Summary of 12 Rules for Life Written by Jordan Peterson
Maps of Meaning‘s thesis was that religious stories and myths are not “real”. They are not accounts of historical events. They exist to help people understand how they should behave in life.
Life is chaos, and we need to bring some order to be able to face it.
“Order” is traditionally portrayed by a man. Order is what happens when things are planned and expected.
The opposite is chaos. It’s represented by a woman.
Order and chaos are the yin and the yang.
The black dot in the white and the white dot in the black indicates the potential for transformation.
Understand: order can quickly transform into chaos, and chaos, into order.
Why are beliefs important? Shared beliefs enable people to work and live together, to understand each other. When this system is threatened, the entire society is at stake.
It isn’t precisely that people will fight for what they believe. They will fight, instead, to maintain the match between what they believe, what they expect, and what they desire.
-> People don’t fight for their beliefs, but for the world that their beliefs make possible.
This system is also a system of value – a hierarchy – that helps people prioritize. Prioritizing helps set goals, which makes people happy because it gives them the feeling of progress. Without prioritizing, you cannot act.
Finally, a purpose gives life meaning because life is suffering (and the purpose is a worthwhile reason for the pain).
As a result, no value = no meaning.
When two different value systems encounter each other, they sometimes clash. As a result, the West has been slowly withdrawing from these value systems (religion, nation-centered cultures) to decrease the risks of conflicts. The consequence is a loss of meaning.
While conflicts have been too costly to wage, does this mean that we should abandon our values and lead a meaningless life at the expense of peace? Are conflicts and meaninglessness the only two roads we can take?
There is a third path.
The individual can realize himself without being part of a group.
When individuals embark on their mission, they can realize themselves and draw meaning out of their lives instead of doing so out of the group (and its ideology).
Establishing order from chaos is the first step.
The following rules will help you do so.
Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back
Humans, like wrens, lobsters, or other animals, are obsessed with status.
They organize themselves in a social hierarchy. The biggest and healthiest ones are at the top and enjoy more territory and resources. The smallest and weakest ones are at the bottom.
When two fight and one loses, that loses submits himself to the winner. Wolves, for example, roll over on their back to show their submission.
When a dominant lobster loses a battle, its brain dissolves and a new brain tailored to its new, lower status, appears.
A lobster will have a different brain whether he is at the top of the hierarchy, or at the bottom. That brain influences his behavior: more alpha, or more beta.
A similar pattern can be seen in the brain of children or soldiers with PTSD. They’re much less likely to fight after the trauma, than before. Likewise, if a defeated lobster goes to battle again, it has much more chances to lose than to win.
The human world is a winner-take-all, much like the lobster world.
- The top 1% own as much as the bottom 50%.
- A few authors sell all of the books.
- A few scientists write the papers that are the most quoted.
- A few musicians make the songs that everyone listens to.
This is the Pareto principle.
In lobster world, female lobsters naturally fall in love with the alpha. She then goes around his territory and spreads hormones and chemicals to attract his attention. Once the male has decreased his violent behavior and been tamed, the female makes herself vulnerable and ready to mate.
We find the same principle in Fifty Shades of Grey (young girl seduces and tames the dominant male) or in Beauty and the Beast (young girl seduces the dominant male and tames him to mate with him).
An aggressive lobster can’t dominate long if it remains aggressive. The lower-status lobsters will quickly have enough of it and can always take it down together. In the long-term, the dominant lobster must instead build alliances and protect the group.
As we can see, the alpha lobster gets it all – and the rest gets nothing.
Lobsters have been around for 350 million years, which means that the idea of a dominant hierarchy has been existing in nature forever. In general, we tend to look at nature wrongly.
1. Nature is constantly changing and evolving.
It’s not always in chaos, and it’s not always in order. In the same way the weather is sometimes quiet, and sometimes turbulent, nature itself alternates between chaos and order – this is the yin and the yang.
2. Nature is not romantic.
Rich, modern city-dwellers, surrounded by hot, baking concrete, imagine the environment as something pristine and paradisal, like a French impressionist landscape. Eco-activists, even more idealistic in their viewpoint, envision nature as harmoniously balanced and perfect, absent the disruptions and depredations of mankind. Unfortunately, “the environment” is also elephantiasis and guinea worms (don’t ask), anopheles mosquitoes and malaria, starvation-level droughts, AIDS, and the Black Plague.
