12 Rules For Life by Jordan Peterson — Book Summary
Dr. Jordan Peterson’s book is, in many ways, a distillation of his lectures on religion combined with his deep knowledge of psychology. Quite simply, his book 12 Rules For Life is a must-read.
Each of the rules in this book are essentially long form essays. The topics vary widely yet blend perfectly, as the best writers are able to do so well. Topics include psychology, religion, mythology, evolutionary biology, political theorizing, and much more.
12 Rules For Life Key Takeaways
Let’s dive into the 12 rules:
Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back
Ancient neurochemistry governs how you physically and psychologically react to circumstances in your life. The neurochemistry governing human reactions is the same neurochemistry governing the behavior of animals as different from us as lobsters. Because the world has limited resources (food, shelter, space, pretty much anything we need to live), there is conflict between individual animals (and humans). Over an essentially infinite timeframe, animals have developed a conflict resolution mechanism which allows two disagreeing parties to resolve their conflict without either creature incurring too great of a cost. The mechanism is smaller scale competitions (that don’t go to the death). In humans, the competition can be seen in sports, business, music, fashion, or any type of “one upmanship”. The results of these competitions is known as the dominance hierarchy.
Going back to lobsters, where they stand in the dominance hierarchy has massive effects on brain chemistry, specifically serotonin and the ratio between it and octopamine (winning increases the ratio of serotonin to octopamine). The following passage sums up the effects and relevance to humans nicely:
A lobster with high levels of serotonin and low levels of octopamine is a cocky, strutting sort of shellfish, much less likely to back down when challenged. This is because serotonin helps regulate postural flexion. A flexed lobster extends its appendages so that it can look tall and dangerous, like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western. When a lobster that just lost a battle is exposed to serotonin, it will stretch itself out, advance even on former victors, and fight longer and harder. The drugs prescribed to depressed human beings, which are selective serotonin reuptake indicators, have much the same chemical and behavioral effect. In one of the more staggering demonstrations of the evolutionary continuity of life on Earth, Prozac even cheers up lobsters.
Since the neural circuitry around dominance hierarchies is so ancient, we have also developed an internal “calculator” to determine where we stand in the hierarchy. This calculator physically reflects our status. For example, when we are “down”, we are literally down: hunched shoulders, heavy steps, avoiding eye contact, etc. When we are doing well, we are literally up: shoulders back, light on our feet – in other words, walking on air. This is generally a process that happens outside of the brain’s conscious processing ability.
Sometimes though, this calculator malfunctions and traps us in a negative feedback loop. This can be sparked by a painful life event and manifests itself as a depression. It can be very difficult to get out of a loop like this.
But how you physically act can influence your neural circuits – both positively and negatively. It’s a two way street. So by starting to “act like a winner” (for example, standing up straight), you can positively affect your brain’s circuitry. It’s of course easier said than done but the simple act of standing up straight can change your life. Peterson sums it up best:
To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).
Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping
The backdrop of this chapter starts with understanding chaos and order:
Chaos and order are fundamental elements because every lived situation (even every conceivable lived situation) is made up of both. No matter where we are, there are some things we can identify, make use of, and predict, and some things we neither know nor understand. No matter who we are, Kalahari Desert-dweller or Wall Street banker, some things are under our control, and some things are not. That’s why both can understand the same stories, and dwell within the confines of the same eternal truths. Finally, the fundamental reality of chaos and order is true for everything alive, not only for us. Living things are always to be found in places they can master, surrounded by things and situations that make them vulnerable.
Peterson then uses the story of Adam & Eve to highlight humanity’s propensity for self-shaming, which in his opinion is a major reason why people often go above and beyond when taking care of others (like their pets) yet treat themselves so horribly. This is an important point – we have a lot of trouble viewing ourselves at a distance. In Peterson’s words:
To treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping is, instead, to consider what would be truly good for you. This is not “what you want.” It is also not “what would make you happy.” Every time you give a child something sweet, you make that child happy. That does not mean that you should do nothing for children except feed them candy. “Happy” is by no means synonymous with “good.”. You must get children to brush their teeth. They must put on their snowsuits when they go outside in the cold, even though they might object strenuously . You must help a child become a virtuous, responsible, awake being, capable of full reciprocity – able to take care of himself and others, and to thrive while doing so. Why would you think it acceptable to do anything less for yourself?
