What I Have Learned From 12 Rules For Life by Jordan Peterson
World-famous psychologist outlines the important rules to live by in life
Just in case you have been living under a rock and have no idea who Jordan Peterson is, he is a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who has gained internet fame (and scrutiny) in recent years. He is most known for his public lectures on YouTube as well as several heated debates with media reporters like this one.
Despite the controversies surrounding his political and cultural viewpoints, there is no denying the impact Jordan Peterson has had on society and the lives he has been able to transform for the better. Therefore, I implore that you look beyond the hate and negativity to realise the pristine intentions behind his work and that is to encourage people, particularly young men, to adopt the responsibility of putting their lives in order.
One of the resolutions that I had for this year was to read more books and although it took me almost 9 months, I am proud to say that I have finally finished my first official book for this year. In this article, I will go through Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos along with some of my personal anecdotes.
I have learned a tremendous amount from consuming Peterson’s content and his wisdom has guided me through some pretty challenging times in my life. Hence, by writing this article, I wish to pass this wisdom on and hopefully inspire others to also improve their own lives.
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
This rule discusses the hierarchical structure of our society, the concept of the Pareto distribution and how changing our physical posture can affect serotonin levels in our body which is responsible for regulating our mood and confidence.
Peterson draws comparison to lobsters throughout this section of the book which he claims to have a lot in common with human beings. Male lobsters fight and compete for a place in the dominance hierarchy. Winning lobsters are granted access to prime real estate, opportunities to mate with female lobsters but most importantly, an increase in serotonin levels which makes them stronger and more confident going into their next battle. The defeated lobster, on the other hand, loses confidence.
In many of his presentations and interviews, Peterson has spoken about the unequivocal necessity of hierarchies so much so that it is fundamental to human existence. Hierarchies are important for two reasons:
- It provides an incentive for people who are good at what they do to continue to do what they do, so that society as a whole benefit from their contributions.
- It provides human beings with a goal and meaning to their lives and that is to progressively move up hierarchies that they deem worthwhile to compete in.
There is a hierarchy for everything, from neurosurgeons to basketball players to even plumbers, and they exist to keep society productive and well-functioning.
However, hierarchies come at a cost and that is the clumping of people at the bottom which results in severe inequality if the system is not properly maintained and stabilised across time. This is known as the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule which states that a small number of people will produce most of everything.
Aside from working on your conscientiousness, the quickest way to assert your place in the dominance hierarchy is by standing up straight with your shoulders back. Doing so has a powerful effect on both your spirit and your emotion.
Standing up straight exhibits confidence, dominance and readiness to accept the vicissitudes and challenges that come along with life. It shows that you are willing to undertake the sacrifices necessary to generate a successful reality for yourself. Other people will also start to assume that you are capable which then leads to more meaningful interactions which then leads to a higher probability of good things happening to you.
So quit drooping and hunching around and be ready to own your rightful place in the dominance hierarchy.
“Thus strengthened and emboldened, you may choose to embrace Being, and work for its furtherance and improvement. Thus strengthened, you may be able to stand, even during the illness of a loved one, even during the death of a parent, and allow others to find strength alongside you when they would otherwise be overwhelmed with despair.”
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Matthew 7:12
Human beings have a tendency to not look after themselves properly but when it comes to taking care of others, say a child, we make sure that they have enough food, brush their teeth, do their homework, wear comfortable clothes and so on. So why can’t we do that for ourselves?
Rule 2 challenges you to look after yourself just like how you would look after someone you care deeply about and want to present the opportunities of having a good life.
Remember, this is not “what you want” or “what would make you happy” but rather “what would be truly good for you”. You can consider this across the different aspects of your life. Some examples include (but not limited to) your relationship with your family and friends, career, educational goals, time outside of work as well as attention to your mental and physical health.
Once you have determined your ideal, set up a schedule that will keep you disciplined and accountable towards your goal. Bargain and negotiate with yourself. Establish a reward system that will motivate you to work towards those goals.
“Never underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities.”
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you
“You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Growing up, my grandfather always used to say that the best predictor to whether or not an adolescent will turn out well is the people he or she chooses to hang out with and rightfully so because friends play a critical role in our lives.
More than mere companionship, genuine friendships foster growth and development in one another. Good friends are ones that will support your upward aim and not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will push you to do what is best for yourself and those around you and punish you when you do not.
I have been very fortunate my whole life to have been surrounded by people who sincerely care for me and constantly encouraging me to do the right things. However, there will come a time in life when you find yourself in a toxic relationship with someone.
