I was recently asked this question and I had to think about it for a few days. I had a lot of advice that I’ve acquired and would have loved to share over the past few years, but I wasn’t sure which one I had actually applied in my life.
Did I want to answer this question simply to appear a certain way, or did I want to find a piece of advice that I truly practiced in my life and saw significant improvements in my life?
What immediately came to mind was this piece of advice from Jordan Peterson in his book 12 Rules For Life.
Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
Even now I have trouble following this rule. It’s so easy to be an eternal victim — we all have our fair share of suffering in this world, whether we were victims of tragedy or malevolence. We can easily become bitter and resentful and blame other people for the problems that we have not sorted out psychologically.
We need to look internally and figure out what kind of emotions we are repressing and avoiding, what we are choosing to keep ourselves in the dark from, and why we choose to act in ways that are not, as the psychotherapist Carl Rogers coined, ‘congruent’. In other words, are we behaving like the sort of person that we wish we could become?
The word ‘house’ in Dr. Peterson’s advice has a twofold interpretation.
The literal, physical translation — Is your house, or at least even your room, in perfect order? Are your relationships with your parents, siblings, and friends in a good place? Are your relationships honest and supportive, and are you all aiming to live meaningful lives filled with purpose and love?
Or are you criticizing the world to ignore facing the problems that need your immediate attention? If you can’t even improve your relationship with your parents, what makes you think you know how to change the world to be a better place?
The other translation uses the house as a metaphor for your mental state. Have you put in the time to develop yourself intellectually before you decide to go out and criticize the structure of reality and society? Have you reconciled the events of your past and come to terms with painful and traumatic memories that may have affected you more than you can admit? Have you created a plan for the future, and have you started working toward them? Have you spent a lot of time trying to understand yourself?
I’m not saying that these all need to be perfectly sorted out in a short amount of time. I’m saying you can change the world simply by focusing on the problems around you that you can personally solve yourself.
My life has gotten significantly better once I decided to change myself instead of focusing on what needed to change in the world. I used to be unable to talk to my family and friends about my emotions or even tell them that I loved them. I used to be the eternal victim and never accepted responsibility for my own shortcomings.
I would tell myself and others stories to allow the pity to fall on me, so that I could take the pleasure of being a martyr and never have to accept the truth — that I was the one to blame and that I was the one who needed to grow up and change.
Ever since I decided to take ownership of my life and not wait for others to change first, I have seen so many positive outcomes in my life and surprisingly in a very short amount of time. You can change your life too, if you’re willing to work for it.
Don’t create a story in your head that allows you to become a victim and wallow in self-pity.
Work hard to make the relationships around you as best as they can be.
Work hard to turn into the best version of yourself.
These things will keep you so busy that you won’t have time to care about criticizing the world and wishing for things to change to cater to you. Mahatma Gandhi once said that you must be the change you wish to see in the world.
I believe that actions have consequences, and the actions you choose have a ripple effect on the people around you. If you choose to aim high and toward the “good”, which you can define as “a way of being that minimizes suffering and maximizes a deep sense of meaning and purpose”, your way of life will rub off on the people around you and you will be the catalyst that helps them change their lives.
Instead of talking about how you want to change yourself, why don’t you act on it?
Do you have a bad relationship with your mother, father, brother, or sister but wish for them to change instead of taking the first step?
Are there any secrets that you’ve been keeping from your loved ones which causes you to feel pain, resentment, guilt, shame?
Have you actively been honest with those around you, and told the truth to the people you know you must tell?
How does your room look? Are there clothes piled up on your chair because you’re too lazy to take the time to hang them? Are there unopened letters and tasks that you know you need to take care of? Are there items you’ve been meaning to throw out but never got around to doing?
Take care of them, one at a time, piece by piece.
How does the inside of your mind look? Are there repressed memories that need to be revisited so that you can finally lay them to rest and extract the necessary lesson from them? Are there secrets, or as Carl Jung saw as ‘psychic poison’, that are making you think or act in ways that you know to be wrong or hurtful to yourself and to others? Are there anxious thoughts about the future that you know you have to confront but have been constantly avoiding?
Sort them out, one at a time, piece by piece.
If you can set your house in perfect order, then you can go out and attempt to change the world.
You must curb your arrogance first — to believe that you have a complete understanding of the complexity of how economic systems and governmental institutions should be run is extremely pompous. It’s more likely that you will cause more harm than good.
Have some humility and do your best to become competent in the problems that appear in the immediate world. By focusing on the things around you, you will help the people around you focus on the things around them, and soon you will have created a positive domino effect that will ultimately change the world.