Beyond Order

In his best-selling, and somewhat controversial, self-help guide 12 Rules for Life, clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson diagnosed contemporary society as suffering from an excess of chaos. His prescription? Everyone should cultivate personal responsibility to impose a little order. But, those first 12 rules were only half the story.

His latest book, 'Beyond Order - 12 More Rules For Life' published in 2021, complete the picture by fleshing out a dozen more rules to help you navigate the modern world. Drawing on Peterson’s unique perspectives on cultural, scientific, and psychological issues, as well as his intense love for deep readings of myths and pop culture alike, this guide examines the dangers of too much order and lights a path to finding the right balance. With the advice here, you’ll be prepared to dodge the instability and anxiety of chaos while not succumbing to the inertia and paralysis of order.

The twelve most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. Social institutions are essential to an individual’s success.

  2. Imagine the person you want to be, then try to be that person.

  3. Don’t settle for small pains if they can be fixed.

  4. Taking on responsibility is hard, but it brings meaning to life.

  5. Don’t tolerate something that you hate.

  6. Be wary of all ideologies, especially ones with simple answers.

  7. Truly commit yourself to a goal and you’ll love the results.

  8. Always make room for beauty, even if it’s just in one room.

  9. Investigate and examine any memory that causes you pain.

  10. Put effort and planning into your intimate relationships.

  11. Don’t fall for stories that make you resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.

  12. Be grateful even in the face of great suffering.

Social institutions are essential to an individual’s success.

Early psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung loved to take deep dives into an individual’s mind. They believed that hidden within each person were powerful psychological forces called the id, ego, and superego. These forces roughly corresponded to one’s base urges, personal identity, and higher social calling. And the way these forces interacted determined a person's mental state.

While this model surely provided important insights, it leaves out too much. Namely, it ignores all the outside elements which can shape your mind – things like your social status, educational background, and economic outlook. These exterior forces can also have a powerful effect on your mental state.

The truth is, people don’t grow, develop, or think in isolation. We are social creatures and the structures of our social world are essential for keeping us sane.

The world that surrounds us is complex, chaotic, and filled with possibilities. Deciding how to interact with this diverse landscape is a daunting task. It’s so daunting that you probably rely on outside forces to help you decide your actions. You look to friends and family for guidance, you follow laws laid out by governments and schools, and often pick up on subtle social cues to determine how to behave in different situations and contexts.

By looking to these outside forces, you can reduce the complexity of the world and more easily find the best course of action. Consider this: Everyone needs food and shelter to survive. You can obtain these essentials in a myriad of ways – you can build a hut in the woods or try stealing food from a neighbor’s house. Yet, by looking to laws and social norms, you see the best way to survive is to have a job, earn money, and buy these items. In this way, the social world gives you a manageable path to follow.

You started learning how to read these social signposts from the very moment you were born. As you grow, you acquire more skills, knowledge, and experiences that help you better navigate the world. You learn what is valuable, how to solve problems, and how to act in ways that benefit yourself and those around you. You also learn when established social rules are inadequate and when to strategically challenge or break them.

If you continually apply yourself to this process you will gradually raise your status in the social hierarchy by acquiring many friends, making lots of money, or becoming distinguished in your chosen field.

Imagine the person you want to be, then try to be that person.

Way back in antiquity, long before the development of modern science, there was an esoteric art called alchemy. Alchemists believed they could use complex recipes to transform one substance into another.

For them, an integral part of this process was the materia prima, or the primal element. This mystical element was the fundamental building block of everything. If you applied the right techniques, it could be transformed into anything from lead, to gold, to life.

It sounds outlandish now, but there’s a grain of truth to the alchemists’ conviction. In many ways, your life is a materia prima. It’s full of possibilities. With a clear vision and dedicated action, you can transform yourself into anything you desire. In the animal world, very little changes from generation to generation. Each new dolphin or chimpanzee born will largely act and live like every other dolphin or chimpanzee that came before it. But we humans, thanks to our capacity for conscious thought, can strike out novel paths for ourselves. We can adapt to the world around us in innovative and creative ways, or, using the power of our imagination, conjure up completely new ways of living.

