Most humans crave order and meaning in existence, to deal with the terrifying uncertainty of the world. For much of history, religion served this function (eg being a servant of God). But as secularism rises, a void remains that is filled by nihilism and empty ideologies.
Peterson believes that there is real meaning and good in existence. Look at it this way - if real evil exists (human suffering, especially inflicted by other humans), then good is the opposite of this - it is preventing evil from happening.
You should therefore conduct your life to produce good. This will lead to meaning. This will make your existence matter. Your actions will matter, taking care of your health will matter, having good relationships will matter.
Rule 1: Fix your posture. Others will treat you with more respect.
Rule 2: Take care of yourself, the way you would take care of someone else.
Rule 3: Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed.
Rule 4: Judge yourself by your own goals, not by others’.
Rule 5: As a parent, train your children to follow the rules of society.
Rule 6: Before blaming anything else, think: have I done everything within my ability to solve the problem?
Rule 7: Do what is meaningful to you, and you will feel better about existing.
Rule 8: Act only in ways in line with your personal truth. Stop lying.
Rule 9: Listen to other people thoughtfully. You’ll learn something, and they’ll trust you.
Rule 10: Define your problem specifically. It becomes easier to deal with.
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Jordan Peterson has attracted criticism for his remarks around political correctness and free speech. He also has attracted a politically conservative following. Much of this isn’t relevant to benefiting from 12 Rules for Life or from this book summary. If you come in skeptical because of his background, we suggest you keep an open mind, since the book’s advice can be genuinely useful to a broad range of people.
We found the book’s chapters inconsistent in quality. Some were clear, well-structured, and had forceful logic. Others were confusing meanderings into philosophy and allegories, reading like wandering streams of consciousness. In this summary, we try to structure the advice in a straightforward way. We reorganize sections from different chapters to fit the same theme.
This means we leave out tangents you might find useful. So as always, if you like the summary, we suggest you read the actual book.
Jordan Peterson is Christian, and he refers to the Bible throughout, but this isn’t a religious book. Instead, he argues that because similar tenets underlie a...
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. Despite differences in the beliefs, all major religions drew on common themes, and the need for rules and order was universal. The ubiquity of this suggests something biological or evolutionary.
The developed world is moving to greater secularism, as a result of: scientific explanations of the world’s uncertainty; critical thinking around religion and the logical impracticality of all religions being true at once; and moral relativism.
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 merely matters of 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.
In this vacuum of guidance on how to live, many are drawn to group-centered belief (like political or national allegiance) or ideologies instead, because it gives them identity, purpose, and a shared code of conduct. It simplifies the world.
As a solution,...
This chapter discusses social status from a biological point of view, and how your body language affects how others perceive you and how you feel about yourself.
(This is the most science-heavy chapter, so if you don’t enjoy reading this, don’t worry - the rest of the book isn’t like this.)
Inequality of ability occurs through natural biological variation - within a species, some animals are more capable than others. Those higher in ability command greater resources:
Because social status is so important in life outcomes, you try to figure out where on the social hierarchy you are, you signal that position to other people, and you jockey for a higher position. Sound familiar? These are deeply evolved, biological behaviors.
When a behavior is common among divergent species, the behavior was strongly selected for in natural selection and promoted survival in some way.
The function of this signaling and recognition behavior is to distribute scarce resources between individuals, without the need for costly conflict.
People are better at filling prescriptions for their dogs than for themselves, even though taking drugs is literally life-saving. Why?
12 Rules for Life argues the root of this is self-loathing - that we understand our faults completely, better than any outside observer, and believe we aren’t worth helping. No one else has more reason to see you as pathetic. By withholding something that does you good, you punish yourself for your failings.
Why do we hate ourselves?
In contrast, our pets and our children are faultless - they don’t know any better, they’re innocent, so they deserve all the help we can give.
The solution is to believe that you are worth helping. You have a vital mission in this world, you are important in this world to others, and you are morally obligated to take care of yourself.
In other words, see yourself like you see your pet or someone else. You don’t see their faults, and you want to care for them. Treat yourself like the same.
This means taking care of yourself, getting healthier (physically and mentally), expanding your...
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Believe that you are worth helping. You have a vital mission in this world, and you are obligated to take care of yourself for the sake of others.
Some people don’t care for themselves because they feel self-loathing - they feel they’re not worth helping. Do you feel this on any level? Describe why, and give an example of how you don’t care for yourself.
This rule is similar to the adage “you’re the average of your 5 best friends,” with more focus on why you might be hanging around people you know are bad for you.
Do you have a person you spend a lot of time with, who you feel is dragging you down, doesn’t support your personal growth, and whose goals don’t align well with yours? Consider why you still spend time with this person, knowing their presence isn’t good for you.
Peterson gives three reasons you might still be with these people.
1) Sometimes, if you feel the person is “beneath you” in status, you may feel like you can rescue this person. But consider the other insidious, malevolent factors that could be at play:
While some people may really be capable of improving, some aren’t. People who don’t want to improve can’t be helped. It’s very difficult to overturn this foundational layer and convince someone to change for the better.
Surround yourself with people who support you and want to see you succeed.
Do you have a person you spend a lot of time with, who you feel is dragging you down, doesn’t support your personal growth, and whose goals don’t align well with yours? Describe your relationship, and how you feel around this person.
