Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life Illustrated
Jordan Peterson has some frank life advice for you. Informed by 30 years of clinical practice, he has distilled his pro tips into his book, 12 Rules for Life.
Jordan Peterson is a professor of Psychology from Canada. He's contributed to 100+ scientific papers on the subjects of personality, aggression, social conflict, and the psychology of mythology and religion, for which he's been cited 10,000+ times in the scientific literature. From Harvard to the University of Toronto, Peterson has a 30-year career researching, lecturing, and working in clinical practice.
Peterson has made the headlines for his protests against legally enforced speech and other extreme political agendas that have taken hold within North American universities. Intertwining depth psychology and the political histories of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Peterson holds a mirror to Mother Nature and reveals her to be a cold-blooded killer. As are we, her creations. Especially when we get hell bent on ideology.
Peterson's chilling conclusion is that all human beings are monsters. We can be good monsters or evil monsters, it all depends on our circumstances. But the potential for monstrosity lies within all of us. (Consider the ubiquity of bullying, enacted by children, no less, who are deemed the most innocent of all humans.) Informed by his extensive historical and religious studies, Peterson contextualises modern history's worst atrocities while offering rational explanations for their existence.
It's from this vantage point that 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos takes stock of the human experience, urging us to pursue meaning in the light of life's tragic underpinnings. It is a psychological, philosophical, historical, biological, religious, and personal manifesto, from a man who's making a giant existential omelette and breaking more than a few eggs in the process.
Rule 1. Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back
By posturing yourself in a confident manner, you create a positive feedback loop in your brain that makes you feel good. The release of serotonin improves your mood and which further enhances your posture.
At the same time, your body language signals to other people that you possess competence. They respond to you more positively as someone who might have something valuable to offer, like knowledge, connections, and social validation.
Thus, this small physical correction can have wide-ranging effects on your baseline mood, social status, and opportunities for growth.
Why a lobster, though? Like humans, lobsters make dominance displays and have evolved social hierarchies. We also share similar neurochemistry due to our common evolutionary tree. So while it may seem blunt to compare mammals with molluscs, we're all made of the same genes and proteins that drive our neurochemistry. It's the same reason that we trial chemotherapy drugs on zebrafish. This is a particularly inconvenient fact for anti-science folk who draw a firm line of distinction between humans and all other animals.
Peterson's critics claim that social hierarchies are a modern construct for oppression. However, the study of animal behaviour across multiple phylogenies clearly shows otherwise. Natural selection supports the intrinsic value of social hierarchies through 500 million years of evolution. And that includes humans.
Just ask any evolutionary biologist. For instance, the formation and development of social hierarchies are described at length in baboon troops in Robert Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir: Love, Death and Baboons. Sapolsky's field studies informed valuable work into the neurobiology of stress and depression.
Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
Rule 2. Treat Yourself Like Someone You're Responsible for Helping
People are better at giving medication to their pets than to themselves. Why do we fail so often to take proper care of ourselves?
This rule draws from depth psychology and the work of Carl Jung. Humans are self-conscious creatures. We understand emotional abstractions like shame, disgust, and mortality. And so we know ourselves to be tragically and fundamentally flawed.
This deep knowing prevents us from taking care of ourselves, because we feel we don't really deserve it. There's a similar self-destructive thread in tobacco smoking and alcohol abuse. While they deliver short term pleasure, we also know that smoking and drinking to excess is horrendously bad for our bodies. Yet we do it anyway. We feel justified in administering the punishment we so deserve.
Jordan doesn't stop there. Highlighting our capacity for self-loathing is not practical life advice. He goes on to explain another self-fulfilling prophecy inherent to taking on responsibility.
In dedicating yourself to a cause outside of your own problems, you create meaning in life. The cause can be anything—from sewing tapestries of kittens, to volunteering for charity, to helping people break their ugly addiction to fossil fuels. It just has to be a productive mission outside of your own traumatised mind. In turn, taking care of yourself becomes a mere necessity toward delivering to that cause. Pretty slick, Jordy P.
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
Rule 3. Make friends with People Who Want The Best for You
Your social group is vitally important. These people reflect your nature back at you, day after day. They are your social barometer, helping you master what's acceptable behaviour in the wider world. For a social species, that's a big deal.
