12 Rules for Life Summary
14 min read ⌚
An Antidote to Chaos
Ready for a dose of Jordan Peterson?
Even if you’re not – here it comes!
Tight-packed in the form of his 12 Rules for Life.
Who Should Read “12 Rules for Life”? And Why?
There’s probably nobody as famous as Jordan Peterson in the intellectual world nowadays.
Which means that each and every one of his moves is carefully inspected by a host of people – both his two million (and counting) active followers and as many criticizers.
12 Rules for Life, however, is a much lighter and less controversial read than we’ve come to expect from Peterson.
It feels as if it is mainly aimed at teenagers and young people who are trying to find their way in life.
If you are one of them, based on many testimonies,
About Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and cultural critic – quite possibly, “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”
He studied at the University of Alberta, where he obtained a BA in political science in 1982. After a year off in Europe, he returned to Alberta and received a BA in psychology in 1985.
Six years later, he earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from McGill University where he remained as a post-doctoral fellow for the next two years. He then moved to Harvard University, where he became an associate professor of psychology.
He published his first book, Maps of Meaning, in 1999, two decades before he published 12 Rules for Life.
In the meantime, he became an Internet celebrity, propelled by his argumentation against the Canadian government’s Bill C-16.
Find out more at https://jordanbpeterson.com/
“12 Rules for Life Summary”
As Jordan Peterson explains in the Overture to his 12 Rules of Life, this book grew out of one of his most interesting hobbies.
Namely – answering questions posted on Quora.
Well, one time he tried answering the question “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?”
His answer – which then included 40 rules – was, to say the least, quite popular.
As Peterson explains, it “has been viewed by a hundred and twenty thousand people and been upvoted twenty-three hundred times. Only a few hundred of the roughly six hundred thousand questions on Quora have cracked the two-thousand-upvote barrier.”
So, in other words, he had already written this book before he had even started writing it.
To complete it, he just combined some rules and dropped out the redundant ones.
And he came up with the 12 rules for life.
Key Lessons from “12 Rules for Life”
1. Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back
2. Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping
3. Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You
4. Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today
5. Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything that Makes You Dislike Them
6. Put Your House in Order
7. Pursue What is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient
8. Tell the Truth
9. Assume that the Person You are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t
10. Be Precise with Your Speech
11. Leave Children Alone when They are Skateboarding
12. Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street
Rule 1: Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back
For his first rule, Jordan Peterson casts a cold look upon the nature and the “society” of the lobsters. But you probably already know this, since it has already been made stupendously famous via his debate with Cathy Newman.
The main reason for the analogy: the basic chemistry of a lobster’s brain is not that different from the chemistry of your brain.
And we know for a fact that, after a fight, “a lobster loser’s brain chemistry differs importantly from that of a lobster winner.” And this is “reflected in their relative postures,” which depend on the serotonin/octopamine ratio: more from the former makes you stand up straight and enthuses you with confidence.
Rings a bell?
It should – if it doesn’t.
Because it basically echoes Amy Cuddy’s exceptionally popular TED Talk: “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.”
Now, the rule makes much more sense: if octopamine makes you slouch when you’re feeling bad, then stand up straight, and the serotonin wills start flowing:
So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.
Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping
We live in a scientific, materialistic world and we are pitifully unaware of the fact that there are different ways to understand it.
However, for most of history (back to, say, Newton), humans understood it in a profoundly different way, i.e., via myths. And myths had the power to give their lives some meaning and orientation.
Now, interestingly enough, the fact that we are aware that the universe has no obligation to make sense to us (Neil deGrasse Tyson) makes us cruel to, well, ourselves.
We are capable of inventing meaning even for our dogs and cats – but we are incapable of doing the same for us. And statistics show this: “People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves.”
And, as Peterson says, “that’s not good. Even from your pet’s perspective, it’s not good. Your pet (probably) loves you, and would be happier if you took your medication.”
Peterson analyzes the Genesis story in order to find an answer to the question of why we prefer our pets to ourselves. And – after few pages which concentrate on the order/chaos dichotomy – he finds it.
And it is the same Viktor Frankl discovered while going through the Hell of Auschwitz. Namely, the ones who go forward are the ones who have something to go forward to.
“He whose life has a why can bear almost any how,” Peterson quotes his favorite philosopher Nietzsche to make his point once again.
How this relates to Peterson’s second rule?
Well, if you believe your life has a Meaning – with a capital M – then you will have to treat yourself as someone who deserves it. And if that’s the case, you will be able to recognize your problems.
And consider them accordingly.
Just like you would your dog’s.
