Reading Peterson 3 – N things of/for Y

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

“This book contains the kind of penetrating truth about human nature that is usually found only in fiction. At the end, you will feel not only that you know Covey, but also that he knows you.” – ORSON SCOTT CARD, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards

Promotional quote for the 2004 edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

An affable and engaging device Jordan Peterson uses in his book 12 Rules for Life is to make use of personal anecdotes. I have a personal anecdote about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and why I read it,

A colleague bought me The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a present and I was touched. I thought ‘wow, somebody really gets my sense of humour and irony’ and laughed delightedly. Yeah, well I had completely misread that and my reaction upset them. To make amends and to show I really valued their gift (which was given with the best possible intentions) I read it so that I could talk meaningfully about it.

It didn’t change my life and it really wasn’t my thing.

But that doesn’t mean these kinds of books are inherently bad. I think there is a kernel of problematicness in the genre (which I’ll get to) and which connects with a wider field where that kernel has grown into something worse BUT there not some kind of toxic mind virus that will turn you into a fascist just by reading them. Self-help books, even Jordan Peterson’s, can provoke a person into self-examination and reflection that may help them overcome personal, relationship or career problems.

People confronting the challenges of career and life and modernity have been seeking advice and giving advice for all of written history. There are elements of this in the writings of the Buddha and Confucious. The meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius are not just an insight into the application of Stoicism in the Roman Empire but also handy advice for anybody who finds themselves beset by annoying arseholes when in a management position.

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”  The Meditations By Marcus Aurelius Translated by George Long

Spending time reflecting on what you can change about your circumstance and what you can’t (and hence need to not obsess over) can be good for you. I’m not the primary market for such books but I’ve known people who they seem to have helped.

With the 7 Habits… what superficially bugged me was the management speak, the lecture on what ‘paradigm’ meant (poor Thomas Khun – forever cursed to be misunderstood and co-opted by corporate gurus) and the daft diagrams in which the spatial aspect added nothing other than to convey a sense of being a diagram and hence sciencey. But that’s just me.

What worried me though, the kernel I mentioned above, and what got me thinking about this genre as a kind of semi-ideology was the emphasis on the change of self over change of circumstance. This is an unfair criticism of the book as a whole that does actually acknowledge that change in circumstance can be vital (its where ‘paradigms’ come into it) and the book is far from being a *selfish* book (it genuinely values cooperation and ‘win/win’ outcomes). However, the very nature of such books means that at least locally there is an aspect that sees the solution to change being the individual concerned.

This focus on the reader is inherent in the genre – there’s no way past it for obvious reasons. With it comes an issue when the advice doesn’t work. Habits, modes of behaviour and worldviews are hard to change and they are even harder for an individual to change, so the more substantial the change offered by the advice the more likely it is that it will fail for a given individual. If the book promises success then it is even more likely that somebody will experience failure with it. 7 Habits… doesn’t expect big change or promise big rewards and Jordan Peterson’s book doesn’t either but even 7 Habits… implies that you can become a ‘highly effective person’. So who is to blame if you read the book and try to follow its advice and then find…that you are just an ineffective as you have always felt?

There is an old joke that is in bad taste that goes: I know the secret to lasting weight loss- eat less food! The laugh (if there is in one) might be mocking or ironic – mocking in the case of a cruel person who sees overweight people as weak-willed or ironic in the case of the person who has tried dozens of diets and been unable to lose weight. The point is for many people the advice is simply restating the problem. Diets can sometimes work but generally, they don’t work. Worse they can be damaging for reasons that are the same as the issue with self-help books. The emphasis is necessarily on a change in an individuals habits and behaviour which is difficult to achieve. When a person fails they will feel like they failed themselves – the more convincing and powerful the book is the more a person will feel that they themselves failed rather than that they were given bad advice. The primary market for self-improvement books becomes people who have bought other self-improvement books. Just as diets breed diets (because the previous diet failed), self-help breeds self-help.

