Some modest new year’s resolutions inspired by the commencement speech of US Navy Admiral William H. McRave.
Goodreads rating 4.39. Concise, to the point, insightful.
In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson argues for the kind of values instilled by a socially conservative parental home: Aim for paradise, but concentrate on today. Meaning is key, not happiness. Assume responsibility. Listen carefully, speak clearly, and tell the truth. And stand straight, even in the face of adversity.
Here they are, Peterson’s 12 rules:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- Be precise in your speech
- Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Peterson motivates the rules by telling stories and anecdotes from his experience as a clinical psychologist, which he mixes with interpretations of religious (mostly biblical) texts as well as Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Frankl, or Dostoevsky. Peterson gets politically incorrect when discussing his 11th rule: He strongly rejects postmodernism and nihilism; and he shows little respect for management science: “[T]he science of management is a pseudo-discipline.”
As so often, what the author has to say could be said much more concisely. The book is far too long to precisely communicate the core ideas. What are they? Dean Bokhari suggests the following three key quotes from the book:
“We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything.”
“Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society establish, maintain, and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld. Where everything is uncertain, anxiety provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a parent can bestow.”
“The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.”
He also offers a “tweetable summary:”
Always tell the truth. Admit and learn from the past, make order of its chaos, and work towards not repeating the same mistakes. Pay close attention.
Other reviewers stress that Peterson wants his rules to help us strike the right balance between order and chaos (see also Philippa Perry’s “How To Stay Sane”). For example, Wyatt Graham condenses Peterson’s thinking as follows:
… life (or Being) involves suffering. … So, “We must have something to set against the suffering that is intrinsic to Being. We must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount” (xxxi).
We need to embrace Being, to not give in to suffering, and to find meaning. We need to live in the border between chaos and order and find our meaning there. …
For Peterson, to find meaning is to take on the responsibility of Being. We find it when we realize “that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life” (xxxv). He continues, “If we live properly, we will collectively flourish” (xxxv).
- Dare. Show strength in the face of adversity.
- Avoid self contempt. Be self-conscious and have a vision.
- Assume that you chose the easy path, and then take a different one. Improving is much harder than the opposite. “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?”
- Focus on taking one step at a time. And take it.
- Teach your kids to behave properly (not least, to make them socially desirable). Discipline is not revenge.
- Conduct yourself as if Being is more valuable than Non-Being (or risk becoming a serial killer). Set your own house in order before trying to improve the world. Blame yourself—not for life’s tragedies, but for surrendering to them.
- Search for meaning, not for happiness. Sacrifice, i.e., invest.
- Be authentic. Avoid life-lies. Tell the truth to yourself and others. Big Wrongs are based on countless small lies. Only truth is compatible with meaning.
- Lack of precision breeds chaos. Precise speech brings things out of the realm of the unspeakable. Precision separates the unique terrible thing that happened from the others that might have happened—but did not.
- Respect culture, and human nature. Pity today’s boys.
- Our vulnerability is what makes us human. So celebrate the small joys of life.
In The Guardian, Tim Lott summarized Peterson’s worldview as follows:
“Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.
“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”
In another discussion in The Guardian, John Crace made it even clearer that he didn’t like the book at all.
The Economist reports about research published in JAMA Internal Medicine summarizing the views of patients who suffer from various conditions about the quality of life.
In the New Yorker, Adam Kirsch explains Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
His genius. Some of his work, including “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” or “Faust.” Goethe’s scientific endeavors and sense of holism. His fascination with Bildung—the “apprenticeship to life and society” with the aim to learn “who he really is and how he should live.”
[The] combination of earnestness and jovial detachment is what characterizes the mature Goethe, and what makes him unique; no other writer gives us the same sense that he has both seen life and seen through it.
Self-help manuals are for the rest of us what the airport bookstore bestseller on the latest management fad is for businessmen. They promise novel perspectives on fundamental questions but typically leave the reader disappointed. Past the enticing introductory chapter with interesting examples, the novel perspectives all too often reduce to new semantics without substantive value added. But then, there might be exceptions.
