In this 3rd installment for Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, I’ll explore my thoughts to Rule 7: “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient”.

Peterson begins by elaborating on the notion that humans delay gratification, where it is this conscious delaying of gratification which separates us from animals. Delayed gratification is synonymous to sacrificing and suffering in the now for a reward later.

You might have heard of “The Stanford marshmallow experiment” that was conducted by Walter Mischel, a psychology professor in Stanford University. In the study, a child was offered a choice between a small but immediate reward now, or two small rewards if they were to wait for a period of time. They let the children contemplate for 15 minutes and they would return, having in hand a marshmallow or pretzel stick if the children waited for 15 minutes. What is fascinating is that the results of this study did not end here, but they followed the lives of these children as they grew up. The ones who overcame immediate gratification had better life outcomes – better SAT scores, educational attainment, and body mass index (BMI).

It is behaviorally programmed in animals to save up, like beavers in building a dam, however it is not to the extent of humans where we are able to consciously delay gratification. In a lot of ways, saving for the future is very much a survival instinct. The somewhat annoying Saber toothed squirrel ‘Scrat’ in ‘Ice Age’ endeavours to save acorns for the winter, lest he dies from the harsh bleakness that the winter will bring.

Peterson comes to make the point that our social complexities create this behaviour of delayed gratification compared to animals. Due to our modern systems of education as well as economics, we are able to extend delayed gratification to many years. We can keep money in the bank with some degree of certainty, as well as undertake many years of formal education to potentially earn a higher salary in the future.

This desire for saving, delayed gratification, is tied with our survival. And for us to survive, selfishness is inevitable. Our human selfishness is inextricable with survival and hence our nature. A lot of what we do in our life involves selfish motives. One of these avenues where selfishness is apparent is in selfish sharing. In this way, a lot of human generosity and sharing with others can be seen as a selfish gain to boost our self image. We hear stories of wealthy people donating large sums of money for charity, often not with the pure motive of helping others but with the motive of other people to see how generous they are. Much of private business generosity is similar in this regard, where they state boldly on a product that they will donate x cents for every unit that you buy, also having this element of improving their self image that they too are generous and doing good to others. You are more than welcome to make this indictment on me writing this blog/online journal as well, as I am human too.

It is no wonder that the study of economics assumes the axiom of the selfishness of each economic agent, each person. The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, put into existence the revolutionary notion that the needs of the market as a whole is resolved by each selfish individual doing their part in providing for their own family. It is this ecosystem of selfishness that by the virtue of trading we are able to improve the living standards of society as a whole. This idea of selfish sharing has quite overarching consequences, driving much of human ethics and morality. A lot of our sharing with the world is expedient – for our own selfish gain, our own benefit, rather than what is right, just or true. Therefore, it is arduous to share without any strings attached, to expect nothing in return. It is very easy to fool ourselves that we share without any strings attached. Expedience is pervasive, very much in part because it is necessary for human subsistence.

“Expedience – that’s hiding all the skeletons in the closet. That’s covering the blood you just spilled with a carpet. That’s avoiding responsibility. It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong. It’s wrong because mere expedience, multiplied by many repetitions, produces the character of a demon. It’s wrong because expedience merely transfers the curse on your head to someone else, or to your future self, in a manner that will make your future, and the future generally, worse instead of better.”

Jordan Peterson, 12 rules for life, p.200

“Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world.”


So what then? Peterson urges us to pursue what is meaningful. To transcend our own selfish interests and to serve others, to serve a greater purpose than our own self. To try our best to not lie to ourselves or to others and tell the truth, to do good to others without expecting anything in return. These verses in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount encapsulates this notion quite well:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:27-36 (ESV)

“Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient”.