The Meaning of Life (Jordan Peterson)

Jordan Peterson talking about life
Canadian Psychologist and Professor Jordan Peterson

Per his Wikipedia page, Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Most people know him as that brainy philosopher guy on YouTube. To be fair, Jordan Peterson is every bit the intellectual. His opinions are well-reasoned such that they demand to be heard, even by those who take a different view.

Today, I’ve transcribed a YouTube compilation of Peterson in his element expounding on the meaning of life. I think there is something here for everyone no matter where they fall on the political or philosophical spectrum. [Update: The video was removed, but you can still access the transcript below.]


Why do meaningful things? Well, first of all, what is meaning? But then why do meaningful things? And the answer is because life is suffering and malevolence. It’s ineradicable at it’s core. That will take you out. Make no mistake about it. You need something to–you need to be armed with virtue in order for that not to turn into hell. Really, you really need that. And it isn’t just your hell–that’s bad enough–that can be really bad, especially when you’re contributing to it, right. Because then not only are you suffering but you know you’re the agent that’s producing the suffering.

And then maybe that’s not just for you, it’s like you’re taking out your family. If you’re really good at it, you’re taking out large swaths of your community. That’s hell. And that’s real. And no one with any sense and any experience has any doubt that that’s real. And then they could all easily think of how, even though it’s already bad, you could make it way worse. Everyone knows that.

What’s the bulwark against that? Nobility of purpose. That’s it. You have that, then you have something to set against the suffering and the malevolence. It isn’t on option. That’s not optional. You cannot live without it. It’s an instinct meaning. It’s the instinct of life. “My life is meaningless.” The spirit has gone out of you. For modern people, it’s part of this process of criticism. We criticize the idea of meaning so much that we don’t really believe in it anymore. That’s fine, you cannot believe in it, but try living without it, see how far you get with that. And so the case I’ve been making to people, which they find entirely credible, it’s partly the hell case that I just laid out. You need a reason to get out of bed on a terrible day. What’s that reason going to be?

Well, let’s think it through. You know people who can get out of bed on a terrible day. Do you admire them? Yes, what are those people like? Are they taking responsibility for themselves? Definitely. Do they have excess capacity so they are taking responsibility for other people? Yeah. Are they doing difficult things? Yes, obviously. The more you respect them, the more you also see that they’re doing difficult things, and doing them well. So what does that mean? Do some difficult things. Do them well. And you justify your miserable existence.

You can lay that argument out to an audience of 3,000 people. A lot of them are there because they’re trying to set their houses in order philosophically and religiously and practically all at the same time. It’s what they want. Lay out that argument to people, they go “Yep. Right.” And so pick up your burden and walk up the hill. Accept the burdensome condition of suffering. Voluntarily. And you transcend it. . .

People are built for struggle and they’re built for a weight, and you want to take on a heavy burden voluntarily. See if you can put yourself together. See what you can do out in the world. While you’re waiting to die. It’s an all-in game. It better be worthwhile. And so there’s a right relationship between responsibility and aspiration and hierarchy. And when you criticize those things, you get rid of the aspiration. In some sense, it’s an eternal battle. I mean the story of Cain and Abel is a story about that. It’s about responsible, proper living, and the jealously that might be engendered while observing that. And so it’s a very very old problem.

Think about discussion of the 1%. It’s like all those evil 1%. Do you know how much money you have to make to be in the top 1%? In worldwide terms, if you make $32,000 a year you’re in the top 1%. Why do you draw the boundaries so that the top 1% are people that aren’t you? If it’s not envy, if you’re doing OK–I mean you’re doing OK with say an average working class salary. You’re doing OK, I’m not saying you’re doing great. You’re not starving. You’ve got heat. You’ve got air conditioning. You’ve got access to electronic technology. You’ve got some ability to move forward into the future. You’re doing alright and by historical standards, you’re doing fine.

So why all of the sudden is the 1% that you’re envious of only those people who are richer than you when you’re also part of the 1% worldwide? I know who the rich is, the rich is always someone who has more money than me. That’s who the rich is. I don’t put myself in that category, especially if I’m pursuing this victim mentality.

