I wrote about Rule 1-5 of 12 Rules for Life already. Originally, I wanted to put Rules 6-12 in one post, but in the light of the content of Rule 7, I decided against that. Because I believe this topic to be extraordinarily important. We live in a world in which we are bombarded by distractions and promises of expedience hundreds and thousands of times per day. Also, it has never been easier to attain, consume, and even live for expedience – increasingly so for young people.
Yet there are many things seriously wrong with the pursuit of expediency and, beyond that, living a meaningful life is indefinitely more fulfilling than anything that expediency can and will ever provide.
Let’s unpack this.
What is expedient?
To start things off, we need to define what expediency is. Peterson explains it as following:
“Expedience means hiding all the skeletons in the closet and avoiding responsibility. … Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s a short-term gain. It’s narrow and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. … It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong. ”Jordan Peterson, “12 Rules For Life”
In essence, expediency means to put your short-term impulses and desires of the moment first and deciding against doing something meaningful instead.
What is meaningful?
“Meaning is its [expediency’s] 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. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining.”Jordan Peterson, “12 Rules For Life”
Peterson often uses music, especially the description of a symphony as a metaphor for a meaningful life. If you live meaningfully, everything you do is like a note that you play in your very own symphony of life. It’s part of a whole. It’s something that you can be proud of in the future and something that improves Being itself, as well as the future.
The Attractiveness of Expediency
Now, with these two explanations of expediency and meaning established, let us take a look at why the pursuit of expediency is often a top priority for people.
One reason, without a doubt, is that life is suffering. You encounter failure, you encounter anxiety, pain, death, and hardships. So much is certain for everyone. Because we are self-conscious, we also know that all of this is waiting for us in the more or less distant future. This suffering, or the thoughts about future suffering, motivates the desire for expedience in the moment. It feels good and we can drown our problems in today’s pleasures. We can watch hours upon hours of movies on Netflix, sleep until noon, party till the sun comes up, or play video games all day long. Nothing of this feels truly bad for the vast majority of people – in fact, many claim to see this as the perfect life if they only wouldn’t have to work to make all of that possible.
The pleasures of expediency are things that can be stacked up against the pain of existence. It’s easy, too. You just sit down on your couch, order some fast food, and watch some episodes of Game of Thrones or Lost. So, why is this not a good way to spend the majority of your time, or even aspire to do nothing else?
The Hidden Evils of Expediency
First, expediency only works now and not in the future. Watching 8 hours of Netflix makes those 8 hours feel fun, but it doesn’t help you with the suffering that you experience right now and tomorrow and in a year from now. In fact, not only doesn’t it help you, it makes the future worse. Because instead of watching Netflix, you could have done something to improve the future. You could have studied for your exams, you could have volunteered to help others, worked to improve your financial situation, or spent time with your family and improved your relationship with them. You could have done a lot of things to make your future (and that of others) better. But you chose to play video games instead – those are the kinds of actions that Peterson defines as “selfish.”
As selfish as it is to waste opportunities that could make the world a better place, there are even worse consequences from pursuing expedience. We also sabotaged our own efforts for a better future. We have problems. If we’re brutally honest with ourselves we also know what these problems are, but instead of addressing and fixing them, we turn a blind eye and become willfully blind to them. We drown the problems of tomorrow in the pleasures of today – and generally speaking, we make them worse.
Making things better in the future demands sacrifice. If you’re wasting a lot of time on expediency, then it most likely means sacrificing expediency first. Yet, if you already pursue a lot of meaning, you might need to sacrifice the less meaningful things in order to increase the available time to spend on the most meaningful things.
There’s a problem here, because if you put “more expediency” on top or near the top of your value-structure, then you undertake many sacrifices reluctantly. You “have” to work, you “have” to study and you “have” to clean your room. This can often lead to half-heartedly undertaken sacrifices that are more likely to fail than genuine attempts. If your sacrifices fail, you have not only lost the present, but also the future. You have sacrificed pointlessly.
