12 Rules For Life

Jordan B. Peterson

🧠
Psychology
📈
Self-Improvement

Date

Nov 17, 2021

Read time

30 minutes

Rating

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is a 2018 self-help book by Canadian clinical psychologist and psychology professor Jordan Peterson. It provides life advice through essays in abstract ethical principles, psychology, mythology, religion, and personal anecdotes.

Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back

“Standing up straight with your shoulders back is something that is not only physical, because you’re not only a body, but you’re also a spirit, so to speak, a psyche as well. Standing up physically also implies and invokes and demands standing up metaphysically. Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of being. Your nervous system responds in an entirely different manner when you face the demands of life voluntarily.”

Using examples from nature, like the humble lobster, Peterson explains the importance of understanding dominance. How order and chaos work together, how paying attention to your posture, speaking your mind, walking tall, and being daring encourages serotonin to flow and portrays an image of competence to the world. In return, you will begin to be less anxious, more confident, and increase the probability of good things happening in your life.

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood.

So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence. People, including yourself, will start to assume that you are competent and able. Your conversations will flow better and you will start to notice the subtle social clues that people exchange when they are communicating.

Let your light shine and pursue your rightful destiny

Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves.

Everything that we subjectively experience can be likened much more to a movie than to a scientific description of physical reality. The drama of lived experience-the unique, tragic, personal death of a close family member, compared to the objective death listed in the hospital records.

The world of experience has 3 primal constituents

  • Chaos
  • Order
  • The process that mediates between the two (modern people call this consciousness)

These are necessary elements whose interactions define drama and fiction in our lives.

The first two make us doubt the validity of existence and fail to care for ourselves properly. It is proper understanding of the third that allows us the only real way out.

When the ice you’re skating on is solid, that’s order. When the bottom drops out, and things fall apart, and you plunge through the ice, that’s chaos.

Our most basic category appears to be that of our sex, male and female. We appear to have taken that primordial knowledge of structured, creative opposition and begun to interpret everything through it.

We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.

Unlike us, predators have no comprehension of their fundamental weakness, their fundamental vulnerability, their own subjugation to pain and death. But we know exactly how and where we can be hurt, and why. That is as good a definition as any of self-consciousness. We are aware of our own defencelessness, finitude and mortality. We can feel pain, and self-disgust, and shame, and horror, and we know it. We know what makes us suffer. We know how dread and pain can be inflicted on us—and that means we know exactly how to inflict it on others. We know how we are naked, and how that nakedness can be exploited—and that means we know how others are naked, and how they can be exploited.

And no one understands the darkness of the individual better than the individual himself. Who, then, when ill, is going to be fully committed to his own care?

You need to consider the future and think, “What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly?”

You could help direct the world, on its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell. Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak—particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this.

There is a famous quote from the Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus that is relevant in this chapter:

How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?

Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you

If you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power.

Rogers believed it was impossible to convince someone to change for the better. The desire to improve was, instead, the precondition for progress. I’ve had court-mandated psychotherapy clients. They did not want my help. They were forced to seek it. It did not work. It was a travesty.

Here’s something to consider: If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself?

You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse. It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you. It’s appropriate and praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve.

When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future.

Don’t think that it is easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. A good, healthy person is an ideal. It requires strength and daring to stand up near such a person. Have some humility. Have some courage. Use your judgment, and protect yourself from too-uncritical compassion and pity.

Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

No matter how good you are at something, or how you rank your accomplishments, there is someone out there who makes you look incompetent

Failure is the price we pay for standards and, because mediocrity has consequences both real and harsh, standards are necessary.

Nobody is equal in ability or outcome, and never will be. A very small number of people produce very much of everything. The winners don’t take all, but they take most, and the bottom is not a good place to be.

If the cards are always stacked against you, perhaps the game is rigged (perhaps by you, unbeknownst to yourself). If the internal voice makes you doubt the value of your endeavors or your life, or life itself - perhaps you should stop listening. If the same critical voice within says the same denigrating things about everyone, no matter how successful, how reliable can it be? Maybe its comments are chatter, not wisdom.

