This is the fourth in a series of posts adapting Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life to the context of eduction. All the posts in this series are collected here. This is not intended as an accurate summary of Peterson’s views, it is merely what I reckon.

The idea that we should only compare ourselves against a personal yardstick is good advice. As Max Ehrmann says in Disiderata, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Who wants to be vain or bitter?

But, as with much good advice, it can be hard to follow. It’s difficult to ignore the accomplishments and failures of others; what other people do is an extended cut played out against the backdrop of life. All day, every day, we’re hearing what others have achieved and how they’ve messed up. It can be hard to concentrate on ourselves. The temptation is always to compare our insides to other people’s outsides.

Sometimes our own difficulties can seem insurmountable, the obstacles we face too immense to know where to start. Peterson’s advice is to aim small. This reminds me of a piece of folk wisdom I stumbled across years ago: “How do you eat an elephant? One spoonful at a time.” Or, put another way, a thousand mile journey starts with a single step. One practical suggestion Peterson offers for improving our own lives, rather than being distracted by what other people are up to, is to ask ourselves, What I could do, that I would do, to make my life a tiny bit better? 

That ‘would’ is important. There’s no point compiling a to do list of Herculean labours if you have no intention of crossing any of them off. I’ve found this very useful in talking to my daughters about how they might improve elements of their lives. For some reason, they both have a tendency to live in squalor; their bedrooms are usually in a ghastly state.* We nag them about this constantly to very little effect: the job of tidying up seems overwhelming. So instead I’ve tried asking, what tiny thing could you do – that you would be prepared to do – to make your room a little bit less horrific? Like most people, they’re prepared to choke down a single spoonful of elephant, and then the task is just that little bit less daunting.

It’s all too easy to become blind to our problems because they’re so omnipresent. Where ever we go, they come with us. Peterson has this to say:

Focus on your surroundings, physical and psychological. Notice something that bothers you, that concerns you, that will not let you be, which you could fix, that you would fix. You can find such things by asking yourself (as if you genuinely want to know) three questions: “What is it that’s bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” “Would I be willing to fix it?” If you find that the answer is “no,” to any or all of the questions, then look elsewhere. Aim lower. Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it. That might be enough for the day. ( p. 108)

In this way we can begin to measure our successes against were we were yesterday, rather than where someone else is today.

Schools often – inadvertently – do a poor job of helping children to think like this. Objective seeming measures of success and failure are all around them; they can’t help comparing their B to her A and his C. This could have some positive benefits if it engenders healthy competition, but all too often it make children feel complacent or hopeless. We’ve known for ages that awarding grades conflicts with the positive effects of feedback, and this is why: it’s so much easier to focus on someone else’s grade than on what practical steps you have to make in order to make an improvement.

One simple thing schools could do to improve students’ chance of competing with themselves rather than with others is to stop publishing target grades. Headteacher, John Tomsett knows a thing or two about this:

Publishing targets or minimum expected grades for individual students can have, in my experience, two dangerous consequences. Too many students reach their targets and stop trying, claiming that ‘a grade B will do. I don’t need better than that’; others get stressed by aiming for an aspirational target they perceive to be beyond their reach and consequently give up. The latter is particularly damaging, in that under confident students with high target grades will often try less hard so that if they fail, they can claim that they knew they were going to fail because they did not try.

Why would we want to create conditions that work against our students’ best interests? If your best answer is about feeding the data machine, you really need to have a think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Maybe you’ll find yourself asking, “What could I do, that I would do?” And do something better.

It’s worth knowing that the single most important reason why feedback fails to have the desired effect is because all too often students do not believe that trying harder will affect outcomes. If we attribute our failure to something over which we have no control, then effort seems pointless. In such cases students often look around at what others have achieved and conclude that should aim a bit lower, or, in the worst cases, to give up entirely. After all, you can’t lose if you refuse to play the game.

Helping students to foster a belief that effort can make a difference will help them to improve academically. If they are able to attribute their failures to factors they can control, then we can ask them, “What could you do, that you would do?” And if they can see that doing that thing would make a small positive difference, then they might just choose to do it. And if making this choice becomes a habit, then unachievably wonderful things become a possibility.

* I have no idea where this habit comes from (!)