Jordan Peterson on Potential

The following is my transcription of a TEDx Talk, entitled “Potential,” Jordan Peterson gave at the UofT. It is a truly phenomenal presentation, and serves as a good introduction to Peterson’s ideas. I find it simultaneously profound, inspiring, and beautiful; I believe reading it here or viewing it on YouTube would be worth your time.

I tried to make the transcription as close to verbatim as possible (with exception of fillers, such as ‘uh’ and ‘um’), but the headings and subheadings are my own. They are included to facilitate navigation within the content. Jordan Peterson is an excellent speaker, and a lot of nuance is lost in the translation from video to written word. I encourage you to view the talk itself if this seems to you like an interesting subject.

“Potential” - by Jordan Peterson

What is Real?

So I’m gonna talk to you today about a different way of looking at what real is. Its not easy to figure out what real is because we don’t really have infinite knowledge, so we’re always making some sets of presuppositions about what’s most real. And it really matters what you assume is most real because you base the decisions that you make that run the course of your life on those assumptions, whether you recognize it or not. And, if you get the assumptions wrong, or even if you leave them incomplete, you’re gonna pay a big price for it. And, the assumptions that we use in our culture, although they’ve enabled us to develop a tremendously potent technology, are incomplete in ways that have also cost us and that are extremely dangerous. [0:00-1:01]


Since the scientific age began, we’ve lived in a universe where the bottom strata of reality is considered to be something that’s dead. Like dirt, its like matter, its objective, its external. And, there isn’t any element of it that lends any reality to phenomena like meaning or purpose. That’s all been relegated to the subjective, and in some ways, to the illusory. But its by no means self-evident that that set of presuppositions is correct, because we lack infinite knowledge and there’s many things about the structure of being that we don’t understand, the main one being consciousness. We can’t account for it at all and we can’t account for the role it appears to play in the transformation of potential into actuality, which is a role that’s been recognized by physicists for almost a hundred years now, and which remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of science. [1:01-2:14]

Nihilism from Scientific Materialism

There are other ways of looking at what’s real. And these other ways have some advantages, and one of the advantages they have is that they protect us. Knowing these other ways of operating within reality, defining reality, protect us from certain kinds of pathologies modern people are prone to. A fair number of pathologies that stem from the assumptions of their system they use to define reality. One of those pathologies is a kind of nihilistic hopelessness which is a consequence of the recognition that in the final analysis nothing really has any meaning. And because life is difficult, and that’s a meaning that you can’t escape, being forced to abandon your belief in a positive or transcendent meaning can leave you weak at the times when you really can least afford to be weak. [2:14-3:05]

Pathological Belief Systems

And there’s more important pathologies that its opened us up to too and those are pathologies of belief. I think we saw the most horrifying examples of that, hopefully the most horrifying examples, in the 20th century, where people’s belief systems were shattered at least in part by the competition between religious and scientific viewpoints, turned in large numbers to mass movements that were in every way a substitute, a more rational in some sense, substitute for religious beliefs that appeared no longer tenable. And the consequence of that was just about annihilation. Because we came close to annihilation twice, once in the 60’s and once in the 80’s, and even without the totality of annihilation, we lost hundreds of millions of people as a consequence of pathological belief systems in the 20th century. So, if belief systems become pathological, that pathology can pose the biggest threat possibly to our very existence. And if you’re a Darwinian in any sense, you have to understand that the things that pose the biggest threats to your survival are the most real things. They have to be dealt with. [3:05-4:14]


Now, here’s another way of looking at things. I’ll start with a definition of this word, Phainesthai. Phainesthai is the root word of phenomenon. And phenomena are the things that appear to you and Phainesthai means to shine forth. And the phenomenologists, who were interested in the shining forth of things, made the presumption that the things that manifested themselves to you as the most meaningful were the most real things. And I think you can make a strong case that that’s actually how your brain is wired because your brain is wired to react to things that have meaning before they construct the perceptions that you think of as objects. And the reason for that is because the meaning of things is more real, in some sense, but more important than the view of things as objects. [4:14-4:58]

