Revisiting 12 Rules for Life: Assume that the Person You’re Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t

Note: This is a repost of a blog series that I started in January 2018. Because this was prior to the blog being syndicated on PeakD, and it was some of my most-viewed content on the old blog. I’m going to be editing these slightly, but I’m also going to be adding my own thoughts as I re-read what I wrote. You can find the original post here.

For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link).

One of the things that Peterson notes of many of his patients is that they are profoundly lonely; this, of course, is not necessarily surprising: people who pursue a clinical psychologist tend to do so only after exhausting all other options (which is a shame, and not universal across cultures and personality types, but I’m going to avoid going too far into my opinion on the importance of having someone trustworthy for counsel).

People, as a consequence of loneliness or otherwise, tend to over-clutter their lives—so much so that Peterson notes that much of what he does to help patients is simply to listen to them and help them get their lives into order.

Of course, this has its limitations, Peterson points out: people can’t necessarily fix their lives just by getting up on time every morning, but it can help them set themselves on the right path (or at least forestall the worst forms of self-destruction).

Peterson points out that memory is not necessarily persistent; we don’t have perfect memories of everything and our senses are not perfect either. As a result, we may miss things, or come to conclusions based on a schema of information we’re using (I’m paraphrasing here and may be deviating from what Peterson says a little) without really considering what the most important information is, and without consideration for buried concerns.

The example he uses is that of a movie: if you watch a movie that is wonderful for the first 90 minutes, then falls apart at the end, you are most likely to remember it for having a bad ending, despite the fact that it successfully entertained you for 90 minutes. “The present can change the past, and the future can change the present.”

One thing that Peterson notes is that child abuse, for instance, is “distressingly common”, but not as common as Freudian interpretations would make it out to be: people can have dysfunctional psyches without having experienced abuse or neglect , and people who suffer abuse are by no means destined to be destroyed by it (though, of course, it doesn’t do them any good in the long run).

The reason why there are false cases, however, is that the brain can create information and draw connections when prompted and it is often people speaking, rather than listening, who create bigger problems than there were originally.

One of the things that Peterson notes is that listening is difficult when one is consumed by an ideology; the desire to conform the world to a neat worldview can be dangerous when that worldview triumphs over truth.

Describing one client, Peterson states:

If I had been the adherent of a left-wing, social-justice ideology, I would have told her the first story. If I had been the adherent of a conservative ideology, I would have told her the second. And her responses after having been told either the first or the second story would have proved to my satisfaction and hers that the story I had told her was true— completely, irrefutably true. And that would have been advice.

The problem with ideologies is that when people don’t listen, they tend to speak. Because speaking is a means of imposing one’s desires on the world (especially if the speaker is also willing to lie, as Peterson talked about in Rule 8), it leads to a scenario where people are going to say whatever makes their goals come closer to fruition.

And, worse, if the person speaking is trusted, it shapes the minds of those around them, causing them to re-interpret information in a way that is dangerous.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—when the person speaking has listened and knows the truth. But when they are not capable of knowing or don’t care to know, problems arise.

People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare— just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world.

Learning happens when people think, but people think by constructing hypothetical situations. When someone constructs a situation, it often goes unchallenged: Peterson uses the example of a kid who wants to climb up on the roof of his house to get a better view of the neighborhood.

His sister immediately asks him “What if you fall? What if Dad catches you?”

These things change the thought processes of the kid, and he decides that climbing onto the roof may not be such a good idea after all.

Too rarely do people listen to themselves, but having others listen to you (in the sense of giving critical feedback, not just accepting what you say) improves your ability to visualize, and listening to others does so as well. To really think, however, you need to start doing that process autonomously, with your own sets of information.

Speaking, however, does have a role in thinking: Peterson talks about free association: someone who says something will often proceed to offer up reasons why they have said it, if they are not cut off. Do this for long enough, and people can sometimes solve their own problems—if they are authentic and able to overcome the challenging task of talking to themselves critically.

However, with a listener, you get extra scrutiny, and that helps shape your thoughts.

Peterson remarks at one point that “We outsource the problem of our sanity” meaning that people rely on the responses and guidance of others to self-assess and self-regulate.

If you don’t listen, even when you speak, you’re not going to get that feedback.

Reflections from 2021

One reflection that I’ve had on loneliness over the last year, which has provided plenty of opportunities for this, is that you can let yourself be as lonely as you choose to be.

That doesn’t mean that you can eradicate loneliness in your life just by willing it away, but you can also die of thirst in the middle of a freshwater ocean, so to speak.

