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. You can find part 1 of this chapter through this link.
The power of orienting yourself toward a goal is that it ultimately requires you to integrate parts of yourself that might otherwise never be integrated. Disintegrated parts of the self are dangerous because they lack the direction that a unified person brings to their affairs.
Peterson’s call to work as hard as you can at something is a sort of benevolent crisis. Attempting something grand results in an exertion that requires a unified person, allowing people to get a feel for who they really are without having to go through a crisis to get to it.
And that’s good, because a crisis comes with its own destructive force. It’s one thing to find out that you are less capable and less virtuous than you thought on a good day when your efforts fail, but it’s murderous to find it out when you’re stranded and at the end of your rope.
That’s a lesson I wish I had learned younger, but it’s one that still promises to help me improve.
People sometimes called me smart, back when I used to go out and about before the COVID lockdowns. I presume there’s some truth to that, in part because my life path has plenty of things you rarely get to do if you’re not smart (e.g. I’m graduating with an advanced degree in a couple months, I’ve written over a million words in my life and read at least a hundred times as many), but I don’t know that I’m more than a smidge smarter than average.
I think the truth is closer to me being self-organized, in part by force. When I was younger, I went through some traumatic events (though minor compared to what many people have gone through) that required me to choose between giving up on my dreams or pushing ahead, and I pushed ahead.
…people believe that the things discipline imposed by choice prevents us from doing will somehow be lost forever. It is this belief, in large part—often expressed with regard to creativity—that makes so many parents afraid of damaging their children by disciplining them.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One consequence of that is that I strive constantly. I don’t always strive for the things that are best for me; there’s a consequence of being self-organized. But I try to strive for things which are at least positive for someone, or which put me through my paces.
When I was still teaching, I saw my students struggle with this a lot. One problem facing the modern student is that they often have not acquainted themselves with discipline. This doesn’t mean that they’ve never been punished for anything, just that they don’t have the relationship between their actions and outcomes that might help give them further insight to the future.
Discipline closes off paths.
When we view that as a problem, we reject discipline, which puts us at odds with self-organization.
But the result of closing off paths can be positive. When we aim at an experiential life that is full of everything, we lose sight of that. For instance, I am very unlikely to know what doing drugs feels like in my life. I’ve never felt compelled by them, and I find them at odds with my faith.
The likelihood that missing out on that is bad for me in the long run seems quite low.
Further, I closed that path for myself. There is nothing stopping me from going down it (except perhaps the law, but there seems to be some mediocrity in the enforcement of drug laws where I live), but my ability to take that path remains, should I voluntarily and foolishly choose to do so.
And that’s a major distinction. You give nothing up by integrating your personality and mastering your impulses. You gain composure and resolve.
Choosing the Game
But why do you want the resolve? What aim do you seek?
Well, an obvious goal would be living in such a way that you can satisfy your desires, but there’s danger there. Desires come and go, and what fills a desire may come with a consequence of misery greater than the fulfilled desire warrants.
For instance, I watch what I eat in the sense that I need to see it so I can shove it in my mouth. Even when I’m disciplined with what I eat, which is now most of the time, I’m a fast eater and practically a force of nature when it comes to clearing plates.
But that strategy backfires. As much as I benefit from having a little more free time and the productivity that offers, I need to be careful about not only what I eat but the volume and force myself to slow down when I’d consume so much that I become uncomfortable.
Clearly, there is a strategy of prudence that would be of benefit, as always.
The problem is that it comes with tradeoffs. For instance, I can slow myself down more easily when I eat in the company of other people, because balancing the eating with social interactions satisfies two needs instead of one.
This still means that there are strategies which have value, and strategies that do not.
It is certainly possible—and reasonable—to have some doubt and to argue about which game might best be played here and now; but it is not reasonable to state that all games are therefore unnecessary.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
A danger here is losing sight of a useful strategy either by spending too much time in consideration of all strategies (i.e. not paying attention to limiting factors and goals when considering strategies and weighing things too equally) or by simply rejecting the idea that the comparison matters.
A disciplined person who can pick a strategy and adhere to it but who does not understand the point of a strategy at all will find themselves in trouble. The point of orienting yourself toward something that consumes your effort is to orient yourself toward something of worth.
Don’t overlook the point of having a goal. It’s not just the effort, but the striving.
One way to prevent oneself from straying into error is to orient oneself within a framework of tradition. This gives great opportunities for growth within a safe environment.
Initially, the apprentice must become a servant of tradition, of structure, and of dogma, just as the child who wants to play must follow the rules of the game.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Tradition’s power comes from the fact that it is the aggregate knowledge of previously successful game-players, to borrow Peterson’s analogy.
Using tradition permits one to extend oneself, which is certainly helpful for a striver. However, unlike the normal extension into chaos, this extension reaches toward order. This is not to say that all tradition is order; mysteries exist in most established traditions and are a way of integrating the unknown into the structures of the known.
However, the point of tradition is that it permits striving within a safe and ordered space. Those who walk the path of tradition do not need to confront chaos (at least outside the ordinary chaos of life) until they have reached a point where they are sufficiently strong to slay the dragons they will find there.
The image of the apprentice is apt, because this process occurs through mentorship (either directly or by proxy), and the role of one walking first walking the path of tradition is to figure out what the tradition is.
It’s not so clear that we know what tradition is. We often think of it as backward and stultified and also the generic starting point for all things. But things do not begin with tradition. Tradition exists only because past striving has brought it into existence, and without deliberate pursuit on behalf of each generation tradition will fall away.
However, not all tradition is good. The malicious or the misguided can inject elements of their own vices into tradition. Further, as transcendent as tradition can become, there has never been a human who can transcend the limitations of existence.
Tradition, by merit of coming from the past, is insufficient for the future. This does not mean that it has no place. It simply means that it will need to be refined through practice.
The master, who is the rightful product of apprenticeship, is, however, no longer the servant of dogma.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The problem with tradition is that you eventually wind up in unexplored territory. Even the mystics who make it their job to wander into primordial chaos cannot fully comprehend the extent of what awaits them outside. There are few heroes who can complete the task of another hero; it is almost too much for a hero to carry their own burden.
A consequence of this is that one who has submitted to tradition must also recognize that this submission cannot lead them all the way to their God-ordained potential. They may function entirely within the boundaries of tradition, purifying and refining things that have been lost or forgotten, but they will not be able to do this without understanding what the truth really is.
One cannot skip straight to this step. The ordering and reordering of things is too complex a task for a novice, and may very well be the undoing of many masters.
A consequence of that is the requirement in most places to undergo a process of accreditation before society permits one to wield authority. In the modern day, this usually takes the form of a degree. In older times, this would have been a more traditional mentorship and apprenticeship process.
Whether the rules required to be recognized as a master worthy of stepping beyond the rigid boundaries of tradition are sufficient for the task depends on the society. For instance, our academic-focused standards often ignore critical issues surrounding the character and temperament of those who we place in positions of foremost authority.
Further, it’s not even clear that all standards are valid. There is a major crisis in the current day with academics whose highest threshold to pass has been something well below what we would consider a suitable level of achievement to turn them into masters. If they lack both character and temperament, they may at least have knowledge and the wisdom of experience, but when all these traits are absent we set ourselves up for disaster.
This is one place where a true master, the embodiment of the archetypal Sage, needs to come in and restore tradition by returning the standards to a level that can permit honest engagement with the problems that reside in the universe.
However, mastery isn’t about tradition alone. Those who have mastered the fundamental problems they face provide themselves with a powerful tool for creation.
It is not strictly possible to create beyond the borders of the mundane. But great artists, scientists, and thinkers can push the limits well beyond the expectations we have for the mundane.
I write messages to people on every continent (except maybe Antarctica, but the limit there is audience and not availability), and sometimes they write back.
That is an achievement only possible because of people who have mastered their disciplines and set their goal upon something greater than themselves, or at least something greater than they were at the time they set their goal.
You aim for something greater than yourself because it provides you with a center. Pushing yourself to the limits forces you to recreate yourself.
This positive recreation involves overcoming the parts of yourself that would let you fail. This protects you from future crises, but it also makes you stronger and more whole as a person.
This strength permits you to become something greater than you were. Further, the profits of your endeavors may be tangible, depending on your aim, and, if you accord yourself in line with moral virtue, this is the path to both financial and spiritual wealth.