Of course, this process isn’t always easy. Often, creating something new means pushing through danger, adversity, and chaos to impose order on the world. This pattern is so old, it can be seen in the ancient Mesopotamian myth of Marduk. In this myth, a menagerie of deities is caught up in a ferocious civil war. The fighting throws the world into chaos, until Marduk, a particularly talented god, rises above the fray. He sees the possibility for a better future. So, he defeats the most violent offenders and establishes a new hierarchy of gods. Only then is the world ready for the new age of man.

It may sound like a lofty ambition, but you too can create something new with your life. First, find a vision that compels you. It could be the desire to accomplish a goal, to create art, or to answer a pressing scientific question. Then, confront the chaotic psychological forces that hold you back. These could be fear of failure, lack of self-control, or lust for any number of vices. As long as you stay focused on your goal, you’ll slowly, over time, learn to reign in these elements. Eventually, you’ll become the hero of your own story.

Don’t settle for small pains if they can be fixed.

The Peterson family often tells the story of Dell Roberts, Peterson’s father-in-law. Dell was known for his calm demeanor and steadfast kindness. Even when facing life’s cruelest adversities, such as medical problems or the death of a loved one, he never complained – except for once. You see, every day when Dell came home for lunch, his wife would serve him a homemade sandwich on a small china plate. Every day, for 20 years, he ate it happily. Then, one afternoon, seemingly out of nowhere, he slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “I hate eating off these tiny plates!”

The uncharacteristic outburst was strange and comical. But, it shows an important truth. If you let a small irritation go on unchecked, it will inevitably grow into a bigger problem. As you go through life, you’ll inevitably encounter many small irritations, injustices, and inconveniences. It’s common wisdom that the ability to brush these small annoyances aside is a virtue. And that’s true. But a small annoyance that recurs again and again is actually a serious problem. A tiny issue that’s always around will surely grow. So, it’s better to confront these persistent problems early on, even if it means a temporary conflict.

One of Peterson’s clients is a prime example of this dynamic. She felt unhappy and unfulfilled in her marriage. After many sessions, the problem emerged. Her husband collected pop art obsessively. At first, this wasn’t a concern, but slowly their home became crowded with objects she hated. Rather than raise the issue, she simply suffered in silence as her home became unrecognizable. By the time she tried to change his habits, it was too late. They fought and divorced.

Now, the decor problem facing this couple may sound silly. But, there are likely similar problems hidden away in your own life. There may be relationship problems you have, or negative feelings you foster, that you strategically ignore. Often, we hide these uncomfortable emotions in a fog. After all, it’s easier than examining them and trying to change our behavior or circumstances. Yet, eventually, they will emerge.

Rather than wait for an inevitable outburst, try being proactive. Pay careful attention to your emotions as you go through the day. Identify what issues or circumstances feel wrong and try to deal with them as they arise. Yes, a small argument or fight might be momentarily difficult, but it’ll save you from chaos down the road.

Taking on responsibility is hard, but it brings meaning to life.

Peter Pan is one of the most beloved children’s characters of all time. But why is this spritely flying boy such a universal hit? Well, he lives in a fun, exciting fantasy land, he can fly, and most of all, he has no real responsibilities. Simply put, he’s got everything a child could want. On the other hand, Pan’s nemesis, Captain Hook, is just the opposite. He’s strict, authoritarian, and lives with mortal fear – in fact, a deadly crocodile ceaselessly pursues him. In short, Hook is all the negative aspects of being an adult.

Yet, Pan is just a fictional character. Any real-life adult who tried to live his carefree lifestyle would appear strange and pitiful. But, becoming a Hook isn’t ideal either. It’s best to strike a balance.

As a child, you exist as pure potential – you could take any path, pursue any dream, or become any person. Your whole life is quite literally ahead of you. As you grow, that unlimited potential begins to fall away as you shape your life, identity, and habits. This exchange of potential for direction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being open and directionless at 20 is acceptable, remaining similarly unmoored at 40 can be a bit sad.

This process of maturing out of childhood involves taking on an ever greater set of responsibilities. Chief among these is the responsibility to take care of yourself. This means making choices that are both good for your present self and the innumerable future selves you want to become. So, while sleeping in might be satisfying for your present self; waking up, practicing a hobby, and developing a skill will be enormously more beneficial to yourself in years to come.

