The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s conversation with Jocko Willink on accepting sadness but knowing it will be ok, setting yourself back on the right track, learning from mistakes, forgiving yourself, and making the best decision with the information you have at the time. You can listen to or watch the full podcast episode on DailyWire+.
Start time: 3:56
Jordan B. Peterson: Why do people come and see you [on your tour]? What is it that you’re providing to people do you think?
Jocko Willink: I think people want to come see me and want to connect with me in real life because they listen to my podcast a lot — so I think that has a lot to do with it. I’m just up there sort of sharing experiences that I’ve had, and I try and do the best I can in presenting the lessons that I’ve learned. Really, one of the biggest lessons that I was talking about on this tour was: It’s going to be ok.
Obviously, I deal with veterans a lot, law enforcement, and the whole PTSD that people have been going through and talking about for the last, I guess since the wars have been [going] on [for] the last 20 years. A lot of times someone would go through a traumatic experience and they’d have bad feelings about it. They’d have regrets about it. They’d have things that they wish they would have done differently. And one of the main themes I was telling people during this tour was, that’s totally normal and it’s ok. It’s ok to think, I lost some friends, and sometimes I feel sad about it.
Yes, of course, that’s normal. That’s fine. In fact, if you weren’t sad about it, there may be something wrong. Because I think that people have been told for a while that if you’re feeling sad there’s something wrong with you — when I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with when you feel sad. You feel sad? Yes, you lost friends. You’re going to feel sad. You were in combat? You had to do some horrible things? You did some things that you regret? People make mistakes. Things don’t turn out the way that they wanted them to. We made decisions and there was a bad result at the end of that decision. And instead of thinking, I’m a terrible person, no, it’s like, you made a mistake and that’s ok and you have got to move on.
Jordan B. Peterson: That is the tricky part, I think, with regards to, say, post-traumatic stress disorder or regret, because it is one thing if you are sad because you have lost people; it is another thing if you are blaming yourself because you believe — and maybe with some cause — that you have made a mistake. Often, people do not know what to do about the fact that they have made a mistake.
Some people have made mistakes and are hanging themselves out to dry because of it, especially if they have made mistakes that have had fairly dramatic consequences. This ties in to the motif of forgiveness because there is not much difference between forgiving other people and forgiving yourself, and you cannot just do that by saying that you are going to do it. What I have observed clinically, and I think this works philosophically as well, is that what you want to do to set things right — which is to atone — is to lay out what you have done that you think was wrong. Provide yourself with the best possible defense.
There is a reason in our legal system that we start with the presumption of innocence, which is a miracle. Tyrannies start with the presumption of guilt. The reason they do that is because everyone’s done something wrong, and if you dig around enough in anyone’s life, you will find a reason that they are culpable, a reason to put them away. So the fact that we presume innocence is a complete bloody miracle, and I cannot figure out how we ever managed to get that right. But you have to do that with yourself.
Imagine you are taking yourself to task because you did some things wrong. List them out in your imagination or write it down. But then you have to defend yourself as thoroughly as you possibly can, which does not mean you are trying to get yourself off the hook; it means that you are trying not to take yourself apart more than is necessary. Then someone might ask, “Well, if I have done something terrible, maybe what is necessary is that I commit suicide, that like I paid the ultimate price for my sins.” People will do that when they are depressed, and that is not right because what you actually want to do to atone is to set yourself back on the right track.
So the precondition for forgiving yourself is, first of all, to sort out whether or not you are accusing yourself too viciously like a tyrant. Then let’s assume that there is some leftover compelling evidence that you did do something wrong. Now you have to figure out what you did wrong and you have to figure out what you would have done differently and what you will do differently in the future.
My sense is, and I think this works out psychologically, if you can set yourself up so that you have learned from the mistake you made so you would not repeat it, then you get to go on with your life. … The devil in your mind that is still accusing might be saying, “What you did is so terrible that you should never be let off the hook,” but I would say if that is the criteria you use for judgment, then everyone’s doomed because everyone makes mistakes in their lives — and probably everybody makes the unforgivable mistakes. So if we are going to take ourselves apart about that permanently, then we are all ruined.
Jocko Willink: Yes, I was pretty lucky growing up in the military that I would get to see guys — and I was probably 26-years-old and I moved into an instructor role in the SEAL teams — so you’d see these young leaders and they’d go out on some training mission, and they were going to mess things up. They were going to make mistakes. And you always get this talk about, well, you made the best decision you could with the information that you had at the time. And it kind of sounds like a cop out in a way, but it’s actually not a cop out at all. You make the best decision that you can with the information that you have at the time.
What more can a human being do than make the best decision they can with the information that they had at the time? And when you get more information or when the results come as they may, that decision that you made might not have been a good decision. It might have been a bad decision. But number one, there’s nothing you can do to change it. It already happened; you made the decision. Then I would always look at the guys and say, what was their intent behind this decision that they made? Why did they do it?
Because if we can decipher that — and their intent was they wanted to make a good move to get their guys out of a bad situation — what more could I want from a leader than to make a decision that’s doing their best with the information that they had at the time to maneuver out of a bad scenario to take care of their guys? There’s nothing more I could hope for.
So as long as you peel back the onion and you kind of review what happened, you say, “Yes, I made the decision at this time. Of course, if I had this other information, I’d change it. But I did what I did. The result was not what I wanted. It’s not what I intended. Here we are.” And now you can either beat yourself up or you can say, here’s some lessons I’ve learned from it.
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Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.