47) Jordan Peterson, Part 3: The Bucko Mistake; Sub-section 2: Metaphorically Terrible Advice

Second, the metaphoric.

Posture-straightening aside, Jordan’s Rule #1 is obviously about so much more — it’s about being Alpha, not beta.  It’s about facing the terrible existential burden of life, accepting your individual responsibility, and applying yourself to the challenges in front of you.  It’s about entering situations with confidence, with a can-do mentality.  I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, said the Little Engine That Could as it puffed its way up the mountain to deliver toys to all the good girls and boys sleeping in the little town.  It’s about “manning up” to the genuine problems, challenges, and opportunities that life presents you with.  Don’t be a loser who gives up.  Be a winner who applies themselves mightily!

In some important ways, this is fantastic advice.  It IS inspiring!  Jordan is fond of Nietzsche, and has often referenced his famous saying “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In this metaphoric sense, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” is like a locker-room pep talk, designed to help you throw off your laziness and defeatist attitude, and Give ‘Errrrr!!!

This is a noble goal, sure.  But like the person with a broken leg being told to run 5 miles, this is terrible advice for the people who most need the advice, people who are struggling the most with shame, trauma, depression, internalized feelings of worthlessness, learned helplessness, etc.  For people such as this, advice that will momentarily feel like it strengthens them but in short-order leads to failure, IS harmful.

Why is this advice harmful?  At least three reasons:

Reason #1)

The metaphoric is analogous to the literal.  As noted above, in the physical sense, standing up straight with your shoulders back will cause greater pain over the medium-term, and even in the short-term, leads to the temporary, highly energy-inefficient achievement of a “straight” posture, which then you cannot maintain as soon as you have to go do anything else.  Like, ANYTHING else.

I actually tried this — I tried going into my kitchen and frying up some eggs for breakfast, while standing straight with my shoulders back……If you don’t believe how impossible that is, go do it yourself.  Try bending down, reaching into your fridge for eggs, getting the frying pan out of the cupboard, etc., with your shoulders back…..it’s ridiculous.  You have to drop the soldier-stance instantaneously as soon as you DO practically anything.  So, this advice, if it’s good for anything other than causing long-term physiological problems, is good for STANDING STILL AND DOING NOTHING.  Hmmm…….So, the application of this advice leads to a person being LESS capable of acting effectively in the world?  How is that compatible with “sorting yourself out?”

Reason #2)

Failure feels crappy; advice that is close-to-guaranteed to result in failure is going to feel….errrr…..really crappy.  Constant, repeated failure about what seems like the simplest thing in the world but which one finds virtually impossible, sends a message to “the self” that “you really are a loser!  You can’t even do this simple thing right; what the hell is wrong with you?”  So……good luck feeling better about yourself!  Instead, you are more likely to eventually give up on your Alpha project, shrink from the existential challenge of life, and become precisely that basement-dwelling, video game-addicted, beta that Jordan is trying to rescue you from becoming in the first place.

Here is what one person told me the other day when we were talking about this.  I was so moved, I asked if I could quote them, so they wrote this down.  “I was given exactly this advice, over and over again for a long and painful part of my life.  My father told me many times to “stand up straight!”, “you look like a loser!”, and he’d point out specific people with poor posture and show me how terrible they looked.  “Who do you want to look like — Quasimodo, or Tarzan?”  I remember as a child, over and over trying to straighten my shoulders.  I would stand in my room, thrusting my shoulders back until my back muscles burned, my abs and glutes tight, my breath constricted (it’s very hard to breathe normally when you’re doing this), looking at myself in the mirror, hating how my neck slumped forward, working on my posture until I was standing ramrod straight, as I applied more and more energy to the futile attempt to feel better about myself through sheer force of will.  Failure, I had been told so many times, was because of not trying hard enough.  As I got older, I felt like a failure, worthless…..a disappointment to my dad.  I felt ugly, pathetic, “not good enough”.  I eventually became self-destructive, for…..a long time.  Now, I’m no clinical psychologist, but based on my experience, telling people who are struggling that “it’s all up to you, grit your teeth and Do It,” is….stupid.”

The other way to think about this, is to consider all the straight-shouldered people you know who are, frankly, assholes.  Have you ever met a person with an anger management problem?  Someone closed-minded and intolerant?  Narcissistic?  Arrogant?  From all the angry men I have known in my life, for example, although some of them were weasily little hunched-over dudes clearly overcompensating for their shitty self-concepts, FAR MORE of them were pretty damn straight-standing….how about you, when you think of the angry, destructive, derogating, closed-minded and otherwise asshole-ish people you’ve known in your life?  How straight were their shoulders?

I wonder, just out of curiousity, what the relative shoulder-straightness is of people at tiki torch marches?  Or men catcalling women on the street?  Does Harvey Weinstein have straight shoulders?  What about Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, or any other sicko who’s responsible for mass deaths?  Did the CEOs of tobacco companies who stood up in the 1980s to blatantly lie about not knowing that their products cause cancer, have straight shoulders?  What about oil company executives who deny climate change?  What about men who beat their wives?  What about ISIS fighters?  What about the Mean Girls in middle school?  What about elitist snobs?  What about colonial invaders who practiced despicable violence on Indigenous people?  What about unreasonable people who are terrible listeners and think they’re better than everyone else?  hmmm…..

Reason #3)

It sends the message, especially to the person who is struggling, that they should rely on themselves.  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!  Stop being lazy!  Put some elbow grease into it!  What are you, a loser? This leads to the Perpetual Self Improvement Treadmill.

