“12 Rules For Life” by Jordan B. Peterson – Review & Summary

12 rules for life - Jordan Peterson

’12 Rules For Life – An Antidote to Chaos’ is by far the best “self-help” book I have read. Jordan uses his deep knowledge of psychology, philosophy, history & religion to reach the nether regions of the readers mind, prodding them towards a better existence. I found the perspectives he offers invaluable in the quest for a more satisfying and meaningful life. I have no doubt I will read this book again in the near future. 

Jordan B. Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has garnered a reputation in recent years for his no-nonsense approach to gender identity and other divisive issues. Refusing to pander to more politically correct elements of his opposition he has ruffled many feathers in wide ranging debates. The New York Times recently called him, ‘the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now’.

I have attempted to capture the essence of each of Jordan’s 12 Rules in a brief explanation of each below.

Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

This rule refers to the confidence with which a person displays themself to the world. Jordan explains how the attitude with which you approach life sets in motion a self fulfilling prophecy. He describes how a lobster loosing a fight will actually change its neurochemistry in the aftermath, resulting in a more timid version of itself. This new attitude means his next altercation is more likely to end poorly, resulting in a further reduction in confidence. 

This downward spiral Jordan likens to a person picking up certain negative habits or attitudes, perhaps due to past failures. This makes them predestined towards failure in the future. He highlights the importance, (and mindset needed), of shaking these habits and attitudes, to avoid facing the demise of a lonely defeated lobster. 

Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

This chapter starts by pointing out people’s tendency to care attentively to a child or pet whilst neglecting themselves. He gives the example a patient not taking crucial medicine, but ensuring a pet is taken to a vet and gets all the proper medication when sick. He questions if this means we care more for our pets than we do ourselves.  Jordan is highlighting our inability to recognise destructive behaviour in ourselves, despite recognising it in those in our care.

The chapter then explains how our worlds can go from order to chaos, and the detrimental mindsets that may follow.  Jordan discusses in depth the philosophical reactions to chaos, and how we may combat grief or setbacks in life. The conclusion I gleaned is that considering what would be “truly good for you”, as you would a child in your care, is the best way to move forward out of chaos or strife. 

Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you. 

Here Jordan delves into the effect the crowd you surround yourself with has on the trajectory of your life. He discusses the psychology behind the choices we make when choosing fiends. This includes the reasons some people consistently choose friends who do them more harm than good.

This chapter will help you move away from poisonous people in life, and question your motivations in “helping” people you have decided to help. It caused me to re-examine relationships in my life and my own motivations for keeping them alive.

Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. 

In a world of social media where everyone displays their highlight reels to the world, this rule is extremely relevant. Jordan first argues the futility of comparing yourself to someone else, as everyone is running their own unique race. He points out how blind we are are to much of the world and only see specific goals we are interested in. (Or often, how lacking we are in that department). Subsequently he discusses the mindset needed to properly goal set to really improve your life, instead of comparison to others. Finally he highlights the importance of dealing head on with little things that bother you, and how incremental change can lead to big results.

Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

This chapter discusses the damaging effects of insufficient discipline on children and the people they interact with. Jordan argues that children allowed to run wild are put at a significant developmental disadvantage. Adults and other children alike are put off by their antisocial behaviour so deny them opportunities of interaction and learning. Additionally Jordan opposes the argument of the ‘Nobel savage’ (children are born pure, and any antisocial or violent behaviour is learnt) supporting effective discipline instead. He also encourages parents to recognise their own potential to be resentful and harsh, so that they may avoid taking damaging action.

The take away for this chapter is that parents must recognise the difference between ‘parent’ and ‘friend’. If they do not become an effective version of the former they put their children at a significant disadvantage.  

Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world. 

Jordan begins this chapter describing the mindset of the ultimate critic; those perpetually cynical minds who damn ‘Being’ as a whole to hell. He explains why people react this way to the harshness of life and how this thinking can lead to dire consequences. It is usually derived by incorrectly judging reality and passing the blame onto God, ‘Being’ as a whole, or some other third party. Jordan instead encourages the reader to consider their circumstances carefully and honestly. For example, to appraise honestly; opportunities taken and missed; emotions holding them back; how they treat people in their life. He then tells the reader to “start to stop doing what you know to be wrong”.  This stance recognises that we usually know certain behaviour to be wrong but ignore this truth, or divert the blame onto someone or something else.

The effect of lying to ourselves is a bitterness and inability to deal with crisis’, as well as poor judgement. By being honest with ourselves about our circumstances, motivations, and behaviour, we set upon the path to a stronger character, happier existence, and an improved ability to deal with challenges. 

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).

This chapter starts with a discussion of delayed gratification and how a sacrifice now can improve life in the future. Jordan describes how sacrifices are a key part of human civilisation. For instance the idea that I might sacrifice resources now for promise of future return.  He argues that when life is not going well it’s often due to a person’s reluctance to sacrifice something they hold dear. Therefore reexamining certain attachments may lead to a better life. He offers the analogy of a monkey caught in a trap who won’t release the apple in the jar, so can’t free his hand. 

