12 Rules for Life: Review, Summary and Response
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It seems like Jordan Peterson’s and his book, “12 Rules for Life” have set the world on fire. The book has become a number one seller and people are talking about it across the globe. What is so special? The main reasons to pay attention to this book are that Dr. Jordan Peterson is both a practicing clinical psychologist, which means that he has practical experience helping people overcome their personal problems and he is also a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, which gives him a deep understanding of the theoretical frameworks in his field.
This book is especially important for those living in an urban environment, as dysfunction and chaos are easy to find here, often in our neighborhoods. If we can apply these life hacks to ourselves and impact our networks with them, we will increase our opportunities to survive in the city. The outdoor survivalist seeks to escape the chaos and the monsters that it breeds. With the help of 12 Rules for Life, we can, little by little, bring order to the chaos and live in harmony with our natures and our neighbors.
While often labeled conservative and Christian, Jordan Peterson is much better identified as a stoic/gnostic. As a gnostic, he is engrossed in the importance of symbols in understanding the meaning of life. Hence, God may or may not be real to Peterson, but God as a symbol is very real and powerful. But Dr. Perterson is also like the ancient Greek stoic philosophers who avoided extremes of pleasure and pain to seek a golden mean called “virtue”, in which people lived in harmony with the world and each other.
So, think of 12 Rules for Life as Jordan Peterson’s practical antidote for chaos- all the suffering and pain caused by poor personal choices and extreme ideologies. He aims to help you put your life back together – gaining control over yourself so that you can live a life of virtue and harmony. Let’s take a look at his 12 Rules. I will briefly explain the meaning of each rule, along with one or more examples. Then I will give a personal response to this material. You are welcome to add your own response in the comments at the end of this post.
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulder back
Meaning: The way you feel affects the way you present yourself to the world. Others will respond to your presentation in either good or evil ways.
Example: Regardless of how you feel, you should act like you are strong, or at least not weak. Then others will respect you and bad people will be less likely to target you. Additionally, your physical expression – stance, walk, smile, posture, can feed back into your feelings. Thus, standing tall can make you feel more dominant.
Response: This is low hanging fruit. You can’t control your feelings, but you can control your actions. Great advice. Peterson also says that we are all monsters on the inside, so aggression is natural for us, yet we must keep our inner monster under control. That is the stoic message and it’s not something people like to talk about in this age. For Peterson, you need to accept and channel your monster. Then you will be less afraid and more confident and your natural aggressiveness will allow you to push back against the evil of the world. Could it be that the current attempts to suppress masculinity and aggression will lead to the inability to resist oppression?
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
Meaning: Stop having contempt for yourself. Instead, act as though you respect yourself. Maintain a high standard for your life, habits, and actions. Your life can make a difference. Others need you at your best.
Example: Judge yourself as you judge others, externalize your life as if watching it in a movie. When looking objectively at your life, do see someone who has potential, someone who is valuable to others, someone who could make some changes and bring some order to life. Take action to help yourself: clean your room, don’t be a slob, go to bed and get up at the appropriate time.
Response: This is excellent if old-fashioned advice. I’m sure it often works in Peterson’s clinical psychology practice. Again, we can see the stoic attitude of not letting feelings control ourselves. Be objective, not subjective. Take control over your life rather than be controlled by feelings, other people, and circumstances. I can almost hear Peterson shouting -STOP BEING A VICTIM!! The reader can only too well see how this rule conflicts with modern ideas of the virtuosity of victimhood. If the first rule meant appear tough and the world will respect you, the second rule means be tough with yourself and then you will respect yourself.
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you
Meaning: Just as in Rule 2 you need to respect yourself, in Rule 3, you need friends who will respect you too. Dump friends that bring chaos into your life, seek friends who can help you gain order over your life.
Example: If you want to stop smoking, stop hanging around smokers. In order to change your life, you have to break away from friends who keep dragging you back to where you started. It can be very hard to leave familiar relationships even when they are toxic. For example, many women find it very difficult and painful to break up with the men who abuse them. Yet, to change their lives, they must do so.
