12 Rules is hard-hitting, story-based, self-help book for people of all ages from a professor of psychology with 20+ years clinical experience. Drawing on history, science, religion and philosophy, Peterson lays out lays out 12 principles that can help us behave, achieve, and live more fulfilling lives in a chaotic and sometimes cruel world. Key insights:
Take looking after yourself seriously
Your friends can define your destiny
Pursue happiness by shouldering a meaningful (not expedient) load
Face the world head-on, stand up straight with your shoulders back
Train your kids so the world will embrace them - Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie – especially to yourself, but to everyone else as well
Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Try fixing one thing at a time by being precise about what the issue is
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding – let them learn the hard way
Life is tough, enjoy it while you can – pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Full title: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. By Jordan B Peterson.
Length: 448 pages, or 15 hours and 39 mins on Audible
Introduction to 12 Rules for Life
The book grew out of Peterson's hobby of answering questions posted on Quora, one being "What are the most valuable things everyone should know?"; his original answer comprised 42 rules and has been made into a song (Google “Akira the Don – 42 Rules). The book is divided into chapters with each title representing a specific rule for life explained in an essay. The founding idea is that "suffering is built into the structure of being," but although it can be unbearable, people have a choice either to withdraw, which is a "suicidal gesture", or to face and transcend it. Jordan says talk of rights is shallow and hollow, the real meaning in life comes from responsibilities:
“The purpose of life is finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re Elon Musk changing the world through SpaceX and Tesla; or a hardworking parent with health and family issues providing the best life you can for your children and frail parents. Meaning comes from voluntarily taking on the burden of doing the best you can for yourself, family, community, and society. The 12 Rules are:
Stand up straight with your shoulders back
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
Make friends with people who want the best for you
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to 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 criticize 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 skateboarding
Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Make no mistake this is a tough book to read. It’s densely packed with information, sometimes a challenge to follow, but extremely rewarding. The graphic below shows a way to think about how Peterson presents each rule:
Key insight 1: Take looking after yourself seriously. Rules 2 and 4
Rule 2 – Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. Peterson makes the interesting observation that dog owners are more reliable in giving their pets prescribed medicines than we in taking medicines prescribed for ourselves. What’s going on here? Turns out it is easier to show sympathy for others and know how to care for them, including animals, than it is to ourselves. We see this in our relationships with others as close friends, parents, carers for elderly parents, and workplace supervisors of employees.
This is because there is no greater critic of yourself than you. You hear the voices in your head when you debate the right thing to do, you know all the flaws you’ve successfully hidden from the world, and you know all the things you haven’t achieved because you didn’t try. We can be very harsh on ourselves.
In contrast, when we are tasked with looking after others we consider their whole situation in balance. We are gentle in our feedback, give the benefit of doubt, recognize that past failures can lay the foundations for future success, and provide encouragement in a positive manner. In some cases we hold others to a higher standard (think children or our workplace reports) knowing they are capable of achieving better.
Therein lies the solution to caring for ourselves and he Rule 2 – Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. Hold yourself to a higher standard where appropriate, but be gentle and kind to yourself. As you would with children, elderly parents, or staff; you must consider what is actually good for yourself, not what might make you happy in the moment. Look after yourself with grace and care, but also be hard on yourself in the pursuit of life goals. From Peterson:
“You need to consider the future and think, ‘What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly? What career would challenge me and render me productive and helpful, so that I could shoulder my share of the load, and enjoy the consequences? What should I be doing, when I have some freedom, to improve my health, expand my knowledge, and strengthen my body?’ You need to know where you are, so you can start to chart your course. You need to know who you are, so that you understand your armament and bolster yourself in respect to your limitations. You need to know where you are going, so that you can limit the extent of chaos in your life, restructure order, and bring the divine force of Hope to bear on the world.”
Rule 4 – Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. Social media has made everyone a master at presenting the best parts of their lives and hiding the rest. Indeed with photo-editing software we can present versions of ourselves that are even better than our best realities. Consider 8 elements in a circle of life construct in the diagram below (the one below is from startofhappiness.com):
As you look at each one of these elements it is easier to think of someone close to you (friends, family, acquaintance), or further away (Elon Musk, Tom Brady, Will Smith) who outshines you. Someone has a better career, or finances, or health, or friends, or romantic situation, etc. And that’s what we do. But is this true, and where does this get us?