Again, I’m not saying trying to improve yourself is toxic or that diets are bad or that nobody has ever gained something positive from either. I’m just pointing at potential (and known) side-effect. This though is not the ‘thing’ I’ve been waving my hand at – the nastier side of all this that is a road to fascism. It is a close twin to it though.

If we fail in our efforts to change our own behaviour, what is it that we blame? Our willpower and that’s the problematic kernel here. An attempt at improving oneself that results in a person feeling not only despondent but feeling like they are actually incapable of becoming better because they lack the willpower to change is a dangerous cycle leading to self-contempt.

It is the corollary to this that is the gateway to something ideological and monstrous. To perceive yourself as inadequate or weak-willed or to see unhappy circumstance as your own fault for being weak-willed is not good but what is extraordinarily toxic is to regard OTHERS in that way. In other words to see people who have problems of one kind or another (from being overweight to being bullied or to being poor or being abused) and thinking the blame lies with that person because they are weak-willed is the common thread that joins the pieces of this ‘thing’ together. It’s how Ayn Rand ties into modern Fascism and why Nietzche is peppered through Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.


42 responses to “Reading Peterson 3 – N things of/for Y”

  1. And yet there has to be a limit. Should you retain an employee who persistently can’t get the job done? Or are you just talking about the difference between “we think you’ll be more successful somewhere else” vs. “you are a worthless excuse for a human being?”

    Also, if you own your own failure, at least you have a hope of correcting it. If you blame others or blame bad luck, you’re almost certain to repeat the experience.

    I think the real skill to learn is how not to take failure personally. When I was learning how to roller skate, I fell down and was unhappy, and my mother told me, “You have to fall down 1,000 times before you can do it right, so you’re only got 999 left to go.” Somehow that made each failure seem like an accomplishment.

    I guess the other key related skill is knowing when to give up and how to not feel bad about doing so. “Roller skating is too much trouble; let’s go to the lake instead.”


      • Greg,

        I think this is less akin to “Oh, let the failed employee keep failing with us because change is hard” than you seem to.

        I’ll use *one* example from self-helpdom, the one we are generally all most familiar with, but this is applicable to other kinds of self-help books.

        There have been studies which have definitely indicated that certain kinds of overall positive thinking and determination can have *some* influence on the final outcome. We know this. However, what too many self-help books, life gurus, and shallow thinkers, unfortunately end up spreading as the takeaway message that positive thinking isn’t so much goal-setting, visualizing success, and visualizing what’s needed to get there, as “Always being happy and smiling”. Which makes some kinds of positive thinking – the sober, unsmiling acknowledgement of what created the negativity, for instance – get viewed as negative thinking. Worse, and all too common, of course is the interpretation where it skips the “overall” part of positive thinking to demand continuous and unstinting positivity – which ends up translating to “Any negative thought you ever have is self-destruction, and therefore your failure is ALL THE FAULT OF NEGATIVE THINKING”. Which ISN’T what the results say at all.

        But if one adopts this thinking too wholesale, it can ALSO serve to increase the stress at every negative thought. instead of looking at it and going “So why am I having this negative thought right now? What brought it on? Can I fix what brought it on?” the person ends up thinking “NO! NO bad thoughts! Go Away!”. Which ultimately fails to address the root problem which caused the bad thought, leading it to spawn more bad thoughts.

        We all know how this applies to things like positive-thinking away abuse, diabetes or cancer, or the horrible actions of others, but let’s look at this in the context of a worker who’s been a bit of a screw-up.

        The chances a work screw up were caused by having negative thoughts, or insufficiently positive ones, are close to nil. Moreover, thinking it must be the result of negative thoughts tends to serve only to obscure, not illuminate, whatever the employee’s real issue is. To recognize the real nature of the problem, one must get past looking at the self-help directive of “think positive” and get into the weeds.

