On Jordan B. Peterson’s Antidote to Chaos: Dose 4

Jordan B Peterson 12 Rules for Living

Rule 4: Compare Yourself To Who You Were Yesterday, Not To Who Someone Else Is Today

While I do find this to be a potently helpful rule in readjusting one’s expectations of oneself, Jordan Peterson’s discussion throughout the chapter took some unusual routes. Namely, there is a significant amount of attention paid to the Judeo-Christian narrative. Utilizing mythologies to illustrate core facets of the human psyche is a regular motif in Peterson’s lectures and talks, but generally, there is a clear distinction between (a) utilizing religious concepts as sign posts to direct the observer to a better understanding of ideas and motives that are part of the core collective social mind of humanity and (b) holding them up as directions toward proper behaviors or disciplines. I intended to discuss this in my response, but got quite side-tracked. Anyways, I’d first like to take a moment to put forth a few words about the rule itself.

Self-Criticism as a Tool, for Better or Ill:

Self-criticism is a dangerous item to have hanging from our cognitive utility belt. It can hone the individual into an ever-evolving competent being by acting as a whetstone of sorts, revealing that which is dull and could do with a few grinds. But the obverse result is also all too possible, and indeed prevalent. Rather than playing along with the above metaphor, instead it works as a spade, shoveling the very foundations from beneath your feet, leaving you in a pit of self-loathing, resentment, and impotence. It is this latter group for whom Peterson’s suggestion ought to be taken with deadly seriousness.

Walls All Around:

When you are in the pit, your vision is obstructed. You can’t see out. You know there are others up there doing fine, but what you might also miss are all the others who have dug their own prisons as well. Self-criticism is a powerfully isolating mechanism. As such, it makes sense that the only measure you can use, when starting from this square-one position, is against yourself. Fill in your hole, notice those efforts, and you will be on your way somewhere.

Adhering to the Rule is Only the First Step

However, what should be considered is that this method of self-comparison is only the starting point. It is a discipline which is effective at getting a stationary individual up and into the race, a series of stretches, a warm up of sorts. It is a crucial exertion to avoid injuring yourself upon attempting the later, more advanced hurdles, but something that must be supplemented eventually if one is to make serious gains at some point in the future.

To return to this pit metaphor, once you have gotten yourself up over the lip, and into that light of a functioning lifestyle, you can begin comparing yourself to others. By this point I might suspect you would have developed a sufficient grasp on your own will, and comparing yourself to others will no longer result in a feeling of crushing defeat, of abject failure, but in an awareness of your ability to finally become creative in your endeavors.

By this I mean that with a great deal less chaos, and a great deal more order, in one’s life, the idea is that one should be able to compare methodologies rather than positions in the hierarchy of competence. You are up there with others who are working, striving, and progressing. You might as well learn from one another. Contrast how effective your habits are with those of someone who has achieved what you seek to achieve. Measure the difference in where you are and the ideal (likely embodied by a prominent figure in your field) towards which you are working.

Inspiration versus Envy:

There is a reason for the ubiquity of the idea of inspiration. There will always be masters in your field, those to whom you can look up to with a sense of awe at their accomplishments. However, it is only once you have reached a certain point that this inspiration can occur. Before that, that mental space will likely be  filled with a cloud of envy, an unequivocally toxic emotion. Envy poisons dreams, causing them to atrophy and decay. If you find yourself envious of another’s success, it is a sure sign that you are not ready to compare yourself to others, but should get right back to looking over your shoulder at who you were yesterday. Competence and achievement (and individuals who emulate them), as seen through the lens of envy, are not to be admired, but resented. You begin to loathe the very ideal you should be pursuing with verve and joy.

Until you can be inspired by competence, it is best to fight those smaller battles. Continue to improve yourself in steps and reward yourself for those gains.

Moving On To Something Apart From The Dose Itself:

There is a lot to respond to in this chapter, and there are plenty of ideas worth considering. Were I to respond to each as much as I really wanted to, I might be here all night, and I have homework that needs doing. But I will allow myself to go over something quite tangential that Peterson mentions in this chapter.

During his discussion of focusing your aim and knowing what it is you really want, Peterson mentions an idea that I’ve come across once before in a Youtube video of his: that many people who claim to be atheists are, in fact, not. The given reason appears at first to be because of their adherence to relatively moral lifestyles. Now, I’ve tried to wrap my head around this concept in a couple ways, looking for an interpretation that doesn’t leave Peterson hanging on the worn old idea of if there is no God, and no received morality, what is to stop people from just going out and murdering people. I don’t think that this is what he is saying, or not quite, but a quick look at it (should the case be that this is his line of thinking) is merited.