And then the other part of the victim mentality is–let’s say you can have a meaningful life by adopting responsibility. But it’s a heavy load, you have to be awake and alert and on your foot, and moving toward something difficult. You have to have some self-control. And you have to sacrifice something in the present so that the future is better. It’s complex, you have to integrate a lot. When you take on some responsibility, your life has meaning. You think I want a meaningful life. It’s like maybe you do. If you’re willing to take on the responsibility. What’s the alternative? To garner a lot of unearned sympathy for your victimization position. And to at the same time take down the people who are willing to take more responsibility than you. It’s a nasty game. . .

We have enough food for everyone. We’ve produced cultures, we’ve produced structures, hierarchies that certainly have oppressive elements because hierarchies do. But every human society is a hierarchy. And most hierarchies produce nothing but misery. Our hierarchies produce a certain amount of misery and a bunch of wealth. It’s like that’s something unless you’re a fan of starvation and misery. And so my sense is let’s temper the criticism with a little bit of open-eyed gratitude. Jesus, things are pretty good. Even though things are still terrible, they’re way better than they were. And not only that, and this is one of the things that’s so amazing and remarkable and that we really haven’t woken up to. Not only are they way better than they were, they’re getting better around the world for everyone at a rate that’s nothing short of miraculous. It’s absolutely beyond belief. . .

I see this, like everyone does, this unbelievably rapid process of technological transformation approaching us. We better be wise enough to handle it, because we can’t predict. And so to the degree that we have character flaws that can be rectified, the consequences of those are going to be magnified by our increased technological power, and so I’m hoping that everybody can try to get their act together a little bit more carefully. And that’s also been extraordinarily fun.

So I’ve been in 85 cities since March. It’s very heartening because every night I talk to about 2,000 people. Not every night but like 4 nights in a week. As far as I can tell, they’re all primarily coming there because they want to put their house together from a psychological perspective. They’re interested in developing a vision and taking on responsibility. And I have dozens of people every night who have told me that over the last couple of years they’re lives have been transformed. They’ve gone from a bad place when they were really lost and nihilistic– they’ve decided that they were going to do something with their life.

I tweeted out something today. Some kid wrote me he said two years ago he didn’t have any friends, he didn’t have an intimate relationship, he didn’t know where hew as going in life, he didn’t have a job. Nothing was going for him. He’s doing a philosophy degree, he’s in his second year, he has a good job, he’s got a girlfriend, he’s got friends that care for him. He’s put his life right together.

I hear this sort of story from people all the time. People stop me on the street and tell me this, which is lovely to go to a city you’ve never been to. This happens to me all the time. I’ll be walking down the street, someone will come up and say, I’m sorry that I’m bothering you. And they’re not because people are very polite. They’ve been very polite to me. They say I wasn’t in such a good place a year ago, two years ago. I’ve been trying to put my life together. I’ve been listening to your lectures, and here’s a bunch of things that are way better for me. Right on, man. The more of that, the better.

And I think that’s the right way forward. That’s why I don’t regard myself as a political person. I have political interests, but mostly I try to operate at the level of psychology. It’s better for people to put their lives together. It’s important, and I think each person is crucially important. And I think that’s a predicate of the democratic state. We wouldn’t let people vote. People wouldn’t have the responsibility to vote to determine the outcome of the state if there wasn’t a deep belief in our culture that each person is vital.

And I do believe that, I believe that the world is constructed so that each person plays a vital role. And so every time that someone gets their act together, it’s like “Great. Great.” That’s going to have way more positive effect than you think, and stave off an awful lot of trouble because someone who goes bad can do an unbelievable amount of damage. . .

You always want to look at what the consequence of a technological transformation is. This is a big transformation. There used to be flagship media sources that were basically attempting to give a balanced picture, and I think they did a pretty good job 30 years ago. Time magazine. even the mainstream news programs. They had a professionalism that was associated with their journalism that had some degree of objectivity, and that’s fragmented. And it’s fragmenting because there’s all these media sources. Innumerable media sources. And so it’s driving people who are trying to get attention to desperation, and they exaggerate the polarity.

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