Then Peterson offers some practical advice. He suggests you look deep into your own nature and think about what your life would like if you stopped doing the things you know you shouldn’t do. Maybe it’s something as simple as you hit snooze too many times in the morning. Maybe you drink too much. Maybe you skip the gym. Whatever it is, what would life look like if you just stopped doing those small, obviously negative things?
And then he goes further. Imagine what life would be like if you fully gave into your negative impulses. You drink too much today? Imagine if you fully gave into that and became a raving alcoholic – what would life look like? You get angry too fast? What if you gave into your angry impulses?
You now have your own personal visions of Heaven and Hell. You have a trajectory and something to aim at and something to aim away from.
And having an aim, even one as simple as a vision of what life would look like if you did things properly, is crucial. As Nietzsche said (and Peterson quotes):
He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.
Rule 3: Make Friends With People Who Want The Best For You
This rule might seem obvious but Peterson dives into the psychology for why we have friends or acquaintances who bring us down. This is similar to the idea that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with, though I think you can use books and other things to hijack this process, which I wrote about here.
There are a couple different reasons preventing people from choosing friends who want the best for them:
Low self-worth or lack of responsibility for their own life resulting in choosing friends of exactly the same type as those who have caused them trouble in the past. In essence, people who don’t believe they deserve better.
Rescuing the Damned: sometimes people want to rescue those who have “fallen”. While noble sounding, this is often driven by vanity and narcissism. This passage says it best:
Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible – and perhaps, more likely – that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will. Or maybe you’re saving someone because you want to convince yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side effect of your luck and birthplace. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible.
Finally, Peterson talks about how many of us feel morally obligated to others out of loyalty:
Loyalty must be 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.
Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today
This was one of the most practically useful chapters of the book. One of the key building blocks of the chapter is the fact that we each of inherent natures and you (in the sense that “you” exist) cannot be a tyrant over your nature – or at least not successfully. Now, this statement throws some people off. Some will say that you can just be disciplined and “do anything”. And maybe that’s true in the abstract. Maybe we can do anything. But it is just as true that certain activities make you feel alive in ways that other activities don’t and that this is different for different people. Personally, I love to sell – sales meetings are literally fun for me. I know tons of other people who don’t feel that same way. The same goes for intellectual discussions (such as on Made You Think). Some people can’t stand them. This is the point: you have a nature and you cannot successfully tyrannize yourself out of it.
It goes without saying that each of us has an internal critic in our minds. Some of us feel the effect of this critic more than others and at different points in our lives. This internal critic has the potential to be ruthless and destroy our sense of worth OR it can be brought under control to help us improve ourselves in a productive manner. The internal critic can be used to orient us in the right direction, focused on the future and not mired in the past. As Peterson says:
The past is fixed, but the future – it could be better. It could be better, some precise amount – the amount that can be achieved, perhaps, in a day, with some minimal engagement. The present is eternally flawed. But where you start might not be as important as the direction you are heading. Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak. Much of happiness is hope, no matter how deep the underworld in which that hope was conceived.
And then, much like Rule 2, Peterson suggests you ask yourself what one thing you could set straight in your life would be. But once you find it and start to fix it, you need to treat yourself (perhaps your inner critic?) as someone who is working with you and not as a slave. For example, if you do something that is difficult, is there something you could reward yourself with in exchange for doing the difficult task? And it doesn’t have to be anything massive either. As Peterson says:
Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life 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?” Then you do what you have decided to do, even if you do it badly. Then you give yourself that damn coffee, in triumph. Maybe you feel a bit stupid about it, but you do it anyway. And you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And, with each day, your baseline of comparison gets a little higher, and that’s magic. That’s compound interest. Do that for three years, and your life will be entirely different.
If that passage doesn’t get you fired up, you didn’t read it carefully enough. I also like the idea of using coffee as reward – it reminds me of the famous sales line “coffee’s for closers” from Glengarry Glen Ross.
