44 pages • 1 hour readJordan B. Peterson
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12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018) is Jordan B. Peterson’s second book. Peterson’s self-help book seeks to provide practical and virtuous rules to live by for a wide audience and general readership. The book streamlines, simplifies, and reimagines some of the more traditionally academic topics of Peterson’s first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. Each non-fiction work aims to explain human history and human nature according to universal frameworks. 12 Rules for Life takes on the issue of coping with life’s difficulties, which the author defines as “chaos,” and establishing “order,” which makes life comfortable and familiar.
Peterson is primarily concerned with human nature and the meaning of life. He explores these topics through personal reflection and interpretation of past and present intellect, most notably from the field of clinical psychology. Peterson is a practicing psychologist and university professor in Toronto, Canada. He has previously taught at Harvard University, and he is a famous—and somewhat notorious—online personality, using platforms such as YouTube and Twitter to disseminate his teachings and public commentary.
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The book opens with a foreword by Peterson’s friend and colleague, Dr. Norman Doidge, and an Overture written by Peterson himself. Twelve chapters then present the titular “rules for life”: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping,” “Make friends with people who want the best for you,” “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today,” “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them,” “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient),” “Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie,” “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t,” “Be precise in your speech,” “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” and “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” The book then ends with Peterson’s “Coda,” as well as notes and an index. An illustration accompanies each chapter. They are simple line drawings and often feature the same children—a young boy and a young girl. Raising children is an important theme in the book, for they represent the direction in which society will go.
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While some of the rules are quite literal, others are metaphorical, or at least tongue-in-cheek expressions to present a more practical and widely applicable idea. The rules focus on personal reflection and behavior. Peterson fears the destructive powers of ideologues and aims to present tools for developing personal character and a moral compass that can carry people through the uncertainties in a world of sweeping social change. The book is for millennials—a generation that Peterson believes has been forced into habits of destructive moral relativism that leads them to lack convictions in the face of diversity, and into nihilism, a mode of thinking that essentially casts life as meaningless and rejects all ideas of truth. Peterson’s personal political lean and observations of the world around him lead him to characterize the world in this way and imagine the antidote as a path, forged by habits and decisions, that neither blindly accepts nor rejects philosophies, worldviews, and other influences, but that leads to a meaningful sense of self and productive march through life.
Each chapter features personal anecdotes and references to academic works, historical examples, or, most frequently, Biblical stories. Peterson cites sources in endnotes, but since this is not a peer-reviewed book published by an academic press, he does not cite all of his sources or always reference evidence for his arguments. Peterson prides himself on being blunt and abandoning a concern for political correctness. He wrote this book in his own voice and presents it as universal wisdom that can reverse a person’s destructive path through life and work towards something more productive and successful by the standards and values that he presents in his work.
By Jordan B. Peterson