In a now-famous appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, psychologist Jordan B. Peterson pointed out how strange it is that many politically-engaged young people are preoccupied with reorganizing society and the economic system when they can’t even organize their own bedrooms. He said:
…don’t be fixing up the economy, 18-year-olds. You don’t know anything about the economy. It’s a massive complex machine beyond anyone’s understanding and you mess with at your peril. So can you even clean up your own room? No. Well you think about that. You should think about that, because if you can’t even clean up your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world
Indeed, as economic philosophers Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Leonard Read demonstrated, a market economy is so bafflingly complex that even an omniscient and perfectly virtuous central planner (presumably with an immaculate office) couldn’t hope to centrally plan it. So what kind of guidance can be expected from someone who can’t even centrally plan their own closet?
And yet, so many are ardent about “changing the world” while being profoundly neglectful of their own little corner of the world. This approach to life is a recipe for angst and depression. Dwelling on things you cannot change leads to feelings of frustration and impotence. And neglecting the things you can change leads to stagnation and crisis.
Dr. Peterson’s prescription for this life disorder is as follows:
My sense is that if you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward, because you build your competence that way.”
This echoes the wisdom of Confucius, who said:
To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”
The world presents itself as a series of puzzles some of which you’re capable of solving and some of which you’re not. You have many puzzles in front of you that you could solve but you choose not to. Those are the things that weigh on your conscience. It’s like ‘I should really do this,’ but you don’t. (…)
Cause the question is, how much are we contributing to the fact that life is an existential catastrophe and a tragedy? How much is our own corruption contributing to that? That’s a really a worthwhile question.
The things you leave undone. Because you’re angry, you’re resentful, or you’re lazy. You have inertia. Well, you consult your conscience and it says, ‘Well, you know, that place over there could use a little work.’ It’s the same as working on yourself. And so you clean that up, because you can. And then things are a little clearer around you. And you’re a little better off, because you’ve practiced a bit. And so you’re a little stronger. And then something else manifest itself and says, ‘Well maybe you can take a crack at fixing me too.’ So you decide to do that and that gets a little more pristine. And soon…”
Peterson interrupted his own line of thought at this point, but he continued it in another speech:
…and then maybe you’ll learn enough by doing that so that you can fix up your family a little bit, and then having done that, you’ll have enough character so that when you try to operate in the world, at your job, or maybe in the broader social spheres, that you’ll be a force for good instead of harm…”
Peterson’s injunction for people to “clean their rooms” has struck a nerve with young people and gone viral. Countless of Peterson’s listeners have reported how they have turned their lives around and how it all started with cleaning their rooms.
This is great for the “economy” and “the world” too, because the improvement of those aggregates consists in the improvement of the individual lives and careers that make them up. And such individual improvement can only truly occur through individual responsibility and action.
Peterson’s advice is to start small: start with your own life and your own domain of competence. He also counsels starting small in the sense of starting with relatively easy tasks. Cleaning one corner of your room may be one of the easier items on your to-do list. But the fact that it is easy makes it a great place to start, because you can actually accomplish it even if your willpower isn’t particularly high.
Once you do it, the little feeling of accomplishment feeds into your sense of self-efficacy, giving you enough willpower to do something a little tougher: maybe paying a bill. Accomplishing that strengthens your self-efficacy further, empowering you to do a still greater feat, and so on. If you keep at it, eventually you can ramp up to “adulting” on all cylinders and accomplishing truly impressive things in your life and career. This is what I call “spiritual mechanical advantage.” A great way to utilize this psychological phenomenon is through the “Mini-Habits” approach devised by Stephen Guise, which I wrote about in my last post.