal that was inappropriate."

LH: For the timeframe.

JP: That’s right: "you didn’t calibrate it properly, and you’re playing a trick on yourself, because you wanted to fail, so that you could justify not having to try."

LH: Being a victim. Yeah.

JP: It’s not helpful. You’re still going to be a victim. There’s no way out of that, man.

LH: Yeah. Hah.

JP: Because life is a challenge that, in some sense, can’t be surmounted. So there’s no way out of your problem, but there’s certainly proper ways of dealing with it.

LH: So there’s eight steps, right?

JP: Yeah. Lay them out, and the next thing is, "OK, you need a rationale for them, because you’re going to have doubts, and other people are going to put up obstacles."

LH: Does rationale mean meaning?

JP: Yeah, a justification. It’s like, "OK, so what sort of justification is a good justification for your goals?" It’s easy: "why would it be good for you? why would it be good for your family, if you attained that goal? why would it be good for the broader community?" Because if it’s a good goal, it should be good for you—that’s fine. But if it’s a really good goal, it should be good for you in a way that’s good for other people.

LH: Win, win, win.

JP: Yes, exactly. If you’re going to decide what your goals are, why not set up the ones that benefit the largest number of people simultaneously? If you can do that, you should start with your own concerns, because you have to take care of yourself.

LH: Basic needs first.

JP: Yes. Put your oxygen mask on, then put your child’s oxygen mask on. And then, as you build up the basis of competence locally, you might develop enough skills so that you can expand that outward. It also gives your goal a certain amount of nobility. So, if someone challenges you, and says, "why are you doing that? That seems stupid." You could say, "I’m doing that because it helps me take care of myself, but it benefits my family, and here’s the reasons why, and this is the repercussions out into the broader community." People who are putting up objections and doubts aren’t armed to deal with that kind of response. And then when you have those doubts in your mind that plague you…

LH: Go back to your reasons, your "why."

JP: That’s right: "Why am I doing this? Oh, yeah—I have to take care of myself, because otherwise I’m pathetic and useless and bitter and cruel, and then I’m going somewhere terrible, so that’s a bad idea, and here’s how it would help my family, and here’s how it would help the community, and that’s a good enough set of reasons for me, unless I can think of better ones. Without better ones, that’s good enough."

LH: I think the question comes back to—someone can go down the rabbit hole: "why? why am I doing this? why is this meaningful for me?" I think a lot of people go back to, "why am I here in the first place?"

JP: Yes, yes.

LH: "Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? And is this real, or is this just some dream world?"

JP: Well, and people do go back to that.

LH: And then they get stuck on that: "none of this even matters, because why am I even here?"

JP: The thing is that that’s a self-defeating set of propositions, in some sense. The consequence of being stuck there—the reason you’re stuck there to begin with is you’re not very happy about the fact that life is intrinsically tied up with suffering, because you wouldn’t be asking that question to begin with. If you let that pull you in and take you down, all it does is make suffering worse.

LH: Absolutely.

JP: Not helpful. And then the cascade that we talked about happens: you suffer stupidly and pointlessly, you get bitter, you get cruel, you make everything worse. It’s like, "that’s your answer, is it? You’re going to make everything worse? It’s bad enough. You’re going to make it worse?" Mostly, people won’t do that consciously. So you think, "well, what’s the alternative?" Well, here’s one: if you have a sufficiently noble purpose, the suffering will justify itself. I think that’s empirically testable, and I do believe it’s the case, because I’ve watched people do very difficult things, like people who work in palliative care wards. So all they’re ever dealing with is pain and death, and they can do it. They get up in the morning, they go to work, and they take care of those people, and they lose people on a weekly basis, and yet, they can do it. What that shows is that, if you turn around and confront the suffering voluntarily, you find out that you are way tougher than you think.

It’s not that life is better than you think. Life is as harsh as you think. It might even be worse. But you are way tougher than you think, if you turn around and confront it. And so then, what you discover is that there is a spirit within you that can pursue something meaningful, that has the resilience and the strength to contend properly with the catastrophe of existence, without becoming bitter. I would say that’s one of the central themes of 12 Rules for Life: "make no mistake about it: the first noble truth of Buddhism: “life is suffering.” This is true, and it’s worse than that, because it’s suffering contaminated by malevolence. That’s the baseline." So that’s very pessimistic. But the optimistic part is that you are so damn tough that you can not only deal with that, you can improve it. It’s like, "hm! Oh, well, that’s a horrible situation, but it turns out that I’m armed for the task." That’s a great thing for people to know. I think the fact we’re armed for the task is even more true than the fact that life is catastrophe contaminated by malevolence. We’re stronger than things are terrible, and things are pretty terrible, so that means we’re pretty damn strong.

LH: Wow.

JP: Yes. It’s a very good thing to know, and it’s not naive optimism. It’s a very different thing. It’s like, "no, things aren’t terrible: they’re brutal, and you are so damn tough you can’t believe it."