3. Human culture is not shielded from nature.
The dominance hierarchy and the alternation of chaos and order are an inherent part of our culture because we are an inherent part of nature.
That has little to do with politics.
As we can see, the part of our brain that deals with our status in the dominance hierarchy is old – older than trees.
This is why when we are defeated, our shoulders and head fall forward.
Like for lobsters, defeat changes the chemistry of the brain which changes our behavior.
Consider serotonin. Losers have low serotonin. Low serotonin:
- Decreases confidence.
- Increases stress and cost of physical preparedness for emergencies.
- Decreases happiness and lifespan.
- Increases pain, anxiety, and illnesses.
Your brain is constantly analyzing your position in the dominance hierarchy by watching how other people treat you.
If they treat you badly, your brain does not produce much serotonin. That makes you constantly reactive, which burns energy and is exhausting, which increases the chances you do drugs.
The lack of “dominance hormones” may even lead your body to suppress your immune system for a while to direct the energy towards emergency survival.
People that were bullied as kids, for example, continue to behave as low in the hierarchy decades after the bullying stopped.
If you have a high status however, your brain knows you are protected. You are confident and calm.
[Winners] can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. [They] can afford to be reliable and thoughtful citizens.
Sometimes, your brain can also go wrong.
This is why you need a routine that ensures some stability in your life.
There are two types of victims of bullies. Those that are bullied because they can’t fight back, and those that are because they won’t fight back.
Often, these are people whose fathers were excessively angry and controlling. They don’t let the negative emotions that would make them fight back rise in themselves as with their fathers. That would have been dangerous.
Your potential for aggressivity decreases the chances that someone will be aggressive to you. That is, when you defend yourself the first time you are bullied, you prevent subsequent bullying.
People who don’t defend themselves or can’t, are eventually abused.
They usually think that:
- People are basically good
- No one really wants to hurt anyone else
- The threat (and, certainly, the use) of force, physical or otherwise, is wrong
These don’t hold in presence of aggression.
There are in society people whose sole purpose is to get power over others. They like it. When you stand up to these people, you protect society from them.
“Nice” people are often surprised when they find out their potential for cruelty. At the same time, their fear decreases too.
They start to self-respect, and maybe even, resist oppression. They must do so, as the resentment from the bullying may eventually transform them into the monster they have the capacity to be.
There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.
Maybe you are a loser. But it doesn’t have to continue this way.
If you walk around like losers, people will believe that you are. While your psyche influences your body, the opposite is true too: your body influences your psyche.
When you stand up straight with your shoulders back, your nervous system responds in a different manner. You respond to a challenge instead of bracing for a catastrophe.
To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open.
Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping
People are more likely to give their pets medicine when they’re sick than they are to take them themselves. What it means is that people like their pets more than they like themselves.
Today, we have a very scientific view of seeing the world. In the past, reality depended on what was felt – on the experience. Today, we look at the world for what we think it is.
The world of matter can be reduced to its fundamental constituents: atoms, molecules, and quarks. The world of experience can be too.
These are chaos, order, and the process that mediates the two which we can call consciousness.
Chaos is ignorance. It is everything beyond what we don’t know or understand. Chaos was also the state of things when God commanded the creation of the Universe through language. Finally, chaos is freedom. Extreme freedom.
Order is the opposite: it is explored territory.
It’s the dominance hierarchy, the structure of society such as tribe, religion, hearth, home, and country. It’s the schedule, the ID card, school, your watch, etc.
Order is the place where we can think about the long-term.
There, things work, and we’re stable, calm, and competent.
Like the yin and the yang, order and chaos can shift quickly.
Friendly old dogs can still bite. Old and trusted friends can still deceive. New ideas can destroy old and comfortable certainties. Such things matter. They’re real.
Chaos and Order: Personality, Female, and Male
Order and chaos are perceived like personalities.
In general, we tend to perceive everything with personalities due to “the hyperactive agency detector”, a reflex that makes us look at things – even objects – through a personality lens.
Personalities have evolved and rank on the dominance hierarchy.
Personalities are male or female, a division that happened a billion years ago – before the evolution of multi-cellular animals.
The category of “parents” and “children” has been existing for 200 million years.
Males, females, parents, and children are natural categories deeply embedded in our psyche.
As we evolved, we began to be interested in what was outside of our personalities – understand, what was outside our comprehension.
Since our brain had been focused on personalities, we used this personality lens to understand the external world.