In this way, we can become angry, resentful, and, even worse, evil – which in this context means consciously making things worse.
“In that manner, a truly vicious circle takes hold: begrudging sacrifice, half-heartedly undertaken; rejection of that sacrifice by God or by reality (take your pick); angry resentment, generated by that rejection; descent into bitterness and the desire for revenge; sacrifice undertaken even more begrudgingly, or refused altogether. And it’s Hell itself that serves as the destination place of that downward spiral.Jordan Peterson, “12 Rules for Life”
This means that the central problem of life—the dealing with its brute facts—is not merely what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering, but what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering and evil—the conscious and voluntary and vengeful source of the worst suffering.”
If you pursue expediency, you gratify your selfish impulses for pleasures in the present but consciously decide against doing something to improve the future. Thus, you make it worse. You fail to do something that could improve your life tomorrow and next week and a year from now. But it doesn’t stop there. You also decide against improving the quality of your relationship with your partner or your family and you decide against alleviating suffering in the world. That’s pretty selfish and really bad for your future and the future of the world, is it not?
Sacrifices for Meaning
Thus, it is better to pursue something meaningful. A core concept to understand in this regard is that we can sacrifice something of value in the present to improve the future. Small sacrifices can solve small problems, but large sacrifices can solve a lot of problems at the same time. Larger sacrifices are harder but may be better. If things aren’t going well, it can mean that we must sacrifice what we currently value the most, in order to improve things. Thus, letting go of who we are and of what we do might be necessary to become who we want to be.
“Once we can see the future, we must prepare for it, or live in denial and terror. We therefore sacrifice the pleasures of today for the sake of a better tomorrow.”Jordan Peterson, “12 Rules for Life”
The Pursuit of Meaning
How, then, do we pursue meaning?
First, by rejecting immediate desires, no matter how powerful, convincing and realistic you perceive them to be.
Then, by aiming for the Betterment of Being as discussed in my previous article. This is because we may not understand precisely what is good, but we understand what is evil, evil – in this context – is the producing of suffering, merely for the sake of suffering. Thus, good is whatever stops that from happening. So, we aim at good and away from evil.
We also need to be humble, because pride leads to intolerance, resentment, and hatred. We need to consider what we can fix and fix it, before trying to change the world. We need to reflect on when we fell short or missed the mark and improve our efforts. With all of our inefficiencies, we contribute to the suffering in the world. If we could have done something to improve the world and we didn’t do it and selfishly pursued pleasure instead, we are also to blame.
Hence, we need to aim at the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering to the best of our abilities. We need to aim at the “Betterment of Being” as our highest moral goal. We can start by asking ourselves how we could use our time today, to make things better instead of worse. We can start small and with ourselves. We can study instead of watching Netflix. We can clean our room instead of partying. We can stop doing things that we know to be evil.
This way, if we live properly and fully, we can discover meaning so profound that it protects us from suffering.
“Meaning trumps expedience. Meaning gratifies all impulses, now and forever. That’s why we can detect it. … If you act properly, your actions allow you to be psychologically integrated now, and tomorrow, and into the future, while you benefit yourself, your family, and the broader world around you. Everything will stack up and align along a single axis. Everything will come together. This produces maximal meaning. Meaning signifies that you are in the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between order and chaos, where everything lines up as best it can at that moment.”Jordan Peterson, “12 Rules for Life”
The next time you decide to binge-watch Netflix or waste countless hours on other forms of expediency, consider how hurtful this is for you. Not in that particular moment, or that particular day, but for the future – for your future. Consider how much good you could have done instead. Good for your future self tomorrow, a week from now, and in a year from now – but also, for everyone around you and in consequence for the world.
Take a few seconds before you press “play” on a video that will consume multiple hours of your life just to satisfy your primal impulses and maybe, just maybe, decide to do something – anything – meaningful instead.