        Moreover, FIXING a work screw up before one turns into a screwed-up employee would require at least 3 things.
        1: Sober (and probably not positive) reflection and action to fix the mistake, mitigate the damage, and/or prevent repetition in the future.
        2: Powers of persuasion – least important and the only one even possibly aided by positive thinking – to convince others to give you that one more chance
        3: Enough of a good record (either before the screw-up or after being given the second chance) to make those arguments hold water, which is entirely orthogonal to whether you got that record while being the worst sour-puss or the biggest smilingest exemplar of positive thinking.

        This also applies to whether or not you personally have adopted any of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or any of the 12 Rules. If your failure to correctly apply one of the 7 habits is what you blame for something going wrong, outside of a very few narrow circumstances, it’s liable to obscure the real issue and increase the damage.

        Liked by 4 people

      • Doesn’t Scientology blame one’s bad thoughts for bad things that happen(ed)? And then charges exorbitant and elaborate fees to help eliminate them?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mormonism is like that too — big, BIG emphasis on what @lenorarose was talking about with the “always smiling and perky”. Particularly for women; even if your life’s falling apart, you’d better be outwardly cheerful — and what’s going wrong is probably your fault, even if it’s b/c you have a deadbeat husband, 14 children, and medical problems. There’s a reason why Utah has the highest rate of antidepressant prescriptions. This runs true in fundies as well.

        Liked by 4 people

      • Lenora, interesting. Sometimes at work I come across people saying that examining stuff that’s gone wrong is “negative” and we have to be “positive” etc etc. I find this infuriating because I always want to analyse and work out what went wrong so that it can be fixed for next time.

        Liked by 3 people

      • I work in a field (pharmaceutical manufacturing and R&D) where EVERYTHING has to be documented, and everything that goes wrong, or even might maybe have gone wrong because something was done a wee bit differently, has to be picked to pieces to be sure it’s safe, and won’t be repeated. (Actually, I just work in the file room. What I know about actual pharmaceuticals outside of the documentation required is barely more than a layperson). The bureaucracy can seem excessive even to a person whose employment is dependent on there being a lot of paperwork and electronic files, but the consequences of NOT examining every mistake that closely could in theory be contaminated medicine. There’s literally no option — sensibly, morally or legally — to just let it slide.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I’ve seen books that assume that as absolute control of your life is in your hands, therefore any failure is your own fault. Anthony Robbins in one of his books argued that Jews could have escaped the Holocaust if they’d only followed his rules for success. He then tried walking that back, but that was definitely his point.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The point about control is, I think, pretty relevant. Peterson’s book even claims in its title to offer an antidote to chaos. I’ve heard it said that external conditions can often reflect internal ones, so an internal maelstrom can manifest as hoarding (a paradoxical psychological condition of control-no control), or other forms of visible or interpersonal chaos. Self-help books, I think, 1) let people feel like they have more control, and 2) are a way of linking into a community.

      I’m fascinated with numbers in general, but in this context, the sacred numerology of self-help programs. Things have numbers all over them, often ones with Biblical significance: 1, 3, 7, 12, 40. etc Three Principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Twelve Rules for Life. Twelve Step programs.

      (Note: I briefly thought of trying to come up with a joke about Three Laws of SJW and how many chapters 5 add up to 666, but shrugged and hit post instead). 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. In other words to see people who have problems of one kind or another (from being overweight to being bullied or to being poor or being abused) and thinking the blame lies with that person because they are weak-willed is the common thread that joins the pieces of this ‘thing’ together.

    This, this, this.