Based on Peterson’s experience in his clinical practice, individuals are far more likely to reject upward progression and default to blaming their failure on their circumstances. This is because failure is easy and it takes nothing to give up.
So next time before you help someone, find out exactly why that person is in trouble rather than just assume that they are victims of unfair circumstances and exploitation. By assuming, you are reinforcing their reality and stripping them of their abilities to change their lives for the better.
Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement and it goes both ways. Therefore, you are not morally obliged to helping someone who does not want to help themselves. Instead, you should choose to associate with people who want you, themselves and the world to be better.
“Don’t think that it is easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. A good, healthy person is an ideal. It requires strength and daring to stand up near such a person. Have some humility. Have some courage. Use your judgment, and protect yourself from too-uncritical compassion and pity.”
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
As someone who takes immense pride in progress and achievements, rule 4 is one I struggle with the most.
In today’s world that is so heavily driven by social media, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy are growing more rapidly than ever before as people continually compare themselves to other people’s success and happiness (or at least as they portray it on social media).
Quite honestly, I am as guilty of this as anyone else. Just admit it, we have all been there.
“He got better grades than me. She makes more money than me. He drives a better car. They live in a nicer neighbourhood.”
Envy is fundamental to who we are as human beings. It is the natural consequence of assigning value to something, especially if it is something other people have attained that we haven’t.
A valued goal is what gives life its meaning and its purpose. Without one, you wander around aimlessly. Therefore, we need something in life to aim for and one of the ways we do that is by observing what others have managed to accrue.
But here’s the caveat. It doesn’t matter if you are good at playing chess, cooking or programming, chances are, there are people out there who are better than you and that is because humans are not created equal in ability and will never be. A very small number of people will produce very much of everything. This is precisely the idea behind the Pareto principle as we have seen in rule 1.
For this reason, it is not a good strategy to compare yourself to others as it will only lead to unnecessary resentment, depression and self-loathing.
It is also not a good strategy because you don’t fully know the person that you are comparing yourself to. You don’t know about their health conditions, financial struggle, issues that are happening in their relationships, addictions and so on. Everyone is dealing with something in life. So why compare if it’s not even a fair comparison?
Instead, the much better alternative is to learn to compete with yourself because that’s the person that you know the best. Learn to strive for incremental improvement.
Aim to be better than who you were yesterday. Aim to be a step closer to your goal than where you were yesterday. Aim to be even just 1% better than who you were yesterday because the power of compounding will make you almost 38 times the person you are now a year later.
“You no longer have to be envious, because you no longer know that someone else truly has it better. You no longer have to be frustrated, because you have learned to aim low, and to be patient. You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are finding the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely. You are less concerned with the actions of other people because you have plenty to do yourself.”
This next paragraph is optional so feel free to read past it if you’re not interested. I just found the concept intriguing which was why I decided to write it down.
There is an idea called the zone of proximal development put forward by Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist which offers some insights into how you might strive for incremental improvements. Essentially, you want to structure your tasks so that they are slightly beyond your current skill set but not overly challenging that you can’t do them or have a high probability of failure. We do this unconsciously when teaching toddlers to speak. First, we get them to learn some easy words (e.g. those with repeating syllables like bye-bye or ma-ma). We then move on to more complex words, followed by short phrases and finally a complete sentence. You can implement this in your own learning too. As you do this routinely, you slowly grow and expand your skillset.
Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
I am not the biggest fan of flying. Long waits at the airport, tight, uncomfortable legroom, jetlag, you name it. But the one thing I dread the most about flying is the possibility of sitting in front of a misbehaving child who constantly kicks the front of their seat.
You are probably nodding your head right now if you know what I mean. In fact, that is not what frustrates me the most. It is when the parents who are sitting right next to them decide to not do anything about it and just let their kids be.
Having grown up in an Asian household and around Asian cultures to now living in Australia, I have noticed some distinct differences between Asian and Western parenting styles. Now, before anyone criticises me for making this generalisation, I am merely stating my personal observation and interpretation so please take what I am about to say with a pinch of salt.
Whether it is interacting with my friends, students that I tutor or even just the children that I encounter on the streets, I realise most Western parents adopt a more permissive approach to parenting and that is they allow their children to behave as they please without enforcing many strict rules (even when they are kicking the front of their seat non-stop during a flight). I suspect this is largely due to the Western idealogy of freedom and independence that Western parents wish to inculcate in their children since they are young.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the authoritarian approach to parenting where rules, punishment and high expectations are the norm. This is what I grew up with. For most of my life even until this day, I see my parents as authoritative figures and respect the superior role that they play in my life. However, it is also through this upbringing that I have developed most of my desirable attributes like work ethic, discipline and respect for others.