The Perpetual Self Improvement Treadmill

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point right now, but will take this up in the future.  But ask yourself, do you know people who are constantly setting goals, signing up for “self improvement” programs, listening to motivational speakers, sharing Ted talks and podcasts and pithy sayings and guru-advice and LifeHacks……but somehow, don’t ever seem to become all that much different from how they’ve always been?  Do you know anyone who has for years and years and years struggled to adopt positive habits, focusing again and again on the same goals — to lose those extra pounds, drop some unhealthy habit, get more sleep, eat better, get more organized, etc.?  Do you know people who create Vision Board after Vision Board, make lists of goals, seem to know all the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people, etc., but as time goes by, aren’t really any different?

I know tons of these people.  I was one of them for many years.  Always feeling like “the turnaround” was just around the corner, that soon I was going to “get it together”, and reading that next book, watching that next video, undertaking that next Future Authoring or what-have-you program would FINALLY be the solution…always feeling that there was something subtly wrong with me, that I needed to “improve” and if only I tried hard enough, put enough discipline and effort into it, then I could change and be happier, more fulfilled, or whatever would signify success for me.

The problem with treadmills, as you know, is that no matter how many steps you take, how many calories you burn, how much you sweat, you don’t bloody get anywhere.  This constant grind towards Self Improvement is many people’s reality, year after year and decade after decade.  It’s bloody depressing to feel like YOU need to change, YOU are not enough, YOU have flaws that can only be overcome by YOU being less of a wimpy loser and “finally” getting it together.

This is an insidious problem with telling Bucko to sort himself out.  This advice is most relevant to people who are struggling, but it is precisely those people who are likely the least equipped to apply the advice skillfully and effectively.  Perhaps with his clients, Jordan can skillfully scaffold their successful engagement in goal-pursuit and positive habit formation, but without that careful and skilled scaffolding, just throwing this advice out there into the world so that Bucko can grab onto it and apply it to himself, is highly likely to backfire.  (Not for everyone, of course; some people WILL be helped in incredible ways, no doubt!)

Instead, Bucko will likely do what I did for many years and what I talk to people about literally every single week if not every day — far too many Buckos will likely set relatively superficial “goals”, trying to cajole themselves into “positive habit formation”.  Then they will apply themselves half-heartedly (or their motivation will taper off after a while), and they’ll slide back to pretty much the same place they were before, except with one more Failure added to their life history of failure.  I’m sure you have experienced this yourself, unless you’re a way, way more effective ass-kicking Life Ninja than most people I know.   


Gee, this Bucko advice is starting to sound pretty bad.  Is this what some people teach in university classes?  Or on YouTube?  Yikes!  Maybe we should use computer programs that analyze the semantic content of textual passages, to ferret out Petersonian reasoning anywhere it’s being taught — like in workplace seminars, online videos or articles, or worst of all, academic courses, and expose them for being intellectually bankrupt.  Isn’t that what Jordan would suggest doing with obviously-harmful and misinformed advice being peddled by people in positions of power and influence?  Didn’t he say we should do that to the humanities, women’s studies programs, studies in education, etc.?  Maybe, following this logic, should we look carefully at the advice being given by counsellors and therapists and clinical psychologists, and if it is deemed to be likely to be harmful by the appropriate panels of experts, should we revoke the licenses of such irresponsible practitioners?


Dear Bucko

Myself, I would advocate for a different approach.  In the spirit of freedom of speech and basic trust in people to be reasonable when they are treated with respect and given a chance to engage in meaningful dialogue with others (see Part 8:  Postmodernism), I think we should just resist, publicly, bad advice and work to share better advice with each other and scaffold more effectively each others’ understanding.

For example, when Bucko is struggling, they should be encouraged NOT TO RELY ON THEMSELVES, but instead, to reach out.  Open up to someone — a mentor, a wise elder, a good friend, a counsellor.  Find one person you can trust, and if you can’t, then start with your doctor or a support group or a counsellor or HelpLine.  Work towards making One Connection in the world, a person with whom you can be honest.  And then, practice courage.  Share your vulnerability, once you find the person/people who will accept the reality of your struggles and who will care about you.  THIS is the important work, and it might not happen right away, but keep trying, keep looking, and you will find those who can help you learn and practice effective solutions.

If you are struggling, there are others out there who have overcome similar struggles, who know how to help people, who will work with you so that you can discover, or rediscover perhaps, that stronger-self who is latent within you.  Reaching your potential is very likely NOT going to come from simply putting more and more energy into whatever solutions already make sense to your relatively limited perspective and experience of the world.  Don’t “Sort Yourself Out”, as though you have all the answers already and just need more “self-discipline.”  Instead, acknowledge that you have weaknesses, that you would benefit from guidance and support.  Reach out.

Jordan is super-tight with myths and archetypes and all that cool Joseph Campbell & Jung stuff.  Okay, so let’s be guided by myths…..because “reaching out” is what Heroes do, in virtually all the myths that have always guided us.  The Hero is NOT some lone-wolf, persevering through sheer force of will.  That is, in fact, THE BAD GUY!!  The Hero is the person who trusts, forms alliances; the Hero is often not as strong (initially) as the Bad Guy, and often loses some of the preliminary fights, being saved at the last moment by the intervention of Allies, sometimes even by someone jumping in to take the bullet for her.  The Hero is almost ALWAYS the one willing to rely on others, not the one individualistically straightening their shoulders and Sorting Themselves Out.

This is definitely one of the true “Rules of Life” — Reach Out.  Don’t go it alone.  Find those who will help you.  Be strong enough to be vulnerable, courageous enough to trust.

Dear Bucko, don’t sort yourself out!  Instead reach out; say, “I need help.”  That’s what Heroes do.

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