I just finished 12 Rules for Life, a book by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist dubbed “the most important public intellectual in the western world”.
Over 400 pages, Peterson says what could be easily said in 50. And he offers too many digressions into literature, history, and philosophy for someone who is neither a philosopher, historian, or literary critic.
But one of the 12 “rules” caught my attention: “tell the truth”, Peterson says, “or, at least, don’t lie”.
Truth under all circumstances, he continues, leads to self-respect, contentment and inner peace.
I relate to that: gratuitous, self-aggrandising, prolific lying makes for very sad creatures indeed. Someone at my club once introduced himself as the governor of the Bank of England. Really? What an honour to meet you.
But, ahem, aren’t you a bit stocky for a compulsive marathon runner? And whatever happened to your George Clooney looks? Must be all that Brexit stress. Okay, you can buy me a drink, but can I ask for a favour first? Would you mind keeping the rates on hold for a bit? Are you sure? No trouble at all? Well, thank you so much.
Peterson is right: people like the fake governor must go home (alone) feeling profound self-repulsion.
But then there is the corporate world. Can you survive there with 100 per cent truth-telling? Peterson makes no exceptions: you can and you should, because otherwise you will be “suppressing who you are”.
Well, suppressing who we are is what the vast majority of us who have to work for a living do. That’s an unfortunate reality of it.
Some people are able to earn a living from the practice of their passion. But very, very few are that talented or that lucky. The rest of us form a part of the economic machine. And until artifical intelligence is advanced enough to feed everyone and leave humans to pursue their real interests, expecting 100 per cent authenticity is naive.
But Peterson is unrelenting. Reality should not be improved through “falsification”, he posits, and you should keep your “character intact”.
Well, I guess you could walk out of a job the moment it becomes tedious (few weeks, in my case). Refuse to feign enthusiasm about the chief executive’s new idea. Stare at the floor in profound exasperation in conference calls. Argue that recycling the same presentation for 10 different clients constitutes neither creativity nor integrity.
But what good would it do your character to live on the dole? This is “wilful blindness”, Peterson may argue. On the contrary: it’s open-eyed determination to live your life without depending on the kindness of strangers. Because that would “suppress who you are” even more.
I guess it’s a question of degree. Consistent, fundamental lack of authenticity should indeed be avoided everywhere, including at work.
A friend was asked if she was “passionate” about cement in a job interview. You could expect that of a field engineer, she argued, but she was a treasurer, and her ability to manage liquidity risk mattered more than her fondness for cementitious products.
If my friend took the job, her working life would have been mired in hypocrisy. She was right to turn it down. But there is a difference between that and adapting to your environment. And that game we all have to play.
“What happens, instead, if we decide to stop lying?” Peterson asks in 12 Rules for Life. Probably that we never have a corporate career.