I was lucky enough to join 5,500 other Melbournians at a packed Convention Centre as part of the intellectual rockstar, Jordan Peterson’s, 12 Rules for Life book lecture tour.
Sitting in the sold-out theatre (on night one of two!), I was awestruck by just how many people — many of whom, like me, probably came up with many a reason not to attend a lecture whilst at University — paid upwards of $100 to witness Peterson essentially deliver what amounted to a lecture on discipline and taking personal ownership with shots at PC culture sprinkled throughout.
Of course, not one of my University lecturers could hold a candle to Jordan Peterson, who managed to effortlessly take the crowd on an engaging aural journey for a good 140 minutes.
Peterson’s star ascended rapidly shortly after taking on gender-neutral pronouns in 2016. As they say, any publicity is good publicity — for Peterson, this couldn’t have been more true.
Since then, he has gone from being a relatively obscure professor at the University of Torono to having his most recent book sell over 3 million copies globally (the average non-fiction book sells about 4,000 copies in its entire lifetime). His YouTube channel has amassed 1.8 million subscribers. He has appeared on almost all of the major media outlets, and earlier this week appeared in front of 11,000 people in Melbourne.
No big production.
Just Peterson, a barstool, a microphone and a bottle of water (and a little support from the delightful Dave Rubin).
But it got me thinking…why? What’s behind this meteoric rise?
The world is full of so-called thought leaders across myriad topics. Many of these thought leaders go on to sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions of copies of their books, but they don’t go on to attract and command the kinds of audiences that Peterson has managed to do in what amounts to an extraordinary short amount of time.
Outcomes are rarely the result of one variable. What are (some of) the many variables that contributed to his rapid rise to fame, and is there anything that entrepreneurs and people building their own personal brands can glean from this?
Those who know him either love him or hate him. He’s (unfairly) been labeled alt-right by people on the far left, whilst many happily fork out hundreds of dollars to see him speak and proclaim that Peterson helped them turn their lives around on social media.
“In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive” — Jordan Peterson
Takeaway: Don’t walk on eggshells. Have a strong point of view and don’t be afraid to alienate a large chunk of your potential market. If instead of polarizing, you find yourself somewhere in the middle, then you’ll likely be boring and forgettable. You’re better off with 1,000 rabid fans who fork out for a corporate box than 10,000 who instead choose to watch the big game from the comfort of their living room whilst mindlessly scrolling down their Instagram feed.
Jordan Peterson came along at a time when the political divide was growing larger, social media had well and truly arrived, new and long-form media was displacing the old short-form media (making messages like Peterson’s more accessible) and identity politics, populism, and Trump hysteria were all brewing hot.
Takeaway: The Tesla Model-S is an awesome car. But one wonders how it would have been received in the 1980s. Similarly, if you’ve got a great product or a compelling message, but people aren’t ready for it, your marketing might fall on deaf ears. As Plato said in The Republic, “no philosophy before thirty”. You’re just not ready for it yet.
What are people screaming out for? What’s the unmet need?
Preference falsification is real.
Peterson has not only called out enforced gender pronouns but has been a vocal adversary of those who are pushing for equality of outcome, particularly in business, where 50/50 gender quotas remain an aspiration for many, something Peterson sees as flawed, drawing on the fact that people not only have their own natural inclinations but that we should instead be aiming for equality of opportunity.
As Peterson’s fellow ‘intellectual dark web’ member, Michael Shermer, told me on a recent podcast conversation, “optimize for opportunity and let the chips fall where they may”.
Takeaway: Be authentic. While keyboard warriors who hide behind aliases are sure to show us their authentic selves on social media, most people wear masks all day long in the real world and never show us their authentic selves, for fear of being ostracised from a given group. When you are authentic, you stand out and earn respect. You might lose some people along the way, but it’s those rabid fans (see #1 takeaway) who matter the most.
The whole ‘tell a good story’ rhetoric has been done to death in recent years so I won’t go into detail here, but if there’s one thing Peterson does well, it’s to tell stories, complete with context setting, character development, suspense, poise in delivery, introduction of challenge, resolution, and lesson learned. He might have given Demosthenes a run for his money in Ancient Greece as a great orator.
At his 2-hour and 20-minute talk in Melbourne, I zoned out for a total of maybe 5 or 10 minutes (more so because of my own attention span than anything). The rest of the time I was totally locked in. Not bad when you consider the average person can only pay attention for 20 minutes.
Takeaway: Get good telling your story and telling stories in order to increase engagement, build a following or close a sale.
There’s no denying the role that serendipity and chance have played in Peterson’s ascendancy, including one very entertaining interview on the BBC with one Cathy Newman.
Takeaway: By going on a journey, unexpected opportunities and roads present themselves. It’s kind of like rock climbing and stepping up onto the next peg with your leg, hoping that a new crevice will present itself in the wall as you propel yourself up. Don’t overthink it — make a start, move forward and make room for serendipity and chance encounters.
While the BBC interview was definitely helpful, Peterson has leveraged new media, not only by uploading many of his lectures onto his YouTube channel, but also by appearing on the likes of the Joe Rogan Experience, Quillete, Rubin Report and numerous others in order to tap into a huge and growing audience of people who are willing to listen to a three hour conversation, and not just 5-minute exchanges on the Jimmy Kimmel.
Takeaway, and a no-brainer: Learn how to work new media. Leverage YouTube, podcasting, Reddit, social media and influencers to get your message or product out there.
It’s not enough to wax enthusiastic about just anything (duh), but in Peterson’s case, he hones in on messages that matter to people and is incredibly succinct and articulate with his delivery (although he does have a tendency to go off on tangents, especially when one Carl Jung is involved). His messages about ‘stand up straight with your shoulders back’, ‘clean your room’, as well as his slightly more political messages, hit the spot for disenfranchised hordes who are thirsty for actionable inspiration, and a “what would X do?” type of character to refer to.
Takeaway: Watch your language, and have a compelling product or message.
Whilst many in the Peterson camp are against tribalism and are instead for the free exchange of ideas and healthy discourse, where one doesn’t see only black and white, but also gray, I couldn’t help but feel like we were all part of a tribe on Wednesday night.
People want to be like they belong or are a part of something, part of a community.
Takeaway: Build a tribe that people can derive a sense of community, identity, importance and belonging from.
Any entrepreneur who isn’t a total narcissist will tell you that their success was attributable to hard work as well as luck. After all, luck is simply the intersection of preparedness and opportunity.
In Peterson’s case, sure he has been lucky. However, as former World Series of Poker champion, Annie Duke, reminded me on my podcast; “one increases the likelihood of being lucky by doing the work”.
Takeaway: Do the work, and keep your fingers crossed!
What you say or what you do has to come from a credible place. In Peterson’s case, he had been a clinical psychologist and respected Professor of Psychology at institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Toronto for almost three decades.
He had also appeared on many respected media outlets and was spoken of highly by many respected people with huge followings online.
Takeaway: Build your credibility and social proof and do whatever you can to help people believe in you.
It seems like Peterson came out of nowhere but he was diligently working at his craft and delivering thousands of lectures for almost three decades.
He wouldn’t be able to do what he does today and hold a crowd the way he did in Melbourne earlier this week without all of that experience.
Takeaway: Focus on learning over earning to begin with, and remember that everything you do is developing your skills. As Steven Tyler once put it, “even when we were playing bars in front of 15 people, I acted like a rockstar”.
Until recently, Peterson looked pretty damn ordinary.
But since switching to a carnivore diet, and picking up some fitted designer suits, he looks a million bucks, and as someone for whom fitness and a healthy lifestyle has been a 15 year endeavor, I’d much rather listen to someone preach the kinds of things Peterson does when they look good, and not like they’re prematurely aging and haven’t learned how to dress themselves properly (which is akin to the Peterson of old).
Takeaway: Various studies show that attractive people are more successful. Hit the gym, throw out the Dorito’s and get some clothes that fit.