Authors: Jordan B. Peterson
It is far more likely that a given individual has just decided to reject the path upward, because of its difficulty. Perhaps that should even be your default assumption, when faced with such a situation. That’s too harsh, you think. You might be right. Maybe that’s a step too far. But consider this: failure is easy to understand. No explanation for its existence is required. In the same manner, fear, hatred, addiction, promiscuity, betrayal and deception require no explanation. It’s not the existence of vice, or the indulgence in it, that requires explanation. Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too. It’s easier not to shoulder a burden. It’s easier not to think, and not to do, and not to care. It’s easier to put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today, and drown the upcoming months and years in today’s cheap pleasures. As the infamous father of the Simpson clan puts it, immediately prior to downing a jar of mayonnaise and vodka, “That’s a problem for Future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy!”
How do I know that your suffering is not the demand of martyrdom for my resources, so that you can oh-so-momentarily stave off the inevitable? Maybe you have even moved beyond caring about the impending collapse, but don’t yet want to admit it. Maybe my help won’t rectify anything—can’t rectify anything—but it does keep that too-terrible, too-personal realization temporarily at bay. Maybe your
misery is a demand placed on me so that I fail too, so that the gap you so painfully feel between us can be reduced, while you degenerate and sink. How do I know that you would refuse to play such a game? How do I know that I am not myself merely pretending to be responsible, while pointlessly “helping” you, so that
don’t have to do something truly difficult—and genuinely possible?
Maybe your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred for those who rose upward while you waited and sank. Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live. Maybe your willingness to suffer in failure is inexhaustible, given what you use that suffering to prove. Maybe it’s your revenge on Being. How exactly should I befriend you when you’re in such a place? How exactly could I?
Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable. To fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time. And once someone has spent enough time cultivating bad habits and biding their time, they are much diminished. Much of what they could have been has dissipated, and much of the less that they have become is now real. Things fall apart, of their own accord, but the sins of men speed their degeneration. And then comes the flood.
I am not saying that there is no hope of redemption. But it is much harder to extract someone from a chasm than to lift him from a ditch. And some chasms are very deep. And there’s not much left of the body at the bottom.
Maybe I should at least wait, to help you, until it’s clear that you want to be helped. Carl Rogers, the famous humanistic psychologist, believed it was impossible to start a therapeutic relationship if the person seeking help did not want to improve.
Rogers believed it was impossible to convince someone to change for the better. The desire to improve was, instead, the precondition for progress. I’ve had court-mandated psychotherapy clients. They did not want my help. They were forced to seek it. It did not work. It was a travesty.
If I stay in an unhealthy relationship with you, perhaps it’s because I’m too weak-willed and indecisive to leave, but I don’t want to know
it. Thus, I continue helping you, and console myself with my pointless martyrdom. Maybe I can then conclude, about myself, “Someone that self-sacrificing, that willing to help someone—that has to be a good person.” Not so. It might be just a person trying to look good pretending to solve what appears to be a difficult problem instead of actually being good and addressing something real.
Maybe instead of continuing our friendship I should just go off somewhere, get my act together, and lead by example.
And none of this is a justification for abandoning those in real need to pursue your narrow, blind ambition, in case it has to be said.
Here’s something to consider: If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself? You might say: out of loyalty. Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse. It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you. It’s appropriate and praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve.
If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not. This will help bolster your resolve to do what you should do, in the most appropriate and careful manner. People who are not aiming up will do the opposite. They will offer a former smoker a cigarette and a former alcoholic a beer. They will become jealous when you succeed, or do something pristine. They will withdraw their presence or support, or actively punish you for it. They will over-ride your accomplishment with a past action, real or imaginary, of their own. Maybe they are trying to test you, to see if
your resolve is real, to see if you are genuine. But mostly they are dragging you down because your new improvements cast their faults in an even dimmer light.
It is for this reason that every good example is a fateful challenge, and every hero, a judge. Michelangelo’s great perfect marble David cries out to its observer: “You could be more than you are.” When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their souls, where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable. You play Abel to their Cain. You remind them that they ceased caring not because of life’s horrors, which are undeniable, but because they do not want to lift the world up on to their shoulders, where it belongs.
Don’t think that it is easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. A good, healthy person is an ideal. It requires strength and daring to stand up near such a person. Have some humility. Have some courage. Use your judgment, and protect yourself from too-uncritical compassion and pity.
Make friends with people who want the best for you.
It was easier for people to be good at something when more of us lived in small, rural communities. Someone could be homecoming queen. Someone else could be spelling-bee champ, math whiz or basketball star. There were only one or two mechanics and a couple of teachers. In each of their domains, these local heroes had the opportunity to enjoy the serotonin-fuelled confidence of the victor. It may be for that reason that people who were born in small towns are statistically overrepresented among the eminent.