Jordan next argues that life is suffering, and this suffering causes people to turn towards selfish and immediate gratification. He claims the worst suffering is caused by evil inherent in human nature. Only by recognising the capacity for malevolence in ourselves can we attempt to fix the world.  “Meaning” Jordan characterises as the “mature replacement” of expedience; if expedience is following narrow selfish impulses for short-term gain, meaning can be found by pursuing the opposite. He encourages the reader to ask, “How can I use my time to make things better rather than worse?”

Rule 8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.

This chapter delves further into the negative outcomes caused by lying. Specifically looking at the impact lies have on relationships, as well as on our own lives. Jordan discusses the consequences a lie, even a white lie, can have on the trust in any human interaction. He explains lying to ourselves, a “life lie”, results in misguided goal setting, and whole lifetimes misspent. An example of a life lie Jordan gives is someone refusing to confront the negative aspects of their life, insisting everything is fine. This person says yes when they should say no and does not confront those who do them wrong. Without facing these aspects we cannot change them, and therefore cannot move into new and positive lives.

By living a life lie we never discover what would truly make us happy and never find meaning.  Jordan encourages the reader to be truthful with themselves and others and to face reality head on. A person who does this will be much better equipped to face the hardships of life. They will still have crisis’ to deal with but without added anxiety of a suppressed reality. This is one of the central themes of the book; the importance of cultivating the discipline to be honest with yourself. A difficult task, but potentially life changing if mastered. 

Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

This chapter talks about the important skill of listening to people. This sounds simple, but how often in conversations are you just waiting for your chance to talk? And how often do you recognise other people doing the same? Its annoying, disrespectful, and doesn’t make for constructive conversations.  Jordan takes a deep look into the skill of really listening; not analysing, projecting or trying to fix, just listening. He discusses the value of genuine listening in helping people solve problems. He likens the approach to helping a person lay out a wad of $100 bills to compare differences and identify the counterfeit ones – i.e. talking through their thought process aloud so they may identify the flaws. 

The other benefit of really listening of course is that you may learn something you didn’t know. This important skill is relevant in all aspects of life. Mastering it can improve relationships and increase the value of your conversation immensely. 

Rule 10: Be precise in your speech.

This chapter begins with an in-depth discussion of how humans, the world, and our perceptions are all part of an interconnected matrix. The value of each element depends on many other things. Jordan describes how our past, present and future are interdependent, and the reality of our past can be altered by the present. For example, a woman who discovers her husbands long term infidelity goes from ‘happy housewife’ to ‘naive victim’. 

Jordan explains the world is only simply when it behaves as it should. I.e. Everything we are connected to works properly; the husband remains faithful, the car continues to work. It’s only on discovering a fault in a connection that the world is thrown into chaos and we’re forced to consider the inner workings. Only by specifying the source of the problem precisely can we hope to deal effectively with such chaos.

We need to talk about the elephant in the room, not skirt around it with vague speech. This builds upon the theme of being brutally honest with yourself and others.  Jordan says it best with a few lines at the end of the chapter, “Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean…Confront the chaos of Being. Take aim against a sea of troubles. Specify your destination, and chart your course. Admit to what you want. Tell those around you who your are.”

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding. 

This chapter delves into the motivations a person has for wanting to change another persons behaviour. Jordan argues motivations are often hypocritical and/or with improper intention. He cautions against becoming a self appointed judge, as we are often unaware of the consequences of changing a persons behaviour. He shows with examples how grand ideas imposed on groups of people can have terrible and unforeseen consequences. 

Jordan also discusses in depth gender issues within society, and how certain ways of thinking are imposed on children to detrimental effect. He shows the consequences of an overbearing mother on the life of a child, highlighting why the impulse of a boy to do dangerous things, such as skateboard, should not be suppressed. He argues the necessity of testing oneself against danger and harshness, and basically standing on your own two feet. The consequences of sheltering children from such things results in weak adults, which is good for no-one involved.   

Rule 12: Pet a cat who you see one in the street. 

This chapter comes back to the fact that life is suffering, a theme mentioned regularly throughout the book. Dark as this may sound, Jordan points out it is a fact recognised by many religions. It is the very presence of hardships that make life such a rich experience. Our suffering is caused by coming face-to-face with our limitations, and it is these limitations which make us alive. He is careful to acknowledge that this doesn’t ease the pain of life’s tragedies, but argues existence and limitations are inextricably linked. Jordan illustrates this with a question he once brought up to a client. He tells her to imagine she is a Being who is Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent, and then ask herself what she would lack. The answer is ‘Limitation’ – “If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere to be” Jordan explains. 

Much of the chapter is a story personal to Jordan about dealing with his daughter’s debilitating juvenile rheumatoid arthritis condition. Out of this comes some practical advice for others dealing with ongoing crisis’. For example to put a specific portion of the day aside to discuss and deal with the problem. In this way it doesn’t lurk in the background and encompass life entirely. Jordan then comes round to the advice hinted at in the chapter title, to enjoy the small moments of pleasure when you can; stop to sniff the roses, or pet the cat in the street.


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