Rule 5: Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them
This rule is a wide-ranging one about the roles of parents and children, as well as how those roles can result in many of the societal issues we face today, such as men who don’t respect women. For example, this passage highlights the role doting mothers can play in creating future misogynists:
When my now-adult daughter was a child, another child once hit her on the head with a metal toy truck. I watched that same child, one year later, viciously push his younger sister backwards over a fragile glass-surfaced coffee table. His mother picked him up, immediately afterward (but not her frightened daughter), and told him in hushed tones not to do such things, while she patted him comfortingly in a manner clearly indicative of approval. She was out to produce a little God-Emperor of the Universe. That’s the unstated goal of many a mother, including many who consider themselves advocates for full gender equality. Such women will object vociferously to any command uttered by an adult male, but will trot off in seconds to make their progeny a peanut-butter sandwich if he demands it while immersed self-importantly in a video game. The future mates of such boys have every reason to hate their mothers-in-law. Respect for women? That’s for other boys, other men – not their dear sons.
Children become adults and the behaviors we encourage or discourage in them are what translate to their adult selves. Peterson also notes that many parents seem to be more interested in being friends with their children than being parents. The role of a parent is to teach their children the “guardrails” governing behavior:
Parents are the arbiters of society. They teach children how to behave so that other people will be able to interact meaningfully and productively with them.
Overall in this chapter, I really like how Peterson makes the point that teenage (or adult) devils don’t emerge out of nowhere. And if parents’ don’t do their job properly, they may find their children are not prepared for the world.
Rule 6: Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World
This is definitely the darkest chapter in the book as Peterson focuses on the beliefs of individuals like the Columbine killers, the Sandy Hook massacre perpetrator, and serial killers, rapists, and other not so desirable people. One thing many of these individuals have in common is their belief that there is something wrong with the nature of Being itself and that humans in particular need to be eradicated. From one of the Columbine killers:
The human race isn’t worth fighting for, only worth killing. Give the Earth back to the animals. They deserve it infinitely more than we do. Nothing means anything anymore.
That passage should give you chills. But the scariest part is that, if you listen to your deepest feelings, this type of murderous resentfulness has been experienced by all of us, particularly when going through the injustice of a disease, injury, or pain to a family member. As Peterson says:
Life is in truth very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction. Sometimes suffering is clearly the result of a personal fault such as willful blindness, poor decision-making or malevolence. In such cases, when it appears to be self-inflicted, it may even seem just. People get what they deserve, you might contend. That’s cold comfort, however, even when true. Sometimes, if those who are suffering changed their behavior, then their lives would unfold less tragically. But human control is limited. Susceptibility to despair, disease, aging, and death is universal. In the final analysis, we do not appear to be architects of our own fragility. Whose fault is it, then?
Amazingly, the murderous rage at the injustice of being is told in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain kills his brother, who is looked upon favorably by God and the world while Cain’s own sacrifices are rejected by God. Appropriately, the story is vague about why Cain’s sacrifice is rejected (though it hints that this is some fault of Cain’s). Just like our life, it isn’t clear at all why bad things happen – and these things happening can fuel a murderous rage.
If you are suffering – well, that’s the norm. People are limited and life is tragic.
The practical advice in this chapter is beautiful. It is simply this: clean up your life. And you can start small: just stop doing what you know to be wrong. Then, only do those things which you could speak of with honor. Peterson has been mocked (and admired) online for his call for people, particularly young men, to start making their bed. The point is made well with the following passage:
Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?
This is what it means to set your house in order before criticizing the world.
Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient)
This chapter is very much related to the idea of sacrifice, something which I personally thought was archaic and not useful in the modern world, until very recently. Growing up in a Hindu family, we would attend (and sometimes host) pujas in which things like wood, ghee, and other food items were thrown into a fire while a priest chanted in Sanskrit. Other cultures have similar ideas around sacrifice.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that the idea of sacrifice is something I’ve been acting out for a long time. The idea that our ancestors came up with was this:
That something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present.
For anyone who has ever tried or done anything, you know at the deepest level that this is true. When you study for a test instead of playing video games, you will do better on the test. When you skip the donuts and eat something healthy, your body will perform better. When you stay in to work on your side hustle startup instead of going out drinking with your buddies every night, you may find yourself with a legitimate company on your hand in a few months. Sacrificing the present for a better future seems to be a fundamental way to manipulate the structure of reality. But this can be taken one level further, and for me, was instrumental in gaining a respect for religion I had never before felt:
Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another being. And the amazing thing is that it worked. This was in part because the future is largely composed of other human beings – often precisely those who have watched and evaluated and appraised the tiniest details of your past behavior. It’s not very far from that to God, sitting above on high, tracking your every move and writing it down for further reference in a big book.
