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 We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated.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.