This is the most important thing I’ve learned from Jordan Peterson

A lesson of hope, meaning, and responsibility.

A beam of light shining through the trees on a forest road
Image from John Towner

I’ve heard it said that a book is never read more than once.

Each reading is unique to the individual, their experiences, and the context of their lives in which they read. You and I may read the same pages, but we may leave the experience with completely different impressions and senses of meaning from those pages. If this were the case, we would have ostensibly read different books, in the sense that a book, in its totality is more than a collection of pages, but the experience of having read it.

I think the same concept applies to ideas, theories, and even people.

Dr. Jordan B Peterson is possibly one of the most controversial and misunderstood people in the public sphere. There is a vast range of passionate opinions on him ranging from that he is a bigot to that he is one of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. If we take that to be the spectrum of thought on Dr. Peterson, my opinion of him falls very close to the latter extreme.

Just as one who reads the right book at the right moment in their life to create a uniquely meaningful experience, so has much of Jordan Peterson's message resonated impactfully with me.

I first became aware of Jordan when I was studying to take up a completely new career. It was an intense and frankly scary time in my life, and his message of encouraging responsibility, discipline, and taking the challenge of life head-on was exactly what I needed to hear. I still find his content to be tremendously inspiring to me as I continue on my path toward being the best version of myself that I can be as often as I can manage it.

I find it troubling and bewildering to see the extent to which he is misconstrued and misunderstood at times in media and popular culture. It’s more than a little unnerving to hear someone who you respect and admire referred to as a bigot and even a Nazi, as baseless and ridiculous as the comparison may be. It feels a bit personal too when Jordan Peterson’s “legions of followers” are referred to with similar judgment; misconstrued to be bitter young white men who are consumed with rage and anger.

I’m a young(ish) white man who is a fan, reader, and follower of Jordan and I hardly feel that I match the picture that his critics paint.

For me, the line was crossed when while writing for Marvel Comics, Ta-Nehisi Coates blatantly based “Red Skull” (a Nazi super-villain) on Jordan Peterson, with his influence over young men being central to the character. The similarity of the character to Dr. Peterson is as obvious as it is distasteful, and the suggestion is unambiguous: that Jordan Peterson is a radical with fascist ideas who is brainwashing his followers to follow his fascist ideology.

This was not some fringe blog, this is Captain America!

As one of these men who I feel is being depicted as a bitter and resentful person ripe for ideological manipulation, I felt inspired to articulate the positive and inspirational message I’ve received from Jordan as succinctly as I can.

It was not an easy thing to do — to attempt to pluck a single principle from the book, articles, and dozens of podcasts and YouTube lectures of Jordan’s that I’ve consumed. But after some reflection the answer stood out:

That living well is meaningful.

That may seem a bit underwhelming, but please allow me to elaborate.

The frustrating problem with nihilism is that it actually has a point.

If we phrase the question of meaning poorly and imply that there is an inherent meaning and purpose to human existence, an obvious answer fails to appear. After all, we’re just sentient bags of meat floating around a space that we barely understand on a big rock. Why would our trials and tribulations, hopes, and triumphs actually matter?

And in a stark juxtaposition to the objective improvements we’ve made as a society in nearly every measurable metric over the last two centuries, the perception of meaning may be an area where we are actually worse off. Technology, which has contributed to the vast improvements of our world, has also opened up the World and made it so damn big — far bigger than we’ve evolved to perceive.

Understanding our role and purpose in a community of 150 people (we’ve spent much more time as a species in communities this size) was more obvious than trying to understand it in a community of over 7 billion. Any time we feel proud, or that we’ve accomplished something, we need only jaunt over to Google or any social media app to see countless examples of people who are smarter, sexier, richer, and more accomplished. The toll that this is taking on our society manifests itself in the increase in depression, mental health diagnoses, and suicides that we have seen an increase in over the last 50 years in contrast to the improvements of modern society.

All this is to say that globalization and this crazy experiment that is social media have created, or at least contributed to, a crisis of meaning. It has never been easier in all of human existence to feel that what we do doesn’t matter.

It has never been easier to underestimate our contributions, and it certainly has never been easier to compare ourselves to others.

Enter Dr. Jordan B Peterson. Jordan has spent much of his career thinking and writing about meaning. I must admit that at the time of writing, I have not read his Magnum Opus “Maps of Meaning”, so the value I’ve received from Jordan’s thoughts on the subject has been delivered through his lectures (that he posts on YouTube) and his book, “12 Rules for Life.”

The lesson I’ve learned from Jordan is that an antidote to the crisis of meaning is that our actions as individuals are much more important than they seem. He uses the analogy that we are all nodes in a network, and that through our connections to the other people in our lives we can inspire courage, responsibility, and discipline through our actions.

As large as the world has become, it continues to run from the effort of individuals.

Our societies would fall apart if completely normal people decided that they would not get up in the morning and shoulder their share of the load.

A society that is considered healthy can only be so if the majority of individuals live according to the principles that produce a healthy and stable society.

If we are able to continue the progress that we have been making for over two hundred years, our success will have been through individuals accepting the responsibility to live according to the principles that create an ideal world.

If you live in such a way that would produce the ideal society if everyone were to live in that way, you are living well.

You are doing your part to manifest the ideal, and that is meaningful. You may not be the CEO of a successful startup, or be working on creating the first rocket that will take humans to Mars, or have discovered the cure for any diseases, but if you face the responsibility of your life head-on and give your best efforts towards your responsibilities at work, in your community, and within your family — you are living a meaningful life. You are working towards the continued progress and improvement of humanity, and there is meaning in that.

This is the most important lesson that Jordan Peterson has taught me.

He has taught me that the individual’s quest to accept responsibility and pursue the best version of themselves is a part of the pursuit of the best version of humanity. It is not meaningless. It matters.

It’s a lesson of hope, integrity, discipline, and responsibility. It’s a message that I believe we all need.

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Colin Matson-Jones

Colin Matson-Jones

Writer, fitness addict, lifelong learner | On a mission to reach my potential and share what I learn | I write about health, mindset, and personal growth