It is also evident that large sacrifices are in general, better than small sacrifices. There’s a line in Tom Brady’s documentary (“Tom vs Time“):
“If you’re going to compete against me, you better be willing to give up your life, because I’m giving up mine” -Tom Brady
And anyone who has followed Brady’s lifestyle over the past few years has no doubt that this is true. But this brings up a great point – why does God require such huge sacrifices? This passage from 12 Rules For Life clarifies that message:
Sometimes things do not go well. That seems to have much to do with the terrible nature of the world, with its plagues and famines and tyrannies and betrayals. But here’s the rub: sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s not the world that’s the cause. The cause is instead that which is currently most valued, subjectively and personally. Why? Because the world is revealed, to an indeterminate degree, through the template of your values. If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it is time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.
Going back to the rule, doing things which are expedient are, by definition, short-sighted. They only work for the moment or satisfy a momentary desire. In contrast, meaning is:
the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that.
Rule 8: Tell the Truth – Or, At Least, Don’t Lie
This chapter reminded me of Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field” which Walter Isaacson discussed in detail in his Jobs biography. It also reminded me of Nassim Taleb’s Incerto work. Consider this passage about life-lies we tell ourselves:
Someone living a life-lie is attempting to manipulate reality with perception, thought, and action, so that only some narrowly desired and pre-defined outcome is allowed to exist. A life lived in this manner is based, consciously or unconsciously, on two premises. The first is that current knowledge is sufficient to define what is good, unquestioningly, far into the future. The second is that reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices.
These types of life-lies can be lies we tell ourselves about our own future plans or about the world in general, such as in politics:
A naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie. One forty-something client told me his vision, formulated by his younger self: “I see myself retired, sitting on a tropical beach, drinking margaritas in the sunshine.” That’s not a plan. That’s a travel poster. After eight margaritas, you’re fit only to await the hangover. After three weeks of margarita-filled days, if you have any sense, you’re bored stiff and self-disgusted. In a year, or less, you’re pathetic. It’s just not a sustainable approach to later life. This kind of oversimplification and falsification is particularly typical of idealogues. They adopt a single axiom: government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad. Then they filter and screen their experiences and insist ever more narrowly that everything can be explained by that axiom. They believe, narcissistically, underneath all that bad theory, that the world could be put right, if only they held the controls.
Obviously not every lie is as large as a life-lie. But the point of the chapter is that each of these small lies weakens us. Peterson’s solution revolves around having an aim – and then acting in an honest manner in accordance with that aim. This is something similar to the phrase “be true to yourself”. It is a way of acting where your eyes are open. This means you orient yourself towards your goal but are simultaneously constantly evaluating any necessary transformations to your goal. It prevents you from becoming a totalitarian who becomes so minutely focused on some goal (such as sipping margaritas on the beach) which might be better to avoid.
Tell the truth.
Rule 9: Assume That The Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t
When someone is truly listening to you, it is a beautiful thing. True listening and true thinking are interconnected. As Peterson says:
True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be articulate speaker and careful, judicious listener, at the same time. It involves conflict. So you have to tolerate conflict. Conflict involves negotiation and compromise. So you have to learn to give and take and to modify your premises and adjust your thoughts – even your perceptions of the world.
Funny enough, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Made You Think lately. I’ve had my core premises greatly affected by both the books we’ve covered and my discussions with Nat. If you listen to our episodes, you have probably heard both of us change our mind about certain issues (such as universal basic income) when confronted with information we didn’t previously have. Far from being terrifying, this is invigorating beyond belief.
Of course, not all conversation is like this. Sometimes conversation can devolve into a one upmanship game where neither person is listening to the other. We’ve all been in these types of conversations. They are no fun.
But there is a third type of conversation, which is best described as some type of shared meditation. It’s a conversation where you are mutually exploring some territory together, without ego or domination as the goal. As Peterson describes:
A conversation like that puts you in the realm where souls connect, and that’s a real place. It leaves you thinking, “That was really worthwhile. We really got to know each other.” The masks came off, and the searchers were revealed.
These conversations exemplify the continual search for knowledge. Put ego aside and assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Rule 10: Be Precise In Your Speech
The world is a murky place. It is clear without a doubt that when we perceive the world, we are not perceiving it objectively. We are perceiving it in relation to ourselves. And this is necessary – just imagine the difficulty our brains would have in perceiving EVERYTHING that exists in front of us.
