29 - 12 RULES FOR LIFE | RULE 4
AN ANTIDOTE TO CHAOS
COMPARE YOURSELF TO WHO YOU WERE YESTERDAY - NOT TO WHO SOMEONE ELSE IS TODAY.
This is part 4 of my review for the book “12 Rules For Life” by Dr. Jordan B Peterson, who is a professor at the University of Toronto, and a clinical psychologist.
In this phenomenal book, Peterson journeys broadly; discussing discipline, freedom, adventure, and responsibility, distilling the world’s wisdom into 12 practical and profound rules for life. This is an introduction to philosophy, mythology and the science of the mind, and a practical, engaging guide to a better life.
Stream this episode through the player above. Read the notes and follow the basic transcription below.
(4:34) - The Inner Critic
(7:30) - We are not equal in ability or outcome, and never will be.
(11:00) - Many good games to play
(14:30) - There’s some real utility in gratitude.
Perspective is the key to free the mind
(23:00) - Ask better questions, get better answers.
(27:25) - Evil triad: arrogance, deceit, resentment.
Consult your resentment
(41:08) What you want & what you see
(51:25) - Actions speak louder than words
(57:40) - Realization is dawning
(59:30) - Epilogue
THE INTERNAL CRITIC
…He begins this chapter with a little contemplating through observations about how things have changed and become more complex - and therefore difficult - to be really good at things and contribute high quality creativity - and therefore meaning - to our communities…
It was easier for people to be good at something when more of us lived in small, rural communities. Our hierarchies of accomplishment are now dizzyingly vertical. No matter how good you are at something, or how you rank your accomplishments, there is someone out there who makes you look incompetent.
And you? Your career is boring and pointless, your housekeeping skills are second-rate, your taste is appalling, you’re fatter than your friends, and everyone dreads your parties. Who cares if you are prime minister of Canada when someone else is the president of the United States?
Inside us dwells a critical internal voice and spirit that knows all this. It’s predisposed to make its noisy case. It condemns our mediocre efforts. It can be very difficult to quell.
Worse, critics of its sort are necessary. There is no shortage of tasteless artists, tuneless musicians, poisonous cooks, bureaucratically-personality-disordered middle managers, hack novelists and tedious, ideology-ridden professors. Things and people differ importantly in their qualities. Awful music torments listeners everywhere. Poorly designed buildings crumble in earthquakes. Substandard automobiles kill their drivers when they crash. Failure is the price we pay for standards and, because mediocrity has consequences both real and harsh, standards are necessary.
We are not equal in ability or outcome, and never will be. A very small number of people produce very much of everything. The winners don’t take all, but they take most, and the bottom is not a good place to be. People are unhappy at the bottom. They get sick there, and remain unknown and unloved. They waste their lives there. In consequence, the self-denigrating voice in the minds of people weaves a devastating tale. Worthlessness is the default condition. What but willful blindness could possibly shelter people from such withering criticism?
Consider this: If the cards are always stacked against you, perhaps the game you are playing is somehow rigged (perhaps by you, unbeknownst to yourself). If the internal voice makes you doubt the value of your endeavours—or your life, or life itself—perhaps you should stop listening. If the critical voice within says the same denigrating things about everyone, no matter how successful, how reliable can it be? Maybe its comments are chatter, not wisdom.
Many Good Games
Standards of better or worse are not illusory or unnecessary. Value judgments are a precondition for action. Furthermore, every activity, once chosen, comes with its own internal standards of accomplishment. If something can be done at all, it can be done better or worse. To do anything at all is therefore to play a game with a defined and valued end, which can always be reached more or less efficiently and elegantly.
Every game comes with its chance of success or failure. Furthermore, if there was no better and worse, nothing would be worth doing. There would be no value and, therefore, no meaning. Why make an effort if it doesn’t improve anything? Meaning itself requires the difference between better and worse.
How, then, can the voice of critical self-consciousness be stilled? Consider the all-too-black-and-white words themselves: “success” or “failure.” You are either a success, a comprehensive, singular, over-all good thing, or its opposite, a failure, a comprehensive, singular, irredeemably bad thing. The words imply no alternative and no middle ground. However, in a world as complex as ours, such generalizations (really, such failure to differentiate) are a sign of naive, unsophisticated or even malevolent analysis. There are vital degrees and gradations of value obliterated by this binary system, and the consequences are not good.
It’s unlikely that you’re playing only one game. You have a career and friends and family members and personal projects and artistic endeavors and athletic pursuits. You might consider judging your success across all the games you play.