So, for example, a famous philosopher, psychologist of vision said that when you approach a cliff, you don’t see a cliff, you see a “falling-off place.” It isn’t that its an object, a cliff, to which you attribute the meaning “falling-off place” to. Its the “falling-off place” conception comes first and the abstraction of the objective cliff, if it ever happens at all, comes much later. Much later conceptually, because even babies can detect cliffs, and much later historically. [4:58-5:30]


Poets have noticed this phenomena: shining-forth, reality. And they often have associated it with childhood, and I think there’s good reason for that. Your brain is not so much of an inhibitory structure when you’re a child, before its fully developed. And, so there’s neurological reasons for noting it but there’s also reasons that stem from the level of lived experience. You can tell when you’re around children that they’re open to things in a way that adults aren’t. They’re wide-eyed with wonder, and adults like being around children, for that reason, because although the child takes an awful lot of care, and is a terrifying object, in some ways, to behold, if you have a relationship with a child because they’re so vulnerable. Part of the way they pay you back is they open up your eyes, your eyes that have been closed by your experience, and that have learned to shield out the things that shine forth. [5:30-6:25]

And when you have a child you can look through the child’s eyes again. To me its like they’re on fire in a sense. They’re like a candle, of something that’s burning brightly. I think that’s also partly actually cause we don’t screen out fire we actually see fire, and that’s why we can’t not look at it when its around. [6:25-6:39]


I think the same thing happens when you’re in love with someone. If its genuine love, because if its genuine love it gives you a hint of what could be in the future if you could just set yourself right. You get a glimpse of what could be in the future if you fall in love with someone. You don’t get that without work, but you get a glimpse of it, and I think its because when you fall in love, and I think this is likely a biochemical transformation is, the perceptual structures that normally stop you from seeing people, because you really don’t see people, you just see shadows, the barriers are lifted temporarily and what’s really there shines through and its overwhelming. But, to stay in that state requires a tremendous amount of moral effort, I think is really the right way of thinking about it. [6:39-7:26]

Wordsworth said about children:

There was a time when
meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth,
and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
Turn wheresoe’er I may, by night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Earth fills her lap
with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath
in her own natural kind,
And even with something
of a mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely nurse doth all she can
To make her foster-child, her inmate, Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.


And what Wordsworth means by this is that as you develop as a competent adult, which is precisely the direction toward which you should develop, much of what you’re doing is actually closing in and narrowing. You’re closing in and narrowing towards a particular goal and a particular way of being, and that’s necessary because as you develop you have to develop toward a particular way of being or you don’t develop at all, and you can’t stay a child forever. That goes sour of its own accord. And so human beings are destined to close their perceptions in to sharpen themselves and to focus on very little, so that they can at least do that. [7:26-8:54]

But the price we pay for that is we start to replace the relationship we had with untrammeled reality with the shadows that are only complex enough to let us do what we need to do and no more. And in some sense although we become more competent in other ways we become more blind. And we kind of know how this happens. It happens from the bottom up. Now this is a Magritte painting, and the painting has an obvious meaning, in a sense, which is that we’re blinded, even to what’s right in front of us, by the objects that we see. [8:54-9:25]


And we think that seeing is letting in the light, but its only letting in a very small fraction of the light, because we’re only capable of contemplating a small fraction of everything whenever were doing any particular thing, and so very much of what were doing is screening things out. Very much of your cortex is inhibitory. And Magritte is trying to get at that with that idea, there’s a businessman there, he’s dressed in his uniform, he can’t see beyond the immediate thing that’s in front of his eyes. [9:25-9:57]

How does that happen? Well lets say you’re a baby. And the first thing you learn, you build your body from the bottom up, you build your perceptual and action structures from the bottom up. You learn to move your arm, you learn to close your hand, then you learn to do things that are practical with those abilities. You lift a spoon: well, you have to do that to feed yourself. You learn to move a plate. You learn to set a table. That’s starting to become social now because you can set the table for you and for someone else. You learn to make a meal. That’s a more complex sequencing of motor activity and conceptual activity that’s very focused. [9:57-10:29]