Everyone – even the seemingly hyper successful – have challenges and failures in their life they are hiding. So comparing all of us, to the best parts of everyone else is a fool’s errand. It will only lead to unhappiness, critical evaluations, and to give up trying to improve ourselves in ways that we actually can.
So what can we do? Make the race a personal one and improve ourselves each day. Take stock of your life, set goals, make plans to achieve them, track progress, and be accountable. More from Peterson:
“Aim small. You don’t want to shoulder too much to begin with, given your limited talents, tendency to deceive, burden of resentment, and ability to shirk responsibility. Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning. Then you ask yourself, ‘What could I do, that I would do, that would accomplish that, and what small thing would I like as a reward?’”
If you are still resentful of anything in your life after ceasing to compare yourself to others, then consider Peterson’s two causes of resentment:
“There are only two major reasons for resentment: being taken advantage of (or allowing yourself to be taken advantage of), or a whiny refusal to adopt responsibility and grow up. If you’re resentful, look for the reasons.”
Key insight 2: Your friends can define your destiny. Rule 3
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you. Who we associate with significantly determines our future. We should surround ourselves with people who want to see us succeed; and in turn you should also help those around you succeed in their lives. As you succeed, you inspire others to succeed, and their success inspires and supports you.
But are you being disloyal to friends who aren’t having success? Peterson notes that note everyone down on their luck is a victim. At a certain point in adulthood your life outcomes are the result of your own adult choices. It can take a lot of bad decision in a lot of areas of your life, to really hit rock bottom.
“People create their worlds with the tools they have directly at hand. Faulty tools produce faulty results. Repeated use of the same faulty tools produces the same faulty results.”
Further, Peterson notes that it isn’t necessarily in the best interests of someone making poor choices to continue to validate those choices – to do so keeps them in their current state longer. By helping them they will continue to delay taking the personal responsibility for their circumstances they need to improve their lives. People who don’t want to improve their lives won’t; all you by keeping them in your lives is to pull your life down and delay their day of reckoning. More from Peterson:
“Here’s something to consider: 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? You might say: out of loyalty. Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse. It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you. It’s appropriate and praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve.”
Key insight 3: Pursue happiness by shouldering a meaningful (not expedient) load. Rule 7
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes in saying that life could be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ was surely channeling the negative aspects of life. But there is an element of truth here. From the moment of birth we are on a process of growth but also decay, illness and ultimately death. So too are loved ones around us. Society can be cruel and unfair when we lose our jobs, have accidents, or go bankrupt. In a thousand years no one will remember us or our achievements. Knowing this what should we do?
One option is to take the expedient or nihilistic path. Do what feels good, indulge your lowest desires. Lie, cheat, hurt, and steal to get whatever you want. Satisfy your short term cravings at the expense of long-term goals and prosperity. Of course we absolutely know we shouldn’t be doing this. We know we should be doing hard things now to make our lives better in the future. Things like studying, saving, exercising, maintaining relationships, and so on.
However, Peterson takes it deeper when he states that a life lived with meaning is far more rewarding that one lived for pleasure. Responsibilities are the things we need to make and find meaning in our lives. The happiness you get from doing something meaningful, even if very difficult, is far deeper than the happiness you get from some pleasurable pastime, from drug addictions, or from simple hobbies like rock climbing. Of course we all need to have some fun, however we have a greater need for our lives to be more than just fun.
There are two benefits from a life lived responsibly (or with meaning, Peterson uses the two words interchangeably). The first is that by taking on a challenge you improve the world around you at the level of the family, community, society, or if your Elon Musk or Bill Gates – the world. This is no small thing to be ignored. The second is that when life turns bad, when tragedy strikes you or your close ones, the fact that you are living your life meaningfully, as opposed merely to living it pleasurably, will be a great solace, in a way that merely having lived pleasurably will not be. Peterson puts it simply:
“We are beasts of burden.”
