Reviewed in the United States on January 23, 2018
Jordan Peterson is a beacon of light in this chaotic world, a psychologist whose writing combines science and common sense. One of his talents is his ability to articulate complex ideas to a wide audience. Regardless of whether you have a background in psychology or not, you will understand this book. It covers his twelve rules for life, which are intended not only as a guide for life of the individual, but as a remedy for society’s present ills. Peterson believes that the cure for society starts with curing the individual, the smallest unit of society. Peterson’s well-known advice to clean your room is a reflection of the truth that if you can’t even manage the most basic and mundane responsibilities of life, then you have no business dictating to others how to fix society.
One of the main themes of this book is: Personal change is possible. There's no doubt you can be slightly better today than you were yesterday. Because of Pareto's Principle (small changes can have disproportionately large results), this movement towards the good increases massively, and this upward trajectory can take your life out of hell more rapidly than you could believe. Life is tragic and full of suffering and malevolence. But there's something you can start putting right, and we can't imagine what good things are in store for us if we just fix the things that are within our power to do so.
The 12 Rules for Life:
In Peterson’s own words, it’s 12 rules to stop you from being pathetic, written from the perspective of someone who himself tried to stop being pathetic and is still working on it. Peterson is open about his struggles and shortcomings, unlike many authors who only reveal a carefully curated façade.
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. People have bad posture, and the meaning behind it can be demonstrated by animal behaviors. Peterson uses the example of the lobster. When a lobster loses a fight, and they fight all the time, it scrunches up a little. Lobsters run on serotonin and when he loses, levels go down, and when he wins, levels go up and he stretches out and is confident. Who cares? We evolutionarily diverged from lobsters 350 million years ago, but it’s still the same circuit. It’s a deep instinct to size others up when looking at them to see where they fit in the social hierarchy. If your serotonin levels fall, you get depressed and crunch forward and you’re inviting more oppression from predator personalities and can get stuck in a loop. Fixing our posture is part of the psycho-physiological loop that can help you get started back up again.
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. People often have self-contempt whether they realize it or not. Imagine someone you love and treat well. You need to treat yourself with the same respect. Take care of yourself, your room, your things, and have respect for yourself as if you’re a person with potential and is important to the people around you. If you make a pattern of bad mistakes, your life gets worse, not just for you, but for the people around you. All your actions echo in ways that cannot be imagined. Think of Stalin’s mother and the mistakes she made in life, and how the ripple effects went on to affect the millions of people around him.
Rule 3: Choose your friends carefully. It is appropriate for you to evaluate your social surroundings and eliminate those who are hurting you. You have no ethical obligation to associate with people who are making your life worse. In fact, you are obligated to disassociate with people who are trying to destroy the structure of being, your being, society’s being. It’s not cruel, it’s sending a message that some behaviors are not to be tolerated.
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. You need to improve, and you may even be in real bad shape, but many unfairly compare themselves to some more seemingly successful person. Up till around age 17, random comparisons to other people can make sense, but afterwards, especially age 30+, our lives become so idiosyncratic that comparisons with others become meaningless and unhelpful. You only see a slice of their life, a public facet, and are blind to the problems they conceal.
Rule 5: Don't let children do things that make you dislike them. You aren't as nice as you think, and you will unconsciously take revenge on them. You are massively more powerful than your children, and have the ability and subconscious proclivity for tyranny deeply rooted within you.If you don't think this is true, you don't know yourself well enough. His advice on disciplinary procedure: (1) limit the rules. (2) use minimum necessary force and (3) parents should come in pairs.It's difficult and exhausting to raise children, and it's easy to make mistakes. A bad day at work, fatigue, hunger, stress, etc, can make you unreasonable.
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Life is tragic and there's malevolence. There's plenty to complain about, but if you dwell on it, you will become bitter and tread down a path that will take you to twisted places. The diaries of the Columbine killers are a chilling look into minds that dwelled on the unholy trinity of deceit, arrogance, and resentment) . So instead of cursing the tragedy that is life, transform into something meaningful. Start by stop doing something, anything, that you know to be wrong. Everyday you have choices in front of you. Stop doing and saying things that make you weak and ashamed. Do only those things that you would proudly talk about in public.
