12 Rules for Life – Jordan Peterson

Today’s world can be chaotic and unpredictable. We often study ancient philosophy to help us attempt to understand universal truths. This book covers 12 general and universal rules to help one through life’s difficult events, and give our life meaning.

Rule #1: Stand Up Straight (Posture)

Society is hierarchical, since ancient times. Norwegian zoologist: Thorleif Shjelderup-Ebbe studied chickens in the 1920s and defined the term: “the pecking order”. He observed that the same alpha chickens always got to peck at the chicken feed first. The weakest chickens only got the leftovers and got to peck last. Most species in the animal kingdom have their own pecking order.

When studying competition between lobsters, scientists determined that those with the highest levels of Serotonin to Octopamine were more competitive and even had better posture and quickness. These lobsters would often fight for the best spot to hide from predators.

Humans follow the same rules as lobsters. Those with the most physical prowess, best posture and physicality are perceived to be most intelligent and successful as a result. If you want to give yourself an advantage, stand up straight, and maintain strong posture, so that you are perceived as a winner.

Rule #2: Love yourself just as much as you love the special people in your life.

We often beat ourselves up because we are aware of our own weaknesses deep down inside. This causes us not to take good care of ourselves. For example: we may frequently ignore doctors’ advice or medication prescriptions.

We often have internal guilt, self-doubt and a feeling that we don’t deserve amazing outcomes for ourselves. This dates back all the way to the story of Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit. We therefore may think that we are evil by nature and not deserving of good things.

Another way to look at the world, however, is that it’s corrupt, chaotic or complex, and not just we are evil. The notion of the Yin-Yang talks about balance and that both sides in a balanced equation have a smaller part of the opposite side in them. The answer, therefore, is balance and remaining in the center of light and dark, without moving too far in either direction.

An example of “moving too far in the light side” is being overprotective over your child. By being this way, you are depriving them of exploration, their own richness of experience, and weakening them by imposing “too much order” through your own tyranny.

Don’t strive for perfect order as it’s impossible. Chaos in life is inevitable. Try to do what is objectively good for you rather than what satisfies you. This is done by going through the difficult steps of figuring out what your direction should be in order to reach your goals.

Rule #3: Choose your friends and co-workers wisely

The people you spend time with and your friends have more impact on you than you realize. If you put a low performer into a team of high performers, you would think that the lower performer’s habits would improve. Studies have shown, however, that in reality the rest of the team will instead get weaker by adopting bad habits from the lower performer.

Jordan Peterson also observed from personal experience that each time he returned to his hometown in Alberta to visit his childhood friend, he noticed his friend’s gradual disappointing descent into mediocrity and regret, because his friends were all slackers and bums.

You should consciously choose your friends and pick those that would not drag you down, but help you up when you need it. Negative, cynical, lazy or permanently skeptical friends will affect your mindset, and you will be in an uphill battle of trying to drag them along.

Rule #4: Compare yourself to past versions of yourself and not to other people.

It’s natural to want to improve ourselves in order to get to a brighter future. A trap one can fall into, however, is when you start comparing yourself to other people who have a totally different situation from yours. The internet erased all borders, so there is an unlimited supply of those people to compare yourself to. This can paralyze you and sap your motivation to improve yourself.

Focus on incremental daily improvement. Avoid looking at individual components that are stronger in other people, because that may needlessly exaggerate those elements in relation to the bigger picture of your long term goals. If you for example suddenly find that you are less productive compared to your co-workers, you have to also consider other factors in your life that went well, such as your family life. Judging yourself negatively without proper perspective may falsely make you feel like you’re a failure.

Don’t compare yourself to others at all, instead compare yourself to your past results. If all you see is perfect performance in the past, it most likely means your goals aren’t big enough, and you should be failing a lot more. Inspect your performance “from the outside” as an external auditor. Make a list of what’s going well and what’s not, and identify important issues versus ones that are superficial. Focusing on yourself on this level of detail will also prevent yourself from caring about others and their progress.