This is not to say that one parenting style is better than the other but rather I believe finding the right balance and the sweet spot between the two extremes is crucial and frankly one of the many challenges of being a parent.
Rule 5 emphasises the role parents play in correcting their children’s behaviour that “makes them dislike them”. If a child is doing something the parents find irritable, society will most likely feel the same way too. If not disciplined, not only will the parents develop resentment towards their child but worse still, society will not accept them and that will lead to even more problems down the road.
Yes, your child will be upset. Yes, they will hate you (momentarily) but it is not your responsibility to be a friend to your child. A child will grow up to have many friends but only two parents. Thus, it is far more important that you prepare them for the world so that the other kids will choose to play with them and not ostracise them.
Learn to set and enforce the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. That way your child knows exactly where the limits are.
“You love your kids, after all. If their actions make you dislike them, think what an effect they will have on other people, who care much less about them than you. Those other people will punish them, severely, by omission or commission. Don’t allow that to happen. Better to let your little monsters know what is desirable and what is not, so they become sophisticated denizens of the world outside the family.”
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
“If you want to change the world, start with yourself.” Mahatma Gandhi
One of Peterson’s most popular advice to people is to “clean up your room”. What might seem like a simple task on the surface is actually more profound than you think.
By taking ownership of your responsibilities, starting with the smallest and most immediate one (your room), you learn to be accountable towards your actions and start to gradually expand the capacity to accomplish other bigger and more important tasks. Your actions will start to take on a positive charge and spiral you upwards in life.
A likely conversation will go something like this.
“I need to clean up my room. Well, now that my room is clean, I might as well do the other chores that I’ve been putting off. Hmm, that wasn’t so difficult after all, maybe I should stop procrastinating and start working on my schoolwork. Wow, I got so much done today already! I can probably squeeze in some extra time for a quick workout.”
One thing will lead to another and before you know it, not only are you taking good care of yourself but you now have the excess capacity to help your friends, your family, your colleagues and those in your community.
Unfortunately, most people are not like that. They blame their shortcomings on their circumstances. They blame their failures on other people. This is because people don’t enjoy being their own critic. It hurts their ego. They don’t like to admit that they are wrong even though deep down they feel weak and ashamed of their lack of accountability.
Rule 6 urges you to reflect on your actions and realise the opportunities for self-improvement that are laying right before you that most people choose to ignore.
Successful people exercise extraordinary ownership over their work. Everything is their fault. Not their parents, not the government, not the economy. So, do what you can that is within your control and stop blaming the world.
“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?”
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
You probably remember the feeling you have after a sinful meal of McDonald’s late at night or the feeling after binge-watching Netflix for 4 hours straight even though you have an assignment due the next week.
We all know these things are bad for us but yet we still do it. This is the very definition of expedience, when we choose to engage in activities that are pleasurable in the fleeting moment but are actually unhealthy and detrimental to us.
One of the most defining and significant moments for human beings is when we first discovered the concept of time, when we learned that we could bargain with the future by giving up something of value in the present. We see this occurrence play out across time.
In the past, after killing a large wild animal, humans slowly realised the merit in sharing their hunt with others rather than try to consume the whole animal all at once. This is because it builds a sense of trust and camaraderie within the community so that when others have food in the future, they are more likely to share them with you.
Fast forward to today, a growing trend of immigrant parents fleeing their home countries to an entirely foreign land just so that their children can have a better future.
This idea of delayed gratification forms the basis for rule 7 which is, in essence, reminding us to evaluate our actions across a broader time horizon. To think ahead and to look beyond the present because what we do now will have consequences in the future.
There is opportunity cost attached to everything that we do. When we say yes to something, we are indirectly saying no to others. When you choose to spend an hour playing video games, you are indirectly forfeiting an hour that you could have used to read a book or hang out with your friends.
The more you sacrifice today, the more benefits you will reap in the future. So, consider using the time that you have wisely. Put in the efforts now that your future self will thank you for.
“Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world.”
Rule 8: Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie
We were all taught at a young age, by our parents and teachers, that it is not good to lie. Lying is a form of deceit. It is also taking advantage of other people’s trust towards you and worst of all, it is cheating your way through life.
However, there is an element in this lesson that is usually overlooked or not discussed enough, and that is lying to yourself.
Lying to yourself involves constructing a false reality and convincing yourself of that reality. It is a defence mechanism many people turn to in order to avoid the truth that is often harsh and unbearable to confront.