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient). Meaning is how you protect yourself against the suffering that life entails. This means that despite the fact that we’re all emotionally wounded by life, we’ve found something that makes it all worthwhile. Meaning, Peterson says, is like an instinct, or a form of vision. It lets you know when you’re in the right place, and he says that the right place is midway between chaos and order. If you stay firmly ensconced within order, things you understand, then you can’t grow. If you stay within chaos, then you’re lost. Expediency is what you do to get yourself out of trouble here and now, but it comes at the cost of sacrificing the future for the present. So instead of doing what gets you off the hook today, aim high. Look around you and see what you can make better. Make it better. As you gain knowledge, consciously remain humble and avoid arrogance that can stealthily creep on you. Peterson also says to be aware of our shortcomings, whatever they may be; our secret resentments, hatred, cowardice, and other failings. Be slow to accuse others because we too conceal malevolent impulses, and certainly before we attempt to fix the world.
Rule 8: Tell the truth—or, at least, don't lie. Telling the truth can be hard in the sense that it’s often difficult to know the truth. However, we can know when we’re lying. Telling lies makes you weak. You can feel it, and others can sense it too. Meaning, according to Peterson, is associated with truth, and lying is the antithesis of meaning. Lying disassociates you with meaning, and thus reality itself. You might get away with lying for a short while, but only a short time. In Peterson’s words “It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.”
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't. A good conversation consists of you coming out wiser than you went into it. An example is when you get into an argument with your significant other, you want to win, especially if you get angry. If you’re more verbally fluent than the other person then you can win. One problem is that the other person might see something better than you, but they can’t quite articulate it as well. Always listen because there’s a possibility they’re going to tell you something that will prevent you from running headfirst into a brick wall. This is why Peterson says to listen to your enemies. They will lie about you, but they will also say true things about yourself that your friends won’t. Separate the wheat from the chaff and make your life better.
Rule 10: Be Precise in Your Speech: There is some integral connection between communication and reality (or structures of belief as he likes to say). Language takes chaos and makes it into a ‘thing.’ As an example, imagine going through a rough patch in your life where you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong. This mysterious thing that’s bothering you—is it real? Yes, if it’s manifesting itself as physical discomfort. Then you talk about it and give it a name, and then this fuzzy, abstract thing turns into a specific thing. Once named, you can now do something about it. The unnameable is far more terrifying than the nameable. As an example, the movie the Blair Witch project didn’t actually name or describe the evil. Nothing happens in the movie, it’s all about the unnameable. If you can’t name something, it means it’s so terrifying to you that you can’t even think about it, and that makes you weaker. This is why Peterson is such a free speech advocate. He wants to bring things out of the realm of the unspeakable. Words have a creative power and you don’t want to create more mark and darkness by imprecise speech.
Rule 11: Don’t bother children when they are skateboarding. This is mainly about masculinity. Peterson remembers seeing children doing all kinds of crazy stunts on skateboards and handrails, and believes this is an essential ingredient to develop masculinity, to try to develop competence and face danger. Jordan Peterson considers the act of sliding down a handrail to be brave and perhaps stupid as well, but overall positive. A lot of rebellious behavior in school is often called ‘toxic masculinity,’ but Peterson would say to let them be. An example would be a figure skater that makes a 9.9 on her performance, essentially perfect. Then the next skater that follows her seems to have no hope. But she pushes herself closer to chaos, beyond her competence, and when successful, inspires awe. Judges award her 10’s. She’s gone beyond perfection into the unknown and ennobled herself as well as humanity as well.
Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street. This chapter is mainly autobiographical and he writes about tragedy and pain. When tragic things are in front of you and you’re somewhat powerless, you must keep your eyes open for little opportunities that highlight the redemptive elements of life that make it all worthwhile. The title of this chapter comes from his experience of observing a local stray cat, and watching it adapt to the rough circumstances around it. Another thing you must do when life is going to pieces is to shorten your temporal horizon. Instead of thinking in months, you maybe think in hours or minutes instead. You try to just have the best next minute or hour that you can. You shrink the time frame until you can handle it, this is how you adjust to the catastrophe. You try to stay on your feet and think. Although this chapters deals about harsh things, it’s an overall positive one. Always look for what’s meaningful and soul-sustaining even when you’re where you’d rather not be.