Summary of 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson

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  • Post last modified:September 18, 2023
12 rules for life book cover
12 Rules for Life

Short summary: 5 min

Long summary: 53 min

Book reading time: 10h36

Score: 9/10

Book published in: 2017

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  • Life is chaotic. Too much chaos drives us insane because it prevents us from taking action.
  • Hierarchies (preferences) help us prioritize. When we prioritize, we establish order in the chaos.
  • Life is suffering. We should not shield ourselves from it, but become strong enough to handle the pain.
  • A harmless person is weak. A strong person is strong because he knows his potential for evil – and he has it under control.
  • Once strong, you should seek to become stronger. A purpose, a vision, helps you do so.
  • Pay attention to what happens, tell the truth (don’t lie), and be specific in your speech. They help you prevent chaos. They help you confront yourself with the tough reality of life which spurs growth.
  • Do not remove the danger, as it will weaken and bore you.
  • In the midst of tragedy, chaos, and suffering, take the time to enjoy the little moments that make you happy and make you forget your burden. They help you stay sane.

Table of Contents

What 12 Rules for Life Talks About

12 Rules for Life is a book written by Jordan Peterson. It’s a collection of thoughts, principles, and pieces of knowledge that everyone should know if they hope to “be happy” and “do well” in life. The author explains how human beings look at and conceptualize society, how life works, and how we should approach it to make it as successful as possible.

It’s an amazing book. Peterson draws on insights from science, religion, and literature to attempt to carve a path enlightened with values that will help you create order in the chaos of life.

I have rarely read a book that contained as much information I didn’t know as this one.

Yet, it’s not perfect. You can still detect underlying traces of ideologies in Jordan Peterson’s discourse.

His attachment to religion for example, and his certainty that the Bible is a metaphorical book – and not a realistic book – goes against millennia during which religious people did insist on the fact that yes, Jesus walked on water.

Understand: Jordan Peterson under-estimate people’s stupidity to take literally what should be understood metaphorically. However, Peterson’s conception of the Bible as a metaphor is a mistake.

A lot of what’s written has actually happened, as outlined in The Bible as History written by Werner Keller.

He makes other mistakes, for example, when he declares that everyone is religious, if not in their beliefs, at least in their actions.

Or when he writes that “a long period of unfreedom—adherence to a singular interpretive structure—is necessary for the development of a free mind.” He mistakes unfreedom for discipline, which are two different things.

Or when he says that the Bible is the foundational document of Western civilization, which is kinda laughable (Roman Law and Greek philosophy, which preceded the Bible by a few centuries, were much, much more influential than the Bible was. Michel Onfray demonstrated how the end of the Roman Empire, which ensured security and open-mindedness precipitated Europe in a dark, ideological period ruled by religion, also known as the Dark Ages. Christianism was an invention by a Jew named Jesus, born in the Middle East. Its main idea is monotheism, which is a recycled Jewish idea copied from the Persian prophet Zarathustra by Abraham. Jesus innovated with the Church which was the link between the people and God. This created some sort of spiritual hierarchy that obviously degenerated. These ideas aren’t European at all, but Middle Eastern, a culture that has little to do with the European ones. Few know the story of Julian (which is, ironically, the name that Jordan Peterson gave his son), the Roman Emperor that fought to reestablish paganism after Constantine converted the Empire to Christianism in 323. I wish Jordan Peterson had read a bit more ancient history.)

In a weird way, Jordan Peterson believes that it was Christianity that enabled the West to become the success story that it is.

This is ridiculous. It was the rejection of Christian dogmatism during the Enlightenment that enabled the West to develop.

The world can be divided into two camps: those that believe that mankind comes from monkeys, and those that believe it comes from God. Weirdly enough, cultures from the first camp tend to perform much, much better than cultures from the second one.

There are also some tough sentences in this book.

In consequence, the metaphysical conception of the implicit transcendent worth of each and every soul established itself against impossible odds as the fundamental presupposition of Western law and society.

And finally, Peterson repeats himself a bit too often for my taste.

It will therefore get a 9/10.

The main thing Peterson taught me is that Christianity, which I rejected because I could not stand the idea that Someone had power of life and death over me, was never supposed to be interpreted literally, but metaphorically. Doing so, it becomes a philosophy, “wisdom”, that can prepare you for life and help you succeed.

Jesus wasn’t a prophet. He was a self-development guru.

