Here’s the 2nd installment 12 Rules of life by Jordan Peterson: feel free to read my first post on Rule 8. Here I’ll provide my thoughts about Rule 4:

“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone is today.”

As Peterson said, comparison is an innate human trait, being engrained in all societies and cultures. In many regards, comparison is a necessary trait for survival. Only by comparing or analysing ourselves with others can we evaluate with some degree of certainty if we can arise out victorious.

From a young age many of us are unknowingly thrusted into comparing ourselves against others through the ‘mini’ games that encompass life – whether we like it or not. At the beginning of our lives we are more or less in very much the same stage of life as our peers. We go through each year level doing the same subjects, the same extracurricular activities. So we inevitably compare, because without comparison, there simply are no sense of standards. Who got the highest mark? Who runs the fastest? Who plays their instrument the best? These questions will keep pilling on. As we get older and older, these games start to fan out, and the number of games exponentially increase. Each game requires its own costs (time and resources) and may lead to a positive outcome (gaining experience, money, fame, the list goes on and on). Adopting the mindset of our younger self, it is natural that we want to play all these games, as well as win in all of them. However, this is not only humanly impossible, but also horribly demoralising. Life is definitely too short to fight all these battles. Our mindset needs to shift to choosing which game to play, or even who’s game to play. As we get older, people specialise and do different things. We are no longer comparing apples with apples anymore. But apples with oranges.

Peterson introduces the idea of a dichotomy of self, where our conflict between our plans and actions can be thought of our minds encompassing a boss and an employee. As you’d expect, this relationship is a tumultuous one. We are horrible employees. Lazy, unmotivated, and oftentimes incapable to reason with ourselves to do what we want. Our noncompliance is made worse by a despotic and demanding boss, incessantly yelling at us whenever mistakes are made. Within this conflicting relationship within ourselves, we observe the lack of self control. I would take it a step further than Peterson, where our lack of self control is actually due to our total depravity – our sin. As Paul says in Romans:

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Romans 7:18-19 (ESV)

We are not able to do what we plan out to do, even to our own standards, let alone the standard of Christ.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

Romans 3:23 (ESV)

In this way, a middle ground needs to be achieved – we must negotiate and compromise with ourselves such that a sustainable and yet pragmatic outcome arises. Very far from perfect, but at the end of the day we are but fragile humans.

Imagine if a boss, one part of your brain, is yelling at your incompetency in the tiny office that you have which is your brain. This seem stressful enough, right? Then door slams open, and one by one the whole board of the company starts flooding into your tiny little suffocating office. A single yelling from your boss now amalgamates into that of a cacophonous quarrel. You can’t hear yourself think, there is no direction and a lot of uncertainty. More voices in this already strenuous relationship of boss and employee will lead to greater stress, anxiety, fatigue and eventually burnout. And such is the result of hypercritical comparison with others.

We come back to the question – why do we compare ourselves with others? As we move to an adult stage, comparison becomes less and less relevant because a common standard (for instance leaving school) slowly fades away. We all take our own disparate paths, where each of us will have our own strengths and weaknesses. We can’t use the prices of apples for oranges, unless the apples are oranges.

Hence, the only reasonable worldly benchmark is who you are yesterday. In ‘Atomic Habits‘ by James Clear, it is the consistency of repetitious actions, no matter how small, that can lead to improvement. Through the compound interest of habits do we refine our mistakes, and hope to improve ourselves. In our world of instant gratification, where YouTube tempts you at all points of the day being in COVID-19 lockdown, it is quite difficult to spend our time constructively. In our post modern world, there is this misconception that what feels good, is necessarily good for us. This shouldn’t be the case at all! A parent would not give candy to their children every single day, would they? What tastes sweet in the present often leads to painful cavities in the future. What is ultimately good for us is often not the candy – the bells and whistles of life – but rather that which is simple, like vegetables and water. It is through consistency in the mundane that we can breed excellence.

If we think of our life, lets define our competency with arbitrary units in a specific field of life as a continuous function f (t), where t is the time that passes along from now. All of us, at the current time, start in different places. It doesn’t really matter what our current level is, but really our trajectory. What matters is our change over time, in other words the derivative, f ‘(t). Another important thing to note is the 2nd derivative f ”(t). Is our improvement convex or concave? If we are improving, will our improvement be exponential, or will we eventually plateau and then spiral down? Or are we in a period of seeming unproductivity, but a turning point awaits? In reality, it does not matter how competent you are right now compared to others. But it does matter whether you are improving or not in the present.

Proper Being is a process, not a state; a journey, not a destination. It’s the continual transformation of what you know, through encounter with what you don’t know, rather than the desperate clinging to the certainty that is eternally insufficient in any case… Always place your becoming above your current being. That means it is necessary to recognize and accept your insufficiency, so that it can be continually rectified. That’s painful, certainly – but it’s a good deal.

jordan peterson, 12 rules for life, p. 362

“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone is today.”