To “simplify one’s life” is a prominent search term on the web and the topic of many websites, blog posts and books. If popular search engines identify the most relevant contributions then a handful of top ranked sites should contain most of the pertinent information. So here is a selection of top ranked sites and their suggestions for simplifying one’s life.
- possessions; time commitments; goals; negative thoughts; debt; words; artificial ingredients; screen time; connections to the world; and multi-tasking
- Perform a clutter bust; practice gratitude; rearrange your living room; add some life with indoor plants; keep your dining table surface clear; use the “good” tableware and glasses; create white space; prepare yourself for the morning; find storage for your kitchen appliances; create secondary storage for pantry items; meal plan!; make your bed each and every day; start an exit drawer; start a donate box; check your mindset; get your finances in order; be accountable by recording your simplifying efforts; declutter your wardrobe; daily meditation; start with acceptance; and unplug.
Zen habits suggests 72 steps but helpfully boils the list down to 2 points:
- Identify what’s most important to you; and eliminate everything else.
Other sites proceed more systematically and for that very reason, strike me as more convincing. wikiHow devotes a chapter to simplifying one’s life and lists four “methods” and corresponding actions:
- Eliminating clutter: Decide what stuff is unnecessary; do quick cleans; do big cleans every season; shrink your wardrobe; stop buying new things you don’t need; downsize (have a small but comfortable home and learn to live with less); create white space; and make your bed every day.
- Getting organized: Plan what you can, or embrace your inner chaos; split household chores evenly; streamline your finances; find a place for each thing; prepare quick meals; and simplify your parenting.
- Simplifying Your Relationships: Identify bad relationships and end them; make the effort to spend time with people you like; learn to tell people “no;” spend more time alone; and spend less time on social networking.
- Slowing Down: Put your phone away; stop reading self-improvement manuals, books, and blogs; work from a manageable to-do list; declutter your digital packrattery; do one thing at a time; leave your work at work; and meditate for 15 minutes each day.
mindbodygreen offers the most concise advice suggesting five simplifying steps:
- Evaluate your relationships and those that are draining you; disconnect—fully—for one hour a day (at least); sweep every corner of your home; get really, really quiet; and shred your “To Do” list, and make an “I Want” list.
The international bestseller How to Simplify Your Life: Seven Practical Steps to Letting Go of Your Burdens and Living a Happier Life thoroughly covers the topic—from clearing off one’s desk to cleaning up one’s life. It proceeds in seven steps:
- Simplifying stuff: Desk; office; apartment; remembering things.
- Personal finance: Relax, be optimistic; fewer things, more money; no debt; courage; wealth is in the eye of the beholder.
- Time: Focus; less than perfect; say “no”; slow down; hide.
- Health: Happiness; flow; fitness; food; sleep.
- People: Networking; parents; death; no envy; don’t judge.
- Relationship: Talk; no drama; work-life; sex; plan for old age.
- Self: Your objective; strengths; no bad conscience; enneagram.
- The book’s new edition also features spirituality: Spiritual place; pray; empower routine work; engage your soul.
Now go and simplify or stay messy at your own peril.
The English language translations of Viktor Frankl’s book “… trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager” (Wikipedia German, English) were published as “From Death-Camp to Existentialism” and “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.” Frankl describes his experience in Auschwitz and other concentration camps with a focus on the psychological changes the inmates went through. The narrative is shocking and Frankl’s ability to maintain a positive attitude to life in spite of the horror he experienced admirable. But I was less impressed by the book than millions of readers before me—it neither provides a systematic account nor a personal narrative.
The sketch “Synchronisation in Buchenwald” at the end of the book (featuring Socrates, Spinoza, Kant, KZ inmates and others) is the best part of the short book. Structured as a stage play it provides insights into Frankl’s thinking.
The Big History Project: From the universe to the solar system, earth, life and man.