To meet Jordan Peterson, a once obscure University of Toronto psychology professor turned bestselling author and free speech warrior, Jeff Sandefer piloted his Cessna Citation through a pea soup fog to Des Moines, Iowa, from Austin, Texas, last fall.
Sandefer made a fortune in the oil industry, started a private investment firm, got hooked on education and in 2002 founded the Acton School of Business, a gruelling one-year MBA program with a focus on entrepreneurship taught by entrepreneurs, like its founder.
Given Sandefer’s serious business chops, it may seem odd that he would endure a white-knuckle flight just to meet Peterson, a 56-year-old Canadian typically associated with having a hate-on for gender pronouns and political correctness.
But it turns out there is another way to think of him: as a psychologist-cum-entrepreneur, whose home runs, aside from the profits reaped from 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos — which has sold 2.5 million English-language copies and is slated for translation into 50 languages — include pulling in $80,000 a month from the crowdfunding site Patreon, hawking self-authoring software on his website for US$29.90 a pop, hosting a YouTube channel with over 1.8 million subscribers and giving talks to sold-out audiences worldwide.
“I’m a clinician, I’ve also always wanted to ensure that what I did could be validated by taking it outside the lab,” said Peterson, anoccasional contributor to the National Post. “One of the ways to do that was to subject it to additional stringent tests, like real-world viability, and even profitability. It is one thing to produce something, but it is a whole other thing to market it, sell it and make it profitable.”
The Peterson Fellowship at Acton, advertised as an MBA “program with a philosophy that is aligned with Dr. Peterson,” turns those beliefs into MBA teachings.
Sandefer built Acton upon three guiding principles: learning how to learn, learning how to make money and learning how to live a life of meaning. So far, it seems to be working: The Princeton Review ranks Acton’s students, numbering 16 to 37 per session, as the most “competitive” among U.S. business schools.
It was Acton’s third pillar — living a life of meaning — that attracted Sandefer to Peterson, a self-help guru at heart, whose message to directionless souls essentially boils down to: get it together people, own your future and pursue a meaningful life.
Emails were exchanged and a lunch arranged at Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse in Des Moines, a face-to-face the professor and former Texas oilman sat down to on Oct. 2, 2018.
“Dr. Peterson’s first words to me were, “What are we going to get done?” Sandefer recalls. “Absent the small talk, while he ate two steaks and I ate one — we were both on no-carb diets — we covered an eight-hour meeting in less than two hours.”
Subsequent meetings were arranged in Austin, involving Sandefer and Peterson’s team, a small coterie of coders and big thinking psychology PhDs tasked with developing online educational programs.
Sandefer and Acton were already deeply engaged in online learning, an area Peterson has been mining (and monetizing) through his self-authoring programs: a suite of software that ideally helps users to better know themselves and perhaps get to know where they might be headed in life through setting goals and writing about their past, present and future.
All went well during those Texas meetings, so well that by the time Peterson’s people returned to Toronto the idea of getting something “done” in Austin had become the Peterson Fellowship at Acton.
Peterson spoke with the Financial Post from Zurich, where he was (mostly) cooking and caring for his 27-year-old daughter, Mikhaila, as she recovers from ankle surgery. Both disciples of an all-meat diet, she has been on an 18-month carnivorous binge that, according to her and her father, has virtually cured her of crippling childhood arthritis and myriad associated complications, while mostly curing him of his gloomy moods, psoriasis, floaters in his right eye, chronic gum disease and snoring. All fixes that Peterson is at a loss to explain, but is rolling with nonetheless, given the results.
Peterson’s metaphorical business diet has been more varied and, like many entrepreneurs, features some spectacular misses.
His biggest bust was conceived in the mid-1990s. He and some partners developed a battery of cognitive tests targeting the dorsal lateral pre-frontal function, a.k.a. the part of your brain tasked with making conscious, articulated decisions.
They computerized the test, adapted it as an employee-screening tool and dubbed it the ExamCorp M-SEAOC. Peterson claims it could cut a company’s hiring failure rate by half, thereby decreasing the army of bad hires that cost companies untold sums.
Peterson estimates he met with 500 middle managers and plenty more HR types in a salesman’s role. Some managers even took the test. Most of them weren’t happy with the results.
“The test would spit out percentiles,” he said. “Let’s say the manager took it and scored in the 60th percentile, well, he’s not very bloody happy about that, even though it means he is better than 60 out of 100 managers, which isn’t too bad, and could be a hell of a lot worse, but it was just a deadly process.”
Twelve years of pitching yielded zero sales, a miserable run that convinced Peterson and his colleagues to tweak the test. Minor changes made, they have now netted a single paying customer in the Founder Institute, a seed-funding-tech-accelerator based in Palo Alto, Calif.
“What I discovered was corporations don’t want tests that work, and that was a shock to me,” Peterson said. “But it was quite an interesting discovery, because it just shows you how much you need to know about the ecosystem which you are launching your product into.”
At Acton, Peterson is launching an educational platform his team is developing. The school clearly understands who the star is, playing up his renegade image on the fellowship’s homepage by picturing him from behind in black, white and grey tones, with his head turned to the right and his eyes in a squint, peering toward a far off point. An open road stretches ahead of him and a big sky hangs above.
The image calls to mind country singer Johnny Cash, only Peterson is now the man in black, a herald of deep and meaningful truths. Across the middle of the page is a question, “Are you everything you could be?” followed by a statement, “Choose your future.”