Stay away from the cliché nihilism phrases like “There will always be better people than you..” and “In a million years, who is going to know the difference?”. Any idiot can choose a frame of time within which nothing matters. Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind

When we are very young we are neither individual nor informed. We did not have the time nor the wisdom to develop our own standards. In consequence, we must compare ourselves to others, because standards are necessary. Without them there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. As we mature we become more individual and unique. The conditions of our lives become more and more personal and less and less comparable. Now, before you can articulate your own standards of value, you must see yourself as a stranger- and then you must get to know yourself. Who are you? What is it that you actually love? What is it you genuinely want?

Dare to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life. You must decide what to let go, and what to pursue.

The past is fixed, but the future - it could be better. The present is eternally flawed. But where you start might not be as important as the direction you are heading

Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak.

If you start aiming at something like “I want my life to be better”-our minds will start presenting us with new information, to aid us in that pursuit.

What you aim at determines what you see

You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand. It takes careful observation, education, reflection and communication with others, just to scratch the surface of your beliefs.

Pay Attention

Pay attention. 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 is bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” and “Would I actually 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.

“What could I do, that I would do, to make Life a little better?”

Rule 5: Don't let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

People often get basic psychological questions backwards. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time, that's the mystery. Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How can people ever be calm? There’s the mystery. We’re breakable and mortal. A million things can go wrong, in a million ways. We should be terrified out of our skulls at every second. But we’re not. The same can be said for depression, laziness and criminality.

Two-year-olds, statistically speaking, are the most violent of people. They kick, hit and bite, and they steal the property of others. They do so to explore, to express outrage and frustration, and to gratify their impulsive desires. More importantly, for our purposes, they do so to discover the true limits of permissible behaviour.

You can teach virtually anyone anything with the following approach. First, figure out what you want. Then, watch the people around you like a hawk. Finally, whenever you see anything a bit more like what you want, swoop in (hawk, remember) and deliver a reward.

Example:

Your daughter has been very reserved since she became a teenager. You wish she would talk more. That’s the target: a more communicative daughter. One morning, over breakfast, she shares an anecdote about school. That’s an excellent time to pay attention. That’s the reward. Stop texting and listen. Unless you don’t want her to tell you anything ever again.

The fundamental moral question is not how to shelter children completely from misadventure and failure, so they never experience any fear or pain, but how to maximize their learning so that useful knowledge may be gained with minimal cost.

There are two general principles of discipline for a parent:

  1. Limit the rules
  2. Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules

Some practical hints

  • Time Out

Time out can be an extremely effective form of punishment, particularly if the misbehaving child is welcome as soon as he controls his temper. An angry child should sit by himself until he calms down. Then he should be allowed to return to normal life. That means the child wins—instead of his anger.

  • Physical Restraint

If your child is the kind of determined varmint who simply runs away, laughing, when placed on the steps or in his room, physical restraint might have to be added to the time out routine. A child can be held carefully but firmly by the upper arms, until he or she stops squirming and pays attention.

Here’s a fourth principle, one that is more particularly psychological: parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful.

People are aggressive and selfish, as well as kind and thoughtful. For this reason, no adult human being—no hierarchical, predatory ape—can truly tolerate being dominated by an upstart child. Revenge will come. Ten minutes after a pair of all-too-nice-and-patient parents have failed to prevent a public tantrum at the local supermarket, they will pay their toddler back with the cold shoulder when he runs up, excited, to show mom and dad his newest accomplishment.

Here’s a fifth and final and most general principle. Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world—merciful proxies, caring proxies—but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable.

Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

Life is in truth very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction. Sometimes suffering is clearly the result of a personal fault such as willful blindness, poor decision-making or malevolence. In such cases when it appears to be self-inflicted, it may even seem just. People get what they deserve, you might contend.

Sometimes, if those who are suffering changed their behavior, then their lives would unfold less tragically. But human control is limited.

Many, perhaps even most, of the adults who abuse children were abused themselves as children. However, the majority of people who were abused as children do not abuse their own children.

But success makes us complacent. We forget to pay attention. We take what we have for granted. We turn a blind eye. We fail to notice that things are changing, or that corruption is taking root. And everything falls apart. Is that the fault of reality—of God? Or do things fall apart because we have not paid sufficient attention?

A hurricane is an act of God. But failure to prepare, when the necessity for preparation is well known—that’s sin. That’s failure to hit the mark. And the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here’s something to try: Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is.

Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

People stricken with poverty don’t care about carbon dioxide. It’s not precisely that CO2 levels are irrelevant. It’s that they’re irrelevant when you’re working yourself to death, starving, scraping a bare living from the stony ground.

The Delay of Gratification

To share does not mean to give away something you value, and get nothing back. That is instead only what every child who refuses to share fears it means. To share means, properly, to initiate the process of trade. A child who can’t share—who can’t trade—can’t have any friends, because having friends is a form of trade.

People watched the successful succeed and the unsuccessful fail for thousands and thousands of years. We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future. A great idea begins to emerge, taking ever-more-clearly-articulated form, in ever more-clearly-articulated stories: What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice.

If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.

No tree can grow to Heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.

Each human being understands perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced—then the good is whatever is opposed to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening.

From this previous statement, Peterson draws the following conclusion. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell.It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.

You may come to ask yourself, “What should I do today?” in a manner that means “How could I use my time to make things better, instead of worse?”

To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may neither know what you want, nor what you truly need. Meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord. You can set up the preconditions, you can follow meaning, when it manifests itself, but you cannot simply produce it, as an act of will.

What is expedient works only for the moment. It’s immediate, impulsive and limited. What is meaningful, by contrast, is the organization of what would otherwise merely be expedient into a symphony of Being.

Rule 8: Tell the truth -or, at least, don’t lie

Jordan explains in this chapter that in the past, he said a lot of untrue things. He has motives of saying these things because he wants to win arguments and gain status and impress people. He was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what he thought was necessary. But he was fake. Realizing this, he started to practise only telling the truth - or, at least, not lying. He discovered that such a skill came in very handy when he didn’t know what to do.

What should you do, when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth.

To accept the truth means to sacrifice—and if you have rejected the truth for a long time, then you’ve run up a dangerously large sacrificial debt

You are by no means only what you already know. You are also all that which you could know, if you only would. Thus, you should never sacrifice what you could be for what you are. You should never give up the better that resides within for the security you already have—and certainly not when you have already caught a glimpse, an undeniable glimpse, of something beyond.

Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal—and ambition, and a purpose—to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal could be “live in truth.” This means, “Act diligently towards some well-articulated, defined and temporary end. Make your criteria for failure and success timely and clear, at least for yourself (and even better if others can understand what you are doing and evaluate it with you). While doing so, however, allow the world and your spirit to unfold as they will, while you act out and articulate the truth.” This is both pragmatic ambition and the most courageous of faiths.

If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth. In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise. Tell the truth. Or, at least, don’t lie.

Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

Memory is not a description of the objective past. Memory is a tool. Memory is the past’s guide to the future. If you remember that something bad happened, and you can figure out why then you can try to avoid that bad thing happening again. That’s the purpose of memory. It’s not “to remember the past.” It’s to stop the same damn thing from happening over and over.

When you’re involved in a genuine conversation, you are listening, and talking - but mostly listening.

Listening is NOT giving advice. Advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with about something complicated wishes you would shut up and go away. Advice is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his or her own intelligence. If you weren’t so stupid, after all, you wouldn’t have your stupid problems.

People think they can think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism. True thinking is rare - just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree.

Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s great psychotherapists, knew something about listening. He wrote, “The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.

Next time you are in a discussion. Try to summarize what the other person has said to you. Sometimes they accept the summary. Sometimes you are offered a small correction. And sometimes you are going to be completely wrong. All of that is good to know. There are several primary advantages to this process of summary. The first one is that you will genuinely come to understand what the person is saying. The second advantage is that it aids the person in the consolidation and utility of memory. It is now summed up, in the person’s memory, with luck, a better memory.

Rule 10: Be precise in your speech

Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit. Mutual unhappiness and resentment pile up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug, where the dragon feasts on the crumbs. But no one says anything, as the shared society and negotiated order of the household reveals itself as inadequate, or disintegrates, in the face of the unexpected and threatening. Everybody whistles in the dark, instead.

When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sot things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.

You must determine where you have been in your life, so that you can know here you are now. You must also determine where you are going in life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction. Random wandering will not move you forward. It will instead disappoint and frustrate you and make you anxious and unhappy and hard to get along with.

Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. That will protect you from the tragedy of your life.

Confront the chaos of Being. Take aim against a sea of troubles. Specify your destination, and chart your course. Admit to what you want. Tell those around you who you are. Narrow, and gaze attentively, and move forward, forthrightly. Be precise in your speech.

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

Danger and Mastery

Dr. Peterson explains that skateboarding is dangerous. Danger is the point of skateboarding. People who skateboard want to triumph over danger. They would have been safer in protective equipment, but that would have ruined it. They weren’t trying to be safe. They were trying to become competent—and it’s competence that makes people as safe as they can truly be.

When untrammeled—and encouraged—we prefer to live on the edge. There, we can still be both confident in our experience and confronting the chaos that helps us develop. We’re hard-wired, for that reason, to enjoy risk (some of us more than others). We feel invigorated and excited when we work to optimize our future performance, while playing in the present. Otherwise we lumber around, sloth-like, unconscious, unformed and careless. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes its appearance, as it inevitably will.

Career and Marriage

Girls can win by winning in their own hierarchy—by being good at what girls value, as girls. They can add to this victory by winning in the boys’ hierarchy. Boys, however, can only win by winning in the male hierarchy.They will lose status, among girls and boys, by being good at what girls value. It costs them in reputation among the boys, and in attractiveness among the girls.

Consider this, as well, in regard to oppression: any hierarchy creates winners and losers. The winners are, of course, more likely to justify the hierarchy and the losers to criticize it. But (1) the collective pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy (as some will be better and some worse at that pursuit not matter what it is) and (2) it is the pursuit of goals that in large part lends life its sustaining meaning.

Power is a fundamental motivational force (“a,” not “the”). People compete to rise to the top, and they care where they are in dominance hierarchies. But (and this is where you separate the metaphorical boys from the men, philosophically) the fact that power plays a role in human motivation does not mean that it plays the only role, or even the primary role. Likewise, the fact that we can never know everything does make all our observations and utterances dependent on taking some things into account and leaving other things out.

Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations.

Set aside some time to talk and to think about the illness or other crisis and how it should be managed every day. Do not talk or think about it otherwise. If you do not limit its effect, you will become exhausted, and everything will spiral into the ground. This is not helpful. Conserve your strength. You’re in a war, not a battle, and a war is composed of many battles. You must stay functional through all of them. When worries associated with the crisis arise at other times, remind yourself that you will think them through, during the scheduled period.

And maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Coda

Perhaps it’s not reasonable to ask God to break the rules of physics every time we fall by the wayside or make a serious error. Perhaps, in such times, you can’t put the cart before the horse and simply wish for your problem to be solved in some magical manner. Perhaps you could ask, instead, what you might have to do right now to increase your resolve and find the strength to go on. Perhaps you could instead ask to see the truth yourself.

Peterson tells in the last chapter of the book a story from when he was gifted a LED-equipped pen in 2016. He was struck quite deeply by the idea of a pen of light. There was something symbolic about it, something metaphysical, he said.

He goes on to write down appropriate questions, followed by a self-revealed answer. Here are the best questions the Pen of Light has answered:

What shall I do tomorrow? The most good possible in the shortest period of time.

What shall I do next year? Try to ensure that the good I do then will be exceeded only by the good I do the year after that.

What should I do with my life? Aim for Paradise, and concentrate on today.

What shall I do with my wife? Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God.

What shall I do with my daughter? Stand behind her, listen to her, guard her, train her mind and let her know it’s OK if she wants to be a mother.

What shall I do with my son? Encourage him to be a true Son of God.

What shall I do with my parents? Act such that your actions justify the suffering they endured.

What shall I do with a fallen soul? Offer a genuine and cautious hand, but do NOT join it in the mire.

What shall I do when I despise what I have? Remember those who have nothing and strive to be grateful.

What shall I do when greed consumes me? Remember that it is truly better to give than to receive.

What shall I do when my enemy succeeds? Aim a little higher and be grateful for the lesson.

What shall I do when I’m tired and impatient? Gratefully accept an outstretched helping hand (family, friends, maybe strangers).

What shall I do with the most difficult of questions? Consider them the gateway to the path of life.