Short Summary of 12 Rules for Life

Life constantly fluctuates between two alternative states: Chaos, associated with the feminine, and Order, associated with the masculine. Both can quickly transform into the other. The key to wisdom and happiness consists of walking on the line that divides them. To do so, you need a value system that helps you go after meaningful goals.

Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

The dominance hierarchy is a categorization principle that puts the strong on top and the weak at the bottom. It’s a natural principle that is older than trees. It works according to Pareto’s law. Those at the top get everything, and those at the bottom get nothing.

Our brain is constantly monitoring our position in the hierarchy. When we’re on top, the brain secretes hormones that make us act, behave, and stand like alphas. When we’re at the bottom, the brain changes and makes us act, behave, and stand like betas.

If you remain at the bottom of the hierarchy, you will have a miserable life. The first thing you can do to rise is to stand up like alphas: straight with your shoulders back.

Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping

Chaos is associated with the feminine because the feminine is Nature. She chooses the male that will help her produce offspring, but she can also reject him (which makes a man feel like he’s encountered chaos). It is Chaos that gives birth to Order, not the other way around.

Order is associated with the masculine because men are the architects of the structure that enables “life” to develop. Leadership and management are strong masculine qualities.

Chaos marries well with Order because too much order is boring, and too much chaos leads to insanity. Chaos needs order the same way women need men when pregnant (they’re much more vulnerable during that time.)

In the Bible, childbearing was God’s punishment for Eve for eating the apple. The apple made Adam and Eve (self)-conscious. Self-consciousness is a primary characteristic of humans. When cats and dogs kill and eat their prey, we don’t hold them accountable. We still love them because we know they don’t do it “on purpose”. Humans are different.

They are the only animals that can inflict pain for the sake of inflicting pain. Humans have an immense potential to do evil. This is why we don’t like ourselves very much and often treat others better than we treat ourselves. This is wrong though, as it does not lead to something better. We should treat ourselves like someone we are responsible to help, not like an enemy.

Rule 3: Make Friends With People Who Want the Best for You

People often choose the easiest path in life. For example, while helping someone may seem honorable, it’s often easier to help than not to. We may get benefits for our ego, or our reputation.

While helping people is not a problem in general, you should be wary that the people you help don’t drag you down. When you put a bad element in a group with good elements, the bad one doesn’t become good; rather, the good ones become bad. It’s easier to go down than to go up.

This is why you should surround yourself with people that pull you up. So hang out with people that want the best for you.

Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else Is Today

The voice in our head that keeps on telling us bad stuff about ourselves is necessary. By preventing us from doing certain stuff, it prevents us from failing. And failing can have some very bad consequences.

However, when the voice tells you you suck at everything, it’s a problem – and it’s wrong. If the message it tells is that you will always lose, it means the game is rigged. And if it’s rigged, you shouldn’t listen to the voice.

Consider the following principles.

  1. Good and bad mean nothing, they’re tools in the hierarchy that help you choose what to do, and everything you do has a purpose. Eg: reading is good, playing video games is bad. It could be the other way around for someone else. Good and bad is often subjective.
  2. No one is a “success” or a “failure” because there are too many things to be judged on. Eg: you can be a success at work and a failure in your marriage.
  3. Winning the game isn’t as important as the game itself. It’s better to be a bad lawyer than a good criminal. Furthermore, if you always win, it likely means you are not growing. Don’t be afraid of losses.
  4. Your life is so unique that the game you play is your game, and cannot be compared to anyone else’s game(s).

We compare ourselves because we need standards, but as we progress in life, our standards of comparison should become more of who we were yesterday and less of who others are.

When you’re unsatisfied with yourself, dare to attempt to achieve what you desire. For that, you should first decide what it is that you desire. Lead your life, not someone else’s. Don’t compare yourself to others, but to whom you were yesterday.

Rule 5: Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them

People aren’t either inherently good, or inherently bad. If they’re not socialized though, they can turn violent because violence is the default. We have many more reasons to be violent than to be peaceful.

Take a look at children. They are constantly exploring and learning about boundaries. If they’re not enforced, the child will not learn what he can and cannot do. He will be miserable because he won’t know how to establish order in chaos.

Disciplining your kid works like with animals. Reward them for good behavior, and punish them for bad behavior. Do everything you can so that they do what they should, and never let them do stuff that makes you dislike them.

Rule 6: Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World

Life is suffering and tragic. Sometimes, the pain is so immense that we’re angry at the whole world. We think it would be better if rid of all humans. We may have those thoughts, but rarely act on them. This isn’t the case for mass shooters.

