75 Minutes with Jordan Peterson
By David Henderson
Last Thursday I drove up to San Francisco with a friend, Tom, to see Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson speak. I’ve seen some impressive interactions he’s had on YouTube. (This one is my favorite and another one, in which he lets down his hair on stage in Vancouver, is my other favorite, but I can’t find it now.) I’ve also seen friends on Facebook express strong reactions to him, some very negative, some very positive. I wanted to see for myself.
The event was sponsored by the Independent Institute, based in Oakland, and was held at the Marine Memorial Club and Hotel in downtown San Francisco.
My first surprise was that when we entered, we were not checked for weapons or projectiles. I’ve read enough about him to know that some pretty vicious people have threatened him. A young man I sat beside explained that the Independent Institute had advertised the event on its site and in mailings (both postcards and emails) to people who have expressed interest in the Institute’s output. I had learned about it through email. He pointed out that Peterson did not list the event on his web page. That explained it. The people who would be interested in committing violence, or even just protesting, would likely not have known about it. It’s not as if they were going to the Independent Institute’s site every week to see if Jordan Peterson is coming.
My second surprise was the demographics. I have heard and read that Peterson tends to attract young men. But males were about 60 to 65 percent of the audience, lower than I would have thought. Even more surprising was the age composition. I would say that the median age of attendees was about 45 to 50, and there were a lot of people, men and women, my age (68) or older. Again, though, that’s explained by the marketing strategy. There were probably over a thousand young men who would have wanted to go if they had heard about it, but they hadn’t heard. No problem: the auditorium, which, I estimate, holds about 1,000 people, was full.
My third surprise was how many people came in late–at least 30 in front of us–and disturbed those of us who got there on time. When three young men came in 20 minutes late and sat in the row right in front of us, the young man I mentioned above shook his head in disgust. During a lull later, I whispered to him that I loved his disgust and that I had read that rule one for Peterson was “Clean Your Room,” and rule zero ought to be “Show Up on Time.”
David Theroux, the founder, president, and CEO of the Independent Institute, introduced Peterson. His intro took too much time giving background about the Institute, especially since probably over 80% of the audience knew what it stood for: David’s strategy might have been for the video, when it posts, to be a marketing tool to reach a wider audience.
Then Peterson came on. At one point in his talk he said that he had given talks in about 150 cities in the last year. For that reason, I would have expected his talk to be more organized. He seemed to jump from thing to thing and at times I lost the thread. He spent a lot of time on Genesis and its connection to mythology. I’m guessing that a lot of people found that interesting. I didn’t.
But here’s where he shone. He was talking about one modern approach to therapy in which the therapist tells the patients, especially young patients, that they’re just fine the way they are, even when they’re obviously messed up. He said that his approach is to tell them that if they look at their experiences, they should be feeling bad. He got into the issue of pain. He said that most of us have had some pain in life. He then said, “If you haven’t had it in your own life, you’ve seen it up close with family members.” I immediately thought about 3 family members (my brother, who committed suicide at age 22, my sister, who had a fairly frustrating life and died last November at age 72, and one other family member.) I started to choke up a little. Then he said, with a little inkling of humor, “And if you haven’t had any family members in pain, you will.” (These are not direct quotes: we were prohibited from recording, and I complied. But Tom and I talked about it for 2 hours on the drive home, while it was fresh and so I think I’ve got the gist.) This part of the talk reminded me of Nathaniel Branden at his best.
Right at the end he gave a comment that was worth the whole $75 (plus $25 membership to the Independent Institute plus 4.5 hour round-trip drive) price of admission. I won’t do justice to his excellent wording, but he said something like the following: “When you follow some rules for life, you will find yourself cleaning up a lot in your life and that will help you get rid of some of your limits. You will be better able to do good in the world. You have an idea now of what your limits are. But this will raise your limits. Who knows what your limits will be? They’re probably much higher than you think they are now.” Peterson seems to be a more-spiritual Tony Robbins.
On the way home, Tom and I talked about that a lot. I had been struggling with an important decision due to an incident that had happened that morning. When I woke up Friday morning, I realized that Peterson had given me some inspiration that helped me make a clean decision about. I had posted about that here.
The Q&A was a bust. People who had signed up had received an email a day or two earlier encouraging us to send in questions. I didn’t have a pressing question, so I didn’t send one in. But I did want to hear other people’s questions. Unfortunately no one got to. On the stage after his talk were Peterson, David Theroux, Mary Theroux (senior vice-president of the Institute), and Graham Walker (executive director.) Although Mary said she would get to audience questions, she didn’t. She gave a long pitch for the Independent Institute before getting to her own question (which was a good one, but I’ve forgotten what it was) and then let Peterson answer. Peterson is not a man of few words and so his answer took a while. Then Graham Walker engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue with Peterson. The dialogue was interesting and more rapid fire, and Walker showed himself to be a bright guy. But still we hadn’t got to audience questions. Then Mary asked another one—again, a good one—and Peterson answered. Then David Theroux ended the event.