Good friends tell you the truth, even if it hurts. They support you when you feel lost. They encourage you to think deeper, take responsibility, and find meaning in life.
Bad friends unfairly criticise and limit you. They restrict your intellectual and emotional growth. They use you to make themselves feel better. They do this because they don't want you to succeed; if you did, they fear you might not need them anymore.
Choose your friends wisely. Cut out the negative influences. Don't tolerate self-made victims who complain but don't actually want to improve. They're a drain on your emotional resources and only want you to wallow with them. Seek positive, ambitious friends and help each other up as far as you can go.
Make friends with people who want the best for you.
Rule 4. Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today
There will always be someone who's smarter, funnier, and having a better time in life than you. The internet reminds us of this continually, even when it's only a carefully engineered illusion. Don't compare yourself to these perceptions of other people (not least because they may be inaccurate). Only compare your present self to your past self, thereby monitoring your own trajectory to betterment.
Set yourself personal goals. What's befitting of your individual talents and interests? What do you see in the world around you that's broken—and how can you fix it? Search for meaningful ways to improve until you have definitive ambitions for your romantic, social, career, and creative life.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
Rule 5. Don't Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them
Your main job as a parent is to raise a human being that is competent and socially desirable, so they can enter the world more smoothly as independent children and adults. Coddling children provides short term gratification but actively harms the child's long term confidence, teaching them they need your protection. To compound the issue, parents won't always be around to buffer their adult children when they need it most.
You child has a finite window of time in which to learn the boundaries of social behaviour. After this, society will punish them for their mistakes by denying them friendships in school, and later, relationships and career opportunities. The phrase tough love illustrates this necessity.
What's more, a disobedient child fuels resentment in even the most mild-mannered parents. It's in everyone's best interests to teach them the boundaries of acceptable behaviour at the earliest opportunity. Set basic rules and use the minimum necessary force to impose them.
Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
Rule 6. Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticise The World
It's easy to criticise others from a place of blissful ignorance. We can convince ourselves we could do a better job, without ever having been in that position of responsibility ourselves. Setting your own house in order provides hands-on experience of life's challenges. You may discover, for example, that there are no perfect solutions. Perhaps the target of your venom was actually doing a pretty good job all along.
The story of Chesterton's Fence illustrates this rule. Imagine a rule-bound conservative man walking along a country road when he discovers a fence. He has no idea why the fence is there, but he supposes it was put there for good reason. So he leaves the fence well alone and takes a different route on his walk.
Next, a freedom-seeking liberal man discovers the same unexplained fence blocking the road. "This fence is limiting my freedom," he thinks. "I don't like it." He clears the fence away and trundles along the previously forbidden road.
What was the correct course of action? It's impossible to know with the information we have. Perhaps the fence has outlived its purpose, or perhaps it was erected arbitrarily or with bad intent. In that case, removing it was for the best. But perhaps the fence was preventing hikers from falling into a surprise sinkhole. Removing the fence could cost lives.
The moral is don't go removing fences—or in political terms, don't go demanding reforms—until you understand the reason for the boundaries in the first place. You may just do more harm than good. This rule is about having some humility and focusing on fixing your own shortcomings before trying to blindly reorganise society to suit you.
Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.
Rule 7. Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient)
This rule relates to coping with existential angst—by finding meaning in life that's bigger than yourself. It draws from the well-documented psychological benefits of delayed gratification.
Success can often be attributed to this mindset. It means making a sacrifice now for greater overall benefit in future. Think junk food vs healthy eating. Laziness vs exercise. Cheating vs commitment. Instant gratification feels good in the moment but frequently makes life worse for your future self.
Have some integrity. Define your values. Discover what makes your life worthwhile, so that when times get tough (and they will) you'll have sufficient inner reserves of strength to fight.
What are we fighting? According to the depth psychologist, Carl Jung: it's the absolute terror of existence. When life shatters you into a thousand pieces, what core pursuits will motivate you to put yourself back together?
Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
Rule 8. Tell The Truth – Or, at Least, Don't Lie
Spend a full day monitoring your language. If you're like most people, you'll find you lie a lot. We lie to appease our friends, to avoid confrontation, to elevate our social status, to deny deep-rooted personal weaknesses. Lying is a powerful defence mechanism but it doesn't serve your long term interests.
The last rule challenged you to pursue what's meaningful, but this can go awry if you lie to yourself. Imagine a student who adopts a trendy anti-establishment stance and spends his whole adult life working angrily to topple the ideological monsters of his imagination.
Lying ruins all of us. (See Lying by Sam Harris for a thoughtful breakdown of how all instances of lying are ultimately harmful.) Set yourself the meta-goal of being authentic; of being as accurate as possible in relaying your vision of the world to others and to yourself.
Once you start telling the truth, you won't want to go back. The truth is liberating, both in relation to the self and others. This life hack will also help you discern value in other people and avoid those who refuse to be authentic with you.
Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie.
Rule 9. Assume The Person You're Listening to Might Know Something You Don't
Most people are verbal processors: we need to talk in order to structure our thoughts. As a listener, you help other people to think; to re-arrange their logic or opinions, or to problem-solve newly discovered disequilibrium.
If you listen hastily with judgement, eager to assume the other person's position before they've finished their sentence, you risk making inaccurate assumptions. Good listening means devoting your entire attention to the speaker's message, even if you disagree with it.
Next time you're in a conversation, focus on listening. Allow the other person talk for longer and without interruption, and they'll reveal themselves in ways you may not have seen before. Your ambition as a listener is to ask open questions and to summarise the answers in response, thus forcing yourself to distil the speaker's true perceptions.
Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don't.
Rule 10. Be Precise in Your Speech
This rule highlights the disintegration of order into chaos, led by imprecise communication and conceptualisation of that which threatens us.
In any conversation, if you identify a problem with clear and careful language, you bring it to the fore as a viable, obedient object. You can then work together to reduce the complexity of the issue and seek a logical solution.
If you leave things vague, everything bleeds together. The problem becomes an indeterminable mess. The baby monster is swept under the carpet to grow into an adult monster, who will jump out and bite you later on.
Articulation is vital as we tackle issues of increasing complexity. Make your words work hard for you, or the truth will crumble into chaos.
Be precise in your speech.
Rule 11. Don't Bother Children When They're Skateboarding
"Of course it was dangerous. Danger was the point. They wanted 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." - Jordan Peterson
In well-functioning societies, competence is the major driver of success. If you have a brain tumour, you're going to want the most competent brain surgeon to treat you. You don't care about their bank balance, or their political leanings, or their ethnic background. Competence is king.
Here, Peterson strikes at what Freud called the Oedipal Mother, who overprotects her children hopelessly. Her extreme compassion prevents her children from striking out, making mistakes, and learning how to be self-sufficient—physically, socially, and emotionally. Thus the Devouring Mother foreshadows a lifetime of fear and insecurity for her offspring.
Children are little adults on a path to independence. You can't fight their battles for them and you can't make the whole world safe. Allow them to brave first-hand experience with all its inherent dangers. Then, as competent adults, they can fight their own battles and win.
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
Rule 12. Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on The Street
You remember the truth behind rule two: humans have a tendency to be wrapped up in their own painful, self-conscious existence. If you have a grain of empathy in you, it's some degree of work to spend time with another human. But we do it anyway because we get lots of enrichment in return.
But we also have pets, and with good reason. Non-human animals give us the comfort of companionship without the energy demands of human interaction. Sure, they don't deliver the highest levels of conversation, but that's not the point. When you're stressed out, animals are the least demanding friends you'll ever have.
It's in these moments, meeting a cat in the street, that you forget about the acute and chronic stresses of your life, and can just be with another living creature. They don't judge you or force you to confront your terror, they just want to be with you. And that's absolutely life-affirming.
Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
If any of these ideas strike a chord with you, watch Jordan Peterson's psychology lectures recorded at the University of Toronto. Do the science thing while you listen: wrangle with the logic of these arguments and weigh up the evidence. If they hold true after your best efforts to tear them down, you know there's valuable learning to be attained. Here's his first lecture to get you started.