12 Rules For Life

I just finished reading 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Wikipedia) by Jordan Peterson. I found it to be a very inspiring read.

Indeed the book is more about inspiring than delivering insights. But that's fine, often motivation is 90% of a problem.

Peterson does more than deliver advice though, he outlines a veritable life philosophy, revolving around the idea of developing character in the face of suffering.

The meaning of life has more to do with developing character in the face of suffering thant with happiness.

He preaches a philosophy of gradual self-improvement, not to reach some kind of awesome success, but to make life more palatable for you and others, and he suggests that if everyone where to do this, we really could have heaven on earth.

I like his grandiose style, although it sometimes rambles. But somehow the rambling works and the side alleys Peterson wanders into never fail to be interesting. There are some take-aways in the book that have only little to do with the main message.

Because of all of this, the book is relatively hard to summarize, and if it seems interesting to you, I'd highly suggest you to read it for yourself.

I wasn't sure how to best summarize the lessons of the book in a way that would be useful to me or others. In the end, I chose to simply include my favorite quotes from each chapter/rule — usually a motivational tidbit.

1. Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society. If you're low, you'll be stressed and in constant alert. If you're high you'll stand confident and calm (serotonin will flow), and see chance as opportunity rather than risk.

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).

2. Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping

To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure. When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice — it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos. You are there when — and where — it matters.

Perhaps Heaven is something you must build, and immortality something you must earn.

You must determine where you are going, so that you can bargain for yourself, so that you don’t end up resentful, vengeful and cruel. You have to articulate your own principles, so that you can defend yourself against others’ taking inappropriate advantage of you, and so that you are secure and safe while you work and play. You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.

3. Make Friends With People Who Want The Best For You

When well-meaning counsellors place a delinquent teen among comparatively civilized peers, the delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up.

Is it possible that your contempt would be more salutary than your pity?

Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn’t merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation. It’s the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable.

Besides, if you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power.

Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable. To fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time.

Here’s something to consider: If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself? You might say: out of loyalty. Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. 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.

4. Compare Yourself To Who You Were Yesterday, Not To Who Someone Else Is Today

And the direction of your sight changes. You see past the limitations that hemmed you in, unknowingly. New possibilities for your life emerge, and you work toward their realization. Your life indeed improves. And then you start to think, further: “Better? Perhaps that means better for me, and my family, and my friends — even for my enemies. But that’s not all it means. It means better today, in a manner that makes everything better tomorrow, and next week, and next year, and a decade from now, and a hundred years from now. And a thousand years from now. And forever.”

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. It is that declaration of faith that keeps hatred of Being, with all its attendant evils, at bay.

Faith is the realization that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being.

The Sermon on the Mount outlines the true nature of man, and the proper aim of mankind: concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is right in front of you — but do that only after you have decided to let what is within shine forth, so that it can justify Being and illuminate the world. Do that only after you have determined to sacrifice whatever it is that must be sacrificed so that you can pursue the highest good.

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

Norswap: I found this chapter fascinating, because it discusses a matter (disciplining children) to which I had never given, and gives compelling answers that are somewhat against the current doxa.

Children cannot be left to their device. They need to be protected, and they need to be socialized. Failure to properly discipline your child will make him unable to socialize and hurt him a lot in the long run. Such children are unfocused, craving for attention and affection, and that turns people off a lot, despite what they pretend. A kid that did not learn to share, she will be rejected by children and adults alike.

Parents must be a proxy for society, teaching their children what is expected of them, what is allowable and what is not. Their proper socialization and future success depends on it. Parents are responsible for disciplining their children. If you don't do it, the world will do it, in a more harsher and uncaring way.

Tentative rules on how to discipline children:

  1. Limit the rules. Bad laws drive out respect for the good laws.

    Suggestions: Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture and bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around.

  2. Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.

  3. Do parenting in pairs. So that the other parent can step in when the first one slips, and that discussion can be had.

  4. Understand your own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful.

  5. Act as a (caring) proxy for the real world. This will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard and security.