Maturation and Responsibility

As you continue to develop, the things you chain together become more and more complex but also more specific, you have to care for your family, which means there’s all kinds of other things that you’re not doing. You have to find a good job, which almost everyone when they’re young experiences as the contemplation of a limitation, well not everyone, but most people think “Oh no, I’m going to have to settle for this role. I don’t want to only be that role.” But its better to be that role than no role at all. [10:29-11:00]

And maybe the way through the role is through the role to the other side not around it. There’s no avoiding the responsibility of narrowing and shaping and specializing. Be a good parent. Well that’s a sacrifice you make for the next generation. Be a good partner. The same thing. Be a good citizen. Its common for young people in particular to be skeptical of that because the old society is always corrupt and archaic and blind and to become a member of that seems to be in part to allow yourself to adopt that same aged blindness. But, that thing also educates you. It shapes every word you speak. Its something you have to be grateful to in its aged and archaic form. And its part of the necessity of human responsibility that you become a good citizen. And that means in some sense giving up more of what could be. At least to sustain what is. [11:00-12:00]

There’s a satirical song from the late 1890s English:

I am the very model of
a modern Major-
I’ve information
vegetable, animal, and
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical,
From Marathon to
Waterloo, in order

And the satire is: well, he has the knowledge. He’s an official functionary and its very difficult to do that but in the same its very limited and categorical and of course an artist would object to that. But its better than nothing at all and that’s the alternative. [12:00-12:37]

Ethics versus Morality

Well, above that, what’s above good citizen? Because sometimes being a good citizen is not so good. If you were a good citizen of Nazi Germany or a good citizen of the Soviet Union or of Mao’s China, you were narrowed in a particular way. Maybe in a necessary way but also in a very pathological way. And so it seems to me that there has to be something, even though adopting that restricted viewpoint is necessary, there has to be something above it. And I think that’s also the thing that can restore the sense you have of a true entanglement with the deepest and most meaningful realities of life. And that’s the issue of being a good person. Its above being a good citizen, its something else. It has something to do with the development of individuality. [12:37-13:19]

Perceiving the Territory, Not Just the Map

And I think were also wired for that. So it looks like were wired to lose what we had, to specialize, but then once were specialized, to reopen, once we’ve got the skills built into our body. And it can handle reality, because were more adapted and more fluid and more flexible, we can start opening the doors again, and I believe your nervous system is set up to help you do that if you don’t interfere with it. If you notice, and you notice that by paying attention to the things that manifest themselves to you, that shine forth, as interesting. They grab you. And where you’re grabbed is where the obscuring map you live in isn’t obscuring the reality, there’s a hole in the map and the light shines through and you’re attracted to that. And that will pull you along. And that’s when your interest is seized by something. That’s your nervous system doing that, you don’t do that, its an unconscious force, you could even say its the world itself talking to you. [13:19-14:17]


And the phenomenologists did feel that way, its a real thing, its not a secondary phenomena, and you know that. You can’t live without it. You die. You stultify. You get cynical. You get nihilistic. You adopt some wild belief system if you don’t have the attachment to some genuine, life-giving meaning in your own life. And its a hard thing to follow that because it doesn’t necessarily put you into perfect juxtaposition with society. Because its not society, its not being a good citizen, its something else. Its also the thing that rebuilds how you would be a good citizen. [14:17-14:45]

The Egyptians knew about this a long time ago. They didn’t really know they knew, because they acted things out in drama and portrayed them mythologically because they didn’t have the capacity to articulate the ideas fully, but the Egyptians worshipped the human eye. And they worshipped the eye because they knew the eye was the thing that paid attention. Like, we’re really visual creatures. And your eye is automatically attracted to the things that manifest themselves or shine forth in front of you. And you have to look at them. [14:45-15:23]