Rule 3: Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You
A highly personal lesson dipped in Jordan Peterson’s childhood experiences.
And as simple and obvious as a lesson can get: “Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement.”
Peterson goes on:
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.
People who don’t want to improve are not exactly people you want to be around with. By definition, they can’t be helped. They will merely drag you down to their level to make themselves feel better, using you as an object instead of a human being (contra Kant).
If you spend your time around them, you are not helping yourself and, thus, you are not helping the world either.
Because the people who don’t want to improve are the same people who will give a cigarette to a former smoker or beer to a former alcoholic.
They don’t want to make the world a better place by improving; they want to make the world a worse place and, thus, simulate improvement.
To hell with them!
Make friends only with people who want the best for you, people you’d easily recommend to others for
Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today
We’ve told you before that happiness may be a relative category.
In other words, that how you feel at this moment depends not on how close you are to some definitive state of things (i.e., Happiness with a capital H), but on how better off you feel when compared to those around you.
Regardless of the fact that happiness is not precisely Peterson’s cup of tea – it’s a fact that, for millennia, this may have worked for people in one way or another.
Nowadays, it’s all but a recipe for disaster!
Because, nowadays, you have the media and the Internet continually feeding you with images and news about the best of the very best.
And it’s only sensible to come to terms with a simple fact: no matter how good you are, there will always be someone better than you out there.
Look at it this way: millions of kids are at the moment playing basketball and dreaming of becoming the next LeBron; only a handful or one or even no one will do that!
What does that leave for the rest of the bunch?
That’s why Jordan Peterson advises you to introduce a Copernican revolution inside your existence. It’s time to stop being the object revolving around some objects with a stronger mass; it’s time to become the object around which everything else revolves.
In other words: don’t compare yourself to other people; compare yourself with, well, yourself from yesterday. If you’re better than that guy – then you are on the right track!
Rule 5: Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything that Makes You Dislike Them
And the most artful part about it is learning – and, then, communicating – the rules of it.
It’s only obvious that not everybody can be a good parent. What separates the good from the bad is their capability to guide their children on the road of improvement.
Because children are born into chaos. They learn the rules of life by constantly hitting walls – both literally and metaphorically.
A parent’s job is to organize the metaphorical part of his/her child’s existence in a way which will give it some meaning.
And that, in Peterson’s dictionary, doesn’t mean “happiness.”
After all, a child will always feel a little happier when given a candy; but that doesn’t mean that you should give your child candies all the time.
Your purpose as a parent is to be the superego to your child’s ego: to be the link between the chaos of the child’s world and the order of society.
If a child receives no feedback, then the chaos into which it is born will permeate well into his or her adulthood; and society will punish it, much less mercifully than you.
However, if it receives too much feedback, then the order will limit too much its potential; society will punish that as well.
The lesson here: set clear rules and proper discipline for your children; because if you don’t – society will.
Rule 6: Put Your House in Order
This one of Jordan Peterson’s rules goes back to Voltaire’s Candide.
If you recall, the book ends with a conviction that the only way to counter the evils of this world is by cultivating your own garden. That way, Voltaire believed, you can free yourself of the “three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty.” And contribute to a better future of everybody.
Jordan Peterson rephrases this thus: put your house in order before you start philosophizing about how we should put the whole world in order.
Don’t blame other people for your own troubles, because, chances are, you haven’t taken advantage of every opportunity coming your way.
“Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies,” Peterson goes on. “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? Let your own soul guide you.”
The actionable lesson: “Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong.”
Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient
Life is suffering.
Many ancient religions and mythologies have tried articulating that in some of the most famous stories we have inherited from our ancestors.
There is basically no way around it: no matter what happens, one day the people you love will inevitably die; and you will as well.
There’s an easy solution to this problem: hedonism. “Pursue pleasure. Follow your impulses. Live for the moment. Do what’s expedient. Lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate—but don’t get caught. In an ultimately meaningless universe, what possible difference could it make?”
However, there’s also a more difficult answer, one which makes much more sense. Namely, if suffering is real – and no one can deny that – and if it is that painful to live with suffering, then certainly the worst thing you can do is cause someone else’s suffering.
And we know this intuitively: even if we don’t know what is good, says Peterson, we certainly know a priori, what is bad.
Well, Meaning – once again, with a capital M – must be doing good; and doing good is the negation of doing bad.
“If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced—then the good is whatever is diametrically opposed to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening.”
(No, that’s not diametrically opposed to tormenting others, Jordan.)
Rule 8: Tell the Truth
This rule is Jordan Peterson’s gospel to the Truth.