Morality as Acts of Mental Sufficiency:

From an evolutionary and psychological point of view, a life that resembles a moral one is generally the same as one that takes the paths of least resistance (psychologically), working with the cognitive structures that have developed over the millennia, rather than against them. I don’t mean this in the sense that the moral act is revealed in actions that take the easy way out, but rather that it is that which coincides with a well-adjusted, secure, low-anxiety mental state. Aggression (whether physical, verbal, or political) simply doesn’t manifest if there is not something to defend or something to claim.

In a 1997 paper, B. Vitiell and D.M. Stoff describe two main forms of human aggression (specifically violent): impulsive-reactive-hostile-affective aggression and controlled-proactive-instrumental-predatory aggression. The former is in response to the hostility of another, whereas the latter is an initiated act so as to acquire something the aggressor currently lacks (resources, territory, etc.) There simply is no motive toward traditionally immoral behavior if the individual is in a secure, safe environment, if the individual is confident in the resources at his/her disposal, both mental and physical. Especially mental.

Immorality Besides Aggression:

Regarding other forms of what is generally considered to be immorality, these are generally socially restricted. Cheating on your spouse, stealing from a senile relative, lying to a teacher about your homework. There are repercussions to such acts (divorce settlements, jail time, and a call to your parents, respectively), often a good enough reason for individuals not to engage in them. But let’s look at the secure, safe individual. She will have no reason to cheat on a spouse, because either she will be satisfied with the relationship, or will have ended it reasonably. He will not steal from a senile relative because he already has the necessary security, whether financial or mental. The student will not need to lie about their homework, because they will have damn well done it, or will be in possession of a legitimate reason for not completing it, confident the teacher will understand their situation.

This Could Go On and On…

Though there is plenty more to say on such a topic (the study of ethics is ancient, after all), I’ll leave it at this for now. That my suspicions are that immoral acts are avoided not out of some deep-seated belief that hides within the not-so-ostensibly atheist individual, but because competency and social structures have replaced such beliefs. As I said though, I do not think Peterson has made this claim.

Putting the Pieces Together:

I think the key notion that Peterson appends to this first lends illumination to what he is getting at. He writes, ‘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 lied for the billions of years before that’ (130).

Basically, there is no escaping religious influence on an individual’s life, and so long as there is even a morsel of it, one cannot be truly, denotatively ‘atheist’ in earnest. Look at it this way. For the majority of human existence, some form of religion (or mythology) has shaped cultures, whether in stories of Anansi in West African folklore, tales of Athena in ancient Greece, or the figure of Christ in Western Christianity. These instructive tales have so permeated the human race for so long, that you would be hard-pressed to find a corner of civilization where you could shake their trails of influence. This is, in a way, an approach with a tinge of the deterministic in it.

So long as these religious/mythological shards are to be found in the area in which you spend your formative years, some part of you will be influenced by them. You might have never set foot in a church, but a mote of church might have stepped foot in you at some point: during a scene in a film, in the print of a newspaper, a Jehovah’s witness at your doorstep. Even in the very moment your atheist parents let you know about their worldview, you are exposed to the antithesis. I do not think this undermines the value of being a rational, well-adjusted atheist, but is rather an acknowledgement of influence. You might not eat sugar, but at some point, you have eaten something that has consumed sugar. This is what I think Jordan Peterson is saying here. I’m not sure I agree, but I am less opposed to this idea than that of the former one mentioned.

The Danger of Selective Quoting:

Statements like this are part of the reason Jordan Peterson is infamous in certain circles. He makes statements that seem absurd, if taken a certain way, or if some crucial follow-up statements are missing. Another example of this is the whole deal with ‘enforced monogamy.’ The nature of information sharing nowadays is so truncated that it often narrows in on the most salient statement made by an individual, the phrase that can turn the most heads, and ignores the subsequent clarification that the speaker often offers. Another recent example is Kanye West’s reported statement that slavery was a choice. While I am by no means attempting to support West, my point is simply that there are often additional assertions made to support the first. Well articulated or not, they bear inclusion and scrutiny when discussing apparently inflammatory or controversial statements.

Ok. That’s all out of the way.

I had intended to talk about more points from the chapter, but may save those for another time. I’ve already gone way over my intended word limit.


The paper I mentioned:

Vitiello B., Stoff D. M. (1997). Subtypes of aggression and their relevance to child psychiatry. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 36, 307–315


Links to Other Doses:

Dose 1

Dose 2

Dose 3