Updated: Oct 28, 2021
This week's article is a rough transcript of a lecture on success held by Jordan B. Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. But before you leave again, because you don't like Peterson or you don't want to read another story on how to be successful, bare with me for a moment.
Peterson usually delivers a lot of good explanations for why he says the things he says, even though they might be controversial. In this lecture, he grounds his claims on how to become more successful on basic scientific evidence and. It's based on the ability to change or manipulate IQ and personality traits that have a proven effect on life-time success. So, I'll do my best of summing up what he said and point out the parts that have been most interesting to me and I hope there are some take-aways for you as well.
Avoiding cognitive decline...
Maybe some of us have been thinking about how to increase our IQs, I certainly have. Although, I've been thinking about it the wrong way. There are a lot of IQ-training apps on the internet that claim to help us become smarter or "train our brains". Unfortunately, these do not help. You will get a lot better over time playing that one specific game with its specific puzzles, you will get slightly better at similar games that test similar cognitive abilities, but distant tasks that are still heavily cognitively loaded... nope. No effect at all.
Our so called fluid intelligence decreases over time. That's the ability to learn from experience, solve new problems and use past experience and knowledge in new situations. Our crystalline intelligence however typically increases with age - we simply know more over the course of our lives. Based on this, we can of course increase crystalline intelligence by reading more and keep learning. The only thing we can do about our fluid intelligence is to stabilize the decline of it. It will start declining roughly by the age of 20, and it will do so rapidly. But you can make the decline less steep. Not by using Apps however, but by one thing - and one thing only - that has been proven to be helpful: physical health and exercise.
The reason behind it is quite simple: the brain uses a lot of oxygen. It needs to be clean and well oxygenated, and exercise provides a high stream of clean air through your brain. Important to notice is that anaerobic and aerobic exercise both are very effective in reducing cognitive decline across our lifespan.
Visions and micro-habits...
The next best predictor of life time success is one of the big five personality traits: conscientiousness. It can be separated into two aspects. One is orderliness, the other industriousness. The better predictor of these two is industriousness. Unfortunately, there is (again) a strong genetic component to how industrious we are. But there are a lot of micro habits that we can work on to improve our overall conscientiousness to the better: set up aims for yourself that you actually value. And that's the important part, even though it sounds simple and you might have heard that goal-setting is important a hundred times.
As a side note: oftentimes, when I set goals for myself, they are strongly influence by my socioeconomic background. They are led by the question: What do others expect that I need to do to claim a good position in the social hierarchy? That's not what goal-setting should be about. It should be about meaningful goals in relation to our five main personality traits or the "Big Five". So, back to the video: first of all you need to conduct a situational analysis of your life. This can be done over the course of many hours or just briefly, both can help. It's not a psychological analysis however, it's solely based on where you stand in life.
The basis is to understand that you have to put some effort into your life to get something out of it. You need to be motivated to do that. So, what are the potential sources of motivation? You can figure that out by thinking about the Big Five (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism). Here's an example: If you are an extrovert you might want to have a lot of friends and an intimate relationship, if you are disagreeable you want to win competitions, if you are open you want to engage in creative activities, if you're high in neuroticism you probably want security. These characteristics can work as your sources of motivation since there is nothing more motivating than a life that is tailored to your personality. It makes things easier and let's you encounter less problems that you are unwilling to deal with.
Continuing on this basis you can ask yourself: what do you want your life to look like in 3-5 years? What do you want to achieve if you take care of yourself properly? How do your friendships look like? How would you like to structure your family? What do you want for your career? How do you use your time outside of your job? And how are you going to regulate your mental and physical health - also taking into account your drug and alcohol abuse since these are some of the main drivers causing you to have less control over what you do and what you can achieve.
Maybe this helps you to develop a vision of what you would like your life to be and establish certain goals. The next step is to break down these goals into micro-processes that you can implement. These micro-processes become rewarding in relation to their causal association with their goal and tangle into your incentive-reward-system. A quick remark: the dopaminergic incentive-reward-system is a topic for another blog... but roughly speaking: that's the system that helps you getting out of bed every morning and it works better if it realizes that your actions feed into an overarching, valued goal that you've set out to achieve, which, again, shows us that it's important to have a valued goal. The more valuable the goal, the more the micro-processes associated with that goal start to take on a positive charge.
In this context it is also important and very useful to figure out what the hell you want to stay away from, meaning, what's counterproductive to the vision and the goal you've set out to achieve. The fear of failing can be as powerful as the motivation that comes from succeeding. Both of these, finding out what you want and don't want, can answer the question why we do something in the first place. It would be much easier to do nothing, right? Well, you've determined by some measures that it's worthwhile doing something - since this "something" feeds into your ideals and the goals you want to accomplish. And if you've conducted this form of high-level structural analysis of the sub-components of human existence (family, friends, educational goals, career, a good time outside of work, attention to your mental and physical health, etc.), you will realize that it's better to do something than nothing. Because, if you do nothing, all you've got left would be misery and suffering - and that's a bad deal.
In short: It's important that you figure out who it is you want to be and building towards that - with a strong emphasize on want to be not should be - and set your goals accordingly.
One of the main reasons people in our hemisphere don't specify their goals is because they don't want to specify conditions for failure. Keeping yourself all vague and foggy, which can be real easy, leads to not knowing when you fail. And some of us just don't want to know when they fail because it's painful. The downside to this approach is that you keep yourself blind about it. That's willful blindness. You could have known, but you chose not to. It's fine, but you will fail all the time, you just won't notice - until you fail so badly that you're done. So the recommendation would be not to let that happen.
Setting up a schedule...
So, how does what you're aiming for instantiate itself in your daily life? Well, a schedule can be unbelievably helpful. As long as you stick to it. But here's the most important thing when using a schedule: it's not a bloody prison. Which, by the way, is the main reason some people don't use schedules. They tell themselves "I have to do this, than this, than this... but then I go play video games because who the hell wants to do all these things that I have to do?". That's the wrong approach. You have to set that thing up properly and according to the day you want.
Think about it this way: you've got tomorrow. How are you gonna set it up so it is the best day that you could possibly have? What would it look like? Obviously, there is a bit of responsibility that's gonna go along with that because - if you have any sense - one of the things you're gonna insist upon is that at the end of the day you're no in worse shape than you were at the beginning of the day. Otherwise that's a stupid day because you'll keep digging yourself into a whole and hide from responsibilities - and that's just not a good strategy.
Depending on how many responsibilities you have and how far behind you are, you will need to dedicate a certain amount of the day towards those responsibilities. But you need to ask yourself: what's the right ratio of responsibility to reward? You have to negotiate this ratio with yourself like you negotiate with someone that you care for and that you'd want to live a productive and good life - and not tyrannize yourself. That's how you make a schedule.
But since we are useless and horrible, we'll only hit the schedule with about 70% accuracy but that still beats the hell our of 0! And even if you only hit it with 50%, the rule should be to aim for 51% the next day. In doing so, you'll sooner or later hit that spot where things start to loop back positively, they compound and spiral you upwards.
In summary: You know what you like. You won't really do what you're told. You especially don't do what you tell yourself to do. I guess everyone has noticed that at some point in their lives. You're a bad employee and a worse boss and both of those work for you. You don't know what you want to do and then, when you tell yourself what to do, you don't do it anyways... You should fire yourself and find someone else to be!
But there's another way out of it, a way to work on your conscientiousness. Plan a life you'd like to have. You can do that partly by referring to basic social norms, but the other way you do that is by having a little conversation with yourself. Act as if you don't really know who you are - act on behalf of who you want to be!