6. Set Your House In Perfect Order Before You Criticize The World

If natural disasters are acts of god, then failure to prepare is sin. Hebrews blamed themselves when they fell, for not heeding god.

Clean up your own life. Relentlessly seek out opportunities for improvement, and take them.

Stop doing the things you know to be wrong. Trust your soul's judgement, don't question needlessly. Questions can confuse without enlightening. You don't need an external code, although there might be reach teachings there too. Stop blaming others.

7. Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient)

The meaning of sacrifice: the proposition that something of greater value might be achieved by giving something up in the present.

If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.

Carl Jung: No tree can grow to Heaven, unless its roots reach down to Hell. There is no movement upward without corresponding movement down. You have to go to the very bottom to meet the devil, the source of your most wicked thoughts. Only then is enlightenment possible.

Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.

Expedience — that’s hiding all the skeletons in the closet. That’s covering the blood you just spilled with a carpet. That’s avoiding responsibility. It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong. It’s wrong because expedience merely transfers the curse on your head to someone else, or to your future self, in a manner that will make your future, and the future generally, worse instead of better.

8. Tell The Truth - Or, At Least, Don't Lie

If you say no to your boss, or your spouse, or your mother, when it needs to be said, then you transform yourself into someone who can say no when it needs to be said.

If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it will, inevitably.

“Did what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my methods were wrong. I still have something to learn.” That is the voice of authenticity.

“Did what I want happen? No. Then the world is unfair. People are jealous, and too stupid to understand. It is the fault of something or someone else.” That is the voice of inauthenticity. It is not too far from there to “they should be stopped” or “they must be hurt” or “they must be destroyed.”

Set your ambitions, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity. Knowing this, tie a rope to a boulder. Pick up the great stone, heave it in front of you, and pull yourself towards it. Watch and observe while you move forward. Articulate your experience as clearly and carefully to yourself and others as you possibly can. In this manner, you will learn to proceed more effectively and efficiently towards your goal. And, while you are doing this, do not lie. Especially to yourself.

Apprehend your personal truth. Communicate it carefully, in an articulate manner, to yourself and others. This will ensure your security and your life more abundantly now, while you inhabit the structure of your current beliefs.

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.

9. Assume That The Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don't

The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it. (Carl Rogers)

Summarize the other person's point (to his satisfaction) in order to understand him better and to not make an argument against a strawman. It also consolidates memory, articulation of the argument.

Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out what someone genuinely means when they are talking. This is because often they are articulating their ideas for the first time. They can’t do it without wandering down blind alleys or making contradictory or even nonsensical claims. This is partly because talking (and thinking) is often more about forgetting than about remembering. To discuss an event, particularly something emotional, like a death or serious illness, is to slowly choose what to leave behind. To begin, however, much that is not necessary must be put into words. The emotion-laden speaker must recount the whole experience, in detail. Only then can the central narrative, cause and consequence, come into focus or consolidate itself. Only then can the moral of the story be derived.

If you listen, instead, without premature judgment, people will generally tell you everything they are thinking — and with very little deceit. People will tell you the most amazing, absurd, interesting things. Very few of your conversations will be boring. (You can in fact tell whether or not you are actually listening in this manner. If the conversation is boring, you probably aren’t.)

10. Be Precise In Your Speech

Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission.

Do you truly think it is a good idea to retreat, to abandon the possibility of arming yourself against the rising sea of troubles, and to thereby diminish yourself in your own eyes? Do you truly think it wise to let the catastrophe grow in the shadows, while you shrink and decrease and become ever more afraid? Isn’t it better to prepare, to sharpen your sword, to peer into the darkness, and then to beard the lion in its den? Maybe you’ll get hurt. Probably you’ll get hurt. Life, after all, is suffering. But maybe the wound won’t be fatal.

Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists. Because to specify the problem is to allow yourself to know what you want, say, from friend or lover — and then you will know, precisely and cleanly, when you don’t get it, and that will hurt, sharply and specifically. But you will learn something from that, and use what you learn in the future—and the alternative to that single sharp pain is the dull ache of continued hopelessness and vague failure and the sense that time, precious time, is slipping by.

