I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), breaking down each chapter into halves so I can give each a fair treatment. I just finished the last part of the chapter on abandoning ideology.
Today I’m looking at the chapter on using effort to get what you want. As expected, it starts simple, but Peterson quickly takes it in novel directions.
What Has Value
Heat and pressure transform the base matter of common coal into the crystalline perfection and rare value of the diamond. The same can be said of a person. We know that the multiple forces operating in the human soul are often not aligned with one another.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One difficulty in understanding value is figuring out the utility of a thing.
This is difficult because circumstances change, and what is desirable in one case is not desirable in another.
But a counter-point to this is that the rarer something is and the harder to gain, the more value it has. This does not mean that the value is equal to the cost invested in creating something, but rather that there is a scarcity issue for these objects. There isn’t always demand, but there’s rarely supply.
How does this correspond to people?
People gain value by their ability to tackle hard things and integrate the disparate elements of their psyche. This prepares them to be emotionally stable and also to undertake endeavors that seem–or are, though the role of perception is not to be downplayed–difficult or dangerous.
This is always necessary, because unlike the demand for diamonds which fluctuates, the demand for individuals who can reach the outer boundaries of human potential is always high. This is a consequence of entropy, which is a core part of existence itself.
Peterson points out the common theories in psychology that refer to individuals as a collection of, for lack of a better term, spirits. Small and large motivational forces that often are unconscious drive us. When we have mastered ourselves and oriented ourselves toward a goal, we are powerful. We might not overcome everything, but we certainly are anything but weak.
Jung calls this process integration, and Peterson uses the same term. Integrating the psyche involves several distinct steps, but one of the easiest ways to start this process is to step out of the comfort zone and do something hard.
The Hero’s Journey
Although Peterson hasn’t mentioned Joseph Campbell in this chapter yet, I think there’s some value in looking at Campbell’s monomyth.
Before doing so, I should include a caveat. Campbell focused on myth and stories, not the human psyche. I also consider him a fool in many aspects, though that does not mean that he is never right. While Campbell studied Jung, he incorporated several ideas that we might call New Age. One consequence of this is a failure to understand much of what he said within his own context, which led to the formulation of the modern concept of the Hero’s Journey by other scholars as much as by Campbell himself.
The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal structure, something that appears in most stories throughout history and humanity, to where deviations from the Hero’s Journey are rare (and, I would posit, typically nothing more than themes on the Hero’s Journey to replace the traditional hero with a tragic or anti-heroic model, but this is not the time for that discussion).
One consequence of that and several other observations is that the Hero’s Journey is a psychologically valid model to understand our conceptualization of the universe, so long as we remember to take our final conclusions with a grain of salt when we do so.
One idea of the Hero’s Journey that Peterson often touches on is that people find the treasure they seek in an abyss which can be understood metaphorically or literally to represent a rescue of the father figure (as in the Horus myth which Peterson brought up earlier in Beyond Order).
One consequence of fully applying yourself to a task is that it will ultimately reflect the Hero’s Journey. Starting from a place of safety that cannot last forever, the hero seeks something greater after hearing a call to adventure. They need to grow and develop along the way, usually making friends or availing themselves of a mentor. In the last act, they complete their journey by overcoming a great journey, and return to a more stable life in an improved world.
As someone who has undertaken multiple Hero’s Journey cycles in his life (including finding God, completing two degree programs, being a first-year schoolteacher, and writing two novels that I still need to do revisions on), I can say that every time I complete such a cycle I am permanently changed for the better.
This is because each Hero’s Journey is a process of integration by necessity. It requires finding strengths and uncovering mysteries that were previously unknown to you while tempering yourself by the removal of flaws and weaknesses.
The Importance of Aim
One thing that comes up again and again in Beyond Order is the idea of aim.
Aim. Point. All this is part of maturation and discipline, and something to be properly valued. If you aim at nothing, you become plagued by everything.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One consequence of life is that you might not get to have a single aim. Due to tragedy, opportunity, or some mixture of the two a life will never be truly monolithic.
As a result, it’s easy to become aimless.
But aimlessness breeds bad habit. If you are to work as hard as you can, you need an aim. The consequences of working without aiming are burnout and resentment. It is hardly possible to make yourself more integrated by weakening yourself through an arduous struggle that doesn’t lead anywhere.
One thing that Peterson is not saying and which is important to avoid is the idea that life has only one factor. You will need to discipline yourself in the pursuit of something greater than your current self to develop, but you will never be something other than a human. That means that you should have parts of your life that are outside your aim, but which nonetheless build you up.
It also means that it’s better to aim at something than to meander through indecision. However, it’s not always clear what the highest value is. The solution is to aim anyway at the best thing that seems currently achievable. If you strengthen yourself, you can do more stuff later.
The Cynic’s Death
Indecision seems dangerous because it leads to short-term problems, but there’s a deeper danger at its roots. The temporary setbacks brought about by indecision and confused by the reality that there are often multiple solutions to a problem can lead to a cynicism about the universe.
We could conclude from that lack of specific or ideal value that nothing matters more than anything else—or to draw the even more hopeless allied conclusion that nothing therefore matters at all.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Cynicism is deadly.
The problem with the cynical approach to reality that rejects meaning is that it leads to escalating disintegration.
This is a death spiral, should external forces not intervene.
When nothing holds meaning, all that remains are the negative consequences of decisions. And every decision has a negative consequence. Sometimes it’s a bearable one, since the rewards outweigh the costs, and sometimes the negative consequences are viewed in light of wisdom as a positive reward, as in the case of the person who avoids drink and enjoys better health for it.
The consequence of cynicism is to feel every suffering but never rejoice with any praise. It is the opposite of being elevated to see things from the perspective of life.