Making this type of trade-off is sometimes unpleasant. It imposes structure and order where you might rather want freedom and ease. Yet, accepting these types of restrictions is what gives life meaning. You couldn’t play a board game without any rules. In contrast, chess has rigid statutes governing the movements of each piece.

Following these rules allows you to play a satisfying and meaningful game. So, don’t shy away from responsibilities. Take care of yourself and those around you. At work and in your community, look for tasks and roles that need to be filled, and take it upon yourself to complete them. The extra responsibilities may feel like a challenge, the order they provide will be gratifying, and in completing them, you’ll find meaning and status.

Don’t tolerate something that you hate.

Imagine you’re working for a large, multinational company. One day, you receive an email declaring that, in the name of political and cultural sensitivity, certain words will be banned in the office. You scan the list and see nothing but innocent phrases. Surely, this must be a mistake. Yet, to your horror, your colleagues love the initiative. They even respond by suggesting more words to ban, even though their supposed offensiveness is tenuous at best.

Sound farcical? It’s not. This exact scenario actually happened to one of Peterson’s clients. While initially, she struggled to abide by the new rules, eventually, she decided to leave the company. She preferred to seek new work than submit to a system she couldn’t stomach. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Polonius delivers a classic line that still resonates today. He advises his son, “to thine own self be true.” It’s sage advice, but difficult to abide by. The truth is, the world often asks us to act in ways that we don’t agree with. And sometimes, due to circumstance or lack of conviction, we feel compelled to go against our own consciences.

Unfortunately, bending your will to fit a moral framework you despise is harmful, both to yourself and society at large. After all, suppressing part of your personality or belief system is demoralizing and can lead to disordered thinking and emotional distress. Not only that, if everyone practiced self-censorship instead of standing up for themselves, it would leave space for the cruel and corrupt to shape society as they please.

So, how should you react when confronted with a command you disagree with deep within your gut? One approach is to challenge the order. Such an act will inevitably cause chaos, so be prepared to grapple with the fallout. Fortify your position by ensuring you have the resources for the fight. Set aside the time and energy to engage in a protracted battle and make sure you have the knowledge and authority to defend your beliefs.

But, since there may be serious social repercussions to non-conformity, this may not be an option. In that case, you can simply walk away and attend to your own responsibilities. It may feel like an abdication or retreat at first, but eventually, you’ll find another social setting where your ideals are appreciated. The outcome will be better in the end.

Be wary of all ideologies, especially ones with simple answers.

After the author published his book 12 Rules for Life, he set off on a speaking tour across North America and Europe. In lecture halls and theaters, he spoke to crowds about philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the messages embedded in popular cultures. Yet, there was one topic that enraptured his audiences most of all. That topic was personal responsibility. At first, he was puzzled. Why was this particular theme so engrossing for young people? Surely, it can’t be that novel. But, after meeting many attendees, he realized it was.

You see, many were accustomed to hearing that outside forces were causing all their troubles. This vague belief prevented them from challenging themselves. But, once they cast these ideologies aside, they finally felt free to thrive. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead.” With this phrase, he meant that the rise of modernism and the Enlightenment had eroded the Judeo-Christian values he saw as the cornerstone of Western civilization. With no traditional values guiding society, Nietzsche suggested that determined individuals would create new value systems, or new ideologies, to fill the void.

Nietzsche’s prediction turned out to be correct. In the following century, a whole host of new ideologies sprang up. Unfortunately, many of these ideologies proved destructive. Often, they used vague abstractions to explain the world and offered overly-simplistic and sometimes violent solutions. For instance, Nazism advocated that inherent racial differences plagued society. Their solution was to eradicate undesirable people – a gruesome ideology which fed the violence of World War II.

Today, there are still innumerable other ideologies parading around society, some more virulent than others. While many may seem well-meaning, each suffers the same problem of oversimplifying the world and attributing problems to vague villains like class, sexism, or power imbalances. Believing in these ideologies often leads to ressentiment, a hostile form of resentment.