This explains why order has been associated with the masculine (in societies, both human and animal, the masculine is the primary hierarchical structure).
Chaos is associated with the feminine. This is because all the things we have were born out of chaos – they were born out of mothers.
Chaos – the feminine – is also the sexual selector. Most men do not suit women’s standards.
Women are Nature in the sense that they select who will be the father of their children.
Men, not knowing whether the girl will accept the date, encounter the definition of Chaos when being turned down.
This duality of male/female order/chaos is also reflected in the brain, where the structure of the hemispheres reflects the division between chaos and order.
The purpose of life is to have one foot in each. Order for security, and chaos for growth and adventure. You know you’re doing it right when fully absorbed by the task at hand, you don’t see the time passing by.
Order isn’t enough – it gets boring. Chaos can be too much – it gets scary.
Consider Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were placed in Eden – order. In this order stands the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which they aren’t allowed to eat. The snake – the black dot from the Yin and Yang – comes and tempts them.
It seems that even a safe place built by God itself cannot be completely shielded from chaos.
The snake is a part that we have inside of us, our potential for evil.
The snake convinces Eve to eat the fruit by telling her it will make her conscious (at least self-conscious) like God. She does, awakes, and since she won’t tolerate an unconscious man, directly tells Adam to eat it too.
Little has changed. Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time. They do this primarily by rejecting them—but they also do it by shaming them, if men do not take responsibility.
When they ate, they suddenly realized they were naked – and ashamed.
What does that mean to be naked?
It means being vulnerable, easily damaged, subject to judgment for beauty and health, being unprotected, and unarmed.
So they made clothes to protect themselves, then hid, having realized they were unworthy of God.
Beauty shames the ugly. Strength shames the weak. Death shames the living—and the Ideal shames us all. Thus we fear it, resent it—even hate it.
Next, God calls Adam, which is hiding. Adam tells God he ate the fruit, blames Eve, then blames God.
But Adam had no excuse. While Eve was seduced by the snake which was the Devil himself (and we can therefore empathize with her), Adam was just stupid.
So God curses the snake which loses its legs. Then Eve is punished by the task of child-bearing and the desire for an unworthy, sometimes resentful man, who will in consequence lord her biological fate over her, permanently.
Then God punishes Adam and tells him he will have to treat the boundless joys of the present for the worries of the future. He will have to work.
Then God banishes them from Eden.
What does that mean? Women’s bodies evolved to be able to give birth, with larger hips that prevent them from running as fast as men.
Since they become vulnerable when they become pregnant and give birth, they have to rely on men to help them survive.
So…why do people buy medicine for dogs and not for themselves?
Because who wants to take care of someone weak, ashamed, resentful, accusatory, and ugly as we are?
Only you know the full range of your secret transgressions, insufficiencies and inadequacies.
A cute dog clearly, is more deserving than a human.
Good and Evil
While cats and dogs kill and eat their prey, we don’t hold them accountable for it because we know they are not self-conscious enough to know what they’re doing.
But we are. We know our soft spots and what can hurt us. And so we know the same for other people. We can hurt them. We can inflict pain.
Self-consciousness enables the distinction between good VS evil.
Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering.
This is the definition of evil, and it explains the Original Sin.
The guilt we all experience, as a result, is there to prevent us from voluntarily inflicting pain on other people.
This is why we have a hard time taking care of ourselves. Our capacity for destruction makes us not like ourselves too much.
As a result, perhaps the world would be better if rid of humans, of consciousness, altogether?
A Spark of the Divine
But maybe this is wrong. Maybe we’re not ashamed of ourselves for being evil, but for refusing to walk with God despite our potential for evil.
In the Bible, a huge part is dedicated to making things right after the Fall from Eden.
Practically, this means we be like God: voluntarily speak out of chaos the good part in us.
To take care of ourselves, we need to respect ourselves, which we don’t because we know our true nature. If we lived the Truth though, we could walk with God and take care of ourselves, making the world a better place.
There is the idea in society that people are selfish and only care about themselves.
But this isn’t correct.
Most people hate themselves.
Thus, instead of narcissistically inflating their own importance, they don’t value themselves at all, and they don’t take care of themselves with attention and skill. (…) They are excruciatingly aware of their own faults and inadequacies, real and exaggerated, and ashamed and doubtful of their own value.
They believe nobody should suffer – except for them.
It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully, even if that bully is oneself.
