Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life Illustrated
Jordan Peterson has some frank life advice for you. Informed by 30 years of clinical psychology practice and extensive study of our political, social, and evolutionary history, he has distilled his life pro tips into the book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Jordan Peterson is a professor of Psychology from Canada. He's contributed to more than 100 scientific papers on the subjects of personality, aggression, social conflict, and the psychology of religion, for which he's been cited more than 10,000 times in the literature. From Harvard to the University of Toronto, Peterson has established a career researching, lecturing, and working in clinical practice.
Peterson makes headlines, however, for his protests against legally enforced speech, the labelling of all white people as privileged, and the problem with diversity as an ideology. His fight is with the subversive nature of extreme political agendas—be they far-left or far-right—with a focus on the modern trend for political correctness within North American universities, such as the human costs of seeking equality of outcomes.
Having faced the backlash from surface-skimming media analysis, it's pretty hard to debunk Peterson's arguments on an academic level. His claims are rooted in empirical observations of humanity. He holds a mirror to Mother Nature and reveals her to be a cold-blooded killer; as are we, her creations.
Peterson's chilling conclusion is that all human beings are monsters. We can be good monsters, or we can be evil monsters—it all depends on our life circumstances—but we certainly have the power for monstrosity within us. Informed by his studies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, he contextualises history's greatest atrocities while providing compelling arguments for their very 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.
The 12 Rules for Life
This rule stems from biology. 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 that further improves your default posture.
Meanwhile, your body language signals to other people that you are successful and confident. They respond to you more positively as someone who might have something valuable to offer, including knowledge, connections and social validation.
Thus, this small initial correction can have wide-ranging effects on your mood and social status.
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.
And so while it may seem stark to compare mammals with molluscs, we're all made of the same genes and proteins. It's the same reason that we trial chemotherapy drugs on zebrafish.
Peterson's critics claim hierarchies are a modern construct for oppression. However, the study of animal behaviour across multiple phylogenies demonstrates otherwise. Natural selection supports the intrinsic value of social hierarchies through 500 million years of evolution.
Check out Robert Sapolsky's field studies of social hierarchies in baboon troops in A Primate's Memoir: Love, Death and Baboons which informed his work into stress, social status and the biology of depression.
Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
People are better at giving medication to their pets than to themselves. Why do we fail so miserably to take proper care of ourselves?
This rule draws from depth psychology. Humans are self-conscious creatures. We understand emotional abstractions like shame, disgust, love and mortality. And so, unlike all other animals, 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. I'd bet there's a similar self-destructive thread in tobacco smoking and alcohol abuse. It feels good to administer the punishment we feel we so deserve.
Jordan doesn't stop there. Highlighting your capacity for self-loathing is hardly practical life advice. Instead, he goes on to explain another self-fulfilling prophecy.
In dedicating yourself to a larger cause, you create meaning in your life. It can be anything—from volunteering in a soup kitchen to sewing giant tapestries of kittens—it just has to be a mission outside of yourself. In turn, taking care of yourself becomes a mere necessity toward achieving that goodness.
Pretty slick, Jordy P.
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
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're feeling lost. They encourage you to think deeper, take responsibility and find meaning in life.
Bad friends criticise and limit you. They restrict your intellectual and emotional growth. They use you to make themselves feel better. They don't want you to succeed, because then you won't need them anymore.
Choose your friends wisely. Cut out the negative influences. Don't tolerate self-made victims who complain a lot but don't actually want to improve. They are a drain on your emotional resources. 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.
There will always be someone who's smarter, funnier and having a better time at life than you. The internet reminds us of that continually.
Don't compare yourself to these perceptions of other people (not least because they're 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 ambitions for your romantic, social, career and creative selves.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
Your main job as a parent is to raise a human being that is competent and socially desirable. Coddling provides short term gratification but actively harms the child's long term confidence by teaching them they are weak and need protection. Compounding this 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, 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.
It's easy to criticise others from a place of blissful ignorance. 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.
Imagine a rule-bound conservative walking along a country road when he discovers a fence. He has no idea why the fence is there, but supposes it was put there for good reason. So he leaves the fence well alone and takes a different route on his walk.
Soon after, a freedom-seeking liberal discovers the same unexplained fence blocking the road. "This fence is limiting my freedom. I don't like it." He clears the fence away and trundles along the previously forbidden road.
Who is right? It's impossible to know with the information we have. Perhaps the fence had 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 reorganise the world.
Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.
This feeds in to an earlier rule about how to cope with existential angst—by finding a meaning to life that's bigger than yourself. It draws from the well-documented psychological benefits of seeking 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. Exercising vs slothing about. Cheating vs commitment. Instant gratification feels good in the moment but makes life harder 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 on. What are you 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 life pursuits will motivate you to put yourself back together?
Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
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.
In the last chapter you resolved to pursue what is 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 Sam Harris' Lying 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.
Most people are verbal processors: they need to talk in order to structure their thoughts. As a listener, then, you are helping someone 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. Proper 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 proper listening. Allow the other person talk for longer and without interruption, and they will 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.
Chapter ten 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 encroach into issues of increasing complexity. You must make your words work hard for you, or your truth crumbles into chaos.
Be precise in your speech.
"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.
This is the simplest piece of advice from Peterson's book and might well be spun as "living in the moment". But here's my take.
Humans are the only species to be wrapped up in their own painful, self-conscious existence. (Yeah, you remember chapter two.) And so if you have a grain of empathy in you, to spend time with another human is some degree of work. But we do it because we get a lot of enrichment back.
But 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 either but that's not the point. When you're stressed out, animals are the least demanding friends you'll ever have.
And it's in these moments, meeting a cat in the street, that you forget about the acute and chronic stresses of your life, and 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.
To hear from Jordan Peterson himself, check out his full psychology lecture series. Here's his first lecture to get you started.
Read Jordan's book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos on which this article was based.