Ressentiment is dangerous because it prevents people from becoming the best versions of themselves. For one, it fosters anger against anyone who appears successful. It colors their achievements as illegitimate, or even worse, as oppressing the success of others. This creates a victim mentality in the resentful person. They hold their bitterness instead of work on self-improvement. This may feel briefly invigorating, but will never lead to a truly satisfying life.

Truly commit yourself to a goal and you’ll love the results.

Imagine you’re holding a lump of coal in your hands: This common fossil fuel is dark, dirty, and brittle. Yet, if you apply intense heat and pressure, the type that is found deep within the core of the earth, something amazing happens. Over time, its carbon atoms rearrange into a stable crystalline structure. Suddenly, you have a diamond.

Physically speaking, diamonds are incredibly special. Their repeating internal bonds make them immensely durable. And their glittering, reflective surface gives them a beautiful lustrous shine. These qualities make diamond gems both materially and symbolically valuable across nearly all human cultures.

So, the stress of intense geologic activity can transform one common substance into an extraordinary one. But this principle isn’t exclusive to rocks. It also applies to people. Even though we know it can be immensely beneficial, working hard doesn’t always come easily. Just think of how difficult it can be to stick to a daily exercise regime, especially on days you’d rather just vegetate on the couch. This disconnect between desire and action is due to deep psychological impulses. Luckily, it isn’t a permanent state.

According to psychoanalysts, our love for short-term satisfaction comes from the id. This portion of our psyche holds our physical desires as well as our chaotic feelings like anger and fear. When these forces override our conscious mind, or ego, it’s difficult to stay motivated or pursue more elevated intentions. Yet, if we commit ourselves to a goal we can reign in those more volatile, chaotic forces. In the process, we kick off a virtuous cycle that yields many rewards.

Peterson noticed this while studying for his PhD at McGill University. The work was difficult. He and his classmates had to spend long hours studying in the library, writing complex papers, and navigating the academic bureaucracy. But, the harder they worked, the more their lives improved. By staying disciplined, they improved their writing abilities, their social skills, and their mental organization. The process gave them an immense sense of psychic satisfaction.

You see, by applying their energy in a focused way, Peterson and his colleagues were unifying all their psychic forces productively. Yes, their ids still had elements of aggression, fear, or anxiety, but with practice, they’d learned to channel those elements toward their work. Rather than lashing out aimlessly, they were striving for a goal.

Always make room for beauty, even if it’s just in one room.

The faculty offices at the University of Toronto are a dour affair. Cold, impersonal, and lit with garish fluorescent lighting, the rooms are a depressing place to spend an hour, let alone a 30-year career. So, Peterson tried to give his office a makeover. While a strict administrator shot down his original plan to install warm wood paneling, he still managed to spruce things up. He carefully painted the walls, hung richly colored tapestry, and even installed a classic copper drop ceiling.

In the end, he created a space that was so personal and inviting, even the previously decor-adverse administration began showing it to visitors with pride. The act of aesthetic expression was a risk, but in the end, it paid off.

In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson pushed the importance of cleaning one’s room. The idea was that taking responsibility to tidy and order your personal space is an excellent first step to tidying and ordering your life in general. Yet, a single-minded focus on fastidious order leaves out another important consideration, beauty.

Visual art and other aesthetic endeavors are a fundamental part of our culture. A single great painting can communicate powerful ideas, invite important self-reflection, and open the viewer's spirit to a divine feeling of awe. Just observe the behavior of visitors to any famous art gallery. People will stand entranced in front of a masterfully executed renaissance painting. Even if they have no formal training in its history or symbolism, the beauty will speak directly to them like few other things.

As you age, you may lose touch with the idea of beauty. You can become dulled to the world around you or so fixated on a goal that you ignore the wonders that surround you every day. When Peterson took his children for walks, he noticed how easily entranced they were with the simple sights of the neighborhood. Appreciating art is one way to reignite that youthful openness and vivacity.

Importantly, art is more than just a decorative pleasure. Engaging with provocative or compelling works can invite you to see the world in new ways. Consider the early impressionists like Degas or Monet. At the outset, the Paris Salon refused to show their work. Yet, they kept to their craft, and eventually, people learned to see the beauty that they were trying to share. So, always keep your eyes open for new forms of beauty to surround yourself with.