    So many conservatives in the US do precisely this. They cling desperately to the “bootstrap” bullshit and promulgate this fantasy that anybody can rise out of bad circumstances. They toss out the common refrain: “I did such-and-such, so why can’t you?” Not that people can’t and haven’t, but to think that everyone can is absolute nonsense. They completely discount the fact that, especially for black/brown people and women, there are still considerable barriers in the form of systemic racism and sexism. I’ve read many books and articles relating the terrible spirals our society can put women/people of color/poor people into, spirals they CANNOT extricate themselves from without help. Conservatives also discount the fact that for so many people, getting ahead is not PLUCK but sheer LUCK. But that would mean admitting to themselves that they themselves were just lucky, and not inherently worthy in their (mostly) straight white maleness.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. There are different kinds of self-help books, principally falling into coping books and “self-improvement” books. Coping books can be highly useful. People dealing with anxiety disorders or immune deficiency conditions, tackling clutter, becoming a step-parent, dealing with a pregnancy, getting better sleep, etc. can find useful information in books by experts or journalism researchers which allow them to deal with problems and issues in their lives with better coping skills. Coping self-help books do not provide promises of radical reinvention and success, even the organizing the clutter ones. They provide info and pretty standard exercises, depending on the subject of the book, that can help people deal with issues that are really bothering them and impacting their quality of life. They may or may not work for the individual reader but they don’t blame the individual for having problems.

    Self-improvement style books, however, don’t offer to help you cope with things so that you may improve your life. Instead, they offer to “fix” you personally into a better, more attractive, more successful and wealthy person. Most of the weight-diet-nutrition books and the business books — though not quite all of them — fall into that grouping. All of the visualize your way to success, 7 habits, find your chakras, acquire wealth like the wealthy, real estate investment, become a super famous well-off writer with self-publishing, etc. books are these kinds. They say that anyone can become amazing, you just have to do some stuff to improve yourself and you can then control your fate. It’s not an entirely unhopeful message — i.e. that people aren’t necessarily trapped where they are at the moment — but it is built on snake oil salesmanship, the idea of a magic tonic the book will provide.

    And what they do in most of these books, which are not surprisingly mainly tailored for an audience of middle-class white people, mainly women (as women are taught their whole lives that they are inherently deficient and need to be amazing in all areas, especially appearance, to have worth,) is recycle standard psychology exercises and techniques that you can also get out of any basic psychology/therapy intro textbook, including psychology stuff that is then used by consultants in businesses on the claim of increasing productivity and so forth. Visualization, for instance, is of course very old and also used in modern psychology as a therapy technique that can be very helpful with people dealing with phobias, etc. The self-improvement gurus dress it up with their own system of buzz words and numbered lists — 7 habits, 12 principles, the secret, and on and on. Some of them catch because they may slightly help people or make them feel better and they pass on the book to the friends. Also promotion, seminars, speaking engagements, getting on talk shows, etc. all play roles in which become sellers that usually also result in other forms of merchandising. For instance, Jenny Craig, the diet franchise, doesn’t really have a radical lifestyle and exercise plan; they make their money mostly off of selling the packaged foods and supplements that go along with very general self-help advice and encouragement.

    So Peterson gets his first “rule” from yoga, Rules 2-4, and 6-9 are drawn from various forms of basic therapy techniques that frequently also appear in other self-improvement books and articles, and the ones on kids may or may not be drawn from parenting books — which are coping self-help books mainly — depending on what he’s drawing from them. But what he’s using these for is not so much individual self-improvement, like 7 Habits and its ilk, as simply a straight marketing approach to conservatives — that modern, progressive life is awful (chaos) and needs supposedly old, moral values and old timey religion to be survived. And to get alt right male buyers and get interviews on controversy, he’s thrown in the women are inherently inferior bit. He’s not going after in a direct line the usual audience for self-improvement books. He’s going after reactionaries in the Harold Bloom area, and that is a lucrative field where you also get treated as an intellectual while being highly anti-intellectual and reactionary.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I tried to read “7 Habits” when it came out and found it dire. Simplistic and dull. Gave it away.

    I’m with Bonnie and Kat on the pernicious habit of self-help books to put all the blame for failure on the person for not doing (whatever) hard enough. Blaming the victim, in essence, be it saying the Holocaust was the Jews’ fault like Robbins, blaming sick people for not thinking POSITIVE enough to cure their cancer/illness*, poor people for remaining poor because of their personal lifestyle instead of because of conditions endemic to late capitalism and structural racism, “The Secret”, etc. etc.