So having chosen to stop being nihilistic and live a meaningful life full of as much responsibility as we can bear; how exactly do we do that? You’ll need to read the book, but here is a short primer from Peterson:
“Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being. As the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so brilliantly noted, ‘He whose life has a why can bear almost any how’.”
Other insights from 12 Rules for Life
4. Stand up straight with your shoulders back (Rule 1). Fix your posture and outlook on the world. Others will treat you better, which will make you feel better, thus starting a virtuous cycle of improvement.
5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them (Rule 5). As a parent, train your children to follow the rules of society so that society will engage with them and allow them to develop normally. Do this by enforcing the minimum set rules needed with the minimum amount of force required.
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world (Rule 6). Before blaming the world for your problems ask have I done everything in my power to solve my problems? Also, don’t be surprised if the world doesn’t take seriously your solutions for its ails if you’re not capable of fixing your own problems.
7. Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie (Rule 8). If life isn’t working trying living truthfully – in words and deeds. It is beneficial to you as well as those around you. “Act diligently towards some well-articulated, defined and temporary end. Make your criteria for failure and success timely and clear, at least for yourself.” Telling the truth is the first step to reclaiming your life, or living an amazing one.
8. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't (Rule 9). You will learn something new, and they will trust and engage with you. Know also that you learn and develop understanding by talking it through with someone, not by thinking in isolation.
9. Be precise in your speech (Rule 10). It is impossible to solve a problem when the problem is everything. Every problem from the past, present, or future. No one can discuss ‘everything’. Define problems clearly and specifically so they can be solved and everyone involved can move forward.
10. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding (Rule 11). Children are anti-fragile; they get stronger through adversity in the same way a bone grows stronger after being broken. Let them experience adversity and grow in the process.
Bonus 11th. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street (Rule 12). Life is tough – take the time to enjoy happiness when it comes along. Also, when life gets really hard, shorten your time horizon by focusing on getting through the next month, week, day, or even hour.
Why you should read this book if you’re under 30
12 Rules for Life is literally that. A more complete book title could have been 12 Proven, Simple and Reliable Rules to Improve and Accelerate My Life While I Learn and Develop My Own Style. Is the book the answer to everything human interaction – no. But as my alternate book title suggests, it is a very good place to start.
Relationship to other Eruditeable books
#1 – The Algebra of Happiness. There is some nice overlap between the content of this book across your life, and the principles outlined in 12 Rules for Life.
#3 – Atomic Habits. This book provides more guidance on how to improve yourself continuing the theme in Rule 4 – Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
#4 – The Defining Decade. This book covers in detail the need for young adults to make the most of their 20s in order to set up their lives for success; which relates to Rule 7 – Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
#9 – A Little History of Philosophy. This book discusses in more detail most of the philosophers covered in 12 Rules for Life.
#15 – 50 Etiquette Lessons. This book provides guidance on meeting societal behavioral norms which relates to Rules 5 and 6.
#17 – Crucial Conversations. This book is a treatise on managing difficult conversations, expanding on principles introduced in Rule 10 – Be precise in your speech.
#19 – Gifts Differing. This book addresses in detail personality type differences between us all, a topic touched on in 12 Rules for Life.
#24 – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. This book addresses marriage success in some detail, further the principles established in Rule 10 – Be precise in your speech.
About the author
Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Born and raised in Alberta, Peterson obtained bachelor's degrees in political science and psychology from the University of Alberta and a PhD in clinical psychology from McGill University. After teaching and research at Harvard University, he returned to Canada in 1998 to join the faculty of psychology at the University of Toronto. In 1999, he published his first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which became the basis for many of his subsequent lectures. The book combined information from psychology, mythology, religion, literature, philosophy, and neuroscience to analyze systems of belief and meaning.
In 2016 Peterson become surrounded in controversy for criticizing a Canadian Act (Bill C-16) for his belief that it was ‘compelled speech’ – hitherto unseen in the Western World. In the wake of the controversy, Peterson's lectures and debates—propagated also through podcasts and YouTube—gradually gathered millions of views. He put his clinical practice and teaching duties on hold by 2018, when he published his second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Promoted with a world tour, it became a bestseller in several countries.