Investigate and examine any memory that causes you pain.

It’s well past midnight, and you’re snug in bed. Yet, you’re not sound asleep, snoring away. Instead, you’re wide awake and your brain is treating you to a greatest hits compilation of painful memories.

You’re remembering times you hurt people you loved. Times you lied, cheated, or acted maliciously out of fear. Or, perhaps, you’re dwelling on times you’ve been hurt. You’re recalling all the instances you’ve been betrayed, disappointed, or socially cast aside.

Of course, this is a familiar situation. These painful late-night reminiscences are all too common. Now, it may seem like your brain is simply torturing you – but, that’s not the case. We evolved to retain memories for a very useful reason. They help us avoid making the same mistakes again.

To get where you want to go in life, you need to know where you’ve been. But, you may tend to ignore aspects of your past, especially if they’re difficult, uncomfortable, or painful to recall. You bury traumatic memories deep within your mind and let them fester there for years or decades. But, if you carefully examine your past experiences, you may learn from them and transform a moment of pain into a chance for growth.

This is especially true of painful childhood memories. Children have a very imprecise view of the world and can only understand it in its simplest terms. Consider how a child draws a house. It will be a plain, forward-facing box with little perspective or detail. By contrast, an adult, even one with no artistic talent, will make a much more elaborate and accurate rendering. The same principle works for memory. So, incidents from your past could be different when examined as an adult.

One of Peterson’s patients experienced this exact phenomenon. As a toddler, she was abused by another child. At first, when she recalled the memory, she described the incident from her child-like perspective. But, by working through the memory as an adult, she could see a more accurate picture. She realized her abuser had also been a child and wasn’t truly in control. Taking this adult perspective helped her heal and move on.

Rather than let your painful memories drain you from within, confront them directly. Write them down in as much detail as possible. This will help order your thoughts and feelings. Eventually, you’ll derive a moral from the story and take that lesson with you into the future.

Put effort and planning into your intimate relationships.

It’s happened countless times. A couple comes into the therapist's office and they’re both miserable. Maybe one feels neglected and ignored, maybe the other acts suspicious and evasive. Either way, they aren’t happy. So, the question arises: when was the last time you went on a date?

Often, it’s been a very long time. So, at the therapist's suggestion, they go out. And, unsurprisingly, they have a terrible evening. Then, they go out again, and that night is awful, too. Yet, if they keep trying, ten, twenty, a hundred times, something funny happens. They begin to enjoy each other all over again.

You see, successful marriages don’t just arise from thin air. Just the opposite, for a relationship to remain intimate, loving, and full of passion, both partners need to put in a little work.

There’s a traditional Scandinavian marriage ceremony that asks both participants to join hands and hold a candle aloft as they recite their vows. The flame represents the higher principles that marriage stands for – notions like love, loyalty, and mutual devotion. The act of raising the candle together shows that the new couple aims to abide by these overarching ideals collectively, as a unit. This symbolic ritual provides a lovely example of how marriage should work.

Maintaining a romantic relationship is work. More precisely, it involves the ongoing labor of negotiation and trust. Each partner must take the time to reflect on their own desires, wants, and needs, then, articulate them clearly to their loved one. Of course, no two people will be exactly the same, so the pair must negotiate how to arrange their lives so both parties can remain happy. Sharing these intimate details requires trust, and that’s only built by successfully negotiating bit by bit over time.

Sometimes, this process plumbs deep psychological wells, but, more often, it’s all about practicalities. Couples must decide who handles which chores, when and how each person pursues a career, and which values to instill in their children. Some couples may find traditional gender roles a stable way to navigate these decisions, others opt for more involved conversations. Either way, talking through these issues explicitly will avoid problems down the line.

Though, don’t neglect the actual romance of marriage either. Always make time for intimate moments together and physical intimacy – even if you have to schedule it like a meeting. It may feel formal at first, but the love and connection it fosters will remain just as genuine.

Don’t fall for stories that make you resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.

Think back to your childhood. At bedtime, a parent likely tucked you in and, if you were lucky, took a few moments to read you something before sleep. Now, what did they read? A dry collection of words like a dictionary or the periodic table? No. It was a story – and a fantastical one at that.

