“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver
I’m not sure now where that question accosted me first. But it was staring at me while listening in to an interview with Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and academic based out Toronto on the British television station Channel 4 with star anchor Cathy Newman.
The reason he was on her show is that his most recent book “12 Rules for Life” was launched to much debate early this year. And one of the themes he tackles in it is what many men feel deep down but are afraid to articulate in as many words: That men and women are different. Thinking of them as equals is silly.
Newman thought it only appropriate then that this assertion is questioned. She did it in her own inimitable way. To probe his assertion on the why does he think the way he does, she got into the disparity in pay gap that exists between both genders. All evidence has it that men are paid more than women.
An argument followed after Peterson argued the assertion is a flawed one because to arrive at this conclusion, only one question was asked by everyone who researched the theme: Does a pay gap exist between men and women? To arrive at an answer to this question, what all researchers did was put the question through a univariate analysis.
But if the question be reframed as to “why” does a pay gap exist between genders, multiple factors must be considered—and he had the evidence on his side from various studies to demonstrate that gender has a very small role to play in a developed society when it comes to dealing with the pay gap. There are other issues that come into play—but they are trivialised by overzealous feminists. And that society is afraid to call their bluff.
Cathy Newman, as a woman who hosts the show, thought Peterson’s proposition a ridiculous assertion, felt infuriated, and let it be known in as many words. He refused to back down. What followed was a fiery conversation between a journalist and an academic. It is a riveting one and everyone who were witnesses to it went home richer. May I urge you to take 30 minutes out to watch the exchange? Between the both, nobody had the upper hand. But they had the muscle to question each other intelligently.
Soon after, I purchased Peterson’s book and browsed through it. I was hoping if there may be some pointers there that suggest what ‘muscle’ people like Peterson and Newman had in them to stand their ground?
I must admit, though, that I feel much the same way Peterson does—that men and women are different. And I’m not talking about the gap in pay here. But I do believe both genders have strengths and weaknesses. It is incumbent upon us as a society to accept it for what it is, play to our strengths, and accept our weaknesses.
For instance, I cannot deal with an overtly emotional situation. Does that make me emotionally challenged? No. But it makes me the kind of person who is not equipped to handle a situation that calls for poise. Machismo doesn’t count here. I would much rather my better half deal with it. Does that make her better off than me? Most certainly.
When looked at from that perspective there are situations she is better equipped than I am to handle—in much the same way that I am better equipped than she is at certain things. Does that make us equals at all things? Certainly not.
But if a force like Newman were to confront me, and given how vocal contemporary narrative is, I may have shrivelled and backed down to follow what is the popular narrative—whatever my internal narrative be. What may it take, then, to build in me to be consistent in my narrative? Do I have to cow down to what is accepted as popular in the circuits I am a part of?
In browsing over what looks like an intensely researched book, a passage from Rule 4 caught the eye. The sum and substance of this “meditation” as he calls each Rule in the book, is around being “kind to the self”. Because he argues, there are internal critics inside us that ridicule constantly and deride our self-worth. It is important that we be aware these critics exist inside us he argues. Because we live in a world where the need to measure our self-worth constantly is inflicted upon us all the time from platforms of all kinds. Therefore, he writes:
“Be cautious when you’re comparing yourself to others. You’re a singular being, once you’re an adult. You have your own particular, specific problems— financial, intimate, psychological, and otherwise. Those are embedded in the unique broader context of your existence. Your career or job works for you in a personal manner, or it does not, and it does so in a unique interplay with the other specifics of your life. You must decide how much of your time to spend on this, and how much on that. You must decide what to let go, and what to pursue.”
And some pages down the line, he offers a suggestion: The first step, perhaps, is to take stock. Who are you? It is an incredibly tough question to answer. Some pointers on how may it be attempted are painted in that all-time classic “Managing Yourself” by Peter Drucker. I’ve read it multiple times over and the notes to some of the most pertinent questions that appear in it are scribbled away by way of notes on the margins that I revisit every once a while.
Drucker suggests every person start by asking themselves a set of questions on what kind of a person they are:
• Am I a loner?
• Am I a team person?
• Am I a subordinate?
• Am I a coach or a mentor?
Having done that, the next set follows, Do I produce results as a…
• Decision maker?
Because some of the best advisers, he writes, cannot decide. And decision makers who must take split-second calls, often times need advisors before they can act. His research and conversations suggest that to head a project or an organisation, decision-making capabilities are needed. Place an advisor there instead and failure is inevitable because they will vacillate.
