Rule 7: Pursue What Is Meaningful, Not What Is Expedient

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "12 Rules for Life" by Jordan Peterson. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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In 12 Rules for Life, Rule #7 is “Pursue What Is Meaningful, Not What Is Expedient.” What does this mean? How does Jordan Peterson define “meaningful,” and how does he define “expedient?”

In essence, you should stop doing what you know you shouldn’t be doing. Do what you know provides your life meaning.

Overview of Jordan Peterson’s Rule 7

So suffering in life is inevitable. The universe can be unfair. In a hundred million years, nothing we do will likely matter. What does one do in the face of this knowledge?

One response is to take the expedient path. Indulge short-term pleasures and put off long-term commitments. Do what feels the best today – indulge your basest desires all the time. Even lie, cheat, and steal to get what you want. Do these things even if you know it makes your future self worse off than better.

Of course, we know this is what we shouldn’t be doing. We know we should be doing the hard things today to make our lives better in the future. We should suppress our immediate impulses to bring future rewards, like studying today and putting off partying to build the career we really want.

One obstacle is our powerful biological instincts – they kept us alive in the Stone Age, but they’re counterproductive today (overeating 100,000 years ago helped us survive a period of famine; today it leads to obesity). But on a higher conscious level, it’s hard to answer: why? How do we define what’s good and worth doing, and what isn’t?

What Is Meaning? What Is Good?

When trying to follow “Pursue What Is Meaningful, Not What Is Expedient,” it can be hard to define what Meaning is to you.

In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson tackles it this way: it seems intuitively true that certain things can be defined as Evil – most abhorrently, conscious human malevolence. Auschwitz, mass shootings, enslavement, knowing torment of others – these are all things most people believe are bad, even without having to read a philosophy book. You likely believe the world is better off without these things happening.

If there is such a thing as Evil, then Good must be the antithesis of Evil – Good is whatever stops Evil from happening. Good alleviates unnecessary pain and suffering.

According to Jordan Peterson’s Rule 7, in the most extreme of cases, literally fighting evil is good – as typified in the Union’s antislavery stance in the Civil War, and the Allies’ anti-Holocaust stance in World War II. But all actions exist on a spectrum, and resolving even little bits of bad are good. This could mean counseling a friend to get out of a bad situation. This could mean improving your own health so that you have more ability and time to do good. This could mean empowering others to do good – even by helping people understand what good and evil is like Peterson is doing.

Doing good has Meaning. When you act with Meaning, you will attain more security and strength than would be granted by a short-sighted concern for your own security. What you do will matter to you. In turn, you’ll feel better about your existence, and the evils and injustices of the world are more tolerable because you know they can be overcome. Remember Socrates who, believing his principles to be right, retained the strength to speak the truth at his trial and accepted his death with resolve.

This is how you can live the creed, “Pursue What Is Meaningful, Not What Is Expedient.”

If you’re the type to bemoan your existence, Peterson argues doing good is the salve – by doing good, you are compensating for the sins of your existence and those of humankind. 

Meaning is the mature substitute for expedience. Expedience rejects responsibility; it doesn’t have the wisdom or sophistication to look ahead and plan carefully; it has no courage or sacrifice; it’s the easy way out. Meaning regulates impulses and recognizes the value of making the world better. By providing deeper meaning, Meaning gratifies all impulses.

You Must Become Better

Ask yourself – how can I make the world a little bit better today? Aim upwards. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix.

Even more deeply – what is your true nature? What must you become, knowing who you truly are? How can you make the world a LOT better, if only you made certain changes in your life? Something valuable, given up, ensures future prosperity.

The greater the change you want to make, the greater the sacrifice might be. Inverting the question – what is the greatest sacrifice you can make, that of what you love most – and what good will come of it? In so doing, you change the structure of reality in your favor.

“Pursue What Is Meaningful, Not What Is Expedient.” Do it day by day, week by week.

Rule 7: Pursue What Is Meaningful, Not What Is Expedient

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Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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