This is a review of Jordan Peterson’s Self Authoring Suite, which includes the Past, Present and Future Authoring programs. This Self Authoring review will cover what the program is, my experience with it and some of the insights I gained, as well as some suggestions if you want to do it too.
What is Self Authoring?
The Self Authoring Suite is a set of writing programs designed to help you learn about, understand, and evaluate your past and present and then plan for the future. Self Authoring was created by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson and a few others, and it’s from him that I first learned about it.
Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto and clinical psychologist, who has recently garnered a lot of attention in the media and especially online. Initially he attracted controversy in Canada for opposing legislation involving the compelled use of gender pronouns, then in late 2016 he was on the Joe Rogan podcast and things seem to have really taken off since then. Peterson has a ton of great material available for free online and on his Youtube channel, which I would highly recommend checking out.
“Sort Yourself Out, Bucko!”
I got heavily into Peterson’s material earlier this year and have watched/listened to probably 100 or more hours (!?) of it. That includes two full courses – Personality and its Transformations and Maps of Meaning – as well as the Bible lectures, podcast interviews and more. All I can say is that I wish I had had a professor this engaging while I was at university.
Peterson’s philosophy, in brief, is a sort of all-encompassing, multi-faceted, highly pragmatic model for the world and how to act in it – primarily the world as experienced subjectively by the individual. It’s some mishmash of the following, roughly speaking:
- The evolutionary basis for human morality, social structure, and individual and collective psychology
- Comparative mythology; cross-cultural archetypal stories and narratives
- Practical self development advice
- Ideology, belief, and the importance of free thought and speech
- Jungian psychology, with emphasis on archetypes and the “shadow”
- Anti-communism and anti-postmodernism/Neo-Marxism
- Insights from experience in clinical practice
- Christian revivalism
- Practical implications of personality psychology, psychometrics and IQ
- Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, lobsters and more…
Peterson’s ultimate prescription is at the level of the individual: sort yourself out, focus on turning “chaos into habitable order” in your own life, and things around you will start to improve. This certainly speaks to me and is something I’ve been writing about and trying to live out for some time now.
As mentioned, Peterson’s popularity really exploded recently and there are entire online communities based around his work. His distinctive speaking habits and manner of presentation have spawned a host of memes which, if you are familiar with the lectures, are absolutely hilarious.
Self Authoring Program Structure
Back to the review. The Self Authoring Suite includes three individual programs: Past, Present and Future Authoring. I completed these in roughly chronological order – starting with the past, getting part way through it and a bit bogged down, starting the present, then finishing the past, finishing the present, and then doing the future.
I’d recommend doing things in chronological order as well, because you might learn things in the Past or Present sections that affect how you plan the future. If you do the Future first, you miss out on this opportunity.
Each of these individual programs are formatted in roughly the same way: a series of writing exercises with prompts and space provided to free-write. This is all done within the web portal inside your browser and progress is saved as you go.
The entire set of programs is quite comprehensive and can take some time to complete. Personally I filled most of the space provided for each section and the whole process, working on it on and off, took several weeks. There is some flexibility in terms of how much you write – usually between 1,000-2,000 or 1,000-3,000 characters per section. If you chose to write the minimum amount it will take less time.
Suggestion: I would recommend really making the effort to get into this sort of dreamlike loosely associative state that Peterson sometimes describes. It’s almost like daydreaming but not quite – you let your mind wander a bit while still maintaining control over the general direction and content of the thoughts. I found this extremely valuable for accessing and interacting with parts of the psyche that are otherwise not consciously attended to.
Personally I found the Past Authoring section most valuable in terms of insight gained as well as the actual experience of going through it. Here’s some of what I found:
Reliving negative experiences is therapeutic
In the Past Authoring program you divide your life up into six “epochs” and write about emotionally significant events from each. Naturally some of these experiences are going to be negative, and writing about them – especially in the kind of semi-dreamlike state I mentioned earlier – is cathartic as you partially re-live them. During the actual writing it can be unpleasant and emotionally difficult, but generally it’s therapeutic and you feel better afterwards. (Exactly how long afterwards is an open question – I’ve heard Peterson say that people sometimes feel worse at first and that it can take up to two weeks to feel the positive effects.) But regardless of the exact time frame, it does seem that writing about, analyzing, and partially re-living negative experiences helps resolve them internally.
Remembering things you otherwise wouldn’t
While doing this exercise I found myself beginning to remember more events and aspects of events from my life that I had otherwise forgotten. This seems to happen when you spend time on memories – you start to think back, and as you do more detail and entirely new memories naturally open themselves up to you. This is interesting and potentially insightful.
Noticing patterns over time
This, I would argue, is the biggest (or potentially biggest) benefit of the Past Authoring: noticing patterns about yourself and your life over time that you otherwise wouldn’t. The stated purpose of the program is to help you create a narrative out of your life thus far, and that is exactly what it does.
It can be very insightful to see your whole life trajectory laid out in front of you this comprehensively. I think this is true even if you are someone who already spends a lot of time introspecting and thinking about your past and/or life trajectory. Recurring patterns that are otherwise not apparent can become totally clear when the whole story is mapped out like this.
