An Antidote to Chaos
Life gets busy. Has 12 Rules for Life been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
Disclaimer: This is an unofficial summary and analysis.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in 2020. It was later revised in 2022.
Jordan Peterson’s Perspective
Jordan Peterson is a Canadian YouTube personality, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He grew up in the wastelands of Northern Alberta. He earned his PhD and post-doctorate in clinical psychology from McGill University before working as a professor at Harvard University.
Peterson’s various TV appearances for commentary on personality, religion and cultural Marxism have made him famous. More recently, in 2016, Peterson released a series of YouTube videos that criticized new discrimination laws on the basis of gender identity. Based on these videos, he received significant media coverage ranging from criticism to praise.
Peterson describes himself politically as a classic British liberal and traditionalist. So, he supports individual liberty and maintaining tradition but does not align with a right-wing ideology.
Peterson has deeply experienced the world. He has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt plane and explored an Arizona meteorite crater with astronauts. He has also taught mythology to lawyers, doctors and business people. He has consulted for the UN secretary-general and served as an adviser to senior partners of major Canadian law firms.
12 Rules for Life discusses discipline, responsibility, freedom and adventure. Peterson distills the world’s wisdom into twelve wide-ranging essays based on ancient tradition and groundbreaking scientific research. Peterson argues happiness is a pointless goal. Instead, we must search for meaning as an antidote to the chaos of our age. Peterson compares chaos and order to Yin and Yang. To keep our lives in perfect balance, we must tackle the inevitable chaos with order.
The best way to find order is by searching for meaning. This search for meaning should not be for its own sake but as a defense against the suffering intrinsic to our existence. When you experience this suffering, you can either withdraw or face it. Withdrawing will allow the darkness we all possess to overcome us. Facing it will help us challenge these dark impulses and adjust our aims.
The book provides life advice through essays in abstract ethical principles, psychology, mythology, religion and personal anecdotes. The book has been translated into many languages and sold millions of copies since its release in 2018.
Rule #1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back
“So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.”– Jordan Peterson
The denial of a profound truth can lead to suffering. Denying your responsibility to deal with suffering can lead to the hopeless victim mentality. This mentality is increasingly common and relies on an expectation that others will solve your problems. Adopting this approach prevents you from finding meaning. Some of the strongest people have overcome massive amounts of pain, suffering and adversity. Taking ownership of their suffering allowed them to find meaning. On top of mentality, though, our body posture is crucial.
To learn to stand up for yourself, Peterson uses the metaphor of embracing your inner lobster. The lobster shares many of the same neurological structures as humans. Like human brains, lobster brains have areas specialized for social hierarchies. Peterson explains that studies suggest lobsters who lose their social status through losing fights stop producing serotonin. This lack of serotonin can lead to depression in the lobsters. The dominant lobsters also adopted a strong posture, while the other lobsters curled up.
The body and mind are deeply connected. So, set yourself up for success by exerting the proper body language. Stand up straight with your shoulders back for two powerful reasons:
1. It exerts dominance and confidence.
2. It also shows you accept responsibility.
Research has shown that physical stature, even a small muscle movement, can affect your emotions. It’s tough to accept responsibility for your actions when you’re slouching or sprawled out on the floor. By being upright with your shoulders back and your feet shoulder-width apart, you exude confidence and a willingness to take meaningful action.
“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, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).”– Jordan Peterson
Rule #2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping
Peterson encourages people to credit themselves and those around them for acting productively and with care. He also credits patients for showing genuine concern and thoughtfulness toward others. They can express their emotions because they are simply being themselves. When you are a patient, you simply accept that you are a patient. You don’t try to be someone else.
The lesson to learn from the “patient” approach is to respect yourself and know that you are worthy of help. You are important to other people, as much as you are to yourself. You have a vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. As a result, you are morally obliged to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help, and be charitable to yourself. Act toward yourself in the same way you would take care of, help, and be dutiful to someone you love and value.
As part of caring for yourself, you must determine where you will bargain for yourself so that you don’t end up resentful, vengeful and cruel. You have to articulate your own principles for two reasons:
- So that you can defend yourself against others taking advantage of you
- So that you are secure and safe while you work and play
When you look after yourself, you’re able to start building meaning into your life. Don’t underestimate the power of your vision and direction. These are irresistible forces. They can transform obstacles into open pathways and expanded opportunities.
“Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being. As the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so brilliantly noted, ‘He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.’”– Jordan Peterson
Rule #3: Make Friends With People Who Want the Best for You
Your friends have a significant impact on the way you behave. Their sayings and mannerisms will often rub off on you. This means they can also negatively influence you through toxic habits.
But if you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. Instead, they will encourage you when you do good for yourself and others, and carefully punish you when you don’t. This encouragement will help bolster your resolve.
People who are not aiming upward will do the opposite. Peterson explains that managers often put underachievers on group projects with high performers. Their goal is to raise the underachievers up to the level of their colleagues. But research suggests that the opposite effect is more common. The high performers are likely to be dragged down to the underachiever’s level.