This is the meaning of Jung’s “loving your neighbour as yourself.” It has nothing to do with being nice.
It’s about symmetry. It means you should treat yourself how you treat others. It means that if you’re nice to others, you should be equally nice to yourself – and defend yourself on your behalf.
You should stand up for yourself, and you should equally stand up for others.
You should treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping – that is, giving yourself the best.
Rule 3: Make Friends With People Who Want the Best for You
Peterson tells the story of three friends that had great potential but ended up thugs. One of them committed suicide.
Why do smart people end up losers?
It may be due to low self-worth. When people believe they don’t deserve better, they don’t go look for it. Rather, they look for trouble and hang out with people they shouldn’t be hanging out with.
Sometimes, this is because they want to rescue that person, which is foolish.
Not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise.
How do you know when your attempt to help someone won’t bring you down? When you put a delinquent with well-educated people, the well-educated ones become delinquent – not the other way around.
It’s much easier to get down than up.
Some genuinely want to help others. Most don’t.
Reasons for helping can be:
- Draw attention to your compassion and goodwill.
- Convincing yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side effect of your luck and birthplace.
- It’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible.
Assume first that you are doing the easiest thing, and not the most difficult.
Maybe you get close to bad people because it’s just easier.
Before you help someone, make sure you know why that person needs help. People seldom need help because of only fate. In most cases, they did something wrong because it’s easier.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to find out if people really want to be helped, and if they’re really doing what they need to to be better.
Most of the time, they don’t even know themselves.
The psychologist Carl Rogers believed it was impossible to help someone that didn’t want to improve.
Once again, unless the person you’re trying to help states it clearly, this isn’t easy to find out.
Think about your friendships. Would you recommend them all to the members of your family? If not, why are you friend with them then?
Loyalty? This is stupid.
You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. 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.
Surround yourself with people that pull you upward. This won’t be easy, but it is necessary.
Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else Is Today
Back when people lived in small towns, everyone could be “the best at something”. When you live in a 5 million people town, it’s much harder.
And when you connect yourself to billions online, it’s even harder.
However good you are at anything, someone is better than you.
That little voice in our head keeps on reminding us of that.
And this voice is necessary because most people are bad at most things.
Failure is the price we pay for standards and, because mediocrity has consequences both real and harsh, standards are necessary.
We are not equal in ability or outcome, and never will be. A very small number of people produce very much of everything. The winners don’t take all, but they take most, and the bottom is not a good place to be.
The voice in our head is telling us some horrible things, which is why social scientists came up with ideas like “positive thinking”. These, however, are lies.
So here’s another solution. If you’re doomed to lose every time you play, maybe the game is rigged.
Understand: if the voice is saying bad things all the time about everyone, you shouldn’t listen to it at all.
Many Good Games
“Better” or “worse” are illusions. They’re tools. If you hadn’t decided that reading this summary, for example, was better than everything else you could do, you wouldn’t be reading it.
Value judgments help you take action by looking at what’s good, and what’s bad.
And every time you do something, you can do it in a good way, and in a bad way.
-> whatever you do has a defined and valued end, a purpose.
This explains what the voice does: it assigns values to things. So, how can you silence it?
First, understand that there is no such thing as a “success” or a “failure” because there isn’t only one game to play. You can be a success in your career and a failure in your relationship.
Furthermore, the issue of the game may not be as important as the game itself. The game “job” is much better than the game “jobless”.
Consider as well that winning isn’t always good. If you constantly win, it means you’re not growing, which is more important.
Finally, the games you play may be as well too individualistic, inherently attached to who you are, which means you shouldn’t compare yourself to others.
Here’s how the voice in your head operates.
- It selects only one domain of comparison. That can be: net worth, number of friends, height, dating, fame, etc.
- It acts as if that one domain is the only relevant one.
- It compares you to the higher-ranked person in this domain in the world.
- It uses the gap to outline how unfair life is and that you cannot do anything about it.
- You lose all motivation.
Why do we compare ourselves? Because when we’re young, we have no life experience, no standards, so, we find them in others.
As we age though, we become more and more unique, as we take a combination of paths that complexify with time.
This means that we need to become who we are and face the chaos ourselves, drawing meaning out of it, without the help of our parents.
So, who are you? What are your values? Do you do most things because you want to, or because you should?
A tip: try to dare instead.
Dare to be dangerous, to be truthful, to express yourself. We often don’t because we’re afraid we’re not moral, or to be rejected.