There is an inherent problem with lying to yourself and that is eventually, things fall apart. The truth you so desperately tried to cover up will inevitably reveal itself and many times, more painfully than if you had just told yourself the truth in the beginning.
Here are some examples:
- Pursuing a college major that you are not passionate about but you don’t want to disappoint your parents’ expectations. Not only will you feel unmotivated to study (which is already a problem in itself) but you will feel bitter and resentful towards your parents.
- Thinking you are too smart to learn a new skill so you settle for mediocrity and comfort when you know you could have done more. Coming up with excuses that justify your complacency and lack of action towards further self-development.
- Hanging out with friends that don’t add any meaning or value to your life. You’re afraid to leave them because they make you feel superior. You aren’t willing to go out and seek friends that will push you harder and further in life. You know that you should but you just aren’t willing.
These are just some examples but I’m sure you can think of plenty more.
Another thing about lying to yourself is that you can feel it. Your inner conscience repels it and you can feel it in your gut. You feel embarrassed and disgusted when you lie and it makes you feel weak.
So, stop speaking the words that make you feel weak and start telling the truth. Your own truth.
The truth will not come in the guise of opinions shared by others. Instead, it has to be personal and it has to come from within you. Pursue what is true and valuable to you.
“If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth. In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.”
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Rule 9 is a rule about conversations and more specifically developing humility to listen during conversations.
Think about the conversations that you’ve had in the past that has left a longlasting impact on you. Ones that you have walked away from feeling more inspired and knowledgable than you were before.
Chances are, in those conversations, you were listening. Not only were you listening, you were probably engrossed in whatever the other person has to say.
Listening requires humility. It requires prioritising what you don’t know over what you already know because what you know is not enough. Otherwise, your life and the lives of those around you would be perfect but they are not. So, there’s a lot that you don’t know.
By making the conscious decision to listen, you are assuming the other person knows something that you don’t and that you want to learn from them. Thus, welcoming the potential wisdom the other person has to share with you.
Listening is also important when you are dealing with conflict. When arguing with someone, there is every temptation to try to win the argument or to prove the other person wrong. Turns out, that is actually a bad strategy because all it does is make the loser feel inferior without addressing the real issue at hand.
You don’t want to win the argument, you want to solve the problem. So instead of being ignorant, what you should be doing is giving the other person the benefit of the doubt and actually pay attention to what they have to say. Because when you listen to people, they will start to tell you exactly what they want. They just can’t even help it. But more importantly, it provides you with the opportunity to realise your own flaws that you could work on to be a better human being.
There is a practical approach to handling conflict outlined in the book that I found quite fascinating. It’s a method suggested by Carl Rogers who is an American psychologist and it goes as follows: “Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.”
Doing so ensures that you are genuinely trying to understand where the other person is coming from rather than trying to inflict damage on their self-esteem and not solving the issue altogether.
It’s an extremely effective method that I highly recommend that you deploy the next time you find yourself in an argument with someone.
“So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.”
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
“Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
It sounds simple but most people either don’t do it or they do it poorly.
Being precise in your speech means to know exactly what you want and articulating them as clearly and as directly as possible. This applies not only to when you are speaking to other people but also to yourself.
I have always had this misconception that all arguments are bad. They are what makes relationships fall apart and should be avoided at all costs. But what I later realised when I got into a relationship with Zoe (my girlfriend now) is that arguments are bound to happen. And no wonder because, no two people see everything eye to eye due to differences in upbringing, background and values.
Contrary to my misconception, arguments are not only good but necessary. And it is not arguments that make relationships fall apart but rather it is the accumulation of issues that are left unresolved that should have been resolved through diplomatic dialogues and arguments.
When you argue with someone, you are putting forward something you find annoying in the other person that you would like them to stop doing or something you would like them to do that they are not doing now. Both parties are telling each other what they want.
But don’t fall into the trap of bringing up past events that are unrelated or vaguely connected into your argument which is admittedly sometimes hard to do in the heat of the moment. When adrenaline is gushing throughout your whole body and when your competitive spirit takes over, all you could think of is defeating your opponent. However, if you allow that to happen, the argument becomes nothing more than a hostile, emotional warfare between two people and you will lose track of what the actual problem is.
So, specify clearly what you want and investigate the root cause of the problem that instigated the argument in the first place.
Negotiate, compromise and come to terms with the other person on what both of you should do, so that the same argument does not take place again in the future.
“When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it — often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.”
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
Similar to rule 5, rule 11 is another rule about parenting and the side-effects of over-protecting your children.
Peterson uses the metaphor of skateboarding which is an activity a child does that is rather risky and dangerous. A child might fall down. He might get hurt and sometimes quite severely.
