Jordan Peterson is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, a philosopher in the oldest sense of the word, and a practicing clinical psychologist. He is one of the most brilliant and life-changing people I have ever known, and he has devoted his life to helping others understand how they make the choices they make in the world. He presents this model quite cogently in his 2013 TEDxUof T talk.
You have to be in sync with something that’s beyond you, because that synchrony gives you the strength that you need to bear your terrible limitations.
— Jordan Peterson
Before we can unveil this compass, Jordan would have us understand that we have each chosen to walk away from that which guides us. We have had to shut it down as we grew to become responsible members of society. When we were children, we were open to our gifts and talents. Our brain was less of an inhibitory structure, but as we age, “we are closing in and narrowing towards a particular goal and way of being.”
This specialization is not only necessary, it is the responsible thing to do. It allows us to become a good parent, a proper citizen and a productive member of society. But there is a price to be paid. We lose our relationship with “untrammelled reality” because we have chosen to replace it “with the shadows that are only complex enough to let us do what we need to do and no more. In some sense we become more competent, but in other ways we become more blind.”
What I love the most about Jordan is that he reframes what many see as a horrifying reprogramming to conform to the norms of society as a necessary part of our evolution as a fully realized being. The closing down and specializing is expected and needed because it brings us to the place where we can contemplate something larger beyond all that we know. When we come to understand that we can handle reality, we can start opening the doors again – the doors that have been closed by our learning to be a good sibling, worker and citizen. Jordan says,
You do this by paying attention to the things that manifest themselves to you – that shine forth as interesting – that grab you. And where you are grabbed is where the obscuring map you lived in isn’t obscuring the reality that’s underneath. It’s like there is a hole in the map and the light shines through that and you are attracted to that. And that will pull you along. And that’s when your interest is seized by something. That is your nervous system doing that. You don’t do that. It’s an unconscious force. You could even say it was the world itself talking to you.
The flashes—those things that “shine forth”—are a real phenomenon. Like pinholes to another world, they show us something that we learned to live without as we grew cynical, nihilistic and shut down, our lives flat, brittle and distant. To follow these flashes is to put ourselves in conflict with society, and yet we can’t help but to do so. Jordan defines this path as the path of going from being a “good citizen” to becoming a “good person.” What flashes in the light and catches our attention when we least expect it? What causes our heart to leap in mixed wonder and sadness?
I was on my way to a business meeting with the team. We were standing at the curb waiting for the light to change when the creative director kept glancing at me. “Are you crying, dude?” I felt like I had been punched. My head jerked back and I raised my hand to my face. There were tears rolling down my cheeks. I shook it off and blamed it on the blustery winter wind. But a few weeks later, sitting at my desk, I reached up to find my cheeks glistening.
These flashes, glimpses of reality, had started when I began meeting artists and photographers and engaging them in conversation. I had met many artists in my life, but they were so far outside my model of reality that I couldn’t really see them. I avoided interacting with them in any meaningful way.
I’d never paid attention to art before, but now I found myself attracted to the possibility in these people and their work – flashes to the real world outside my existence of boardroom meetings, million-dollar advertising campaigns and clients who killed every good idea we came up with. Something in me had changed. I found myself questing for what these artists had—freedom, time, some connection to untrammelled reality.
I knew it would be hard to give up my current income, but the flashes of something missing, some nutrient my soul needed, were too much to ignore.