So, strive to surround yourself with good people. Look beyond superficial features like sense of style or socioeconomic status and identify who will help you create positive change. It requires strength and courage to stand next to brilliant people like this because you might feel inferior. Have some humility and courage so you can grow as an individual.
Rule #4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else Is Today
Find Your Being
Once you’re an adult, you’re a singular being. So, be cautious when comparing yourself to others. You have your own particular problems—financial, intimate and psychological. Those are embedded in the unique broader context of your existence.
Your career or job either does or does not personally work for you. If it does, it does so in a unique interplay with the other specifics of your life. As you find your Being, you must decide how much of your time to spend on your career and how much on other parts of your life. You must also decide what to let go of and what to pursue. These decisions take careful observation, education, reflection, and communication with others. Essentially, by doing this, you are scratching the surface of your beliefs. This helps you to make decisions without feeling overwhelmed by your problems.
Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others
We all have an innate need to compare ourselves to other people. Your brain will release a hormone called serotonin upon noticing you are more skilled than others. When you have serotonin in your blood, you feel confident and in control of your life.
But your brain restricts serotonin when someone threatens your status in society and makes you look incompetent. So, you will start doubting yourself and experience a low sense of self‐worth.
You are now connected to billions of people online. This means it doesn’t take long for your brain to notice how you compare to other people. When you’re exposed to so many better people, you’re more inclined to lose hope. You will stop taking action and let your life slip into chaos. The best way to prevent this from happening is to stop comparing yourself to who someone else is today. Instead, start comparing yourself to who you were yesterday.
“Even a man on a sinking ship can be happy when he clambers aboard a lifeboat! And who knows where he might go, in the future. To journey happily may well be better than to arrive successfully…” ‐ Jordan Peterson
Get Your Psychological House in Order
Your psychological house is the most important thing to monitor and improve. Comparing yourself today to who you were yesterday is what Peterson calls “taking stock” of your psychological house. You can see the progress you have made and decide if you believe you’re progressing at the required rate. You then need to identify where your psychological house must be renovated. Determine whether these changes are a cosmetic fix or a structural flaw. Write a list of these areas that require improvement and match them with fixes.
This approach to improvement will help your internal critic become less obsessed with inadequacies and more focused on improvement. It is also an essential part of Peterson’s sixth rule, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” so it clearly holds significant importance.
Rule #5: Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them
Parents have to treat their kids in a way that prepares them for the real world. For Peterson, this means ensuring they can function well in society by instilling the appropriate rules. When parents ignore this, their children risk being rejected by society in many painful ways. This can feel like a high-pressure challenge because our children are blank slates who will impact future generations. Deciding what to write onto these blank slates can be paralyzing.
Peterson first encourages readers to accept the innate aggression found in humans. This is why almost everyone has a story of being bullied as a child. To overcome this aggression, the author believes your primary concern should be raising kind children. This doesn’t mean you should become your child’s best friend. This would prevent you from enforcing the required rules for your child to become a better person. Peterson provides the following examples of effective rules to set:
- Never use violence unless in self-defence.
- Show others kindness and respect.
Peterson also recommends you avoid superficial rules like:
- You must always be in bed by 7 p.m.
- You must never have mismatched socks.
As well as setting up rules that will guide children to a better future, parents must also learn how to help their children overcome failure and pain. These experiences are inevitable and should be used as a learning experience. Raise children who are passionate about changing the world. And create children who seek to improve themselves so they are better equipped to change the world.
Rule #6 – Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World
“If one wants to live a full life, one first sets one’s own house in order; and only then can one sensibly aim to take on bigger responsibilities.”– Jordan Peterson
Before you complain about the world or your situation, you need to start small and consider your own circumstances:
- Have you taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to you?
- Are you working hard on your career? Or, are you letting bitterness and resentment hold you back and drag you down?
- Have you made peace with your brother?
- Are you treating your spouse and your children with dignity and respect?
- Do you have habits that are destroying your health and well-being?
Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, then you are not equipped to rule a city. Let your soul guide you. Then watch what happens over the days and weeks after you have set your house in order. When you are at work, you will begin to say what you think. You will start to tell your wife, husband, children, or parents what you want and need. When you know that you have left something undone, you will act to correct this. Your head will start to clear up as you stop filling it with lies that everything is fine. Your experience will improve as you stop distorting it with inauthentic actions that don’t address the problems you have in your house.
Rule #7: Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient)
Peterson uses the term expedient to describe putting off the activities we know we should do to seek short-term gratification instead. We do this because life is filled with suffering. But there’s so much more to life than just suffering. So, try to enjoy life as much as you can by pursuing something meaningful. Pursuing meaning will help you be a better and happier person while also helping you deal with suffering.