Choosing one’s future, telling the truth, being kind to yourself and discovering your purpose in life are maxims integral in Peterson’s writing, and, apparently, ones that register with aspiring MBAs. The Peterson Fellowship attracted 2,298 applicants for 100 available spots (the deadline to apply was Feb. 1).
Peterson, mind you, won’t be bankrolling the fellows. The chosen few will cover about 25 per cent of Acton’s US$65,000 tuition, and they have access to zero-interest personal loans repayable over 10 years for the balance — debt to be forgiven after 10 years if they can’t repay it.
Who should apply? The fellowship’s namesake believes the ideal candidate’s primary personality trait is openness.
“Openness is basically an amalgam between creativity and being interested in ideas, it’s the foremost marker of an entrepreneurial personality,” Peterson said. “People who are high in openness tend to be more on the artistic end of the distribution; paintings speak to them, works of art speak to them, they like movies, they like fiction, they like drama. Entrepreneurial types are people who can think laterally, and that’s really who we are looking for.”
Part of the application process involves a four-month online course where candidates will be “guided” by a successful entrepreneur and paired with a peer in a series of virtual and real world challenges. The best of them get invited to Austin for a five-month residency and to endure Acton’s infamous 100-hour work weeks, poring over business case studies, cold-calling CEOs and selling, for example, cookbooks door to door.
Simultaneously, students are ranked against one another, serving as guinea pigs/collaborators on the platform Peterson’s coders are working on, and using the self-authoring software the psychologist already has in place.
Entrepreneurial types are people who can think laterally, and that’s really who we are looking for
“Both Jeff (Sandefer) and I are intensely interested in the role of vision, strategy and personal development in the mentoring and development of young people,” Peterson said. “As we build our educational platform, we need to align ourselves with people who can offer real-world opportunities to test the program elements — to determine if our plans to teach people how to read, write, think and speak online are feasible and implementable.”
What Peterson is aiming for, in effect, is a market simulation in the cutthroat environs of a competitive MBA program that past Acton grads describe as a transformative experience.
“Everything at Acton was about what is your passion, what are you good at, and what are the needs of the world,” said Scott Donnell, who graduated in 2009 and is now chief executive of Apex Fun Run, a for-profit elementary school fundraising program he launched with an emphasis on leadership and fitness for kids. “And I love fitness, I love business and I love kids.”
Apex counts about 100 franchises around the United States. Its founder, by any measure, is rich. On one January day, Donnell was driving a “stick-shift” through the Colorado Rockies, bound for Denver following a three-week ski trip. He also has a ski cabin in Whistler, B.C.
“I would say about 75 per cent of my graduating class already followed Jordan Peterson even before any of this fellowship news came out,” he said. “We all gravitated towards him because of the ways he thinks about the world. 12 Rules is a very entrepreneur-friendly book; you can’t sit back and let other people take control of your life, that’s the mantra of an entrepreneur. You are never a victim, your mistakes are on you and the future is up to you — that’s the mantra of Acton — and it’s something I keep hearing from Jordan Peterson.”
A successful entrepreneur also seldom works in isolation. They build businesses, businesses have employees, and Peterson is no different.
Christine Brophy started working with the psychologist almost a decade ago, initially as an undergraduate student at U of T and lately as a contract worker on hiatus from her psychology PhD — Peterson is her supervisor — to work on his online educational platforms.
Brophy said her mentor nurtures talent, trusting the people he surrounds himself with to take a good idea and run with it.
“Jordan has an endless supply of ideas,” she said. “He has been that way since I’ve known him, and because he is constantly moving on to the next thing, he needs to have very productive people around him, who don’t need a lot of direction from him to do things, but are also people he trusts to do a good job.”
Peterson is also not afraid to cut bait if things aren’t to his liking. In mid-January, he shuttered his account at Patreon, which acts as a middleman between creative and entrepreneurial types and those who want to fund them, thereby killing an $80,000-a-month supporter/fan-funded cash cow on a matter of principle.
You are never a victim, your mistakes are on you and the future is up to you — that’s the mantra of Acton — and it’s something I keep hearing from Jordan Peterson
Scott Donnell, Acton graduate
The reason: In December, Patreon banned Carl Benjamin, a British YouTuber and political commentator known for uttering all sorts of nasty things, including reportedly describing serial harasser Harvey Weinstein’s victims as a bunch of “gold-digging whores.”
Peterson, ever the champion of free speech, couldn’t abide, so he took a massive financial hit to protest the “emergent corporate censorship” at Patreon.
“It was like, look, man, you’re going to fund entrepreneurs and artists and creative types, but you don’t want any controversy? What the hell, how does that work?”
Peterson is now working with a group of programmers to build an alternative platform to Patreon, one that is free of censorship and politically correct corporate overlords. He is also writing another book. Working title: 12 More Rules — including this one: “notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abandoned.”
As for Acton, well, with a daughter to cook for, a diet to stick to, a book to write, a belief in free speech to uphold and a world speaking tour to complete, Peterson admits that he may not actually make it to Austin to meet with the Peterson fellows, though he wishes them good luck.
“At the moment, my time is scheduled eight months in advance,” he said. “But I will do whatever I have to to make the fellowship as successful as we can manage — that’s really the bottom line.”