If you you pay attention to the things that shine forth, because what you’re seeing is the reality instead of the map, you’re gaining access to the real information that’s in the world. Its not prepackaged information, because that can be false, its the real information flowing out from the ground of being. And if you pay attention to that it will help you move toward the goals that you have already established for yourself as a good citizen, that are part of the inbuilt value system that you’ve adopted. [15:23-15:48]

Series of Goals

At the same time, it will do something else: it will lead you to transform the nature of those goals. Because as you pursue the thing that guides your interest, and more and more information is revealed, then by absorbing that information, which is learning essentially, you build yourself into a different person. A stronger and more informed person. And a more intact person. A person with more integrity and with more strength and with more direction and at the same time you differentiate your map so you are living more and more in the real world. So as you approach your specific goal, even if its a culturally-conditioned goal, the learning that you do along the way transforms you and it transforms the nature of your goal. [15:48-16:31]

Shining Forth Meaning

Things shine forth. There’s a reason for that. And you know that. Because when you’re attending to something that you’re interested in and you’re engaged in it, that’s when you’re alive. That’s when life is worthwhile. Its so worthwhile that in those moments you don’t even ask the question about it. The question itself goes away, because the meaning that you’re united with is so powerful that it can push back the adversity that would otherwise characterize life. [16:31-16:58]


Nietzsche said “the person who has a why can bear any how.” And that’s a really useful thing to know because, you think, well, we’re very vulnerable creatures, and our life ends catastrophically. And terrible things happen, and how can we bear that. And the answer to that is, and always has been, you have be in sync with something that is beyond you because synchrony gives you the strength you need to bear your terrible limitations. [16:58-17:23]

You see this played out. You know this. Everyone knows this. Its just that our culture isn’t good at articulating it. We haven’t developed our knowledge of this as much as we’ve developed our knowledge of the objective world and we are paying for it. [17:23-17:38]

Round Chaos

You see it in weird places. On the right here is an old symbol, at the bottom. Its called the Round Chaos. And the alchemists believed that the Round Chaos was the thing that held what the world was ultimately made of: the thing that was most real. And they conceptualized it as something like information. They thought about it as a combination of spirit and matter. And it was a combination of spirit and matter, which is what information is in a sense, because, when you interacted with it you took some of the information and you built yourself out of it. So that was the spiritual element. And you took some of it and you built the world out of it. And that was the material element. And they thought of the reality itself as something that preceded the spiritual and the material. And that that reality was something that shown forth. [17:38-18:19]

Seeking the Snitch

And that’s been dramatized in modern tales of transformation. The most interesting place its popped up is in the Harry Potter stories, where, central to the Harry Potter theme is a game called Quidditch. And in Quidditch, which is a game, the way you win the game is by playing a game that is sort of outside the Quidditch game. You win the Quidditch game by finding, following, this thing that beckons. This golden thing that glimmers and moves around. If you catch that, then you win the game, and so does your whole team. [18:19-18:51]


And inside that is the resurrection stone. Its a diamond. Its a jewel. And the idea is that if you follow the thing that manifests itself to you as interesting, it will lead you through adversity. It will lead you to do things that are difficult, and as that happens, but not beyond your capacity, because its tempered for that. What will happen is, as you hit yourself against the world, doing what you’re interested in, you’ll tap yourself into alignment. Your molecules, your internal structure, will become noncontradictory, like the internal structure of a jewel, which is something that reflects light. That makes you hard, and durable, and able to bear the terrible conditions of existence without becoming corrupt. [18:51-19:36]

T.S. Eliot said something about this:

We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive
where we started
and know the place for the first time.

And that’s a five line summary of the most remarkable elaboration of the nature of the relationship between an individual human consciousness and reality itself that’s ever been penned. And the culmination of a system of thought that’s been developing over thousands and thousands of years which we have lost and cannot properly articulate. [19:36-20:15]


Follow what you’re interested in. It’ll take you through adversity, and then through it it will transform you from a citizen to an individual, and then the doors will open again. And at that point you’re strong enough to have your life. And at that point you’re strong enough not to fall prey to pathological belief systems, and work towards the destruction of things. [20:15-20:50]

Thank you.