You might come to realize that the specifics of the many games you are playing are so unique to you, so individual, that comparison to others is simply inappropriate. Perhaps you are overvaluing what you don’t have and undervaluing what you do. There’s some real utility in gratitude. It’s also good protection against the dangers of victimhood and resentment.
He then goes into some pretty deep psychological reflections about human nature, who we are, what we want, and asks some penetrating questions.
What is it that you actually love? What is it that you genuinely want? Before you can articulate your own standards of value, you must see yourself as a stranger—and then you must get to know yourself. What do you find valuable or pleasurable? How much leisure, enjoyment, and reward do you require, so that you feel like more than a beast of burden?
You could force yourself through your daily grind and kick your dog in frustration when you come home. You could watch the precious days tick by. Or you could learn how to entice yourself into sustainable, productive activity. Do you ask yourself what you want? Do you negotiate fairly with yourself? Or are you a tyrant, with yourself as slave?
When do you dislike your parents, your spouse, or your children, and why? What might be done about that? What do you need and want from your friends and your business partners?
This is not a mere matter of what you should want. I’m talking about determining the nature of your moral obligation, to yourself. Should might enter into it, because you are nested within a network of social obligations. Should is your responsibility, and you should live up to it. But this does not mean you must take the role of lap-dog, obedient and harmless. That’s how a dictator wants his slaves.
Dare, instead, to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life.
What are you putting up with, or pretending to like, from duty or obligation?
Consult your resentment. It’s a revelatory emotion, for all its pathology. It’s part of an evil triad: arrogance, deceit, and resentment. Nothing causes more harm than this underworld Trinity. But resentment always means one of two things. Either the resentful person is immature, in which case he or she should shut up, quit whining, and get on with it, or there is tyranny afoot—in which case the person subjugated has a moral obligation to speak up.
Because the consequence of remaining silent is worse. Of course, it’s easier in the moment to stay silent and avoid conflict. But in the long term, that’s deadly. When you have something to say, silence is a lie—and tyranny feeds on lies. When should you push back against oppression, despite the danger? When you start nursing secret fantasies of revenge; when your life is being poisoned and your imagination fills with the wish to devour and destroy.
The future is like the past. But there’s a crucial difference. The past is fixed, but the future—it could be better. It could be better, some precise amount—the amount that can be achieved, perhaps, in a day, with some minimal engagement. The present is eternally flawed. But where you start might not be as important as the direction you are heading. Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak.
Called upon properly, the internal critic will suggest something to set in order, which you could set in order, which you would set in order—voluntarily, without resentment, even with pleasure. Ask yourself: is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could, and would, set straight? Could you, and would you, fix that one thing that announces itself humbly in need of repair? Could you do it now?
Could you compare your specific personal tomorrow with your specific personal yesterday? Could you use your own judgment, and ask yourself what that better tomorrow might be?
Aim small. You don’t want to shoulder too much to begin with, given your limited talents, tendency to deceive, burden of resentment, and ability to shirk responsibility. Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning. Then you ask yourself, “What could I do, that I would do, that would accomplish that, and what small thing would I like as a reward?” Then you do what you have decided to do, even if you do it badly.
Then you give yourself that damn coffee, in triumph. Maybe you feel a bit stupid about it, but you do it anyway. And you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And, with each day, your baseline of comparison gets a little higher, and that’s magic. That’s compound interest. Do that for three years, and your life will be entirely different. Now you’re aiming for something higher. Now you’re wishing on a star. Now the beam is disappearing from your eye, and you’re learning to see. And what you aim at determines what you see. That’s worth repeating. What you aim at determines what you see.
What You Want and What You See
… In this section, Peterson highlights an intriguing investigation which illuminates the phenomenon of “sustained inattentional blindness” by a cognitive psychologist on our dependency of sight on aim (and, therefore, on value—because you aim at what you value) …
Vision is expensive—psycho-physiologically expensive; neurologically expensive. Very little of your retina is high-resolution fovea—the very central, high-resolution part of the eye, used to do such things as identify faces. Each of the scarce foveal cells needs 10,000 cells in the visual cortex merely to manage the first part of the multi-stage processing of seeing. Then each of those 10,000 requires 10,000 more just to get to stage two. If all your retina was fovea you would require the skull of a B-movie alien to house your brain.
In consequence, we triage, when we see. Most of our vision is peripheral, and low resolution. We save the fovea for things of importance. We point our high-resolution capacities at the few specific things we are aiming at. And we let everything else—which is almost everything—fade, unnoticed, into the background.
You must shepherd your limited resources carefully. Seeing is very difficult, so you must choose what to see, and let the rest go.
