38 - 12 RULES FOR LIFE: RULE 10 | BE PRECISE IN YOUR SPEECH
AN ANTIDOTE TO CHAOS
by Dr. Jordan B Peterson
Be Precise In Your Speech
This is the 10th edition of my reflections upon the phenomenal book “12 Rules For Life” by Dr. Jordan B Peterson, who is a professor at the University of Toronto, and a clinical psychologist.
Stream this episode through the player above. Read the notes and follow the basic transcription below.
0:00 - Prologue
2:55 - Interlude
7:24 - Tools, Obstacles And Extension Into The World
10:40 - The World Is Simple Only When It Behaves
14:44 - You And I Are Simple Only When The World Behaves
17:04 - What Do We See When We Don't Know What We're Looking At?
18:18 - Entomological explorations into words: ‘Emergency’ ‘Fantasy’ ‘Catastrophe’
22:50 - Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit.
25:00 - Everything Clarified And Articulated Becomes Visible
31:00 - Honest Amateur | Master Reality
33:30 - Turning Pro
36:26 - Why refuse to specify?
41:00 - Construction Of Soul & World
43:00 - Separating Wheat From Chaff
51:40 - Closing reflections
53:45 - Epilogue
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TOOLS, OBSTACLES AND EXTENSION INTO THE WORLD.
We assume that we see objects or things when we look at the world, but that’s not really how it is. Our evolved perceptual systems transform the interconnected, complex multi-level world that we inhabit not so much into things per se as into useful things.
We see the faces of the people we are talking to, because we need to communicate with those people and cooperate with them. We don’t see their microcosmic substructures, the macrocosm that surrounds them, or the ecology that contains all of them. We don’t see them across time. We see them in the narrow, immediate, overwhelming now.
When we look at the world, we perceive only what is enough for our plans and actions to work and for us to get by. What we inhabit, then, is this “enough.” That is a radical, functional, unconscious simplification of the world—and it’s almost impossible for us not to mistake it for the world itself.
But the objects we see are not simply there, in the world, for our simple, direct perceiving. They exist in a complex, multi-dimensional relationship to one another, not as self-evidently separate, bounded, independent objects. We perceive not them, but their functional utility and, in doing so, we make them sufficiently simple for sufficient understanding. It is for this reason that we must be precise in our aim. Absent that, we drown in the complexity of the world.
THE WORLD IS SIMPLE ONLY WHEN IT BEHAVES
It is very difficult to make sense of the interconnected chaos of reality, just by looking at it. It’s a very complicated act, requiring, perhaps, half our brains. Everything shifts and changes in the real world.
A car, as we perceive it, is not a thing, or an object. It is instead something that takes us somewhere we want to go. It is only when it stops taking us and going, that we perceive it much at all. When our car fails, our incompetence with regards to its complexity is instantly revealed. That has practical consequences (we don’t get to go to where we were going), as well as psychological: our peace of mind disappears along with our functioning vehicle.
In a crisis, when our thing no longer goes, we turn to those whose expertise far transcends ours to restore the match between our expectant desire and what actually happens. This all means that the failure of our car can also force us to confront the uncertainty of the broader social context, which is usually invisible to us, in which the machine (and mechanic) are mere parts.
Betrayed by our car, we come up against all the things we don’t know. Is it time for a new vehicle? Did I err in my original purchase? Is the mechanic competent, honest and reliable? Is the garage he works for trustworthy? Sometimes, too, we must contemplate something worse, something broader and deeper: Have the roads now become too dangerous? Have I become (or always been) too incompetent? Too scattered and inattentive? Too old?
The limitations of all our perceptions of things and selves manifest themselves when something we can usually depend on in our simplified world breaks down. Then the more complex world that was always there, invisible and conveniently ignored, makes its presence known. It is then, that the walled garden we archetypally inhabit reveals its hidden but ever-present snakes.
YOU AND I ARE SIMPLE ONLY WHEN THE WORLD BEHAVES
When things break down, what has been ignored rushes in. When things are no longer specified, with precision, the walls crumble, and chaos makes its presence known. When we’ve been careless, and let things slide, what we have refused to attend to gathers itself up, adopts a serpentine form, and strikes—often at the worst possible moment. It is then that we see what focused intent, precision of aim and careful attention protects us from.
Everything is intricate beyond imagining. Everything is affected by everything else. We perceive a very narrow slice of a causally interconnected matrix, although we strive with all our might to avoid being confronted by knowledge of that narrowness. The thin veneer of perceptual sufficiency cracks, however, when something fundamental goes wrong. The dreadful inadequacy of our senses reveals itself. Everything we hold dear crumbles to dust. We freeze. We turn to stone.
What then do we see? Where can we look, when it is precisely what we see that has been insufficient?
WHAT DO WE SEE WHEN WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE LOOKING AT?
What we perceive, when things fall apart, is no longer the stage and settings of habitable order. It’s the eternal watery, formless emptiness, the abyss, and the chaos forever lurking beneath our thin surfaces of security.
It’s from that chaos that whatever stability we had the good fortune to experience emerged, originally—for some limited time—when we first learned to perceive. It’s chaos that we see, when things fall apart (even though we cannot truly see it). What does all this mean?
Emergency—emergence(y). This is the sudden manifestation from somewhere unknown of some previously unknown phenomenon (from the Greek phainesthai, to “shine forth”). How do we prepare for an emergency, when we do not know what has emerged, or from where? How do we prepare for catastrophe, when we do not know what to expect, or how to act?
Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit. Mutual unhappiness and resentment pile up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug, where the dragon feasts on the crumbs. But no one says anything, as the shared society and negotiated order of the household reveals itself as inadequate, or disintegrates, in the face of the unexpected and threatening. Everybody whistles in the dark, instead.
Communication would require admission of terrible emotions: resentment, terror, loneliness, despair, jealousy, frustration, hatred, boredom. Moment by moment, it’s easier to keep the peace.
Every one of the three hundred thousand unrevealed issues, which have been lied about, avoided, rationalized away, hidden like an army of skeletons in some great horrific closet, bursts forth like Noah’s flood, drowning everything. There’s no ark, because no one built one, even though everyone felt the storm gathering.
Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission.
Everything clarified and articulated becomes visible
Why remain vague, when it renders life stagnant and murky? Well, if you don’t know who you are, you can hide in doubt. Maybe you’re not a bad, careless, worthless person. Who knows? Not you. Particularly if you refuse to think about it—and you have every reason not to.
But not thinking about something you don’t want to know about doesn’t make it go away. You are merely trading specific, particular, pointed knowledge of the likely finite list of your real faults and flaws for a much longer list of undefined potential inadequacies and insufficiencies.
Why refuse to investigate, when knowledge of reality enables mastery of reality (and if not mastery, at least the stature of an honest amateur)?
What if there truly is something rotten in the state of Denmark? Then what? Isn’t it better under such conditions to live in willful blindness and enjoy the bliss of ignorance? Well, not if the monster is real.
If you wait instead until what you are refusing to investigate comes a-knocking at your door, things will certainly not go so well for you. What you least want will inevitably happen—and when you are least prepared. What you least want to encounter will make itself manifest when you are weakest and it is strongest. And you will be defeated.
Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists. Because to specify the problem is to allow yourself to know what you want, say, from friend or lover—and then you will know, precisely and cleanly, when you don’t get it, and that will hurt, sharply and specifically. But you will learn something from that, and use what you learn in the future—and the alternative to that single sharp pain is the dull ache of continued hopelessness and vague failure and the sense that time, precious time, is slipping by.
Why refuse to specify? Because while you are failing to define success (and thereby rendering it impossible) you are also refusing to define failure, to yourself, so that if and when you fail you won’t notice, and it won’t hurt. But that won’t work! You cannot be fooled so easily—unless you have gone very far down the road! You will instead carry with you a continual sense of disappointment in your own Being and the self-contempt that comes along with that and the increasing hatred for the world that all of that generates (or degenerates).
When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it—often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF SOUL AND WORLD
The psyche (the soul) and the world are both organized, at the highest levels of human existence, with language, through communication. Things are not as they appear when the outcome has been neither intended nor desired.
The problem itself must be admitted to, as close to the time of its emergence as possible. “I’m unhappy,” is a good start (not “I have a right to be unhappy,” because that is still questionable, at the beginning of the problem-solving process). Perhaps your unhappiness is justified, under the current circumstances. Perhaps any reasonable person would be displeased and miserable to be where you are.
Alternatively, perhaps, you are just whiny and immature? Consider both at least equally probable, as terrible as such consideration might appear. Just exactly how immature might you be? There’s a potentially bottomless pit. But at least you might rectify it, if you can admit to it.
WHEAT FROM CHAFF
Precision specifies. When something terrible happens, it is precision that separates the unique terrible thing that has actually happened from all the other, equally terrible things that might have happened—but did not.
If you shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses, reality itself will become unsustainably disorganized and chaotic. Then it will grow bigger and swallow all order, all sense, and all predictability. Ignored reality transforms itself (reverts back) into the great Goddess of Chaos, the great reptilian Monster of the Unknown—the great predatory beast against which mankind has struggled since the dawn of time.
Be careful with what you tell yourself and others about what you have done, what you are doing, and where you are going. Search for the correct words. Organize those words into the correct sentences, and those sentences into the correct paragraphs. The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence. The present can flow by without robbing the future if its realities are spoken out clearly.
With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord.
Courageous and truthful words will render your reality simple, pristine, well-defined and habitable.
You have to consciously define the topic of a conversation, particularly when it is difficult—or it becomes about everything, and everything is too much. This is so frequently why couples cease communicating. Every argument degenerates into every problem that ever emerged in the past, every problem that exists now, and every terrible thing that is likely to happen in the future. No one can have a discussion about “everything.”
Instead, you can say, “This exact, precise thing—that is what is making me unhappy. This exact, precise thing—that is what I want, as an alternative (although I am open to suggestions, if they are specific). This exact, precise thing—that is what you could deliver, so that I will stop making your life and mine miserable.”
But to do that, you have to think: What is wrong, exactly? What do I want, exactly? You must speak forthrightly and call forth the habitable world from chaos. You must use honest precise speech to do that. If instead you shrink away and hide, what you are hiding from will transform itself into the giant dragon that lurks under your bed and in your forest and in the dark recesses of your mind—and it will devour you.
You must determine where you have been in your life, so that you can know where you are now. If you don’t know where you are, precisely, then you could be anywhere. Anywhere is too many places to be, and some of those places are very bad. You must determine where you have been in your life, because otherwise you can’t get to where you’re going.
You must determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction. Random wandering will not move you forward. It will instead disappoint and frustrate you and make you anxious and unhappy and hard to get along with (and then resentful, and then vengeful, and then worse).
Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. That will protect you from the tragedy of your life. How could it be otherwise?
Confront the chaos of Being. Take aim against a sea of troubles. Specify your destination, and chart your course. Admit to what you want. Tell those around you who you are. Narrow, and gaze attentively, and move forward, forthrightly.