Let us quote its most beautiful part:
To tell the truth is to bring the most habitable reality into Being. Truth builds edifices that can stand a thousand years. Truth feeds and clothes the poor, and makes nations wealthy and safe. Truth reduces the terrible complexity of a man to the simplicity of his word, so that he can become a partner, rather than an enemy. Truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best use of the future’s possibilities. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness.
In other words, just like God does at the beginning of John’s Gospel, we too have the power to organize the chaos of the world into something much more tangible.
Lies are only temporary and do service only to those who use them to manipulate. Truths don’t serve anyone per se. They can’t, since they are as they are, regardless of our interests and feelings.
So, they serve the world.
Your duty: “Tell the truth. Or, at least, don’t lie.”
Oh, if only it were as easy?
Rule 9: Assume that the Person You are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t
This one’s pretty much self-explanatory.
If you are merely telling somebody something, then the existence of that person is irrelevant. You might as well be talking to yourself in the mirror.
You’ll never get anywhere with that kind of attitude.
For a simple reason: you are sabotaging your own improvement. There’s no way you know as much as you think you do – no matter who you are.
So, why don’t you start learning something from those around you?
Instead of a talker, become a listener; you’ll do your talking later; in the meantime – you may actually learn something.
And this reminds us of one of our favorite movie scenes.
Watch it straight away.
And don’t be a marketing rep; be a human!
Rule 10: Be Precise with Your Speech
If you talk about something you don’t understand, then you are contributing to the Chaos which engulfs the world.
You must, in fact, confront it!
Precision and specificity – just like truth – turn the Chaos into something treatable.
If you don’t know the specific destination you want to reach, there’s no way you’ll ever reach it. And being ambiguous about something is not much different from providing a wrong map for someone and telling him/her that following it will lead him/her to the right location.
Naturally, that will never happen.
Rule 11: Leave Children Alone when They are Skateboarding
Look aide, lefties: this is the part you are definitely not going to like at all!
It starts quite innocently: modern parenting is overprotective. And it is: called helicopter parenting, it risks raising children who are not prepared for life, but protected from it.
So far, so good.
However, according to Jordan Peterson, there’s a difference in what overparenting means for boys and what it means for girls.
Because boys and girls are different; and because, if not for overparenting, they would develop their sexual differences even more visibly.
So, let them do!
Why should we feminize boys and masculinize girls – when their differences are so natural? After all, “if they’re healthy,” says Peterson, “women don’t want boys. They want men.”
Now, correct us if we’re wrong, but isn’t this somewhat contradictory to Rule 5? We know people who would be ashamed of hearing their sons got expelled from school
How do you know when to put your foot down?
Or is it, unfortunately, not as apparent as Peterson proclaims it to be?
Rule 12: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street
So, all in all, suffering is an inescapable part of life.
There are two paths you go from here: either you are going to blame the universe, or take the sins of the world upon yourself.
If the former, you are never going to be happy; you’ll become resentful and bitter and a pain to be around with.
If the latter, there are, once again, two paths to choose from: either you are going to be smashed by the burden, or you are going to stand up straight and carry it.
And the best way to deal with your burden: to pet a cat when you encounter one. That is – to enjoy the little beautiful and good things happening all the time around you:
If you pay careful attention, even on a bad day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with small opportunities of just that sort. Maybe you will see a little girl dancing on the street because she is all dressed up in a ballet costume. Maybe you will have a particularly good cup of coffee in a café that cares about their customers. Maybe you can steal ten or twenty minutes to do some little ridiculous thing that distracts you or reminds you that you can laugh at the absurdity of existence.
Peterson’s way of dealing with suffering: watching a “Simpsons” episode at 1.5 times regular speed – “all the laughs; two-thirds the time.”
We promise we’ll try that.
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“12 Rules for Life Quotes”It took untold generations to get you where you are. A little gratitude might be in order. If you're going to insist on bending the world to your way, you better have your reasons. Click To Tweet You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself. Click To Tweet ’No tree can grow to Heaven,’ adds the ever-terrifying Carl Gustav Jung, psychoanalyst extraordinaire, ‘unless its roots reach down to Hell.’ Click To Tweet Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence. Click To Tweet 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. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life will, undoubtedly, help some; it will also, undoubtedly, irk others.
In our opinion, there’s plenty in the book to justify the behavior of each of these two parties.
Because, unfortunately, as much as Peterson is trying to convince the world in the opposite, language is not precise.
And he’s not exactly telling the truth when he’s saying that his words have only one interpretation.
They have many.
Fortunately, some are encouraging and uplifting.
So read the book because of them.
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.