This isn’t a review of Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life. I already rate the book highly, and encourage those who are interested to read it. Instead, these are some thoughts on each chapter of the book.
1 – Stand Straight With Your Shoulders back
I think he has a point – how you carry yourself is important – but this is not my favorite chapter. It does make human beings come across as very animistic. Of course, we are, to a degree – and I do encourage anybody with bad posture to start finding small ways to improve it (n.b. don’t forget to keep your shoulders back and relaxed, and breathe with your stomach!)
2 – Treat yourself as somebody who you’re responsible for helping
Although I think this is a solid rule, it is also the trickiest in the book. Perhaps this is more of a modern problem, but I think there is a common understanding that one should only care for others (and not for oneself).
It’s useful to point out that “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” [Matthew 22:39] is not a quantity, but an equation. One should love one’s neighbor as much as oneself, and oneself as much as one’s neighbor.
Then, of course, there are quotes like this: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” [John 15:13]. This isn’t a contradiction of the golden rule, but it does contrast. One could lay ones life down for one’s friend – simply because you can’t both be laying your life down for each other (now there’s a thought). It’s also worth pointing out that the word “friend” is used here, and not just “neighbor”. Perhaps one shouldn’t be laying down one’s life for one’s enemies? But isn’t that what Christ did? And what about returning good for bad (as a way of “heaping coals on people’s head” – an expression I always found a bit odd) ?
I’m sure there is a balanced way of viewing this principle, that does result in the kind of psychological damage Peterson finds in people who’ve seemingly lived for others but, instead of becoming saint like, have become pale, weak and broken people. Peterson has a point. There’s a sense in which not telling somebody “Stop burning the brocolli. It makes me sick” (not a personal example, I might add!) is cowardice. Perhaps it’s because the people who “do charity” wrong forget to let go of the sorrow, and let it fester and become passive aggresiveness, or just resentment in general.
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
This sounds nice, but it’s worth noting that it also means not making friends with people who don’t want the best for you. I reckon this is fair enough. You can “will the good of” (i.e. love) somebody and spend time caring for them, without being a friend. A friend is somebody you trust, who trusts you. And you can’t trust everybody – that’s just foolish; nor can you keep track of too many people to trust.
This quote reminds me a little of “You Can’t Soar Like An Eagle When You Surround Yourself With Turkeys” (which I first heard from Andrew Price, Blender Guru). That quote was presented as a way to grow as an artist. It’s a harsh quote. Sometimes one’s friends are turkeys. One can relate to the turkeys. The “eagles” of the art world may seem like a bunch of workaholics in comparison. However, Peterson’s phrasing of this principle is really a bit more thoughtful. “Those who want the best for you” are not necessarily on the same level of competence as you. Competence isn’t even brought up. It’s just people who care about you, and want you to grow. This makes the people who you don’t make friends with, because they don’t want the best for you sound worse. They either want you to stay as unfinished as you are, or get worse. So, they are not simply unfortunate, like the turkeys may be. They chose ill will. So fair enough: Don’t befriend them – though one can “will their good”.
4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday (and not other people)
It’s funny, really. There is an understanding that one of the problems with the modern era is how self-serving people have become. But the demand for Peterson’s ideas, the antidote he is providing, seems to be for people who have quite the opposite problem – people who have begun to despair, either in their own lives or in the world. Maybe this is because with the loss of structure, people have gone to all sorts of extremes, not just that of overconfident egoism.
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” ― CS Lewis
The above doesn’t quite contradict rule 4, but it does make it smaller. If one thinks of oneself less, then one has less time to compare oneself with who one was yesterday. However, it doesn’t make sense to become totally blind to oneself. After all, one isn’t guaranteed to end up good, so it seems prudent to keep track of oneself and at least ensure that one is growing, and not slipping.
Another quote I like to turn to is the old:
“know thyself” (Greek: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, transliterated: gnauthi seauton)
So perhaps the saints who eventually become so not-self-aware as to fatally injure themselves by riding into a tree (i.e. Thomas Aquinas) started with a degree of self-awareness. Though I get the impression, in Aquinas’s case, that he probably ended up acting out the Lewis quote more than “gnauthi seauton”.
Here’s a contrasting article that suggests that comparing one’s-self with others is actually a demonstrable way of improving: Art of manliness on the value of competing with others
5. Don’t let your kids do things that makes you dislike them
This is possibly my favorite chapter in the book – it’s full of enjoyable anecdotes of Peterson’s adventures in parenting – my favorite involves a malicious kid on a climbing frame, in a park that Peterson was visiting with his daughter. I’ll leave you to look up the ending.