Rule #5: As a parent, it’s your job to raise a child that’s kind and responsible.

Children have some aggressive instincts from birth, and we have to work on helping them become civilized, kind and gentle. Children also are programmed naturally to push boundaries so they can find out how far they can go. Just read “Lord of the Flies” to see what happens when kids are left to their own devices. We can’t just be a friend to our child. We have to raise them to be likeable and responsible. If we teach them early on, they will have a head start on life, and won’t have to go through bad experiences in later years to learn the same fundamental concepts.

Jordan’s rules for parenting are three-fold:

  1. Limit Rules. Keep the rules down to only the most important ones, such as: No fighting unless you absolutely have to, in self defence.
  2. Use the least force necessary for an appropriate punishment in each situation. In some situations, even a talk and an expression of disappointment will be enough to make the child understand. In others, they could be deprived of TV or video games for days on end.
  3. Parents must be united in their decisions, so that the child does not manipulate one parent against the other. You may make errors in judgement while parenting, and your spouse can help catch and correct that, if they are supportive.

Rule #6: The world isn’t fair, but we shouldn’t blame others for our situation.

Famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy also thought that life was hugely unfair and full of horror. He listed four options to living life in our tough world in his essay: “A Confession”:

  1. Remain ignorant like a child.
  2. Only pursue pleasure and follow your desires.
  3. Commit suicide.
  4. Struggle through it, and try your best.

Tolstoy actually says that suicide is the most honest option. There were people responsible for terrible mass shootings, such as the Columbine school massacre, that followed this school of thought, but also took other people’s lives with them.

Although Tolstoy’s world view is dark, there is another Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who decided to reject the cruelty of life, and make the most of what he had.

Solzhenitsyn fought in World War II against Germany, but has been betrayed and imprisoned by his own political party and sent to Soviet labor camps for a life sentence. While there, he also found out he had cancer. Despite all this, he did not blame the outside world because of his situation, and still strived to do good in the world. He wrote a transformative book “The Gulag Archipelago” that colourfully describes the horrors of the Soviet concentration camps from first hand experience. This book discredited Stalin’s inhumane and oppressive regime to the rest of the world forever.

Rule #7: Seek meaning and goal achievement over short term pleasure.

This goes much deeper than “just working for a paycheque so you can go on vacation later”. If you have large, long-term and ambitious goals, you often need to make serious sacrifices in order to accomplish them. The bigger the sacrifices, the bigger the rewards at the end.

There are people who party hard and go for pleasures that are not in their long term best interests. They use such actions as a coping mechanism to justify the fact that the world is tough and unfair. Therefore seeing the world in a negative light is more likely to make you justify binge eating, drinking heavily, use of drugs, or excessive sexual indulgence.

Other people are un-willing to sacrifice anything in the short term for the sake of their long term goals. Rewards only come if you stick with something for long enough, and make sacrifices in order to get it.

Rule #8: It’s easy to lie to ourselves. We should be truthful instead.

It’s easy to lie to yourself through rationalization. Friedrich Nietzsche said that the strength of your spirit is defined by how much raw truth you can tolerate.

One of the main reasons we lie to ourselves is to make ourselves believe that our poorly thought out goal became reality. A real plan must always have concrete steps that take you to its destination. If the goal is too ambiguous, then it’s also easy to rationalize to ourselves that perhaps we don’t really want it, or come up with artificial reasons of why we can’t have it.

One ignorant perspective is to think that you already know everything there is to know about a subject. This is harmful because it impedes further growth.

There are also worst case scenarios where you may find out that a large part of your life is a lie. In such s case, we may need to stop, re-evaluate, question and challenge the truths we believe in. This includes adjusting our existing goals based on updated understanding of the world.