Response: There is an old saying that “Like attacks like”. When you are in chaos, you will attract others in chaos and also those who prey on others amidst the chaos. I agree that we must remove the predators from our lives- that relates to Rule 1: Stand up Straight. We must approach our friendships based on shared values. If our friend’s values lead to chaos, then in tough love we must abandon them and make new friendships with those who share our new values.
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
Meaning: Focus on your own improvement, don’t worry if you don’t seem as good as others. We can’t understand what is going on in other’s lives, so we are poor judges of their success. Also, we can only control our own actions, so that is what we must focus on.
Example: When starting to change your life, focus your attention on this change and the efforts that have gotten you there. Change = winning! But when you look at others, especially those who are outwardly successful, your wins seem like nothing and you are tempted to return to the chaos from which you came. So don’t compare yourself with others -it counterproductive.
Response: What gets measured- gets done. When we take our eyes off ourselves, we lose the ability to judge our progress, then we stop progressing. Comparing ourselves to others leads to pride or envy or even despair. Ironically, you could look pretty good when surrounded by losers, but with new friends who have their lives together, now you seem to be the loser. So, don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to others.
Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Meaning: It’s all about respect. If your children are disrespectful, you will be tempted to rule over them harshly, crushing their spirit. Or you may turn away from them in disgust. Eventually, the world will deal with them even more harshly.
Example: A child talks disrespectfully to a parent. The parent hates this but tolerates it until they emotionally snap and slap the kid forcefully and repeatedly. Another parent grows cold toward their child and emotionally withdraws, giving no love to the child. There are many variations of this negative pairing.
Response: According to Rule 1, you are a monster and you must control yourself or you will fall into chaos. Likewise, children are little monsters and they have limited internal control. At an instinctual level of feeling, parents know when their kids have crossed a dangerous line. It is the parent’s duty to recognize the truth of their disaffection toward their kids and use appropriate disciple to bring them back to safety. If you do not do it, others will and the children will suffer more- as will society.
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
Meaning: Only after you are continually doing what’s right and succeeding have you earned the right to judge others.
Example: Once you begin to see positive change in your life, you can become proud and think that you know what is best for others. You lose weight on a vegan diet, then you start pushing everyone you know to get follow your diet, even your cat. But other’s hate this and tune you out, at the same time you have lost your focus continuing to change yourself.
Response: This is about self-righteousness. It is parallel to Rule 4: Compare yourself with yourself, not others. Rule 4 is concerned with envy and despair, Rule 6 is concerned with pride. It is really the same problem but from a different phase of life. Before, you were just getting out of chaos and in danger of slipping back. Now you are beginning to think you are OK and the problem is everyone else. Listen to Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!” Now it is vital to refocus on bringing more order to your life – rather than doing more, do less. Stop doing what you know to be wrong – that is integrity. You did this for your kids in Rule 5, now apply it to yourself.
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Meaning: People take the expedient way (which means the easiest way) in order to avoid trouble and pain. On the other hand, doing what is worthwhile will bring more trouble and pain. Worthwhile actions will increase the meaning of your life and will allow you to stand strong in the face of pain.
Example: You show up late to work once again. Do you lie and blame it on others or accept responsibility and face the consequences? The hard choice leads to order and integrity, the other avoids trouble but leads back to chaos.
Response: Life is full of choices and a series of choices sum up your life. This rule is a restatement of Rules 1 and 2: Stand up straight and respect yourself, but now it comes at a deeper level, Before it was about survival, now we learn that some things may be more important than survival – the meaning of your life. This is what makes you more than an animal, more than a monster. The search for meaning lies beyond survival – it defines what you will suffer for and what you are willing to die for. The 12 Rules cannot give your life meaning- they can only give you a process that makes it easier to search for meaning.
Rule 8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
Meaning: You may not always know what is true, but you always know when you lie and others often know when you lie too. Lying breaks your integrity and weakens you.
