’12 Rules for Life’. Jordan B Peterson – 4

Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today.

As a clinical psychologist Peterson has spent 20 hours a week for 25 years listening to people tell him about their lives. The entire gamut of people from those who were barely hanging on to the bottom of the world up to people who were so successful that you could hardly believe. Being a clinical psychologist he says is fascinating because it’s like being immersed in a Dostoevskyan novel all the time. It’s amazing what people will tell you when you listen. People are so interesting and peculiar, unlikely creatures like penguins or rhinoceroses, or ostriches.

One such intriguing person was an old financier who liked mathematics and would make gold pendants of beautiful equations to give people. This man told Peterson about the Pareto distribution. The man had studied psychology when he was younger and was used to the generally accepted rule of average. In other words most human characteristics were normally distributed, so there was a norm and an extreme, for example most people are average height and most people are average weight. Psychologists tended to work on the basis that it applied universally but it doesn’t. You have probably heard of the 80/20 rule. You wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time, 20% of the workers in a company do 80% of the work. The actual rule is more exponential and has wide ranging applications, from the size of cities to the mass of stars. It is called the Pareto distribution.

The Pareto distribution is the rule that in a given domain the square root of the number of people operating in that domain do half of the work, so if you have 100 employees 10 of them do the work. If you have 1,000 then 30 people do. If you have 10,000 then it’s 100. It is a very reliable rule. Like the Matthew principle (to those who have everything more will be given, to those who have nothing all will be taken away) It is not a socio-cultural construct, it applies to many things, for example all creative products, number of records made, songs written, wealth. It is a natural law, if modified it will just go back to its state. There is always a landscape of inequality, but it doesn’t mean you should do nothing about it. We don’t know technically how much inequality there needs to be to generate wealth. It is inevitable, but we don’t know how to regulate it.

With regard to ‘Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today’, there are always people who are better at something than you are. If you are not careful about who you compare yourself to you can get jealous and bitter and resentful. When you’re young you can’t not compare yourself to successful people because you wouldn’t have anything to aim at.

Peterson talks about Jung’s theory that the Book of Revelation was appended to the Bible because the Christ in the Gospels was too merciful. And because we needed to expect more from ourselves, the more frightening book of Revelation had Christ come back as an ideal, as a judge. You are not as good as your ideal. And so an ideal is always a judge. You always fall short of the ideal. So how do you have the benefits of an ideal without having the crushing blow that goes along with having the judge that always regards you as insufficient? You need a goal, but it has to be possible in the short term. You can set a long term high aim. And you have short term goals that are difficult enough to stretch you. The gauging of the aims is so important, but you can aim high in the long term because the Pareto distribution kicks in and your success builds on itself and before you know it you’re achieving things that you didn’t think possible.

Also you can’t compare yourself to others so easily once you are an adult, as you are such a complex individual by then with your idiosyncratic history, that you can only really compare yourself to your previous activity. Aim high, but use yourself as your control. make today a tiny increment better than yesterday. You define better yourself. There doesn’t need to be an imposition of external morality. Incremental improvement is unstoppable, and Peterson has seen that in people’s lives continually. The goal should be: ‘How could I conceive of my life so that if I had that life it would clearly be worth living so that I wouldn’t have to be bitter; resentful; deceitful; arrogant and vengeful?’ That’s the bottom line because that’s what endless failure does to you, and what life without purpose does to you, because life is very hard. You have to ask what mode of being would justify my suffering? Peterson quotes Nietzsche who said “He who has a ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how'” It is worth thinking about. So you can ask yourself ‘How do I manage all this misery and suffering and futility?’ Well, I need to figure out what I would have to do in order to make that clearly worth while? ‘Well, I can have my goal  and all I have to do is be a little bit better than my miserable self yesterday. You can incrementally work towards it and you can succeed.’

It’s a fun book. It is a humble work of art with its tactile gold lettering, its pristine pearl-white chalky cover and drawings made specially for each chapter. It subtly tempts you towards character forming aspiration, not just for yourself but also to uplift the world, who knows, even the universe. Reading it gives me that rare feeling that I am taking good care of myself. Such an elusive feeling these days, but essential.

Chapter 5 tomorrow!