If you feel a lot of negative emotions such as worthlessness, weakness, or fear, re-examine what the reasons for them may be, and re-evaluate your personal truths. Embracing reality is necessary, so that you can adjust course.

Rule #9: Conversation is for learning and growth, and not for competition.

Socrates was an ancient philosopher who is still regarded to this day as one of the wisest men of all time. He understood that he knew nothing, therefore he was permanently hungry for conversation and learning.

Conversation is an extension of thought. When you talk to yourself, you try to present both sides of an argument, while trying to stay objective. The best conversations are where both parties adjust course because they are learning new truths about the topic. While people trade opinions, they actively challenge their preconceptions, and it may feel uncomfortable to do so, especially when it involves long-ingrained opinions.

It’s psychologically more comfortable to validate your own preconception in conversation than to accept it as false. This is why many conversations end up being arguments that function as a contest, rather than a learning opportunity.

One great strategy for having healthy conversations is to listen to what the other person said carefully, then re-phrase it back to them, and build your response on top of their point. Firstly, this lets the other person know that you heard and understood their entire argument, and not just the part of it that supports your own points. Secondly, repetition and re-phrasing is a great memorization technique for yourself.

Every time you hear a painful point in conversation because it disproved your previous beliefs, be thankful for that, because you are in the process of growing.

A common question to frequently ask yourself is: “How was I wrong?”. The answer may be painful, but it brings truth, growth, and ultimately satisfaction.

Rule #10: Use Clear and Precise language

Being exact and precise with your language makes life easier by solving individual problems more efficiently. For example: if your life partner does something that bothers you, like makes a mess in the kitchen, you can be honest and precise with them about it, and work towards a solution.

If you’re sick, then being precise with your language about the symptoms can help you get to the cure faster.

Life is actually very complex, but we can’t think of all those complexities all the time. It’s only natural that we simplify it down to its component parts, such as “a car”. We don’t need to think about the thousands of parts used in the car. However, when you break down on the side of the road, there is suddenly more value in understanding what exactly went wrong. (Is it a dead battery, a flat tire, or an overheated engine because the oil level is low?)

We often only see the parts of life that have direct impact on us, but not their components. Many times in our life, we need to deep-dive into solving a problem that became complex, but seemed simple at first, and using Precise Language helps do so better.

Rule #11: Avoid suppressing basic human nature.

Many educational institutions around the world today focus on tearing down “male macho culture” and male-dominated leadership called “the patriarchy”. A popular proponent of this movement is Max Horkheimer who is focused on dismantling the notion of the “powerful ruling male”, instead of empowerment of women. Jordan is critical of this view because it’s not constructive and focuses on destruction.

Jordan argues that strong and aggressive male attitudes have their place in healthy competition and high risk occupations. He states that suppressing male dominant behaviour has negative effects that are manifested in other undesired ways. He is generally against emasculation, and believes every child should be allowed to explore independently. If prevented to do so, they risk becoming a needy adult with the mind of a child.

An example Jordan gives is when the University of Toronto prohibited skateboarding on campus. It was done to encourage safety by forbidding an inherently risky activity. Jordan argues this did more harm than good, because taking risks allows for exploration and self-confidence.

Jordan stands strictly against the notion that gender is a social invention.

Rule #12: Celebrate the small wins in life

Life can have a lot of suffering. Jordan’s daughter had severe arthritis since age 6. She required multiple joint replacement operations, frequent injections and therapy. She eventually improved her condition after finding a different physiotherapist. Taking care of his daughter, Jordan thought about the meaning of suffering and the appreciation of times of peace.

Jordan argues that life is full of waves that have peaks and valleys. Without the tough valleys, you can’t appreciate the peaks. You also want to be appreciating those peaks, so that you are in a stronger mental position to deal with the valleys when they come. Suffering in life gives us meaning so that we can persevere. It makes our moments of happiness that much better. Our times of joy would not be as significant without previous suffering which we had to work to overcome.