An example of this for me is that I was able to more clearly identify the elements that defined periods of my life where I felt the best, and was best off, as well as those that were the worst. This might be thought about as a way of discovering what are called revealed preferences.
It became clear to me, for example, that the best times I’d had with other people had always been at certain types of events and not others. Typically I’d always felt like I “should” go to social events and so I did, but seeing this pattern made it obvious that some things just suit me better and others don’t.
While I had realized this somewhat before, it was never as concrete as after having written about several events and seeing the pattern. Following this I thought about how it’s fine to have preferences in this area and just not like certain types of events, even if you feel like you’re supposed to. Now I can more easily avoid the types of events I don’t like and increase the frequency of the ones I do.
Helps you see your life in perspective
After writing everything out and looking at it in front of me, I thought “Damn I’ve actually done a lot of things, and a lot of things I’m happy with too.” Seeing your accomplishments and positive experiences makes you grateful for your life thus far, especially when you reflect on them in this all inclusive way.
Can be helpful for managing current problems
I was going through some reasonably difficult relationship/emotional business at the same time as doing the Past Authoring and some of what I wrote was related to that. This will of course depend on your individual circumstances, but for myself at least writing about the recent events seemed to help me work through them.
There were many more insights gained that I didn’t include here – I talk about a few others in the video at the top of the post.
Suggestion: If you write a lot of volume in your Past Authoring (like I did) you may want to mark sections of particular important with a symbol or sign so you can easily find them later. You most likely won’t be reading through the entire thing regularly or soon after you finish writing, so use some indicator in the text that you can easily search. For example I used three sequential stars: ***.
Overall I found the Past Authoring to be the most useful and insightful section. However, this may be because I did it first and also wrote a lot (something like 35K words total). As a result my Past section ended up including information relevant to the present and future – for example I was making notes to remember and giving myself prescriptions. If you write less and/or keep it strictly to the past, utility might be spread more evenly across all three.
The Present Authoring is divided into two sections – virtues and faults – where you are guided through a process of identifying your 5-10 most significant positive and negative qualities. These are grouped according to the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Agreeableness, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism.
I don’t think I learned as much from this section as from the other two, and I think I was already aware of most of the faults and virtues that came up in some way or another. That being said, I probably think about this more than the average person so take that into consideration. That being said, if you’re into this sort of thing, then you probably do too.
I found the Future Authoring more useful than the Present but not as good as the Past. In this section you map out an ideal future including your career, social and family life, habits you’d like to adopt, leisure time use and more. All major areas of life are covered.
There is also a section where you write about qualities in other people you admire and would like to emulate, which I think is a valuable exercise. You then outline eight major goals and break down in detail your motives, strategies for goal attainment, potential obstacles, and how to monitor progress. It is very comprehensive and, in my opinion, even a little more granular than necessary.
It’s also true that this sort of detailed planning is more useful the more structured and certain your trajectory is. If you are in university, for example, or high school, or a career with a well-defined path then you can plan ahead with fairly high degrees of certainty. However if you are more flexible, like me, things are more liable to change.
Nevertheless, the Future Authoring did help me concretize a few important things:
The need to settle down somewhere
Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I’ve been basically nomadic for about the past three years now, living in various places and usually spending a few months or less in each. There have been amazing things about this, but the more time goes on the more I find the drawbacks of this lifestyle start to outweigh the benefits.
I had been feeling this way to some degree already, but again writing it out really helped concretize it. It became especially clear when I realized that most of my major goals centred around the need to find some sort of home base and just stay in one place for a while. There are a certain number of non-trivial things you just cannot do when always moving around. So I’m in the process of sorting that out now and will be settled soon.
The worst possible future
There is a section of the Future Authoring that has you envision and write about your worst possible future. This is so, as Jordan Peterson explains, you know what you want to avoid. Doing this exercise was genuinely somewhat harrowing for me and got pretty dark pretty quickly. It may have been the state of mind I was in at the time, but you might be surprised at how bad you can imagine things getting if you really let your mind run wild. If this is actually fear-inducing, it is probably worthwhile.
Overall I would highly recommend the Self Authoring Suite, wherever you are in life and even if you have experience with other personal development or planning programs. If you haven’t done anything like this before, it will probably be all the more valuable. This is a great way to start “sorting yourself out” and you can use the insights gained here to address specific issues and areas in more depth after.
The Self Authoring Suite is reasonably priced at $30 for two logins to the entire set of programs – Past, Present and Future. So you can get two and send one to someone else, or split it with a friend and then it’ll only cost you $15 each. Pretty affordable and accessible.
My final suggestion if you are going to do this program is to really set aside some time to do it fully and properly. The rule “you get out what you put in” applies strongly here. While you may have some of the ideas in your head already, writing them out – clarifying and understanding them in this detailed and comprehensive way – is surprisingly valuable. Check out this comprehensive guide for more tips.
If you put in the time to complete the exercises while trying to stay as honest as possible with yourself throughout, I’d say you are pretty much guaranteed to find it fruitful. In any case, I hope this Self Authoring review has provided some helpful information about the program and how it might be useful for you. Good luck!