I don't compare well to who I was yesterday
'Compare yourself to who you were yesterday." This is one of Jordan Peterson's commandments. It is in fact Rule Four of his 12 Rules of Life, and they are, indeed, modern day commandments.
As much as the liberals will tell you that Peterson is some kind of Alt Right loonie, there is a deep moral, pretty much religious, core to his rules for life.
So I decided that I would compare myself to who I was yesterday, and that each day, through tiny incremental improvements, I would transform myself. Yes, they would be tiny incremental improvements, but when they all added up I would be a different person in a year's time.
The trouble is that to start it I needed something simple and measurable. So I took swimming laps. My baseline pool swim is one kilometre. It's not much. Even by my own slowcoach standards it's not even near half an hour. So I decided I would add on two laps of a 20m pool each day. Until I got to a mile. I wasn't sure what would happen when I got to a mile. Technically obviously, if you can swim a mile, you can also swim a mile plus two more laps. Technically you should be able to add two laps each day. But where would it end? Your whole day would be one big swim. Not a bad thing in itself. You would probably reach some kind of enlightenment. But other things might suffer, like every other single thing you need to do in your life.
This was one of the ridiculous things I would ponder as I swam up and down. When would I stop adding on the lengths? You're best distracting yourself, because once you get to a certain point in pool swimming you get bored.
So you set yourself little problems. Of course what you should do ideally is to be mindful, or present, or in the moment, or whatever you call it yourself. And I do a bit of that too. You try and be conscious only of this second, of the hand going in and scooping back, of the head coming out to the side, of the breath. But it's a lot of moments. When you are in the moment, the moments can seem to become an eternity, eternities piled on top of other eternities.
Whereas if you get a good knotty issue to get your teeth into, you've done 10 lengths before you know it.
So on I went. 52 one day, 54 the next, 56. In no time I was up to 70. 1.4km. Five more days and I'd be swimming a mile. But obviously it got interrupted, by life, by work, by events. And now I haven't been in days. And even the idea of doing 70 bores me and fills me with dread.
And of course this is problematic, because I am comparing myself with who I was yesterday, and last week. And last week I was a guy who was swimming 1.4km. And who am I now? A bum who couldn't dream of doing that.
Jordan Peterson is a hard taskmaster. Because if you buy the notion of constant self-improvement, of always being better than you were yesterday, then on the days when you are not better than you were yesterday, on the days when you don't swim an extra two lengths, you are a failure. You are going backwards. You compare badly to the guy you were yesterday.
So there is only one answer to it. I need to go back tomorrow and I need to do 72 lengths, 1.44km. And there is the upside to a hard taskmaster. It gives you the motivation to get up off your ass every time.
Because you remember that it was a small triumph every time you did those extra two lengths. You felt good about yourself. You were improving, and it felt good.
As to where it all ends? Well, where does it ever end? Death. But that's another day's work.
'Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge' continues at 9.35pm on Wednesdays on RTE 1
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