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Don't be a Square

I’ve been listening to Jordan Peterson’s podcast for quite some time now. Generally, I like what he says. It makes sense, and it seems to be good advice. In one of his recent podcasts, he said something that notably stood out to me. He said, “Don’t be a square.”

Everybody is full of chaos when they are first born. As a person grows older and as he or she matures, that person cleans up the chaos. If a person keeps cleaning, and never dares to take any risks, for fear of returning to chaos, then that person becomes “a square.” A square is a person that is not interesting, because they are too far removed from the edge of chaos. I think that being a square means you are rigid, a strict rule follower, a person who does not take any risks. Don’t get me wrong, rules are there for a reason, and they should be followed. But, sometimes it is interesting to push the limits of the rules, and even break the rules. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about why and when it is ok to break rules right now. Back to being a square. A square lives his life without taking any risks. It is a life of fear from the chaos. This is not what you want your life to be like. You want to live on the edge of chaos, pushing the boundaries of your limits. That’s exciting. When you are near the edge of chaos, you have excitement. The square life is not exciting, and consequently not engaging. It does not provide fulfillment. For example to demonstrate living near chaos, Dr. Peterson speaks without notes. This is leading him towards the edge of chaos. There’s risk that he’ll lose his train of thought, or not be able to answer a question, a question posed either by the audience or by himself. It’s risky, but it’s also highly engaging and rewarding. That’s how life should be lived, pushing the boundaries, cleaning up your room, but simultaneously pursuing chaos. Otherwise, life gets boring. And, I see boring lives too often! Most of the time, boring lives can be identified when engaging in conversation.

I see engineers that have no personality, no interests beyond their jobs and general forms of entertainment, such as Netflix. They go to work, go home, play video games, and watch television with their families. They are doing very safe activities. There’s no risk. They take vacations to foreign and exotic places, where they pay for a cushy tour, with a tour bus and a tour guide, and little pamphlets to tell them about the significant sights. There is no personal exploration. Now, many of these people that I’m observing have children, which I would consider a very big challenge. And good for them! Their lives are definitely not boring. But, what about those who do not have children? Those individuals are definitely squares. And that’s not how I want to live my life. I want adventure.

Often, I see squares at church. The church is full of squares. People who have cleaned up their lives and are now afraid to return to chaos. I see these guys at church all the time. These are the men who can only talk about God, Christianity, and abstinence. They utter ideologies about the Bible, discipleship, chastity, and faith. They cannot hold an engaging conversation, even if their lives depended on it. Nothing comes out of their mouths except pre-fabricated ideological statements. There’s no personality, no chaos, beyond this. They have been saved from chaos, hence their Christian faith, and they are so afraid of entering that chaotic domain again, that they avoid it altogether. Don’t be like these people. Again, that’s not how I want to live my life.

One of the things that Peterson said, and that I agree with, is that if all of your conversations are boring, then it’s because you yourself are boring. In other words, if your conversations are boring, you are a square. If you are an interesting person, then your conversations will consequently be interesting as well. I really like this idea, and the more I think about it, the more that I realize how true it is. One of the major aspects of my life that I’ve been working on is improving my conversation skills and engaging in more meaningful conversations. I want to get better at participating in good conversations, not the kind of conversations that categorize squares. Talks about technical work, and what you did this weekend, are small talk. There is not any real sustenance to them. How long can you talk about the weather? Only a few minutes before it gets boring.

Conversation seems to be a learned skill for introverts, one that I was not taught as a child. I have always been quiet, not because I’m shy or have nothing to say, but because speaking requires effort, and holding an engaging conversation requires significant effort. It’s a skill that I think many people take for granted. Recently, I have been explicitly practicing my conversation skills. For example, I was at a conference last week for work, and I was attending this conference with a co-worker who I knew little about. We had dinner together one evening, and during the meal we had a tremendously enjoyable conversation. We discussed God, religion, homeschooling, and work. The time passed without me realizing it. This is a sign of good, quality conversation - when the time passes, and you do not realize it. This was an example of a good conversation, where I was fully engaged. However, there are situations where I am very far removed from the conversation. I’m getting better at the skill of conversing, but there is still room for improvement. To explain what I mean about being removed from the conversation, I had dinner one evening with two gentlemen who are very successful in their fields of expertise. During this dinner, the two gentlemen drank whisky and engaged in a conversation. The conversation and dinner spanned roughly two hours, and every word was interesting. They talked about family and whiskey and expensive meals. It was enjoyable to listen to these men talk, even though my participation was zero percent. I did not feel like I had anything to contribute to the conversation, and to avoid looking like a fool, I said nothing at all. Perhaps this was the right decision, or perhaps not. Regardless, this situation demonstrated to me that sometimes, no matter how interesting the conversation is, I struggle to get involved.

I think that conversation is a good general indicator of how near to chaos a person lives. To have engaging conversations, you need to have interesting topics to talk about, and to have interesting conversation topics, you need to have some chaos. For me, chaos means taking risks at work, with hobbies, and with my free time. Hobbies such as competitive cycling and reading help craft me into an interesting person. These activities have the potential to place me in challenging situations, that is, chaos. To find the edge of chaos, I pursue my interests ardently, with as much energy as I can devote towards them. This is similar to the podcast that I listened to yesterday, where an ex-Harvard student was talking about his hobbies and how passionately he pursued those activities. In all aspects of his life, he strove to be the best. He pursued the violin and golf, until he was extremely good at each of these activities. Many of the comments he made during the podcast interview resonated with me. They accurately reflected how I feel about the pursuit of my hobbies. For example, it is rewarding to put a lot of hard work into some skill, and then become an expert at that skill. Your hard work is rewarded. The ex-Harvard student did this with the violin, playing in a reputable orchestra. I did this with cycling, racing at an elite level. Beyond the violin/cycling, commit fully to your other activities. This student was also excellent in physics and math and social studies. Obviously, he was extremely intelligent, but he also worked hard. He had the intelligence and work ethic that very few people possess. His goal for attending Harvard was to become a better person overall, not to become a specialist. He wanted to explore knowledge, not be an expert in a specific field. Now, that sounds attractive to me. I want to learn about all aspects of life. I want to learn what makes humans tick, what drives us, what’s “right,” and how do we advance humanity and technology. Being an expert is great, but it’s even better to be knowledgeable about many topics. Much like the ex-Harvard student, ex-student because he did something very bad and was no longer permitted to attend Harvard, and much like John Fish, the YouTuber, I want to be educated in all subjects. Acquiring knowledge on many subjects means exploring chaos. It means pursuing ideas and topics that might fail. Many of your ideas might, and probably will, amount to nothing. But the adventure makes you not a square. Don’t be a square. Find activities that interest you, engage in a variety of activities, and pursue those activities wholeheartedly. Don’t be one of the square Christian ideologues.

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