12 Rules for Life Summary

Jordan B. Peterson

12 Rules for Life

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12 Rules for Life Summary

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Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), derives from Peterson’s time answering questions on the public forum Quora, often listing the forty rules he believes “are the most valuable things everyone should know.” The guiding principle of the book is that “suffering is built into the structure of being,” and one must face this truth head-on in order to overcome it and find meaning. An instant national and international bestseller, 12 Rules for Life was hailed as “fearless and impassioned” by The Guardian and “in a different intellectual league” by The Observer.

The twelve rules are as follows:

  • “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Peterson outlines the importance of physically standing tall as a measure of facing the chaos in the world. “Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of being,” according to Peterson. By understanding dominance, he urges all to be mindful of body language, posture, and physicality. These qualities will help project an air of competence that will in turn boost confidence and increase the possibility for good things to happen. Feelings often follow physiology; when in need of feeling more confident, stand up with your shoulders back.
  • “Treat yourself like you are responsible for helping.” Peterson argues the importance of putting primacy on oneself, rather than sympathizing with others first. In order to do this, he urges one to “define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your being.” Take care of yourself as you would take care of others by rewarding yourself for completing arduous tasks, getting to know yourself as you would a friend, and always keeping the promises you make to yourself.
  • “Make friends with people who want the best for you.” Peterson argues that you are only as successful as your surroundings. To be successful, you must stop hanging around with people who support your bad habits and, instead, surround yourself with those who have your best interest at heart. “People create their worlds with the tools they have directly at hand. Faulty tools produce faulty results.” Only spend time with those invested in your upward mobility.
  • “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” In order to improve, you must not judge who you are against the success of another but rather to take inventory of whom you were in the past. It is unfair to measure yourself against the success of another, and it can become particularly harmful once you reach the age of thirty. Since you only ever witness just a slice of another’s publicly presented life, it does little good to obsess over anything but your own success.
  • “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” Since you wield far greater power than your children, it is very easy to influence them, just as it is easy to subconsciously hold grudges against them. To avoid poor behavior in children, Peterson argues to limit the rules imposed on them, use minimal force, and parent in pairs.
  • “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Peterson argues that the inherent evils of the world will pervade your home if you allow it. By consciously letting go of negativity, you can avoid the bitterness many people suffer. Peterson urges you to embrace the intrinsic tragedy of life and make something positive out of it. To achieve this daily, try to stop doing something you know to be wrong. Only do things that you would be proud to boast of publicly.
  • “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).” Peterson argues that people should be culpable for searching for meaning rather than for their own personal interests. Meaning, which Peterson defines as how you protect against the suffering life presents, is the guidepost between order and chaos, and if you cling to it tightly enough, personal growth can be achieved. Expediency is a short-term fix, while meaning is the everlasting goal one should aspire to find. To find meaning, focus on eliminating your shortcomings, resentments, and other negative emotions.
  • “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.” Being honest with oneself is a difficult chore, but essential to becoming successful in a chaotic world. While it’s often difficult to know the truth, it is easy to know when you’re lying. As such, preventative measures to avoid lying should be rigorously followed. Truth is aligned with meaning, according to Peterson, and therefore lying equates to meaninglessness.
  • “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” Even if you are more articulate than the person you’re speaking with, always keep an open ear to learn a viewpoint you hadn’t considered. The best conversations make both parties wiser, so placing value on the listening process can be most beneficial. Peterson urges you to listen to your enemies to help separate truth from lies.
  • “Be precise in your speech.” Language makes order of chaos, turning an abstract thought into a clearly defined “thing.” In order to rid chaos and adhere to a meaningful structure, naming the unnamable is hugely important. Peterson cites The Blair Witch Project as an example of the unnamable being far more terrifying than the identifiable, arguing that precise speech is essential to overcoming chaos.
  • “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” Peterson urges parents to allow their children’s masculinity to bloom naturally. Citing skateboarding as an example of a physical discipline that encourages competence in the face of danger, Peterson urges parents to support their children’s sense of growth, no matter what.
  • “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” This autobiographical final chapter explores coping with personal tragedy and pain. Using the example of a stray cat adapting to its harsh surroundings in order to survive, Peterson implores people to appreciate the little things in life. Even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, always search for meaning and soul-saving affirmations. Limit temporal scope if needed, focusing on one moment at a time.