12 Rules of Life
By Jordon B Peterson
In the pages of this book, Jordon Peterson provides life advice that he believes to be an antidote to the chaos of modern life. Using personal anecdotes, psychology, mythology, religious teachings, and colourful illustrations, he conveys his positive message that it’s better to seek meaning in life rather than happiness and that we always have a choice when it comes to what matters most.
My Top 3 Takes from the Summary
You must treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping.
Always judge yourself against your own prior accomplishments, not others.
Make the most of every small joy life brings.
An Antidote to Chaos
Written in an accessible style using examples from popular culture as well as classic literature and essays, the author details 12 rules for living a more meaningful life.
Rule 1: Hold Your Head High and Adopt a Winning Posture
Using the title, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” the message in this chapter is that you can give yourself an advantage in life by paying attention to your posture. The author uses examples of the natural “pecking order” in animals to illustrate his point. He explains that the phrase originated from a study carried out in the 1920s by Norwegian zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe who observed that there was a clear hierarchy among farmyard chickens. At the top were the healthiest, strongest ones that always got to peck first when the chicken feed came. At the bottom were the weakest chickens, with their feathers falling out, who only got to peck at the leftover crumbs.
The behaviour of lobsters provides another example, with those adopting an upright posture appearing bigger and more intimidating in territorial fights, thereby causing others to remain submissive, and this is something the author sees mirrored in people. He notes that similar hierarchies and cycles of winning and losing play out among humans, with studies showing that those in the grips of alcoholism or depression are less likely to enter a competitive situation, which only reinforces more inactivity and continued low self-esteem and depression. Just like lobsters, humans are constantly measuring themselves up against each other, and we associate a person’s intelligence with their physicality. By holding your head high and striking the posture of a winner, you give yourself an advantage in life.
Rule 2: Care for Yourself Like You Would a Loved One
The question posed by the author is: why do we take better care of others than ourselves? He believes that an explanation can be found in the story of Adam and Eve in that it’s a tale of being tricked into corruption and wickedness, making us self-conscious about the dark side of ourselves as people, and therefore unworthy or undeserving of good things. The humans and the serpent of the garden of Eden can be seen as the entire world’s natural mix of order and chaos.
He makes the point that trying to be “perfectly good” is futile, and a healthy balance between light and dark must be found, commenting that looking after yourself is not fighting against chaos, it’s trying to always do what’s best for you, rather than just what makes you happy. You must determine the goals that help define who you are and the direction you want to take in life. Then, you will find the steps that you should take, and the actions that are best for you. You must, "Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping."
Rule 3: Surround Yourself with Supportive Friends
In this rule, the reader encourages everyone to, "Make friends with people who want the best for you." The message here is that being picky about your friends is a smart move and is not selfish or snobby. Supportive and encouraging friendships run both ways: when you need a boost, they’ll be there for you, and if your friend needs help to rebound from a setback or make an improvement, you’ll be there for them. The author points out that this dynamic can encourage individual success and, as part of a team, it can lead to great social accomplishments. You’ll know you have good friends when they don’t tolerate your wallowing in negativity; they’ll want what’s best for you, so they’ll encourage you to snap out of it and get back on track.
Rule 4: Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others
The title given to this rule is, "Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today." The author comments that these days, thanks to the internet, we’re all part of a global community, and no matter where you are, there is always someone better than you. Instead of comparing yourself to others, always judge yourself against your own prior accomplishments. Comparing current results to past ones will keep you moving forward, and the author suggests thinking of yourself as a home inspector when checking in on your progress. This means looking at things from top to bottom and categorising every problem. Is it a cosmetic or a structural fault? Before you can give a stamp of approval, make a list of things that need to be improved. This detailed approach is likely to keep you so busy on yourself that you’ll be unconcerned with how you stack up against others.
Rule 5: Be a Responsible Parent to Raise a Responsible and Likeable Human Being
The author states that children are “aggressive” because they have a natural instinct to push boundaries and find out where society’s lines are drawn. In this rule, the message he wants to send out to parents of young children is, "Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them." To become a well-adjusted adult, parents need to be more than a friend to their children – they need to raise a responsible and likeable human being. Key methods for good parenting are provided.
Rule 6: Take Responsibility for Your Own Lot in Life
The overriding message in this rule is that you should, "Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world." In other words, we shouldn’t blame others for our lot in life. Using examples from history, the author paints a clear picture of a world full of challenges and suffering but asserts that this isn’t cause for despair. He believes that no matter how much you’ve suffered or however cruel and unjust you find life to be, you shouldn’t blame the world.
