Peterson’s philosophical starting point is that “life is suffering”, and that happiness is a stupid goal. Has his own life been mostly suffering or joy? “That’s a good question,” the 55-year-old says. On one side of the balance is the “vicious streak of depression” that has affected him, his daughter, his father and his grandfather; his daughter also had rheumatoid arthritis. On the other are his career and his family; he “really like[s]” both his children, and his daughter recently gave birth. “Probably the good has outweighed the bad,” he concludes.
He and Tammy grew up on the same street in Fairview, a frontier town in northern Alberta. The winters were so cold that homeless drunks froze to death; the nearest big city was hundreds of miles away. Peterson’s father was a teacher and the local fire chief. He himself was a tearful boy who worked odd jobs from the age of 13. “I’m a practical person. I’m not too bad a carpenter. I can renovate houses... I like working-class people, generally speaking.”
After graduating he had teaching spells at Harvard and Toronto, and developed a personality test for companies based on five traits. (He ranked in the 99th percentile for assertiveness, but only the 30th for politeness.)
When fame came knocking, he couldn’t get to the door fast enough. “I didn’t expect this, but it wasn’t expectable — this level of notoriety isn’t predictable,” he says. He knew he was dealing with “the most fundamental of psychological ideas”. Carl Jung “probably accounts for about 40 per cent of what I think”, but there’s also “a heavy biological component”.
By now, Peterson has taken off his Ecco sandals, and is sitting barefoot and cross-legged while he eats. But he is not Zen. I mention that critics say he deals in clichés: the seventh rule in his recent book is “pursue what is meaningful”. That’s all it takes to light his fuse. “Jesus Christ, first of all, one thing I’m not is naive. I’ve 20,000 hours of clinical practice; you’re not naive after the first few thousand. I’ve helped people deal with things that most people can’t imagine.”
The atmosphere is now a few degrees below convivial. I turn to my aubergine pie, which is peppery and filling. Peterson pours himself water, and leaves the bottle out of my reach. I stare at the unopened wine.
Peterson is obsessed by Nazi and communist atrocities; his home in Canada is decorated with Soviet propaganda; his daughter is named Mikhaila, after the last Soviet leader. He sees inequality as “the norm” in animal life and says he’s in a “theological fight” to put the individual before the collective. But he also wants society to “stop teaching 19-year-old girls that their primary destiny is career”. Isn’t that defining people by a group identity — to say motherhood will shape women’s career ambitions? “Yeah, well, I suppose — I see what you mean. I still think they have the right to make the choice.”
Would this mean fewer women going to university than men? “I don’t know how it should play out practically,” he says. “The mystery isn’t why women bail out of high-powered careers... The mystery is why anyone stays. It’s a small percentage of people who do the 80-hour-a-week high-powered career thing, and they’re almost all men. Why? Well, men are driven by socio-economic status more than women.”
What did he make of Sheryl Sandberg’s ideas for women to progress? “Lean in? I think that, coming from her background, she should be careful of attributing too much of her success to her own endeavours.” Peterson’s point is that much IQ is inherited, so Sandberg had a head start. “Lean in — tell that to the person who’s not literate.”
But I’m not sure what this means at a societal level: men and women have the same average IQ. In heterosexual couples where the man has the lower IQ, shouldn’t he stay at home with kids? “It’s rare — women won’t marry men with lower IQs.” But where they do? “It might make more economic sense [for the man to stay at home]. Whether it makes more sense, that’s a tougher question.”
We’re on to the idea that men and women have different preferences. What’s the evidence? “It’s absolutely overwhelming. Let me walk you through it.” I decide that wine is now essential, and Peterson pauses briefly to find a glass in a cupboard. We put our plates in the sink.
Last year James Damore, an engineer, was fired from Google after claiming that women are biologically less suited than men to writing software. “Damore got it right, for sure,” says Peterson. Both men cite David Schmitt, a US psychologist whose research has revealed personality difference between sexes. But Schmitt says the differences are moderate in size, and “unlikely to be all that relevant to the Google workplace”.
Peterson flips over my notepad, and starts drawing bell curves to represent standard deviations of aggressiveness. “Of course we don’t hear calls for 50 per cent gender equality in prisons now, do we?” That’s fascinating, I say honestly, but I don’t get why you cite Schmitt, who doesn’t agree with you. “I’d have to look at his analysis. My gut feeling would be because it doesn’t fit with his ideological preconceptions,” says Peterson. Bias is other people.
One of my own rules for life is coffee after lunch, but who needs caffeine when you have Peterson? “Hospitals may do more harm than good”, “solar power kills more people than nuclear” — if you have ears, he can prick them up. His sentences have the arc of well-thrown darts. I have to remind myself to stop admiring his words, and to keep interrogating his ideas.
Could 12 Rules for Life stand up to peer review? “Have at it, man! Yeah, I was very careful about the claims in the book.” OK, in a chapter on why people don’t follow their prescriptions, his arguments centre on the guilt of Adam and Eve. Is that testable? “The way you would test that is to find out whether people who are harsher on themselves would be less likely to take prescription medication. The probability that’s true is pretty high.” But, he concedes, “the research hasn’t been done”.
WATCH | Jordan Peterson on 12 Rules for Life: