Jordan Peterson on Self-Improvement

The following is my transcription of part of a Jordan Peterson lecture during which he discusses the how and why of self-improvement. The excerpt begins 31 minutes, 55 seconds into lecture number 10 of his 2017 Personality and its Transformations course. View it here.

I tried to make the transcription as close to verbatim as possible (with exception of fillers, such as ‘uh’ and ‘um’), but the headings and subheadings are my own. They are included to facilitate navigation within the content. Jordan Peterson is an excellent speaker, and a lot of nuance is lost in the translation from video to written word. I encourage you to view the excerpt itself.

Why Should You Improve Yourself?

What could you do to improve yourself? Well, lets step one step backwards. The first question might be, why should you even bother improving yourself? And I think, the answer to that, is so you don’t suffer any more stupidly than you have to. And maybe so others don’t have to either. Its something like that. There’s a real injunction at the bottom of it. Its not some casual self-help doctrine. If you don’t organize yourself properly, you’ll pay for it, and in a big way, and so will the people around you. You could say, well I don’t care about that. But that’s actually not true. You do care about that, because if you’re in pain, you will care about it. So you do care bout it, even if its just that negative way. Its very rare that you can find someone who’s in excruciating pain who would say, “well, it would be no better if I was out of this.” Pain is one of those things that brings the idea that it would be better if it didn’t exist along with it. Its incontrovertible. [31:55-32:55]

How Do You Improve Yourself?

So, you get your act together so that there isn’t any more stupid pain around you than necessary. So then the question might be well, how do you go about getting your act together? And the answer to that, and this is a phenomenological idea too, is something like: Look around for something that bothers you, And see if you can fix it. [32:55-33:13]

Start with Your Room

So now you think, well, lets say you go into a room. Its quite fun to do it in a room. You’re sitting in room, your bedroom, you can sit there and just meditate on it. If I wanted to spend 10 minutes making this room better, what would I have to do? And you have to ask yourself that, right? Its not a command, its like a genuine question. And things will pop out in the room. Like, there’s a stack of paper over there that’s kind of bugging you. Maybe a little order there would be a good thing. And there’s some rubbish behind your computer monitor that you haven’t attended to in like six months. And the room would be slightly better if it was a little less dusty and the cables weren’t all tangled up the same way. If you allow yourself just to consider the expanse in which you exist in that moment there will be all sorts of things that pop out at you that you could just fix. And I might say if you were coming to me for psychotherapy the easiest thing for us to do first would just be to get you to organize your room. You think, well, is that psychotherapy? And the answer is well it depends on how you conceive the limits of your being. And, I would say, start where you can start. If something announces itself to you, which is a strange way of thinking about it, as in need of repair, that you could repair, then hey, fix it. You fix a hundred things like that, your life will be a lot different. [33:13-34:45]

Importance of Habits

I often tell people, too, fix the things you repeat every day, because people tend to think of those as trivial. You get up, you brush your teeth, you have your breakfast, you know, you have your routines that you go through every day. Well, those probably constitute 50% of your life. And people think well they’re mundane, I don’t need to pay attention to them. No, no, that’s exactly wrong. The things you do every day, those are the most important things you do, hands down. All you have to do is do the arithmetic. You figure it out right away. So, a hundred adjustments to your broader domain of being and there’s a lot less rubbish around and a lot fewer traps for you to step into. [34:45-35:29]

Jungian Notion of the Self

And so, that’s in keeping with Jung’s idea about, once you’ve got your mind and your emotions together, and once you’re acting that out, then you can extend what you’re willing to consider your self, and start fixing up the things that are a part of your broader extent. Now sometimes you don’t know how to do that. So imagine you’re walking down a street, and there’s this guy who’s like alcoholic and schizophrenic and he’s been on the streets for 10 years. And he sort of stumbles toward you and, you know, incoherently mutters something. That’s a problem! And, it would be good if you could fix it, but you haven’t got a clue about how to fix that. You just walk around that, and go find something that you could fix. Because if you muck about in that, not only is it unlikely that you will help that person, but its very likely that you’ll get hurt yourself. So, just, you know, while you’re experiencing things announce themselves as being in-need of repair, it doesn’t mean its you, then and there, that should repair them. You have to have some humility. You know, you don’t walk up to a helicopter that isn’t working and just start tinkering away with it. You have to stay within your domain of competence. But most of the time, if people look at their lives, you know, its a very interesting thing to do. I like the idea of the room, because you can do that at the drop of a hat. You know, you go back to where you live, and sit down and think, I’m going to make this place better for half an hour. [35:29-36:56]

The Mind’s Inherent Goal-orientation

What should I do? You have to ask. And things will just pop up like mad, and its partly because your mind is a very strange thing. As soon as you give it an aim, a genuine aim, it’ll reconfigure the world in keeping with that aim. That’s actually how you see to begin with. So, if you set it a task, you have to be genuine about it, which is why you have to bring your thoughts and emotions together, and then you have to get them in your body, so you’re acting consistently, you have to be genuine about the aim. But once you aim, the world will reconfigure itself around that aim. Its very strange, and its technically true. You know the best example of that. You all have seen this video, where you watch the basketballs being tossed back and forth between members of the white team versus the black team. And while you’re doing that a gorilla walks up into the middle of the video and you don’t see it. You know, if you thought about that experiment for about five years, that would be about the right amount of time to spend thinking about it. Because what that shows you is that you see what you aim at. And if you can get one thing through your head as a consequence of even being in university that would be a good one. [36:56-38:09]

You See What You Aim At

One inference you might draw from that is, be careful what you aim at. Right? What you aim at determines the way the world manifests itself to you. And so, if the world is manifesting itself to you in a very negative way, one thing to ask is, are you aiming at the right thing? You know, I’m not trying to reduce everyone’s problems to an improper aim. People get cut off at the knees for all sorts of reasons. They get sick. They have accidents. There’s a random element to being. That’s for sure. And so you don’t want to take anything, even that particular phrase, too far. You want to bind it with the fact that random things do happen to people. But its still a great thing to ask. [38:09-38:55]

Recall the question: Are you aiming at the right thing?

As far as I can tell (this is in keeping with Jordan Peterson’s larger philosophy), the best way to aim is to choose a difficult problem or high aspiration for your life, and steadily focus on the steps required to get there.