    This book might be taking the opposite tack — if you fail, it’ll still be the fault of the SJWs.** But if women and PoC fail, it’s for not doing the 12 Things thingily enough, never mind that the odds are stacked against them and they don’t get second, third, etc. chances to fail upward like SWM. As Kat said, most self-help books are directed at women (and make them feel wrongly inadequate); this one’s for men (to make them feel wrongly adequate).

    Not so much a self-help book as another way for SWM to put down non-SWM. And to make a buck or two.

    Either sort are all too often based in fear.

    @Kat: I see a parallel between self-help/coping/instant and top-down/bottom-up/ongoing. Imposed from the top, you have to change yourself according to someone else’s rules (The Secret, Jenny Craig); bottom-up, you get self-help groups with handy tips and support.

    I’ve been on a diet the past year and have lost 15-20 lbs. By writing down every damn thing I eat, keeping the calories below a certain number, and cutting back somewhat on fat and drastically on sugar. Sometimes I’m hungry. I miss cookies, candy, and chocolate. It’s not a magic pill, odd combinations of food, crash dieting, elimination of entire food groups, therapy, new habits, being perky, or any of that. I eat less food, fewer tasty things and bitch a lot. It sucks, but my bad cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight are all down so yay. One day a week I ignore it because barbecue, chocolate chip cookies, pizza, and booze exist.

    *Fuck that. A common disease interacted with my genetics badly and it doesn’t matter what I think, eat, or exercise; it’s a lifelong illness. Taking megavitamins, eating kale, and meditating aren’t going to cure it. Prescription drugs help some, except for the supposedly magic pills that make it worse.

    **Ridiculous how they think the disorganized left could be even a fraction as controlling as the military-industrial-oligarch-fascist complex. Projection again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everyone I know of who has had real lasting weight loss or other health improvement based on eating habits has done it with real lasting life changes like yours. NOBODY has done it with the kind of short term fad dieting people think of when someone says diet.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I know one person who reduced calories and increased exercise for over a year, losing X% of weight before getting stomach stapling or whatever it is. Because their medical coverage requires you to show that you’ll be able to maintain the weight loss BEFORE they perform drastic surgery. There’s all sorts of required counseling also involving family members, so that the patient doesn’t just go back to eating and put it all back on, thinking it’s a “simple fix”.

        I also know someone who just paid cash for theirs with no counseling or lead-up, and in 3 years they gained back all the fat by eating junk till their stomach expanded again. Now they’re obese, out thousand$, and missing some internal organ — because the problem is “eating their feelings” and they didn’t do anything about that.

        There’s no quick fix for ANYTHING habitual, be it mental or physical. If it took you years to get this way, you aren’t going to turn it around in a couple months of one (or 12) weird trick, no matter how many stupid self-help books you buy.

        Liked by 2 people

      • i know a similar person who did the surgery – *after* doing some diet and lifestyle changes. And the surgery she got required her to do more, because well, digestion of certain things gets harder. I’m pretty sure she’ll be a long term success story, but I don’t think the surgery is the success. It was a shortcut to getting the appearance she wanted but not to making the changes needed in the first place.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. The last two paragraphs of this article explains something I’ve long written and wondered about: how the ‘Alt-Right’ and the Manosphere ‘Red-Pills’ came together. The Manosphereans already had the philosophical infrastructure set up with their whole ‘Alpha’ paradigms and their depreciation of women. Not only women, but ‘Beta’, ‘Gamma’ etc males are inferior because they won’t ‘take the Red Pill’ and, by extension, deserve depreciation as a consequence of their willful ignorance.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Both are big on sexism (and homophobia, and overestimating their actual worth as human beings), so it wasn’t a big step for them to join together. Nothing’s ever their fault, it’s all those Others. Which is ironic, coming from those who are always bleating about personal responsibility.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Possibly the worst book in this category is “The Black Man’s Guide Out of Poverty”, written by the pasty author who also wrote a self-help book featuring Davis Aurini and Roosh V. on the cover…

    Liked by 1 person

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