After these questions be answered, it is important to drill one level deeper:
• Do I perform well under stress?
• Do I need structure and a predictable environment?
• Do I work best in a big entity?
• How will I fare at a small place?
By way of example, a decision maker at a small place who can perform well under stress may not be suited for a structured environment in a big entity. Their types may insist they are cut-out to lead start-ups. Answers to questions like these offer pointers to what are the most likely paths an individual can take that they may succeed. But this is a tough ask.
Some pointers to how to go about doing it emerges from a more recent title, “Essentialism” by a management consultant and author, Greg McKewon. The multiple pointers he has take Drucker’s narrative farther.
By way of perspective: “There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference – learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential. Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”
This, to McKewon’s mind, points to a curious trend. Even after the most intelligent people have figured what is the right thing to do, they don’t know how to focus on getting it done. Why?
“One reason is that in our society we are punished for good behaviour (saying no) and rewarded for bad behaviour (saying yes).”
This, he suggests, has much to do with the nature of how the world around has changed. “Today, technology has lowered the barrier for others to share their opinion about what we should be focusing on. It is not just information overload; it is opinion overload.”
There is much merit in what he says. Ours is a world where there is too many opinions and very little muscle to build a unique one. But how is one to do that? This is why I like mental models of all kinds. Two that have my attention right now and I have been tinkering with are around being Radical Inflexibility and Monkey Watching.
Model #1: Radical Inflexibility
This is a model I picked up from Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly. Convention has it that our world is in flux and we must adapt to it constantly. I like this argument.
“Use radical inflexibility to reach long-term goals that would be unrealizable if their behaviour were more flexible. How so? Two reasons. “
“First: constantly having to make new decisions situation by situation saps your willpower. Decision fatigue is the technical term for this. A brain exhausted by decision-making will plump for the most convenient option, which more often than not is also the worst one. This is why pledges make so much sense. Once you’ve pledged something, you don’t then have to weigh up the pros and cons each and every time you’re faced with a decision. It’s already been made for you, saving you mental energy.”
“The second reason inflexibility is so valuable has to do with reputation.”
“Legendary investor Warren Buffett, for instance, refuses on principle to negotiate. If you want to sell him your company, you’ve got exactly one shot. You can make precisely one offer. Buffett will either buy the company at the price you suggest, or he won’t buy it at all. If it’s too high, there’s no point lowering it. A no is a no, and everybody realizes that. Buffett has acquired such a reputation for inflexibility that he’s now guaranteed to be offered the best deal right from the word go, without wasting any time on haggling.”
In attempting to deploy this for a few weeks now, I became radically inflexible about not conversing with anyone between 10 pm in the night and 9 am in the morning. This gives me much more time with myself. But above all else, I figured nobody calls me at these hours. I know now I am not as important as I thought I am.
But over all else, this is my “me time” to do what I “choose” to do as opposed to have somebody else set the agenda for me.
Model #2: Monkey Watching
I suspect it’s been a little over a year now since I started to devote 30 minutes each day to meditate. One message that constantly comes through is to “Detach yourself from what you feel that you may observe yourself in the third person.”
Try as I may, it has been a difficult thing to do. But there is a trick I stumbled across somewhere. What if I imagine each emotion that passes through the mind as a living creature? What would it be? What may each creature look like? What names may they have? How may they behave?
When thought up that way, a visual metaphor that emerged was that many monkeys. So when there is much happiness, I see Happy Monkey with a unique personality all the other monkeys can see as well. They know this fellow is doing his gig right now and will be at it for a while.
But when some event occurs that triggers a monkey called Anger to jump into the fray, Happy Monkey will concede ground. Angry Monkey wears a certain demeanour that when looked at from the branch all the other critters are sitting on, actually looks funny. It is much the same thing with Sadness Monkey or for Profligacy Monkey.
It offers the perspective of distance on the one hand and an injects an element of humour on the other. There have been a few times when I have actually laughed at Angry monkey because he looks funny when he wears that frumpy look and everyone else knows he can accomplish nothing with his sabre rattling.
The good Lord alone knows how many models like these may exist and how many ways there are to look at like. There is much to be explored, learned, and lived through. But what it does is offer some perspective on what may it to look at the world through a lens that is mine and mine alone—and one that refuses to be directed by the popular narrative.
It insists Count #MeOut. I don’t need anyone to set the agenda for me. I’ll find my narrative. There is only one precious life I have. Thank you for asking though if your agenda may interest me.
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