Canadian author, psychologist, and intellectual Jordan Peterson has an interesting way of overcoming your self-doubt and anxiety: run right into it. Or, rather, write right into it. Jordan’s latest book is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Jordan Peterson: Okay so we have an online writing program called “self-authoring” and that helps people construct the narrative of their life.
That’s a good way of thinking about it.
And so part of the narrative of your life is what happened to you in the past that made you who you are now – good and bad. And part of what you want to do— think about the purpose of memory.
“Well the purpose of memory is to remember the past.”
It’s like “No, that’s wrong!” The purpose of memory is so that you take from the past what you need not to do stupid things again in the future. So the purpose of memory is to learn from the past so that you can construct the future more effectively.
So now if you’ve had terrible things happen to you in the past and you don’t understand them, what that means is that you’re insufficiently prepared for the future. And that means you’re going to be in a constant state of anxiety and stress. And so if you write about your past and you do a causal analysis of the good and the bad things that happen to you, then that arms you more effectively for operation in the present and the future. And that produces an increment in physical health by the way. Okay, so that’s the past-authoring program. It asks you to divide your life into epochs and to outline the emotionally significant events and to essentially do a causal analysis of them. So it’s like you’re getting the gist of the story of your life down. You’re articulating yourself.
So the present-authoring program uses a personality model to help you identify your faults (so that you can improve them) and your virtues (so that you can continue to capitalize on them).
It’s the simplest of the three subprograms. And the future-authoring program, which is the one we’ve done the most research on, helps you first of all formulate a vision for your life.
So the idea is okay, imagine that you’re charged with your own care and that you’ve determined to do a good job of it. Okay, and then it asks you specific questions about your life. If you could have what you wanted three to five years down the road, what would be good for you? What do you want from your friends? What do you want from your career? Are you going to educate yourself? What do you want from your family? What do you want from an intimate relationship? How are you going to handle pitfalls like drug and alcohol use and other sorts of temptations? How are you going to take care of yourself mentally and physically? What are you going to do with your time outside of work that’s productive and meaningful? If you could have what you wanted and that would be good for you, what would that look like?
And then it asks you to write for 15 minutes about what your life could be like if those conditions were met three to five years in the future. Then it asks you to do the reverse. Take stock of your failings. Imagine they get out of hand and things aren’t so good for you three to five years down the road. What does that look like? Okay, now you’ve established two points: Something to strive for and something to stay the hell away from.
And that’s maximally motivating, because if you want to be motivated to do something, you can’t just be hopeful about it. You have to be hopeful about doing it and afraid of not doing it. And that way your anxiety is behind you pushing you forward instead of in front of you stopping you. Because like imagine you wanted to undertake a new enterprise. You might say “Oh my god, look at all the risks! Look at all the threat!” And that could paralyze you. But if you can say simultaneously “Yeah, fair enough, but look where I might end up if I don’t do it.” Like “Oh! Well, that’s a whole different issue.” It’s like, “Well there’s dangers ahead of you, but there’s dangers behind you too.” So maybe it’s worthwhile taking the risk. So anyway you want to have both your negative and your positive emotion systems working for you.
Then in the future-authoring program you take your positive vision and you develop an implementable plan which includes philosophical justifications.
So one question would be all right, break your vision up into nine practical steps. Develop an implementation strategy. And then articulate why, if you accomplish goal one your life would be better, your family’s life would be better, your society would function better.
Because you need deep reasons to keep you on track, because otherwise your own doubts will undo you let alone other people’s opposition. You have to articulate your rationale so that you can quell your doubts and move forward powerfully.
And so those programs, that program in particular has a very salutary effect on people. So we’ve given it to thousands of university students now in business schools in particular. Thirty percent improvement in overall retention.