Take a look at your resentment. It’s part of an evil triad of emotions, namely: arrogance, deceit, and resentment.
Resentment happens in two cases.
- You’re immature and should shut up and get to work.
- You’re speaking up. In situations of abuse, silence is more deadly than the truth.
When you have something to say, silence is a lie—and tyranny feeds on lies.
When should you speak up? When your rage becomes so big that all you want is to destroy.
The Point of Our Eyes
We’re always looking at things we are interested in. To see them, we need to aim. When we aim, we can navigate the world.
In a weird, twisted way, we’ve never “arrived”. We’re always at point A, the situation we want to change, looking to get to point B, the situation we want to have.
Even when we have all we need, we find ways to make the situation even better.
We are constantly dissatisfied. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t do anything though, so it’s not necessarily bad.
Ideally, we would be happy now while looking for making things better in the future.
First, take stock. Who are you? What do you like, what don’t you like, what do you want to change?
You may have to negotiate with yourself, insist a bit, but it’s for the better.
Aim small. Don’t be a tyrant with yourself. Set the goal to make your life a tiny bit better at the end of the day than it was in the morning.
What You Want – and What You See
Our brain focuses our attention on what we want – and forgets about the rest.
People are blinded by their desires. This is true both in the physical and psychological sense of the term, as shown by the psychologist Daniel Simons. We see what we want and ignore the rest.
This is fine if we’re getting what we want, but when we don’t, we only see what we don’t have and desire, and that’s a problem. Maybe what you want is directly in front of your eyes.
Let’s say you want your boss’ job, but that will never happen. It’s making you unhappy. What do you do then? You likely cannot change the desire. But you can take another path, another job that would fulfill you just as much, or maybe even better.
This allows for a whole new world of possibilities and who knows, even maybe something better than your boss’ job.
This is why it’s nice sometimes to take your eyes off what you want and look for something better. To do that, you need to know that it exists. That means you need to learn and acquire knowledge about the world.
You have several desires, and these desires need to be ranked in a hierarchy as they’re not all as important, they can be conflicting, and you can’t focus on all of them at once anyway.
When we prioritize our desires, we elevate them. They become values, morals. The study of morality is ethics. If we want to go deeper, we arrive at religion.
Religion is the study of good and evil. Religion is about behaving well.
A religious person isn’t trying to interpret the world, but to behave well. Often, “well” means obedient. The Enlightenment in Europe said that “obedient” is not enough – but it’s a start.
You cannot aim yourself at anything if you are completely undisciplined and untutored.
This explains why religions have a dogmatic element. It helps you rest on a structure.
A person with obedience is a well-forged tool. Now, you need to add vision.
A tool still needs a purpose.
What you see in the world depends on your religious beliefs, which everyone has. Even atheists are religious, if not in their thoughts, at least in their actions.
If you want to know what you believe, watch yourself act.
Some of our beliefs have been documented. In the West, they were documented in the Bible, the foundational document of Western civilization.
The Bible is divided into two parts: the Old Testament, with a mean God; and the New one, with a nice, all-loving God.
The Old Testament is more realistic because life is indeed, mean. Let’s go back to you wanting a job you can’t get.
The frustration makes you bitter. Now, imagine you actually see that. So you think that maybe, you can do something to make it better? Instead of getting a better job, you decide to get a better life. But you can’t do so at the expanse of someone else. Furthermore, you also want your family and friends to enjoy the benefits you want to have.
Suddenly, your life changes – not your life, but the perception you had of it. Before, you didn’t see. Now, you see all of the possibilities that there are.
Eventually, you settle for making the life of you and everyone, better, forever.
That means not merely improving what you do, but improving who you are.
In other words, you decide to act as if existence might be justified by its goodness—if only you behaved properly. And it is that decision, that declaration of existential faith, that allows you to overcome nihilism, and resentment, and arrogance.
You decide to have faith. Faith isn’t about believing in things that don’t exist.
It is instead the realization that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being.
It is the desire to achieve the impossible at the cost of your life.
You do so by paying attention.
Pay attention to your environment and find stuff that bothers you that you could fix.
- What is it that is bothering me?
- Is that something I could fix?
- Would I actually be willing to fix it?
If the answer is no, find something else. Maybe it’s in cleaning up your desk, or going through a pile of paper you’re afraid to look at.
If you make it a habit, you will repeatedly make your life better. That makes you hopeful.