Why refuse to specify? Because while you are failing to define success (and thereby rendering it impossible) you are also refusing to define failure, to > yourself, so that if and when you fail you won’t notice, and it won’t hurt. > But that won’t work! You cannot be fooled so easily. You will instead carry > with you a continual sense of disappointment in your own Being and the > self-contempt that comes along with that and the increasing hatred for the > world.

Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. That will protect you from the tragedy of your life. How could it be otherwise?

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 you are. Narrow, and gaze attentively, and move forward, forthrightly. Be precise in your speech.

11. Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding

This one is tense, it's essentially Peterson's charge against the SJW ideology. Very interesting, but you should just read it. I'll just try to extract the insights that are useful in general.

Jung: If you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequences — and infer the motivation.

Not always the appropriate tool, but it can prove useful.

When someone claims to be acting from the highest principles, for the good of others, there is no reason to assume that the person’s motives are genuine. People motivated to make things better usually aren’t concerned with changing other people — or, if they are, they take responsibility for making the same changes to themselves (and first).

Lest we forget: ideas have consequences.

You can be resentful because you're being taken advantage of (or allow yourself to) or because of whiny refusal to grow up. If it's not the latter, you have an obligation to speak up for yourself.

Men enforce a code of behaviour on each other, when working together. Do your work. Pull your weight. Stay awake and pay attention. Don’t whine or be touchy. Stand up for your friends. Don’t suck up and don’t snitch. Don’t be a slave to stupid rules. Don’t, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, be a girlie man. Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period. The harassment that is part of acceptance on a working crew is a test: are you tough, entertaining, competent and reliable? If not, go away. Simple as that. We don’t need to feel sorry for you. We don’t want to put up with your narcissism, and we don’t want to do your work.

When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues, then hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination.

12. Pet A Cat When You Encounter One On The Street

Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations — in the depths — it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations. Of course, it’s complicated. You don’t have to be in love with every shortcoming, and merely accept. You shouldn’t stop trying to make life better, or let suffering just be. But there appear to be limits on the path to improvement beyond which we might not want to go, lest we sacrifice our humanity itself.

That's a conscious act of courage. Aim up, wish upon a star, then act in accordance with that aim. Once you are aligned with the heavens, you can concentrate on the day. Be careful. Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better. It is possible that you can manage, if you are careful. People are very 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.

Sometimes when you call her — sometimes of her own accord — Ginger will trot across the street, tail held high, with a little kink at the end. Then she will roll on her back in front of Sikko, who wags his tail happily as a consequence. Afterward, if she feels like it, she might come visit you, for a half a minute. It’s a nice break. It’s a little extra light, on a good day, and a tiny respite, on a bad day.

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.

Life is good sometimes.


What shall I do with my life? Aim for Paradise, and concentrate on today.

What shall I do with the world? Conduct myself as if Being is more valuable than Non-Being. Act so that you are not made bitter and corrupt by the tragedy of existence. confront the uncertainty of the world voluntarily, and with faith and courage.

What shall I do when I despise what I have? Remember those who have nothing and strive to be grateful.

What shall I do when my enemy succeeds? Aim a little higher and be grateful for the lesson.

What shall I do in the next dire moment? Focus my attention on the next right move. When everything has become chaotic and uncertain, all that remains to guide you might be the character you constructed, previously, by aiming up and concentrating on the moment at hand. If you have failed in that, you will fail in the moment of crisis, and then God help you.

Failure to make the proper sacrifices, failure to reveal yourself, failure to live and tell the truth — all that weakens you. In that weakened state, you will be unable to thrive in the world, and you will be of no benefit to yourself or to others. You will fail and suffer, stupidly. That will corrupt your soul. How could it be otherwise? Life is hard enough when it is going well. But when it’s going badly? And I have learned through painful experience that nothing is going so badly that it can’t be made worse. This is why Hell is a bottomless pit. To suffer terribly and to know yourself as the cause: that is Hell.

What shall I do to strengthen my spirit? Do not tell lies, or do what you despise.