Jordan Peterson's Keys to Self-Improvement

Key takeaways on self-improvement and clinical psychology.

Jordan Peterson's Keys to Self-Improvement

Key Takeaways

3 keys to self-improvement:

  1. Read great books.
  2. Learn to write well.
  3. Learn to speak well.

Everyone needs:

  1. Friends
  2. An intimate relationship
  3. Good familial relationships
  4. A career
  5. Worthwhile things to do in their free time
  6. To maintain mental and physical health
  7. To mitigate drug and alcohol use


  1. Only the ideas that come from the client themself can result in lasting behavioral change. As a clinician, you could give great advice but it won’t last. That’s why clinical psychologists help guide their clients to formulate their own treatment.
  2. In clinical psychology and in life, you’re trying to figure out how to live properly (without mental illness). Clinical psychologists should study philosophy.
  3. Almost without exception, people in therapy have a problem in their life that causes a psychological problem, rather than a psychological problem that causes problems in their life.
  4. What you’re trying to do when you see a therapist is get your life together. You're not necessarily trying to fix the mental disorder itself. Getting your life together will (often) fix the mental disorder. It’s not like someone with an anxiety disorder has a perfectly formed life. Usually, if you’re anxious or depressed your work life and relationships aren’t going very well. If someone’s life is perfectly formed and they’re still depressed (which is rare), something has gone wrong biochemically and they can usually take an SSRI to fix it.
  5. To psychologically thrive, a person needs to be doing well in health, knowledge, relationships, and wealth.
  6. As a clinician, you need to be able to make the distinction between (1) a mental illness, (2) an acute mental illness, (3) an environmental problem, and (4) a physical health problem. Examples: An acute problem could be someone losing their job—they may show signs of depression but it’s not necessarily a mental illness, there are real consequences to losing your job, temporary sadness is normal. The person who lost their job should (ideally) read, learn some skills, and get a better job. An environmental problem could be that a person’s family member is causing them sadness. A person with an external problem should try to remove the problem or get away from it.
  7. As a clinician, you want to know if a person has friends and a job. Are they as educated as they should be? What is their relationship with drugs and alcohol? What is their romantic relationship status and history? It’s a lot more stressful to be alone.
  8. What to do in therapy: go through your life history from newborn to today in novelistic detail. Have the therapist keep you on track and ask to go deeper when necessary. Then ask the therapist what you seem to be afraid of and what you’re avoiding. Then they’ll help you break the fear down into smaller pieces and devise a strategy for approaching and mastering the problem step by step.
  9. People who are suicidal often feel that they have no good options. No matter what way they turn, there’s something terrible to face and they can’t see any way out of it. They feel like they’ve been backed into a corner.
  10. Exposure to the things that you don’t want to be exposed to is curative if it’s voluntary.
  11. Writing about emotional events in detail helps you overcome them. You need to think through what went wrong. How did you get into a situation where something bad could happen? How can you make sure not to be in that situation again? It might be that you were in a bad situation because you were 4 and there was nothing you could do. If that’s the case, you need to update your mental models and understand that you’re not in that vulnerable position anymore.
  12. The reason you have memory is not so that you can accurately remember the past. It's so that you can use the information of the past to prepare yourself for the future. Your mind won't leave you alone unless you know what happened and how to stop it in the future. So if you encountered something negative and don't know what to do if it happens again, it will stay with you. It (likely) increases your overall physiological load. Your brain keeps track of your success/failure ratio. The lower it is, the more anxious a person will be.
  13. Resentment can tell you 2 things: (1) That you have a victim mentality and you need to grow up and accept responsibility or (2) that someone is actually oppressing, bullying, and demeaning you and you should have said or done something earlier.
  14. When someone’s talking to you about a problem, don’t try to give them a solution. Just listen and then ask them, “What could you do about it?”
  15. Carl Rogers: listen to others and then summarize what they said. Keep doing that until the speaker agrees that you accurately represented them. Pay attention, help guide their stories when necessary, and ask questions that help them open up.
  16. Always steel-man other people’s arguments.
  17. There’s always a good justification for not doing the work you know you need to do. Maybe your mom just died or you’re sick or you’re injured. And it’s easy to push it off—5 year dreams are always in the future so you can just delay them. You say, “Well, I should do X but Y just happened, so I’ll do X later.”
  18. Association dream analysis: write out your dream line by line. Every time a person or item comes up, try to remember what it means to you. What do you associate that person or thing with? Jung says to go further—ask yourself what the mythological or archetypal associations it may have.
  19. Recurring nightmares are meaningful and they are associated with decreased states of mental health.
  20. Not integrating fears makes the amount of fears in the category of “so terrible I can’t face it” increase. When that list of fears gets too big, you start to have nightmares, or anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia.