For millennia, humans have used stories to understand the world around us. Obviously, we use fables and fairy tales to teach children morals and social norms. Yet, even as adults, we unconsciously interpret the events through a narrative lens. In our minds, the world is full of characters, settings, dramatic arcs, conflicts, and conclusions.

The stories we tell ourselves shape our psyche and actions – so, it’s crucially important to tell ourselves the right ones. So, if we encounter the world as a narrative, who are the characters? Well, peel back all the layers of culture and specificity, and we’re left with just a few fundamental actors. One is Nature, a symbolic stand-in for the duality of chaos and potentiality. Nature emerges in our actual stories as both the Evil Queens who wreak destruction and as the Fairy Godmothers who provide nurturing and aid.

Next is Culture, which encompasses both security and tyranny. The archetypal representations of culture are the Wise King, who provides protection and advice, and the Authoritarian Tyrant, who only wants to constrain and shackle. Navigating the space between Nature and Culture are the figures of the Hero and Adversary – one responsible, fair, and good; the other despicable and negative.

The stories you tell yourself with these characters determine whether you act as a Hero or an Adversary. Focus too much on the Evil Queens and Authoritarian Tyrants in life – that is, the unfair struggles and burdens – and it’s easy to become resentful. Resentful people seek any way to get ahead, even if it means lying, cheating, or other deceitful acts. There’s a dangerous arrogance in these underhanded approaches, as they position the self as more powerful than reality, which is simply not true.

A healthier story gives equal footing to all characters. Yes, Nature can sometimes be cruel, but it also bestows you with luck and opportunity. Tyrants surely exist, but Wise Kings also structure society in ways that benefit you if you act correctly. In this way, acknowledging both the randomness of life and your own personal responsibility to confront it, allows you to become the hero in your own story.

Be grateful even in the face of great suffering.

There’s a dramatic moment in the Bible which stands out for its stark portrayal of anguish. It takes place as Jesus hangs on the cross, nearing his mortal death. As he succumbs to the torturous execution, he tilts his head upward and shouts, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

This outburst raises the question: If even a divine figure like Christ can stumble in the face of suffering, how can any of us withstand the inevitable pains of existence? After all, none of us will go through life free from loss, misfortune, and moments of misery. So, why endure it at all?

Well, one approach is to realize that good and bad hang in the balance. Life’s low points are only possible because existence offers high points as well. When psychologists examine suffering, they find that people overcome it in various ways. To start, one may find practical ways to alleviate it, such as changing one’s actions, behaviors, or circumstances. Alternatively, when suffering cannot be avoided, one can transcend it psychologically. A person can draw on their inner strength and fortitude or look towards a higher calling to push through a rough patch. Both these approaches are seen in palliative care workers who confront death each day as they work to care for those in need.

Even so, sometimes suffering can seem so ubiquitous that it drives us to despair. Consider the philosophy of the anti-natalist movement. These thinkers, such as the philosopher David Benatar, believe that, since life is inevitably filled with pain, forcing it upon children is unfair and immoral. A similar notion underpins the act of suicide – if life includes such adversity, why not just skip the ordeal?

But this overlooks the reality that misery necessarily entails the existence of pleasures, joys, and happiness. A breakup is only painful because the relationship was previously a source of warmth and companionship. The loss of a loved one hurts so much because they offered love, support, and kindness – even the death of a difficult person causes grief as it reminds us of what good they also contained.

So, when you experience moments of suffering, it’s wise to remember why they’re possible. Be grateful for the insight and perspective difficulty can deliver. Rather than becoming bitter, you’ll be more apt to appreciate the good aspects of life and be able to muster the courage and love to work on expanding on them for both you and those around you.


What I took from it.

The world is a complex place and it can be difficult to find your psychological, emotional, and social grounding. But, if you pay careful attention to your inner emotional state and the social structures around you, it’s possible to succeed without becoming lost or despondent. It helps to follow a few simple rules, like commit yourself to a goal, avoid simple ideologies, look for beauty, and be careful about which stories you tell yourself. In the end, you’ll still face difficulties, but if you remain grateful even while suffering, you may find life more bearable.

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