A few weeks ago I completed Jordan Peterson’s Self Authoring Suite. It’s an online program that lets you write about your past, present and future in a structured way. I believe it has the power to transform people’s lives. In this article I’m going to try to describe the principles that lie behind such a program, and what I learned from it.
Storytelling is a superpower
During the second half of my studies, there was a war going on within me. There was the tyrannical me, striving for days of perfect self-discipline. He was active mainly in the evenings, woken by regret about time wasted during the day. Not that the tyrant himself was very productive. In fact, his favorite activity was setting the alarm clock very early, thinking “I can do this!” and going to sleep. And then there was the lazy me, waking up in the morning, thinking “how stupid was I?” and pushing snooze. This spiel went on for more days than I care to admit, so much that I started waking up hours late not even remembering I had turned off the alarm clock. I never managed to fix this completely until I moved in with my girlfriend.
We have many personalities. There is the hungry you, the tired you, the fearful you. There is the you that strives for independence, the you that wants to binge on Game of Thrones. There is the you that wants to change the world, and the you that wants to punch your neighbor in the face for using the washing machine when it was your turn (maybe that’s a Swiss thing). Each personality has its own map of the world, its own goals, and its own strategy of how to attain them. In other words, each personality is the hero of its own story. Of course, the stories aren’t necessarily compatible with each other — in fact they probably get in each other’s way most of the time. Every day, the disciplined you and the fun-seeking you have a good fight. The one who takes over gets rewarded and becomes a little stronger. The other one atrophies a little. You walk along the street and you see someone you haven’t seen in a while. Do you say hi or do you look the other way? Whatever you do will be more likely next time.
But there is an alternative to the fighting. Imagine this situation. Hungry you and sleepy you are fighting. Hungry you says: “I will eat something and then I’ll be happy ever after.” Sleepy you says: “I will sleep and then I’ll be happy ever after.” Enter the storyteller. The storyteller asks hungry you: “why do you want to eat?”. Hungry you explains: “I need to eat so that my body can be stronger”. Sleepy you reacts: “But you need to sleep too so that your body can be stronger!” Storyteller understands what’s going on: “You both want your body to be stronger. You have to work together. Without enough sleep you won’t be able to eat, and without enough food you won’t be able to sleep.” A new personality is born: the strong-body you. It’s a higher-order personality. The strong-body you says: “I will regularly eat and sleep to keep my body strong. And then I’ll be happy ever after.”
What I described is a process called integration. Whenever you integrate a bunch of personalities, you generate a new, wiser and stronger personality. To do this effectively, you have to write a better story about your life that integrates all other stories. You know, like Nemo’s father telling all the fishes to “swim down together”.
This, in my view, is what the Self Authoring Suite is about: creating an integrated narrative of who you are, where you come from and where you are going. At least it is what I’ve been trying to do with this program. Here are some of the things I learned.
Learnings from the past
In the past authoring module you split your past into different epochs. For each epoch you describe and analyze certain key events and how they affected you and how you see the world. The aim is to create a coherent narrative of your past, and extract the lessons from it that allow you to “let it go” and move on with the extracted knowledge. If this process is successful, the past stops haunting you, becomes invisible, integral part of who you are.
You can neither remember nor forget what you do not understand
– Jordan Peterson
After doing this module, I took an additional step and tried to do an “ultimate integration”: I opened a word file and created a bullet point list of all the key moments and learnings. Then I started grouping them by theme, or commonality, trying to spot a more general pattern. And I think I did.
Like everybody, I have many painful memories. My parents divorced when I was 3, and the subsequent conflicts between them were my main source of suffering. I grew up mainly with my mother, had an unfairly negative image of my father, and was tormented by the idea that I needed to “take sides”. This led to later issues with masculinity and romantic relationships. My parents have radically different approaches to life (or at least that’s how I experienced it), and I had a lot of difficulty bridging the gap. She is the creative, spiritual type, and he is the practical, down-to-earth type. I saw the value in both modes of being, but could never integrate them completely.
The past authoring suite and also Peterson’s teaching more generally helped me to find an approach that accounts for the need for practicality, but creates room for creativity: responsible creative engagement™. Let me decompose this concept.