You can start doing this by seeking sacrifice rather than instant gratification. This sacrifice must be for the benefit of others rather than your own benefit. For example, Peterson does not see working long hours to earn a promotion as a sacrifice because your actions are still motivated by a positive outcome for yourself.
Peterson explains that these small positive impacts will help you grow like a lotus flower. These flowers start at the bottom of a muddy lake and slowly grow. Eventually, lotus flowers burst out beautifully in the sunlight. This is how sacrifice for the sake of others can make your life far more fulfilling in the future.
“To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure. When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice—it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos.”– Jordan Peterson
Rule #8: Tell the Truth—Or, at Least, Don’t Lie
You can use words to manipulate the world into delivering what you want. This includes both lying to others and lying to yourself. But this approach is driven by an ill-formed desire that doesn’t consider the negative impact.
Suppose you pay close attention to what you do and say. In that case, you can learn to feel a state of internal division and weakness when you are misbehaving and misspeaking. This is an embodied sensation, not a thought. But if you bend everything blindly and willfully toward a goal, you will never discover if another goal would serve better.
As you continue to live by the truth, you will have to accept and deal with the conflicts that this mode of Being will generate. If you do so, you will continue to mature and become more responsible, in small and large ways. You will approach your more wisely formulated goals and become even wiser, as you discover and rectify your inevitable errors.
“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.”– Jordan Peterson
Rule #9: Assume the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t
Listen Rather Than Judge
A listening person can reflect the crowd. He can do that without talking. He lets the talking person listen to themselves. That is what Freud recommended.
Freud had his patients lay on a couch, look at the ceiling, let their minds wander, and say whatever wandered in. That’s his method of free association. Freudian psychoanalysts used this method to avoid transferring their biases and opinions into the patient’s internal landscape.
If you listen instead, without premature judgment, people will generally tell you everything they are thinking—and with little deceit. People will tell you the most amazing, absurd and intriguing details. Few of your conversations will be boring.
What You Know Now Is Not Enough
“So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.”– Jordan Peterson
Unless your life is perfect, what you know is not enough. You remain threatened by disease, self-deception, unhappiness, malevolence, betrayal, corruption, pain and limitation. You are subject to all these factors because you are just too ignorant to protect yourself. If you knew enough, you could be healthier and more honest. You would suffer less. You could recognize, resist and even triumph over malice and evil. You would neither betray a friend nor deal falsely and deceitfully in business, politics, or love.
Your current knowledge has neither made you perfect, nor kept you safe. So, it is insufficient. For this reason, the priestess of the Delphic Oracle in Ancient Greece spoke most highly of Socrates. Socrates always sought the truth. She described him as the wisest living man because he knew that what he knew was nothing. So, assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Rule #10: Be Precise in Your Speech
When we have a problem, we are often tempted to cover it up or hope the problem will go away by itself. It’s easier to keep peace and avoid the anxiety, despair and sadness that are associated with confronting your problems. It’s easier to pretend the problem doesn’t exist than to admit it does and accept the pain.
But that’s not an effective solution. So, whenever you plan to achieve something, you must be explicit and precise in your goals. Unclear goals can create unclear actions, which then can create unclear results. If you have a vague unease, you will struggle with it until you define it explicitly and give it a concrete form. Once you precisely identify the issue, you will likely realize you were far more afraid than you should’ve been. You now have a specific target to confront. And specificity lets you start challenging the chaos.
Rule #11: Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding
“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.”– Jordan Peterson
Peterson believes that parenting affects how children react to danger in the future. Parents will often encourage their children to do something safer than skateboarding or rock climbing. The author believes that pushing children away from these activities means they will struggle to face the dangers of the adult world.
Peterson also considered gender equality in this chapter. He believes that there is a growing desire in modern society for gender equality. So, he highlights the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. When gender equality means equal opportunity, rights and treatment, this is good. But equality of opportunity should not be achieved at the cost of equality of outcome. According to 12 Rules for Life, the idea of literal, complete equality is not supported by biology. It could be counterproductive because it forces people against their nature.
Rule #12: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street
Peterson admits that it is easy to focus on the ugly parts of life. After all, some examples of suffering can feel completely overwhelming. He uses the example of his daughter’s lifelong struggle with severe arthritis. The easy option with these crises is to become nihilistic or negative about everything. The reality is that this approach can often be worse than the initial suffering.
To counteract potential nihilism, pay close attention to the love and beauty around you. This might be a sunset, flowers, or simply giving a cat a stroke. Dwell on these moments when you can to increase their impact. Life’s too short to suffer.
Final Summary and Review of 12 Rules for Life
12 Rules For Life describes the modern world as chaotic. We are constantly searching for happiness without the foundation required to be happy. Peterson believes this foundation comes from meaning. This meaning must come from within and not from others. Once you have your house in order, you can start having a positive impact on other people’s lives. To chase a life of meaning, Peterson offers 12 rules for life:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in order before you criticize the world
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie
- Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- Be precise in your speech
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
We rate this book 4.6/5.
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