If you’re one in a million now, but originated in modern New York, there’s twenty of you—and most of us now live in cities. What’s more, we have become digitally connected to the entire seven billion. 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. You’re a decent guitar player, but you’re not Jimmy Page or Jack White. You’re almost certainly not even going to rock your local pub. You’re a good cook, but there are many great chefs. Your mother’s recipe for fish heads and rice, no matter how celebrated in her village of origin, doesn’t cut it in these days of grapefruit foam and Scotch/tobacco ice-cream. Some Mafia don has a tackier yacht. Some obsessive CEO has a more complicated self-winding watch, kept in his more valuable mechanical hardwood-and-steel automatic self-winding watch case. Even the most stunning Hollywood actress eventually transforms into the Evil Queen, on eternal, paranoid watch for the new Snow White. 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. They die there. In consequence, the self-denigrating voice in the minds of people weaves a devastating tale. Life is a zero-sum game. Worthlessness is the default condition. What but willful blindness could possibly shelter people from such withering criticism? It is for such reasons that a whole
generation of social psychologists recommended “positive illusions” as the only reliable route to mental health.
Their credo? Let a lie be your umbrella. A more dismal, wretched, pessimistic philosophy can hardly be imagined: things are so terrible that only delusion can save you.
Here is an alternative approach (and one that requires no illusions). 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.
There will always be people better than you—
that’s a cliché of nihilism, like the phrase,
In a million years, who’s going to know the difference?
The proper response to that statement is not,
Well, then, everything is meaningless.
Any idiot can choose a frame of time within which nothing matters.
Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.
Standards of better or worse are not illusory or unnecessary. If you hadn’t decided that what you are doing right now was better than the alternatives, you wouldn’t be doing it. The idea of a value-free choice is a contradiction in terms. 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. Differentials in quality are omnipresent. 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? Where are the flaws in the apparently impeccable logic of its message?
We might start by considering 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.
To begin with, there is not just one game at which to succeed or fail. There are many games and, more specifically, many good games—games that match your talents, involve you productively with other people, and sustain and even improve themselves across time. Lawyer is a good game. So is plumber, physician, carpenter, or schoolteacher. The world allows for many ways of Being. If you don’t succeed at one, you can try another. You can pick something better matched to your unique mix of strengths, weaknesses and situation. Furthermore, if changing games does not work, you can invent a new one. I recently watched a talent show featuring a mime who taped his mouth shut and did something ridiculous with oven mitts. That was unexpected. That was original. It seemed to be working for him.
It’s also 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. Imagine that you are very good at some, middling at others, and terrible at the remainder. Perhaps that’s how it should be. You might object: I should be winning at everything! But winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult. You might be winning but you’re not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning. Should victory in the present always take precedence over trajectory across time?
Finally, 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. Your colleague outperforms you at work. His wife, however, is having an affair, while your marriage is stable and happy. Who has it better? The celebrity you admire is a chronic drunk driver and bigot. Is his life truly preferable to yours?
When the internal critic puts you down using such comparisons, here’s how it operates: First, it selects a single, arbitrary domain of comparison (fame, maybe, or power). Then it acts as if that domain is the only one that is relevant. Then it contrasts you unfavourably with someone truly stellar, within that domain. It can take that final step even further, using the unbridgeable gap between you and its target of comparison as evidence for the fundamental injustice of life. That way your motivation to do anything at all can be most effectively undermined. Those who accept such an approach to self-evaluation certainly can’t be accused of making things too easy for themselves. But it’s just as big a problem to make things too difficult.
When we are very young we are neither individual nor informed. We have not had the time nor gained the wisdom to develop our own standards. In consequence, we must compare ourselves to others, because standards are necessary. Without them, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. As we mature we become, by contrast, increasingly individual and unique. The conditions of our lives become more and more personal and less and less comparable with those of others. Symbolically speaking, this means we must leave the house ruled by our father, and confront the chaos of our individual Being. We must take note of our disarray, without completely abandoning that father in the process. We must then rediscover the values of our culture—veiled from us by our ignorance, hidden in the dusty treasure-trove of the past—rescue them, and integrate them into our own lives. This is what gives existence its full and necessary meaning.
Who are you? You think you know, but maybe you don’t. You are, for example, neither your own master, nor your own slave. You cannot easily tell yourself what to do and compel your own obedience (any
more than you can easily tell your husband, wife, son or daughter what to do, and compel theirs). You are interested in some things and not in others. You can shape that interest, but there are limits. Some activities will always engage you, and others simply will not.
You have a nature. You can play the tyrant to it, but you will certainly rebel. How hard can you force yourself to work and sustain your desire to work? How much can you sacrifice to your partner before generosity turns to resentment? 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? How must you treat yourself, so you won’t kick over the traces and smash up your corral? 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
want. I’m not talking about what other people require from you, or your duties to them. I’m talking about determining the nature of your moral obligation, to yourself.
might enter into it, because you are nested within a network of social obligations.
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. If you allowed your dark and unspoken desires for your partner, for example, to manifest themselves—if you were even willing to consider them—you might discover that they were not so dark, given the light of day. You might discover, instead, that you
were just afraid and, so, pretending to be moral. You might find that getting what you actually desire would stop you from being tempted and straying. Are you so sure that your partner would be unhappy if more of you rose to the surface? The femme fatale and the anti-hero are sexually attractive for a reason.…
How do you need to be spoken to? What do you need to take from people? 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. Why? 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.