Engagement with the world is key
In life we encounter painful, scary things. When faced with the unknown, we always have two options: engage or withdraw. When we withdraw (perhaps the more natural response), our world shrinks and we become weaker, which can start a downward spiral. The correct response is to face reality. But how?
The unknown being what it is, you don’t know in advance what the right way is to engage with it. You have to play with it, try things out and do experiments, in short, be creative. You have an entire brain hemisphere dedicated to that. It’s the one that has a more “dreamy” and less analytic approach. During the self authoring suite you are encouraged to write in such a “dreamy” state of mind first, in order to gather the information that lies in that hemisphere, and then only afterwards synthesize the information you gathered. But what about the dangers that lie in the unknown?
If you engage creatively with the world, you will make mistakes, you will fail. You don’t want such a mistake to wipe you out. That’s why you have to secure yourself. You have to assume responsibility. A good experiment doesn’t kill the scientist, even better if it is repeatable in different variations until it succeeds.
For the Nassim Taleb lovers among you, this is an antifragile strategy, also called a “barbell” strategy. Instead of investing everything in mildly risky endeavors (the middle), you spread your investments around the extremes: you invest most of what you have into being safe, and then you invest a little into something highly risky but also, possibly, highly rewarding.
With responsible creative engagement, responsibility takes care of the fragility aspect, and creativity is the part that allows you to take advantage of randomness.
Learnings from the present
In the present authoring part you analyze your faults and your virtues, categorized by the big 5 personality traits (introversion, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, assertiveness).
What I learned here is that faults and virtues are often two sides of the same coin. As an introverted person I can spend a lot of time alone, but social situations can be distressing at times. As a very open person I have a lot of ideas, I like to learn new things, but I can also become possessed by such ideas and jump from one obsession to the next without much control. The other traits (conscientiousness, neuroticism, assertiveness) are more tempered, which comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. It seems that the more you are optimized for something, the more difficulty you will have with situations that require the opposite skill. Alain de Botton explains it well in this video:
The right approach then again is an antifragile approach: you have to find ways to keep your weaknesses in check, and then focus on taking advantage of your virtues.
As an open person, I have a lot of ideas and creative impulses, which may make it hard to focus on the same thing for very long. The best strategy I could come up with (first described in my article On harnessing procrastination) was to set myself up so I can:
- Freely follow my creative impulses
- Quickly polish and make the most out of the resulting material
Here’s an example: last week I wanted to write the article you are reading now about the self authoring suite. Instead I got sucked into thinking about spirituality, perception, patterns and fractals. Not a problem, I wrote about that instead and published two articles, which I then shared on Reddit. Having different medium publications about the subjects that interest me most (namely psychology and web engineering) allows me to slowly build different audiences while still being flexible around what I’m writing about on any given day.
Your mileage may vary: depending on your constellation of strengths and weaknesses, you have to find/create the environment that allows you to harness them. But before that, you need to know what these strengths and weaknesses really are, and that’s what this section of the self authoring suite can help you find out.
Plans for the future
This module is where everything really comes together. Strengthened with the insight coming from the previous modules, you create an integrated vision for the future, a story that motivates as much as your being as possible, a life that you want to live. Here, too, you are encouraged to write in a dreamy state of mind first, and then write specific goals and strategies with a more precise language. An interesting aspect is that you are also led to write about how badly things could go for you if you let yourself go, if you allowed your bad habits to take over. With a hell to avoid and a heaven to strive for, you should be therefore maximally motivated.
My personal goal for the future is to earn a living from incorporating and spreading the wisdom of culture. An interesting aspect is that this goal aligns both “lower” motivations and needs like the need to earn a living and the desire to be popular, and higher aspirations like having a positive impact on the world. It allows me to keep doing activities I love, like learning, writing, and programming, indefinitely. This, I would say, is the result of proper integration. More details about how I intend to get there can be found in my mission statement: Rescuing my father from the underworld — a Petersonian study plan.
Just do it
I highly recommend you take this program. My life has improved a lot since I’ve taken it. I wake up excited to get to it, I am very focused, and how I spend my days is very rewarding.
And there is no need to overdo it or be perfectionistic about it. Obviously, I put a lot of effort into it. It took me a long time to complete it, and I took some radical life decisions afterwards. In principle it should be possible to complete it in a few days or less with huge benefits. Peterson recommends to do it badly — which is much better than not doing it at all.