If your suffering is unbearable, you should do something. First, stop doing the things that cause suffering. Second, take responsibility. Live according to your values. Start small. Clean up your desk. Seize opportunities. Don’t unleash your anger on the world. Do not try to fix the world if your life is a mess.

Start by fixing yourself first.

Rule 7: Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient)

Life is suffering. From there, you can take two paths.

  1. Pursue pleasure, do what feels good now, and suffer later.
  2. Pursue meaning.

The answer to dealing with pain in life is sacrifice. Sacrifice is the idea to make your life worse now in order to make it better later.

The bigger your sacrifice, the better your life will be. Your potential for reaching the heights only depends on how “low” you’re willing to go. Understand: you will be enlightened and happy by exploring how dark and unhappy you have the potential to be; you will be free by working very hard.

Life is suffering because of two reasons: fate, and evil. Evil is when people make you suffer for no reason. People often become evil because they don’t sacrifice, so their lives are painful.

If pain is something bad, then we can deduce that what relieves pain is good. Instant gratification is pain and animalistic. It’s bad. Aiming at a higher purpose is meaningful, and alleviates the pain. It’s good. Pursue what is meaningful.

Rule 8: Tell the Truth—Or, at Least, Don’t Lie

A lie is an attempt at manipulating reality. People that lie think that everything they know is enough, and so they can just play with the world; or they think that life is so unbearably painful that it needs to be manipulated.

A lie is an attempt at disguising who you are. If you don’t reveal yourself to others, you won’t reveal yourself to yourself. This has two implications.

  1. You suppress who you are.
  2. Everything you could be won’t happen because growth demands a truthful experience with the unknown.

The corollaries of a lie are the sin of omission (not stopping something you could and should stop) and the sin of commission (doing something you know you shouldn’t).

When you are in a new situation, genes code new proteins that go to your brain. You unlock your potential.

If you betray your values, or if you say and do nothing when you should say and do something, you weaken your character. Actually, Freud believed self-repression led to mental sickness.

But if you confront who you are with reality, you become more of that person.

You grow by replacing (sacrificing) your current knowledge with updated knowledge. Your values guide you in what you should know and learn. You improve and evolve.

Truth stimulates growth. Lie hinders it. Tell the truth.

Rule 9: Assume That the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t

Thinking helps you order your life. True thinking is arguing and talking to yourself. If you’re talking to yourself, it means that someone speaks and someone listens and answers back. This is how progress is made. False assumptions and information are discarded during the process and new ideas can come out.

When people cannot think, they talk. The process is similar to thinking except that the person isn’t arguing with himself – but with someone else. Yet most talking goes to waste because people don’t listen. They don’t listen because they just want to talk, so they think about what to say next when the other person is still talking.

By assuming that the person you’re talking to knows something you don’t, you will be able to listen well. The conversation will be much more productive for you and the other person.

Rule 10: Be Precise in Your Speech

We only name the things that are valuable. Naming them helps to understand them. The more specific their name is, the more accurate our representation of reality is. When we know what we deal with, we have a minimum of control and can prevent chaos from entering our lives.

Being specific forces us to pay attention, which is good. Indeed, things seldom suddenly collapse. There are first a myriad of small signs that announce that if nothing gets done, things will break. These signs are often ignored due to vagueness.

Vagueness leaves many questions unanswered, so it helps hide the signs of the upcoming doom. Vagueness helps you hide things you should pay attention to. It also leads to complexity due to questions it doesn’t answer. It leads to avoidance.

Precision, on the other hand, helps you spot the tiny details of things broken that you should fix. So fix them. Being precise in your speech enables you to do so.

Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding

People rarely stand for something but rather stand against something – the way the Marxists disguised their hatred for the rich by pretending to care about the poor.

As a result, when measures are taken to restrict the freedom of a group “for their own safety”, it rarely is just “for their own safety”.

The pursuit of safety is endless and fruitless because people always find a way to make things dangerous again when they get too safe. A certain amount of danger enables failures and mistakes, making people stronger and competent.

So when you see children skateboarding, do not bother them.

Rule 12: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One On The Street

Life is difficult. Set a time apart to speak about the tragedies and difficulties of it and do not feel guilty for enjoying it the rest of the time. Take every chance you have to instill a bit of joy and happiness.

This is why when you encounter a cat in the street, you should pet it. It’s nice.

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