  21. Not paying attention to bad memories and fears makes you happier in the short-term but is catastrophic in the long-term.
  22. To fix it, actively recall bad memories and face your fears. The nightmares and negative symptoms may get worse before they get better.
  23. Men need to go out and ask 50 girls for their phone numbers to get over the fear of rejection.
  24. When you’re young, it’s good to push yourself to work as hard as you can for 2-3 years.
  25. A tremendous amount of mental illness is grounded in nihilism. When someone who’s depressed goes to see a clinician, what they often say is, “I can’t see any point in life.” What that means is that the meaning of life is unbearable suffering, so what’s the point?
  26. The answer: you have to do something in your life that is so meaningful that the inherent suffering of life is worth it: kids or a career.
  27. You have to identify what you want and do everything to get it. The chances that you randomly stumble upon success is 0. If you actually want something, you can have it, but you have to define it and sacrifice everything else to get it. You have to orient your entire life to making the probability that obtaining that one thing is as certain as possible. Most people want everything AND they have no plan. This is wrong—it guarantees failure.
  28. A calendar keeps anxiety at bay.
  29. To get over an addiction (like social media or alcohol), you have to replace it with something better.
  30. Compassion is understanding that nobody can ever reach the ideal. Don’t judge others (or yourself) too harshly.
  31. Peterson says that compassion is only for infants. If you do everything for your child as they get older, you are robbing them of autonomy. Don’t do anything for someone that they could do themself. That’s the Oedipal complex. That’s the story of Hansel and Gretel.
  32. Freud proposed the idea of developmental fixation. People essentially stay at the emotional level of a child for their life. They’re governed by emotion, incapable of negotiation, egotistical, and their identity is generated by what they feel moment to moment.
  33. Clean your room and then make it beautiful (interior design).
  34. Everyone has reasons to be anxious. We know we’re vulnerable and we know that we are going to die.
  35. Traveling can improve self-confidence. It shows you that you can venture out to a new place on your own.
  36. Go to many different places and do a lot of different things. It has positive neurological and psychological effects.
  37. Betrayal can damage someone immensely. PTSD can damage someone neurologically. It can permanently increase their neuroticism, making them more susceptible to negative emotion for life.
  38. In The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot, a woman approaches a psychiatrist and starts talking to him about her problems. Then she says, “I hope I’m the problem.” The psychiatrist asks, “Why would you hope that?” She says, “I thought about it a lot and if the world’s the problem then I’m done because I can’t change the world. But if I’m the problem then I can do something about it.”
  39. When someone tells you about a problem they have, ask, “What could you do about that?” It implies that there’s something they could do to fix it and prompts them to try to solve their own problem.
  40. Clothing often plays a role in women’s dreams. If they put on the shoes of their grandmother, for instance, the dream is trying to show that some action is similar to their grandmother.
  41. People today should try to get themselves together, then get their family together, and then work to fix the nation. Why this order? Because each level is more complex than the previous.
  42. As you move forward, the probability that you choose the right path on your first attempt is 0. Your interests will change as you progress. Each level will take you higher and higher. But if you wait to start until you get the perfect idea, you’ll be 40 and have nothing. Even if the perfect opportunity did arise, if you haven’t worked on yourself enough, you can’t take advantage of it or even recognize it. Nietzsche called that a “will to stupidity.”
  43. Assume that your first steps towards improvement will be incorrect, bad, and in the “wrong” direction. But as long as you’re building knowledge, skills, and experience, you can always do a lateral move and keep improving.
  44. Going out and doing the wrong thing is a lot better than rotting away at home. The documentary Crumb depicts this: Cartoonist Robert Crumb’s older brother never left home, never got a job, never had a relationship, and ended up committing suicide at age 49.
  45. Every endeavor teaches you (at minimum) what not to do. And that narrows the possibilities. You get better at identifying your ideal.
  46. You need to develop yourself to be competent and at home in the widest possible number of places. Become someone who’s useful wherever they’re put.
  47. The people around you will not allow you to change. They expect you to stay the same. You need to get away from them if you want to reinvent yourself into someone better.
  48. When people have a bad worldview, they will reject any better worldview that you give them. That’s because to accept that your worldview is flawed will put you into chaos (into the metaphorical desert) and being in a bad place is seen as better than being lost. It also called into question their ability to understand the world—why were their mental models so far off?—that is partially what sends them into chaos.
  49. People cling to their beliefs because if they are proven wrong, it would signify 2 things:
  50. That they have to change their world view (which will put them into chaos).
  51. That they are bad at constructing world views (which, from a Darwinian perspective, says something about their fitness).
  52. Smart people realize that they will be much safer and more successful if they have others check their mental models. Rather than being scared of being wrong, the successful seek out criticism and new information.

Ian Greer © . All rights reserved.