One thing that determines whether you will be lonely is the degree to which you honestly engage with other people. The more authentic your relationships, the deeper that level of connection will be and the more likely you are to have a beneficial relationship in the future. One or two good relationships go a long way to stave off loneliness, even if one has an extroverted tendency and benefits from more interactions than that permits.

One of the important things to remember about relationships is that people are people. That seems simple, but we’re used to dealing with avatars and aspects of the world, including the people who surround us regularly. Most of the time we interact with people, it’s inauthentic. Whether you want to take the post-modern approach and blame the fact that societies have lost all of their bonds and become essentially mass-manufactured simulacra or go for a more simple fact that our interactions rarely explore the full depth of those around us, I don’t think this is a controversial opinion.

How often do we really encounter someone who confronts us? I’m hardcore that way and I’ll speak my mind, in part because I consider radical honesty to be worth having but also because lies killed most of the people who shared my beliefs.

One thing from this chapter that I did not appreciate enough is the ability of things to change across time, forwards and backwards, within the subjective framework of our own consciousness, and the small changes that need to be made here.

As someone who’s seen people fall for lies that caused much more destruction than would have been thought possible at the time they were told–at least if I have the charity to presume something other than the purest form of malice on the liar’s behalf–I know enough to say that this should be understood as a matter of grave consequence.

Now there’s a further problem to consider.

It is one thing to lie, but lying is not the only way to mislead people. When you talk to people, you need to make sure that what you are saying is true–or at least couched in a sufficient disclaimer of uncertainty, for the times when a theory must be presented before certainty can be ascertained–in order to have the solid foundation on which to give advice.

This is why Peterson’s focus on giving honest advice rather than advice from a script or deferring to the prevailing wisdom is important. It’s also insufficient.

The path to knowledge is earnest seeking.

That means listening to others and actually listening. It’s easy to generalize a response to a problem based on what you already know about the world. However, when people come for counsel it requires a tailored approach.

Assume that those who approach you for help know more than you. It’s easy to assume that those you seek help from know more than you, because you wouldn’t ask them otherwise. It’s the lateral and lower rungs on the hierarchy that we ignore.

But that’s dangerous. It’s a huge blind spot. And it’s also wrong. Hierarchies (if properly formed) follow competence. But competence is unidimensional, even if it requires multiple input factors.

There’s also a degree to which any one person will have insufficient information. This is why the free market works better than planned economies, because the ultimate consequence of planned economies is the stifling of information. They may work toward certain desired goals better than freedom, but the consequences of that are compounding and often lethal errors and a need to govern people against their will. The latter case becomes obvious when one realizes that prices express revealed preferences and cannot be calculated. The very influence of economic calculation arbitrarily modifying values causes a corruption in the price system and deprives people of what they would acquire if left to their own devices.

I will not speak on ideologies at length because I’m currently going through Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link) and there’s a chapter in there directed toward the idea of abandoning ideology, which I imagine will interest me enough when I write about it because I’m a Tolstoyan zealot and it’ll either validate my decision to reject the basic trends of society or serve as a challenge to my convictions.

I think that the point about not thinking is true. It’s complicated, because it’s not the NPC meme that floats around the internet. Memes might be a good way to think about it, though. A lot of what we do psychologically is analogous (at a low level of resolution) to software, and it’s software that we don’t understand very well and haven’t customized or had any say in.

The exposure to ideas is dangerous because, as Jung theorized, people don’t have ideas. Ideas have people. Now, as a Christian I think there’s a point to this that ties into the divine: God has us, and many ideas are essentially idols and attempt to occupy the role of God in our lives.

One thing that is interesting is how you really need to be two people to think. I don’t know that it’s the proper way of thinking about it. You need to be capable of internal conflict to think. There’s a degree to which certainty can impede that, and a healthy dose of humility about one’s own limitations–cognitive and experiential–is a good starting point. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have deeply held convictions and think, it just means that it’s more difficult, especially if you’re being led to conclusions rather than following them yourself.

I think this is why it’s important to read deeply and across borders of what you would consider your own ways of thought. You can still read mostly what you agree with, but you should also read stuff that makes you uncomfortable or things you have problems with (and give them a fair hearing) in order to challenge your ways of thinking about the world.

Of course, the limit here is that you should exclude sophists from this endeavor. Sophists are lying to you and should not be given the same consideration, though the degree to which you should engage with their works is not zero.

That final sentence in here is a doozy, and I think what I meant to say is something like this:

Even if you speak to people you need to listen to benefit from their feedback.

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