In 2018, clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson made a splash with his book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” — a collection of essays combining psychology, religion, ethics and practical personal experiences that sought to restore purpose and imbue satisfaction through self-reliance. It became a global bestseller, accompanied by sold-out speaking engagements. Now the Canadian is back with the sequel, “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life” (Portfolio), out now. In this excerpt, he lays
down one of them: Do not do work you hate.
If you are at work, and called upon to do what makes you contemptuous of yourself — weak and ashamed, likely to lash out at those you love, unwilling to perform productively, and sick of your life — it is possible that it is time to meditate, consider, strategize and place yourself in a position where you are capable of saying no. Perhaps you will garner additional respect from the people you are opposing on moral grounds, even though you may still pay a high price for your actions. Perhaps they will even come to rethink their stance — if not now, with time (as their own consciences might be plaguing them in that same still small manner).
Perhaps you should also be positioning yourself for a lateral move — into another job, for example, noting as you may, “This occupation is deadening my soul, and that is truly not for me. It is time to take the painstaking steps necessary to organize my CV, and to engage in the difficult, demanding and often unrewarding search for a new job” (but you have to be successful only once). Maybe you can find something that pays better and is more interesting, and where you are working with people who not only fail to kill your spirit, but positively rejuvenate it. Maybe following the dictates of conscience is in fact the best possible plan that you have — at minimum, otherwise you have to live with your sense of self-betrayal and the knowledge that you put up with what you truly could not tolerate. Nothing about that is good.
I might get fired. Well, prepare now to seek out and ready yourself for another job, hopefully better (or prepare yourself to go over your manager’s head with a well-prepared and articulate argument). And do not begin by presuming that leaving your job, even involuntarily, is necessarily for the worst.
I am afraid to move. Well, of course you are, but afraid compared to what? Afraid in comparison to continuing in a job where the center of your being is at stake; where you become weaker, more contemptible, more bitter and more prone to pressure and tyranny over the years? There are few choices in life where there is no risk on either side, and it is often necessary to contemplate the risks of staying as thoroughly as the risks of moving. I have seen many people move, sometimes after several years of strategizing, and end up in better shape, psychologically and pragmatically, after their time in the desert.
Perhaps no one else would want me. Well, the rejection rate for new job applications is extraordinarily high. I tell my clients to assume 50:1, so their expectations are set properly. You are going to be passed over, in many cases, for many positions for which you are qualified. But that is rarely personal. It is, instead, a condition of existence, an inevitable consequence of somewhat arbitrary subjection to the ambivalent conditions of worth characterizing society. It is the consequence of the fact that CVs are easy to disseminate and difficult to process; that many jobs have unannounced internal candidates (and so are just going through the motions); and that some companies keep a rolling stock of applicants, in case they need to hire quickly. That is an actuarial problem, a statistical problem, a baseline problem — and not necessarily an indication that there is something specifically flawed about you. You must incorporate all that sustainingly pessimistic realism into your expectations, so that you do not become unreasonably downhearted. One hundred and fifty applications, carefully chosen; three to five interviews thereby acquired. That could be a mission of a year or more. That is much less than a lifetime of misery and downward trajectory. But it is not nothing. You need to fortify yourself for it, plan and garner support from people who understand what you are up to and are realistically appraised of the difficulty and the options.
Now it may also be that you are lagging in the development of your skills and could improve your performance at work so that your chances of being hired elsewhere are heightened. But there is no loss in that. You cannot effectively pronounce “no” in the presence of corrupt power when your options to move are nonexistent. In consequence, you have a moral obligation to place yourself in a position of comparative strength, and to do then what is necessary to capitalize on that strength. You may also have to think through worst-case situations and to discuss them with those who will be affected by your decisions. But it is once again worth realizing that staying where you should not be may be the true worst-case situation: one that drags you out and kills you slowly over decades. That is not a good death, even though it is slow, and there is very little in it that does not speak of the hopelessness that makes people age quickly and long for the cessation of career and, worse, life. That is no improvement. As the old and cruel cliché goes: If you must cut off a cat’s tail, do not do it half an inch at a time. You may well be in for a few painful years of belated recognition of insufficiency, and required to send out four or five or 10 job applications a week, knowing full well that the majority will be rejected with less than a second look. But you need to win the lottery only once, and a few years of difficulty with hope beat an entire dejected lifetime of a degenerating and oppressed career.
And let us be clear: It is not a simple matter of hating your job because it requires you to wake up too early in the morning, or to drag yourself to work when it is too hot or cold or windy or dry or when you are feeling low and want to curl up in bed. It is not a matter of frustration generated when you are called on to do things that are menial or necessary such as emptying garbage cans, sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms or in any other manner taking your lowly but well-deserved place at the bottom of the hierarchy of competence — even of seniority. Resentment generated by such necessary work is most often merely ingratitude, inability to accept a lowly place at the beginning, unwillingness to adopt the position of the fool, or arrogance and lack of discipline. Refusal of the call of conscience is by no means the same thing as irritation about undesirably low status.
That rejection — that betrayal of soul — is truly the requirement to perform demonstrably counterproductive, absurd or pointless work; to treat others unjustly and to lie about it; to engage in deceit, to betray your future self; to put up with unnecessary torture and abuse (and to silently watch others suffer the same treatment). That rejection is the turning of a blind eye, and the agreement to say and do things that betray your deepest values and make you a cheat at your own game. And there is no doubt that the road to hell, personally and socially, is paved not so much with good intentions as with the adoption of attitudes and undertaking of actions that inescapably disturb your conscience.
Do not do what you hate
From BEYOND ORDER: 12 More Rules For Life by Jordan B. Peterson, published by Portfolio, an imprint of The Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson