12 Rules for Life List: Jordan Peterson, Explained

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12 Rules for Life is one of the bestselling books in recent times. Famous author Jordan Peterson lays out 12 simple rules on how to conduct your life.

The key point: individual responsibility. Take responsibility for your own life. Don’t worry about other problems – fix your own first. If everyone did this, many society-level problems would be solved.

Learn the key points of the 12 Rules for Life rule list, and get a summary of each of the 12 Rules below.

Introduction to 12 Rules for Life

Most humans crave order and meaning in their existence, to deal with the terrifying uncertainty of the world. For much of history this function was served by religion, with rules handed down by gods and supernatural surveillance of behavior.

But take away religion, and a void remains. There is no scientific code of ethics that inherited the stabilizing role of religion. In the absence of clear rules and a moral compass, people are prone to nihilism, existential angst, and misery.

In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson argues that there is a right and wrong way to conduct your life. In contrast, he rejects the ambiguity of moral relativism, the idea that good and evil are subjective opinion and that every belief has its own truth. Moral relativism tolerates all ideas to avoid being “judgmental,” and prevents adults from telling young people how to live. It also rejects thousands of years of development of virtue and how to live properly.

As a solution, in his 12 Rules for Life list, Peterson focuses on individual responsibility. The central tenets are:

  • Take responsibility for your own life. Don’t worry about other problems – fix your own first. If everyone did this, many society-level problems would be solved.
  • Walk the line between order and chaos, where life is stable enough but also unpredictable enough to provoke personal growth. In other words, push yourself to the limit of your ability and challenge yourself.
  • Acknowledge that life is suffering. Your goal is to make progress to avoid suffering.
    • Overprotective adults avoid discussing suffering with their children, with the hope that it will protect them from it. This just makes children unprepared to deal with suffering when they run into it.
  • If we lived properly  as the above, we would be resistant to the pains of existence and to the enticing lures of empty ideologies promising safety.

That this book has hit such a chord support the first point, that most people crave order and structure. The rest of this guide clarifies the 12 Rules for Life list, with themes of individual responsibility, being truthful to yourself, and defining your own meaning for life.

The 12 Rules for Life List

Rule 1: Fix your posture. Others will treat you with more respect.

  • There is a part of your brain that is constantly monitoring signals to figure out your position in society. How you see others, and how others treat you, affect how you view yourself. If others kowtow to you, you elevate your own impression of status. If others denigrate you, you lower your internal status.
  • If you slouch, you convey defeat and low status to others; they will then treat you poorly, which will reinforce your status. (This can be reinforced in serotonin signaling, related to depression)
  • Fix your posture to get others to treat you better, which will make you feel better and stand tall, thus kicking off a virtuous cycle.

Rule 2: Take care of yourself, the way you would take care of someone else.

  • Many people are better at filling prescriptions for their dogs than themselves. Similarly, you may self-sabotage yourself daily – by not taking care of your health, not keeping promises you make to yourself. 
  • Peterson argues that you do this because of some self-loathing – that you believe you’re not worth helping. Instead, you have to believe that you have a vital mission in this world, and you are obliged to take care of yourself. 
  • Nietzsche: “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”

Rule 3: Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed.

  • Surround yourself with people who support you and genuinely want to see you succeed. You will push each other to greater heights; each person’s life improves as the others’ improve. They won’t tolerate your cynicism, and they will punish you when you mistreat yourself. 
  • Don’t associate with people who want to drag you down to make them feel better about themselves. 
  • Don’t accept charity cases by helping people who don’t accept personal responsibility for their actions. People who don’t want to improve can’t be helped.

Rule 4: Judge yourself by your own goals, not by others’.

  • With mass media, it’s easy to compare yourself to the best of every field (looks, wealth, marriage, career) and think of yourself as miserably outclassed. But modern society is so complex that everyone has different goals – which makes comparing to other people pointless.
  • Drill deeply into your discontent and understand what you want, and why. Define your goals.
  • Transform your goals into something achievable today. If it’s not within your control, look somewhere else. Let every day end a little better than it started.
  • If you do this correctly, you’ll stop being obsessed with other people’s success, because you have plenty to do yourself.

Rule 5: As a parent, train your children to follow the rules of society.

  • Children test boundaries of behavior to learn the rules of the world. As a parent, your purpose is to serve as a proxy for society. You must teach the child what is acceptable, and what isn’t.
  • Children who receive no/incorrect feedback will learn the incorrect boundaries of behavior. They will be poorly adjusted and rejected by society, which will severely hamper their happiness. If you don’t teach children the rules, society will punish them for you, far less mercifully.
  • Set the rules, but not too many. Use the minimum necessary force to enforce the rules.

Rule 6: Before blaming anything else, think: have I done everything within my ability to solve the problem?

  • It’s easy to blame the outside world, a group of people, or a specific person for your misfortunes. But before you do this, question – have you taken full advantage of every opportunity available to you? Or are you just sitting on your ass, pointing fingers?
  • Are you doing anything you know is wrong? Stop it today. 
  • Stop saying things that make you feel ashamed and cowardly. Start saying things that make you feel strong. Do only those things about which you would speak with honor.

Rule 7: Do what is meaningful to you, and you will feel better about existing.

  • Doing good (preventing evil from happening, alleviating unnecessary suffering) provides your life with meaning. Meaning defeats existential angst; it gratifies your short-term impulses to achieve long-term goals; it makes your life worth living.
  • Think – how can I make the world a little bit better today? Pay attention. Fix what you can fix.
  • Think more deeply – what is your true nature? What must you become, knowing who you are? Work toward this.

Rule 8: Act only in ways in line with your personal truth. Stop lying.

  • You may lie to others to get what you want; you may lie to yourself to feel better. But deep down you know it’s inconsistent with your beliefs, and you feel unsettled. 
    • Lies can be about how much you enjoy your job; whether you want to be in a relationship; whether you’re capable of something; that a bad habit isn’t that bad for you; that things will magically work out.
  • You must develop your personal truth, and then act only in ways that are consistent with your personal truth.
  • Once you develop your truth, you have a destination to travel toward. This reduces anxiety – having either everything or nothing available are far worse.
  • Act only in ways that your internal voice does not object to. Like a drop of sewage in a lake of champagne, a lie spoils all the truth it touches.

Rule 9: Listen to other people thoughtfully. You’ll learn something, and they’ll trust you.

  • People talk because this is how they think. They need to verbalize their memories and emotions to clearly formulate the problem, then solve it. As a listener, you are helping the other person think. Sometimes you need to say nothing; other times, you serve as the voice of common reason.
  • The most effective listening technique: summarize the person’s message. This forces you to genuinely understand what is being said; it distills the moral of the story, perhaps clarifying more than the speaker herself; and you avoid strawman arguments while constructing steelman arguments.
  • Assume that your conversation partner has reached careful, thoughtful conclusions based on her own valid experiences.

Rule 10: Define your problem specifically. It becomes easier to deal with.

  • Anxiety usually comes from the unknown. You don’t know what the problem is, or something vague seems really scary. Specificity turns chaos into a thing you can deal with.
  • If you had a cancer in your body, wouldn’t you want to know where it is, what it is, and how exactly to treat it? Why don’t you treat every other problem in your life with the same clarity?
  • Be precise. What is wrong, exactly? What do you want, exactly? Why, exactly?
  • In interpersonal conflicts, specify exactly what is bothering you. Don’t let it spiral into an inescapable cobweb. If you let everyday resentment gather, eventually it may bubble up and destroy everyone.

Rule 11: Accept that inequality exists.

  • Peterson criticizes the postmodern assertion that gender is merely a social construct, and that there are no differences between males and females. He disagrees that there needs to be complete equality, in every behavior and preference, at all times.
  • Instead, Peterson calls for recognition that inequality does exist. Males and females have different natural instincts and different preferences, and we shouldn’t deny that they exist. If we ignore this, we can create policies that force people against their nature, which can have unintended consequences.
  • For example, Peterson feels we’re at risk of “feminizing” young boys by excessively protecting them from danger. Boys by nature are more aggressive. This is biological. They want to prove competence to each other. They want to inhabit that level of risk that pushes them to grow. Let boys be boys.

Rule 12: Life is tough. Take time to indulge in little bits of happiness.

  • Life is tough. Good people get hurt. Suffering is pervasive.
  • You can hate the universe for this. Or you can accept that suffering is an undeniable part of existence, and loving someone means loving their limitations. Superman without any flaws is boring and has no story.
  • Notice little bits of everyday goodness that make existence tolerable, even justifiable. Watch the girl splash into a puddle. Enjoy a good coffee. Pet a cat when you run into one.
12 Rules for Life List: Jordan Peterson, Explained

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Here's what you'll find in our full 12 Rules for Life summary:

  • Why standing up straight will make people treat you differently
  • How to find meaning in your life and work
  • Why you're lying to yourself without realizing it

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

2 thoughts on “12 Rules for Life List: Jordan Peterson, Explained

  • September 21, 2020 at 1:09 am
    Permalink

    Thank you.it helped me a lot!

    Reply
  • March 15, 2021 at 1:18 pm
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    Dear Jordon, I am a 72 yr old born again, conservative with a Christian worldview. I have such respect for your intellectual honesty. Just saw a post on Telegram just now and wanted to offer you this explanation from my pea brain, you being an intellectual giant who is not afraid to tackle controversial subjects. Me, a stranger to you am endeavoring to help you. So, first, being under what we call conviction and convincing of Holy Spirit is not comfortable, I remember. I feel for you and many are praying for you, the love of God constrains us to do so.
    For God did not come into the the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. suddenly, the word “LOVE” jumped out at me, the love of Christ came upon me, I began to cry as I was so aware of my sin, I knew He was standing right in front of me, I felt Him touch me on the top of my head as I blubbered, “if you want me the way I am,” (I knew I was a mess) I felt His Spirit fill me from my head to my toes like warm oil. Thus I began my new life with Christ as my Lord.
    Now I want to caution you, please don’t wait too long, the scripture says “today is the day of salvation.” Don’t resist the Holy Spirit, He is so, so very good. I offer you this scripture “If you Seek me with all your heart, you will find me.” If you can separate yourself to focus on Him until Holy Spirit comes on you, it would be beneficial for you. I’m personally excited for you. After being regenerated, the scriptures open up to you as spiritual things are spiritually discerned, there is a difference between spiritual and intellectual perception and understanding. This is a grand adventure dear Jordon, we will be praying!

    Reply

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