Rule 7: Seek Meaningful Goals Over Instant Gratification
To explain this rule, "Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)," the author tells the story of the monkey who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. As the story goes, there was a cookie left inside an open jar, and the opening of the jar was just big enough for the monkey’s hand to enter – but not big enough for his fist to come back out with the treat in it. So, if he insisted on trying to hold onto his treat, he would be stuck. The moral here is that there is a price for greed: the monkey got himself captured because he refused to just let go of the cookie, and this leads the author to question how different this is from human behaviour. How many people pursue pleasures every day that aren’t in their best interests? And how many are unwilling to make sacrifices that are in their best interest?
Rule 8: Strive Toward Truthful Living
The title given to this rule is, "Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie." The author points out that while the truth is often considered a valuable commodity in our culture, we nevertheless tell lies all the time, and one of the main reasons for lying to ourselves and to others is to get what we think we want. He adds that the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler called these life lies, explaining that these lies are characterised as the things we’ll do and say to turn a poorly-thought-out goal into a reality – but in actual reality, it’s just a dream and not a goal with actions attached to it. These kinds of delusions often go hand in hand with our ability to fool ourselves into thinking we already know everything we need to know. This is an especially foolish perspective to have since it shuts off our natural desire to learn and grow. Only by challenging the current truth, you’re following, can you get back on track and stay on track to reaffirming your personal truth and what you really want.
Rule 9: Listen to Others and Learn
In this rule, the author encourages the reader to engage in genuine conversations with others. The message is, "Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't." He uses Socrates to make his point: Thousands of years after the death of the ancient philosopher, he is still considered one of the wisest men who ever lived. One of the reasons for this is his belief that the only thing he was certain of was that he knew nothing, and this was a driving force in his conversations and his openness to learning. Sometimes the truth hurts, and it’s painful to take in information that means you have to change your ideas and preconceptions, but this is the price you pay as part of the beautiful process of learning and growing.
Rule 10: Use Clear and Precise Language
The author urges readers to, "Be precise in your speech." To avoid making a difficult situation even more complex and chaotic than it already is, you need to be able to explain what has gone wrong clearly and precisely to be able to recover. Whether it’s explaining what has happened to your car to a mechanic, explaining your symptoms to a doctor, or explaining to your partner that something they’re doing is bugging you, the more clear and precise you are, the sooner you can restore order – and the easier life will be.
Rule 11: Avoid Suppressing Human Nature
The author gives this rule the title, "Do not bother children when they are skateboarding," and it relates to young men in particular. He uses historical examples of attitudes toward the male-dominated leadership known as the patriarchy, and a recent example of skateboarders being prohibited from what he believes to be an opportunity to show off admirable fearlessness and a willingness to embrace danger. His point is that we can’t establish rules that go against the very nature of who we are as people. Our rules should definitely protect us, but they shouldn’t do so in a way that suppresses the good qualities in people.
Rule 12: Celebrate Every Small Joy in Life
The message here is that it’s important to recognise that pain, suffering, and sorrow are what give the good moments in life their value. The author asks the reader to consider Superman: When this character was first introduced, he was hugely popular. But then, the comic book writers kept giving him power after power until he was virtually invincible. Naturally, readers starting to find him super boring. If there is no risk of danger, Superman’s victories are hollow. And in the same way, good moments would be meaningless if we didn’t have to fight through difficulties and suffering to reach them. There is no day without darkness, and there’s no order without chaos, and for this reason, he reminds readers to make the best out of even the smallest joys that life offers, giving this rule the title, "Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street."
In reading through the chapters of this book, readers are reminded that life is full of trials and tribulations that need to be navigated and that it can at times be a struggle. The author doesn’t disguise the fact that there are no guarantees in life, and if there were, they would most probably be that trouble is always just around the corner. However, his key message is that there is also beauty and joy to be found in life. They may only appear as fleeting moments, but he encourages everyone to do their best to bring joy and meaning into life by being honest and truthful, avoiding selfishness, and taking personal responsibility for their own life instead of blaming the world or others for their shortcomings. The rules he details and his reasons for believing in them give the reader an antidote to the chaos of modern life, and a way of finding life satisfaction in striving to be a better human being.
The author uses a wide range of examples to illustrate his points, with everything from classic tales such as Pinocchio, authors such as Tolstoy, and philosophers such as Socrates to parables from the Bible. This, along with personal anecdotes and experiences, creates a highly readable book that provides both food for thought and actionable advice.
Bio of the Author
Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist, author, media personality, and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. He describes himself as a “classic British liberal” and a “traditionalist.”