But in the process, he is exploring his own limits and learning from his mistakes. Gradually as he starts to expand his skill set, he will not only fall less frequently but also grow into a much stronger person.
Humans become stronger by overcoming pain, hardships and failures. As a parent, it is an instinct to want to protect your child from all sorts of threats that could potentially harm them. However, it can become counter-productive when the protection is excessive as it leaves the child unprepared for the challenges that await him later on in life. Without proper training, he will not be equipped with sufficient strength to cope with these challenges in the future.
I am a massive fan of the TV series, Black Mirror which is a show about the hypothetical scenarios of modern technologies gone wrong. In one of the episodes called ‘Arkangel’ (Season 4 Episode 2), it depicts the devastating repercussions of helicopter parenting.
Without giving too much away, the episode follows a single mother, Marie who signed up for a “child safety” program which allows a chip to be injected into her daughter, Sara. The chip not only informs Marie the whereabouts of her daughter but it also comes with the option of filtering out her daughter’s senses towards distressing images like blood, violence or even the loud barking of their neighbour’s dog.
It didn’t take long before problems eventually made its way into Sara’s life as a result of the technology. Being isolated by her peers, not being able to fully experience life and resentment towards her mother.
What was intended to be something that protects her turns out to do more harm than good. It ended up disrupting the relationship that she had with her own mother and the rest of the world.
To not bother children when they are skateboarding means to encourage children to have their own adventure. An adventure where they will face many obstacles and adversity. Along the way, they will get hurt, disappointed and taken advantage by others. However, this is the only way that they will learn and grow. And turn into someone who is capable of standing firmly on his own two feet.
Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
At first glance, it might be hard to tell the what exactly the message behind rule 12 is but I think it is one that is most personal to Peterson out of the other rules in the book.
In rule 12, he shares the brutal experience of caring for his daughter who was terribly ill when she was younger and the coping mechanism that he used that helped him get through this incredibly tough time in his life where his faith was challenged in every way possible.
Shortening your timeframe during a crisis allows you to take on the overwhelming amounts of suffering in a more manageable way.
In the dire event of death or illness, whether that is in a family member, a close friend or just about anyone you hold dear to, it is extremely difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel and just how you will come out the other side of this immense torment.
By focusing on getting through to the next day, the next hour or even the next minute can really help calm the mind down amid the tremendous chaos. It helps to spread out the suffering across a longer period so that it is easier to cope.
Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street is also a manifestation of being grateful and appreciative of the little things that make life precious and beautiful.
It involves looking around for things that make life worth living despite the inevitable suffering and loss that it entails. This could the sunny day outside, a warm cup of coffee, music that makes you smile or even the people around you who are constantly cheering for you. It is important to look for these things to sustain you especially during periods of hardship.
I had debated with myself for a long time whether or not to share this rather personal part of my life but if there is one thing that I have learned about putting out content on the internet is that you never know who will find it and the situation that they are in.
If one person can walk away after reading this article knowing that they are not alone in their struggles, I would consider that I have done my part in making the tiniest contribution in this ginormous world.
So here I go.
For the past three years, my mom has been battling with cancer and it has been a long and arduous battle, to say the very least, not only for her but for our family.
Having to balance studies, work commitments and maintaining relationships with my friends, all on top of caring for my mom has definitely been the toughest challenge that I have ever faced. There were times where I have felt depressed, anxious and angry at the world to the point where I was questioning existence.
Luckily, I stumbled upon Peterson’s work on YouTube which dramatically shifted my perspective and outlook on life. One of the things that he had mentioned was to strive to become “the strongest person at your father’s funeral”.
This means to acknowledge that life is filled with misery and suffering and that there is simply no way around it. However, by taking up the responsibility of becoming someone everyone can rely on during a time of crisis, you embark on a meaningful and admirable pursuit that will help you and those around you transcend the crisis more smoothly.
Whatever it is that you are going through right now, know that there is always a silver lining. There are things and people around you worth living for if you just look hard enough.
So, stay strong and persevere. You will make it out of this!
“People are tough. People can survive through much pain and loss. But to persevere they must see the good in Being. If they lose that, they are truly lost.”
We have come to the end of this article. Hopefully, after knowing these 12 rules, you are now better equipped to not only improve your life but also strive to make the world a better and more positive place for everyone.
A lot of hours went into writing this article so if you wouldn’t mind, it would mean a lot to me if you could drop a like on the article as well as share it with your friends and family so that they can benefit from the wisdom as well.
Take care for now and I hope to see you in my next article!