6 – Set your house in order before you set out to change the world
This chapter isn’t really talking about that rule as much as: Humanity has it’s dark side, and one should be careful to avoid the kind of thing that leads to that. It’s also a bit of a strange rule, because one’s house is never really in order – and Peterson also criticizes the draconic coaster-waving housewife, who keeps her house so orderly, that said it’s oppressive to be in.
I agree that both extremes should be avoided, but does that mean that one should never set out to change the world? Probably. Perhaps a better strategy would be to, when one’s domain becomes peaceful, to raise one’s sights just a little, and slowly grow one’s domain. And sure, some may eventually end up expanding said domain so much that they effectively “change the world” (like Peterson himself) – but this must be difficult to do whilst keeping ones house in check.
7 – Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient
I’m still not really sure what these words mean. Expedient seems to be defined as “convenient and practical although possibly improper or immoral”. Okay, so don’t be immoral. Pursue what is meaningful? So I guess “don’t be a miser”?
I find a clearer way of phrasing this is “do things that are good in the long term, and not only in the short term”. Of course, a thing might be good in the short term and in the long term – but I can’t think of any examples right now.
This idea lends itself well to learning to pursue delayed gratification strategies. Not drinking tea for a day really makes the next tea one drinks taste a lot better. I like the idea of the new “fasting diet” fad which is going around, at least but for the psychological effect of growing ones willpower.
It also lends itself to having a hard but helpful job, saving money, physical exercise, and brushing one’s teeth – all of examples of activities considered to be responsible things to do.
8 – Tell the truth (or at least don’t lie)
As a principle, this rule is my favorite in the book. Lying is easy, and even small lies slowly grow, reaching to infect more of one’s thoughts and words. Pruning these lies out of one’s life is a hard, long process. However, slowly clearing this out does make things simpler, and thus clearer. I might add that I don’t think being blunt is the same as being perfectly truthful. Sure, being slapped with the truth is better than being kissed with a lie, but being patted with the truth, if at all possible, is better still.
When I was a little boy, I was told to “think twice before speaking”. The thing is, I’m not sure I remember even thinking the first time, let alone scheduling a second in! I wasn’t able to do much with this thread of wisdom, no matter how guilty I felt when I forgot to use it. I wonder if this approach isn’t really too helpful for children. Maybe they need to be told the specific truth they were missing which made everything sound so off.
“I admire that honesty, Nattie. That’s a noble quality. Never lose that” – Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams)
9. Assume that whoever you’re listening to knows something you don’t
This chapter starts by talking about types of conversations that don’t work. I find this kind of thing is incredibly useful. Conversation is not just talking – it is a skill more complex than dancing, that can be developed. I recommend Brett McKay’s various attempt to break this art down, like this article.
10. Be Precise in your speech
Really, this is a continuation of rule eight. Telling the truth in a better way consists of telling it in the small strokes as well as the big ones. For example: Learning how to write well is a mentally rewarding process, even if you never intend to be a writer – you really do sharpen your thought, sometimes finding and resolving contradictions one never knew were there. For those who still haven’t done it, I continue to recommend Peterson’s self authoring course, a structured way to order ones thoughts about one’s own past, present and future – or at least some of the big ones.
11 – Don’t bother children when they are skateboarding
This chapter starts by talking about the utility of danger in the development of a child. When I was two years old, my dad used to throw me up in the air. For some reason, it’s generally the father who feels the draw to play with babies this way. Mothers are more protective, and also focus on developing different aspects of a child’s character. In a similar vein, this chapter continues this train of thought by delving into the differences between men and women.
I might also add that I recently tried skateboarding a little. Nothing too extravagant, just tic-tac-ing, and ollie, and slowly going higher on a ramp – it’s good fun. I can see why Peterson picked skateboarding. It’s definitely dangerous, even at its primitive level. But it is also quite exhilarating. The awareness of the danger coupled with the drive to keep going really does make one sharp – a sharpness that can be hard to find elsewhere in modern life.
12 – Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
I have a bit of a thing against pets, mainly because I see them as modern (or millennial) replacements for children, which I find really sad. However, pets are nice to have. Feeding a baby lamb is really rather nice. I also like the idea that dogs help retired elderly stay able, by forcing them to get up and go for walks.
There is something about petting a cat or a dog that brings one “down to earth”. I have a high opinion of “down to earth” people – they are understandable and clear – and less apt to make the end up in the kind of messes that abstracted people end up in. So I agree: Pet a
cat dog when you encounter one in the street :)
Needless to say, I’m looking forward to March when Jordan Peterson’s next book comes out. I’ll be satisfied if it contains at least half of the wisdom that this one offers.