But thanks to our brains’ ability to perceive strategically, the world appears simple. That is, until everything falls apart. You have definitely felt this before. When one of your core assumptions about the world falls apart, the chaos and turmoil or reality rushes in. Maybe you thought you were going to medical school but got rejected from all of them. Maybe your spouse was suddenly diagnosed with a fatal illness. Maybe someone close to you betrayed your trust. Maybe a long-term relationship ended. Whatever the reason, the world’s chaos is held at bay by our assumptions.
When the chaos floods in, our brains default to questioning EVERYTHING we’ve assumed. And this is terrifying. This is where precision comes in:
Precision specifies. When something terrible happens, it is precision that separates the unique terrible thing that has actually happened from all the other, equally terrible things that might have happened – but did not. If you wake up in pain, you might be dying. You might be dying slowly and terribly from one of a diverse number of painful, horrible diseases. If you refuse to tell your doctor about your pain, then what you have is unspecified: it could be any of those diseases – and it certainly (since you have avoided the diagnostic conversation – the act of articulation) is something unspeakable. But if you talk to your doctor, all those terrible possible diseases will collapse, with luck, into just one terrible (or not so terrible) disease, or even into nothing. Then you can laugh at your previous fears, and if something really is wrong, well, you’re prepared. Precision may leave the tragedy intact, but it chases away the ghouls and the demons.
Put simply, precision collapses the massive array of possibilities into one reality. Confront chaos through precision.
Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding
At first, this rule struck me as odd but as Peterson expands on the theme, it ties into many of the larger themes of this book. The first is that while skateboarding might be perceived as dangerous, that danger is precisely what children (particularly boys) are seeking. The same goes for “safe” playgrounds. Children (again, especially boys) will find a way to turn the “safe” equipment into an adventurous encounter with danger. Stopping kids from confronting danger is a strategy destined to backfire and furthermore, isn’t desirable.
This chapter is also where Dr. Peterson expands on his ideas on the patriarchy. He starts by saying that of course culture is an oppressive, patriarchal structure. Society essentially hammers all of us into shape and this wastes potential. But it is also a gift. Society has freed us to a great degree from many of the things we would struggle with – starvation, illness, nature, malevolence – in a state of nature. 12 Rules for Life reads:
It looks to me like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease, and drudgery.
Going back to skateboarding and danger, there’s a male “code of behavior” that every man who has ever been part of a group knows. Peterson says it well:
Men enforce a code of behavior on each other, when working together. Do you work. Pull your weight. Stay awake and pay attention. Don’t whine or be touchy. Stand up for your friends. Don’t suck up and don’t snitch. Don’t be a slave to stupid rules. Don’t, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, be a girlie man. Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period. The harassment that is part of acceptance on a working crew is a test: are you tough, entertaining, competent, and reliable? If not, go away. Simple as that. We don’t need to feel sorry for you. We don’t want to put up with your narcissism, and we don’t want to do your work.
Again, every man knows that code. We’ve never read these explicit “rules” but we all know, at the deepest level, that this is the code. And notice that this code has nothing to do with sexual orientation, race, color, ethnicity, or whatever other box you want to lump people into. And if you think gay men can’t be tough…well, that’s your bias showing.
The only way for children to develop into adults who can meet this code is to be exposed to danger. Which they do naturally if allowed to. And sometimes even if they aren’t allowed to.
Rule 12: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street
I was initially confused by this chapter title. Turns out, it was the most impactful chapter in 12 Rules for Life (for me anyway). This is a chapter which you absolutely need to read to get the entire impact but I’ll attempt to distill the takeaways.
Peterson starts with going into the inevitable suffering of life by using two examples – his two children. His daughter in particular faced immense health problems. When she was very young, she was diagnosed with Severe Polyarticular Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) which meant she would have to have multiple major joints replaced early in her life. The story itself is heartbreaking and again, worth the read. This story and any similar issue in your life understandably causes you to ask “why me?”
Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack?
If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything could happen already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being.
If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything could happen already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being.
Our vulnerability is what makes us human.
The connection to cats in this chapter is that cats are a manifestation of Nature (or Being) in an almost pure form. They interact and associate with human beings but are not fully domesticated. Cats, as opposed to dogs, do their own thing. Petting a cat is akin to paying attention to the little things which can make up for the unbearable suffering that life brings us. In other words, gratefulness. Things that you can be grateful for: a great cup of coffee, an interaction with a child, watching a TV show – any little thing will do.