Example: In politics, people lie to hurt their enemies and to puff up themselves. In the end, everyone believes that all politicians are liars. And so, we lose trust in our government. Additionally, people may agree to do things that they don’t want to do, such as have sex after a party. Later, later they resent themselves and those who they agreed to follow. Don’t be too agreeable, learn to say no for your own sake.
Response: This is a special form of Rule 7: Don’t take the easy way out. However, Peterson gives this point special emphasis because lying is so common and so easy. It can so readily escalate into one lie after another. In many ways Lying is worse than taking the easy way out, it intentionally destroys meaning. It is also a form of Rule 1: Stand up straight. Predators thrive by finding agreeable people that they can take advantage of. Honesty in standing up for yourself can ward off such those looking for easy prey.
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Meaning: Listen to others with the intent to learn something. And listen more than you talk.
Example: When arguing, don’t just try to win the argument. Instead, listen carefully and respectfully to the other side and let whatever truth they have become a part of your understanding. Don’t automatically reject everything.
Response: This is another warning against pride and overconfidence, this time focused more on speech. People don’t win arguments, they win dominance. If neither side is willing to really listen, to believe the other, it’s not about learning or meaning, it’s just about power. Rather than continue such a conflict, avoid the expediency of power struggles. Instead, try to listen even if it hurts. You might learn something new and then your life will gain more meaning.
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
Meaning: Know what you are talking about and say what you mean.
Example: Identify a vague feeling that bothers you so that you can deal with it. Also, don’t use PC speech to hide uncomfortable meanings such as using the word “urban” instead of “African American”, such as “Baltimore is suffering from urban unrest”.
Response: Unclear speech leads to unclear meaning, purpose, and action. It can be a form of lying or expediency. Problems can not be solved if they cannot be identified correctly. This is why Peterson is such a fierce free speech advocate. He sees political correctness as a form of deceptive coercion by those who benefit from chaos. It takes bravery to talk about the elephant in the room. You may suffer for your candor, but your life will be more meaningful.
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
Meaning: Boys are naturally masculine and need to grow through risk-taking. Don’t overprotect children or either sex.
Example: Boys often like to play rough games, take risks, and express their aggression, That is normal and should be accepted.
Response: This is a special response to today’s environment where people talk of “toxic masculinity. Remember Peterson’s basic view of human nature is that on the inside we are all monsters. Through play and socialization children, but most especially boys, learn to express and control their inner monsters. Generally, boys must learn self-discipline and girls must learn self-confidence. They cannot do this if they are not allowed or encouraged to take risks and overcome their fears on the path to becoming brave.
Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Meaning: When your life is difficult, find meaning in small acts of kindness when opportunities arise.
Example: The more the big picture of life, the universe, and everything elude you, do something good for someone else, even give a homeless person a meal. Try to find meaning in your smallest moments.
Response: When life isn’t working out and you experience failure and pain; when you can’t find meaning in life, such as why good people suffer while evil triumphs. it is tempting to fall back into despair and chaos. But there is no answer in the abyss – it only stares at you uncomprehendingly. Instead, focus on creating micro-meaning through individual moments of grace and mercy. Avoid the big picture and hang on until you are ready to continue with your search for deeper meaning.
Underlying the 12 Rules is the uncomfortable, unverifiable notion that there is no unifying meaning in the world. We are monsters, life is about suffering and the universe doesn’t care. To surrender to these notions is fall into despair and chaos. Dr. Peterson has given us his prescription to face the world bravely so that we can live well and in harmony with each other. As a Christian, I find meaning in the Christ revealed in the Bible and the Church. Unfortunately, we live in a post-Christian world that is falling into chaos. That is why a book such as 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is so timely. I have confidence that these rules are better than chaos and they can help you survive especially in urban environments. Finally, I urge you to buy the book and read his examples and expressions for yourself.
Well, that’s what I think. Now it’s your turn to comment.