Tag Archives: Meaning

Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”

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:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
  12. 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 We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated.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).

Yet others offer longer summaries, for example u/AresProductions on reddit, James Razko, or Neil Soni. Nat Eliason collects quotes from the book. Here is my summary of the summaries:

  1. Dare. Show strength in the face of adversity.
  2. Avoid self contempt. Be self-conscious and have a vision.
  3. 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?”
  4. Focus on taking one step at a time. And take it.
  5. Teach your kids to behave properly (not least, to make them socially desirable). Discipline is not revenge.
  6. 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.
  7. Search for meaning, not for happiness. Sacrifice, i.e., invest.
  8. 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.
  9. Listen.
  10. 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.
  11. Respect culture, and human nature. Pity today’s boys.
  12. 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.

Goodreads contains many reader reviews. Wikipedia page.

Bullshit Jobs and Corporate Correctness

In the New Yorker, Nathan Heller reviews David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs.”

In the course of Graeber’s diagnosis, he inaugurates five phyla of bullshit work. “Flunkies,” he says, are those paid to hang around and make their superiors feel important: doormen, useless assistants, receptionists with silent phones, and so on. “Goons” are gratuitous or arms-race muscle; Graeber points to Oxford University’s P.R. staff, whose task appears to be to convince the public that Oxford is a good school. “Duct tapers” are hired to patch or bridge major flaws that their bosses are too lazy or inept to fix systemically. (This is the woman at the airline desk whose duty is to assuage angry passengers when bags don’t arrive.) “Box tickers” go through various motions, often using paperwork or serious-looking reports, to suggest that things are happening when things aren’t. (Hannibal is a box ticker.) Last are “taskmasters,” divided into two subtypes: unnecessary superiors, who manage people who don’t need management, and bullshit generators, whose job is to create and assign more bullshit for others. …

Graeber comes to believe that the governing logic for such expansion isn’t efficiency but something nearer to feudalism: a complex tangle of economics, organizational politics, tithes, and redistributions, which is motivated by the will to competitive status and local power.

My view is that what Graeber describes is a reflection of growing “corporate correctness,” the tendency

  • to structure and regulate everything, and often in an incompetent way;
  • to focus on appearance rather than content (think of power point);
  • to avoid responsibility by forming commissions and commissioning reports; and
  • to replace common sense by a mentality of box ticking, buzz wording, and bull shitting.

Of course, corporate correctness transcends the corporate sector. Universities and the public sector are leading the way.

Benjamin Todd’s “80,000 Hours”

80,000 hours, that’s how many hours we typically spent working over a lifetime, according to Benjamin Todd and the 80,000 hours team. They have published a book/ebook on how to make the best of it.

Their advice for a dream job: Look for

work you’re good at,

work that helps others,

supportive conditions: engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow; supportive colleagues; lack of major negatives like unfair pay; and work that fits your personal life.

The book discusses strategies to build a career plan, and a career. The main text closes with this summary:

Explore to find the best options, rather than “going with your gut” or narrowing down too early. Make this your key focus until you become more confident about the best options.

Take the best opportunities to invest in your career capital to become as badass as you can be. Especially look for career capital that’s flexible when you’re uncertain.

Help others by focusing on the most pressing social problems rather than those you stumble into – those that are big in scale, neglected and solvable. To make the largest contribution to those problems, consider earning to give, research and advocacy, as well as direct work.

Keep adapting your plan to find the best personal fit. Rather than expect to discover your “passion” right away, think like a scientist testing a hypothesis.

And work with a community.

In an appendix, the authors advise (potential) undergraduates to

aim for the most fundamental, quantitative option you can do i.e. one of these in the following order: mathematics, economics, computer science, physics, engineering, political science / chemistry / biology,

or otherwise,

focus on developing communication skills in philosophy, history or English.

The best choice is a combination. There is high demand for people who can understand quantitative topics and communicate clearly.

Appendix 8 contains useful career review summaries with “facts on fit” and “next steps” (see also this link for updates). For example, the authors advise that

[a]n economics PhD is one of the most attractive graduate programs: if you get through, you have a high chance of landing a good research job in academia or policy – promising areas for social impact – and you have backup options in the corporate sector since the skills you learn are in demand (unlike many PhD programs). You should especially consider an economics PhD if you want to go into research roles, are good at math (i.e. quantitative GRE score above 165) and have a proven interest in economics research.

But they warn that an Economics PhD takes a long time and

[d]oing highly open‐ended research provides little feedback which can be demotivating.

A final appendix discusses areas where people who want to help others possibly can have a large impact. As very promising areas, the authors identify

  • Biosecurity,
  • Climate change (extreme risks),
  • Factory farming,
  • Global priorities research,
  • Health in poor countries,
  • Land use reform,
  • Nuclear security,
  • Risks posed by artificial intelligence,
  • Smoking in the developing world, as well as,
  • Promoting effective altruism (the movement related to the book).

Viktor Frankl’s “… trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen (Man’s Search for Meaning)”

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.