There’s a profound idea in the ancient Vedic texts (the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, and part of the bedrock of Indian culture): the world, as perceived, is Maya; appearance or illusion. This means, in part, that people are blinded by their desires (as well as merely incapable of seeing things as they truly are). This is true, in a sense that transcends the metaphorical. Your eyes are tools. They are there to help you get what you want. The price you pay for that utility, that specific, focused direction, is blindness to everything else. This doesn’t matter so much when things are going well, and we are getting what we want (although it can be a problem, even then, because getting what we currently want can blind us to higher callings).
Imagine that you’re unhappy. You’re not getting what you need. Perversely, this may be because of what you want. You are blind, because of what you desire. Perhaps what you really need is right in front of your eyes, but you cannot see it because of what you are currently aiming for.
If things are not going well for you—well, that might be because, as the most cynical of aphorisms has it, life sucks, and then you die. Before your crisis impels you to that hideous conclusion, however, you might consider the following: life doesn’t have the problem. You do. At least that realization leaves you with some options.
If your life is not going well, perhaps it is your current knowledge that is insufficient, not life itself. Perhaps your value structure needs some serious retooling. Perhaps what you want is blinding you to what else could be. Perhaps you are holding on to your desires, in the present, so tightly that you cannot see anything else—even what you truly need.
To retool, to take stock, to aim somewhere better, you have to think it through, bottom to top. You have to scour your psyche. You have to clean the damned thing up. And you must be cautious, because making your life better means adopting a lot of responsibility, and that takes more effort and care than living stupidly in pain and remaining arrogant, deceitful and resentful.
What if it was the case that the world revealed whatever goodness it contains in precise proportion to your desire for the best? What if the more your conception of the best has been elevated, expanded and rendered sophisticated the more possibility and benefit you could perceive? This doesn’t mean that you can have what you want merely by wishing it, or that everything is interpretation, or that there is no reality. The world is still there, with its structures and limits. As you move along with it, it cooperates or objects. But you can dance with it, if your aim is to dance—and maybe you can even lead, if you have enough skill and enough grace.
This is not theology. It’s not mysticism. It’s empirical knowledge. There is nothing magical here—or nothing more than the already-present magic of consciousness. We only see what we aim at. (Remember the title of this section: What You Want and What You See.)
We can’t just get the one particular thing we especially just want now, along with everything else we usually want, because our desires can produce conflict with our other desires, as well as with other people, and with the world.
Thus, we must become conscious of our desires, and articulate them, and prioritize them, and arrange them into hierarchies. That makes them sophisticated. That makes them work with each other, and with the desires of other people, and with the world. It is in that manner that our desires elevate themselves. It is in that manner that they organize themselves into values and become moral. Our values, our morality—they are indicators of our sophistication.
It is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs—those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.
It takes careful observation, and education, and reflection, and communication with others, just to scratch the surface of your beliefs. Everything you value is a product of unimaginably lengthy developmental processes, personal, cultural and biological. You don’t understand how what you want—and, therefore, what you see—is conditioned by the immense, abysmal, profound past.
You simply don’t understand how every neural circuit through which you peer at the world has been shaped (and painfully) by the ethical aims of millions of years of human ancestors and all of the life that was lived for the billions of years before that.
You don’t understand anything. You didn’t even know that you were blind.
Pay attention. Focus on your surroundings, physical and psychological. Notice something that bothers you, that concerns you, that will not let you be, which you could fix, that you would fix. You can find such somethings by asking yourself (as if you genuinely want to know) three questions: “What is it that is bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” and “Would I actually be willing to fix it?” If you find that the answer is “no,” to any or all of the questions, then look elsewhere. Aim lower. Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it.
Ask yourself, habitually, “What could I do, that I would do, to make Life a little better?” You are not dictating to yourself what “better” must be. You are not being a totalitarian, or a utopian, even to yourself, because you have learned from the Nazis and the Soviets and the Maoists and from your own experience that being a totalitarian is a bad thing.
Aim high. Set your sights on the betterment of Being. Align yourself, in your soul, with Truth and the Highest Good. There is habitable order to establish and beauty to bring into existence. There is evil to overcome, suffering to ameliorate, and yourself to better.
Realization is dawning. Instead of playing the tyrant, you are paying attention. You are telling the truth, instead of manipulating the world. You no longer have to be envious, because you no longer know that someone else truly has it better. You no longer have to be frustrated, because you have learned to be patient.
You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself. Attend to the day, but aim at the highest good.
Ask, and ye shall receive. Knock, and the door will open. If you ask, as if you want, and knock, as if you want to enter, you may be offered the chance to improve your life, a little; a lot; completely—and with that improvement, some progress will be made in Being itself.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
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