With today’s mass media, there is always someone out there better than you in everything you do. Your career seems boring, you wish your friends were more exciting and more attractive, you’re fatter than your co-workers, and you’re bad at sports. How good can you feel as prime minister of Canada, when someone else is the President of the United States?
As explained in Rule 1, this wasn’t the natural case for hundreds of thousands of years. We used to live in small tribes of hundreds. Chances were you were good at something, and you got serotonin signals from people acknowledging you were good. Now you might never get positive feedback, while you get tons of negative feedback about people who seem better than you.
If you compare yourself to other people, you’re using an unfairly harsh standard.
People react to high standards in a variety of ways.
The solution isn’t to simply reject all standards. Standards are useful to guarantee a level of quality (like building bridges) and to keep pushing us up to better things. Being unsatisfied with your present world is a useful push to improve your situation. But setting unrealistically high standards can also lead to crushing, chronic self-criticism, where you feel you aren’t capable of doing anything.
The solution also isn’t nihilism and hopelessness. Don’t think, “there will always be people better than me, so what’s the point? The world’s going to end in a billion years if not a million - why does what I do matter?” Peterson argues that this is a cheap trick - pick a time frame long enough, and nothing matters. This is an unreliable, worthlessly simplistic way to look at life.
The solution also isn’t to protect people from the idea that they have ways to improve, and that standards do exist. Throughout the 20th century, American culture took on the delusionally positive thinking of constant praise for kids. Trophies for everyone, you’re all special and capable of everything you want to do. This merely blinds people to the truth, and when reality hits, people are...
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Instead of judging yourself by other people’s standards, redefine your goals to find a new way to measure yourself.
What is the “one” most important thing that you typically obsess over and want to achieve? The thing that makes you miserable because you don’t have it. Describe your desire.
Finish redefining your goals to find a new way to measure yourself.
There’s something you don’t have that is driving much of your discontent. You think if only you got this, you’d be happy. What is it?
Children aren’t born ready for life. This is partly a biological compromise with head size - too big of a head wouldn’t fit through a woman’s birth canal. This is also partly because much of human culture isn’t written in our genes - culture has developed faster than biological evolutionary cycles. Instead, as children age, they develop physically, and they also learn a lot about how the human world works.
This means children need training and feedback to understand how to navigate human society. If you’re a typical parent, you want your children to succeed, and helping your children become well-liked, functioning members of society is a key part of success.
Children, curious and exploratory as they are, constantly test limits to figure out where the boundaries are. When they get corrective feedback, they understand where the boundary is. “I now know it’s not OK to throw food on the floor on a restaurant, because my mom yelled at me for it.”
Furthermore, while it’s tempting to think of them as cherubic angels, they have capacity for evil inside them. They will not bloom into perfection if left to their own devices. So if they hit you or yell in supermarkets, and you don’t provide corrective feedback, they’ll think it’s ok. They’ll learn the wrong boundaries of society. Then when they become adults, they’ll be poorly adjusted to function in broader society.
Many parents, in a misguided effort to avoid damaging their child or wanting to be their child’s friend, avoid giving corrective feedback to their kids. These are the parents who let their kids curse at them in public or scream disruptively in movie theaters. These parents are teaching their kids the wrong boundaries of society, and in effect they’re outsourcing the training to society. “Here’s my kid - society, please teach him the right rules.”
The problem is that society doesn’t care about your child nearly as much as you do. If you dislike your own child at times, imagine how other people will react. Other people will swiftly judge and punish...
There is inevitable suffering in life. People are born unequal in ability and attributes. Disaster strikes unpredictably - cancer, a car accident, a mass layoff. You never get quite exactly what you want. Life seems like an unfair joke.
One response to this is anger at the universe or, if you’re religious, at your god. More extremely, this becomes misanthropic thinking, or hating humankind. Then some convert this into the action of vengeance, to express their outrage and spite the universe/god. Peterson argues this underlay the beliefs of the Columbine killers, who sought to punish those who had wronged them.
But there is still potential for redemption, to learn from misfortune and do good despite it. Many people who suffered child abuse by their parents perpetuate the evil and abuse their own children; but most choose not to. Despite the suffering you bear, you have the potential to overturn it and make the world better.
Before blaming the universe for your misfortunes, first consider - what personal responsibility did you have in your misfortune? Did you do everything within your power to improve your situation, or did you passively sabotage yourself by letting bad things happen to you?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn served as a Russian soldier in WWII. He was then arrested and imprisoned by his own people. He got cancer. His misfortunes seemed out of his control. Then he wrote The Gulag Archipelago, at great risk to himself, to expose Soviet prison camps and the flaws of Lenin’s thinking. He realized his unquestioning support of the Communist Party contributed directly to his misery, and he decided to correct his mistake.
Look at it this way - if your suffering is your own fault, then you can actually do something about it. If, in contrast, it’s entirely the universe’s fault, then reality itself is flawed, and you are perpetually doomed, and you have absolutely no ability to change that. Which worldview would you rather have?
Often, disasters could have been prevented with the right mindset. Peterson argues lack of...
Before blaming the universe for your misfortunes, first consider what you can do about it.
Have you recently blamed the universe or other people for a misfortune? What was the misfortune, and why did you blame others for it?
So suffering in life is inevitable. The universe can be unfair. In a hundred million years, nothing we do will likely matter. What does one do in the face of this knowledge?
One response is to take the expedient path. Indulge short-term pleasures and put off long-term commitments. Do what feels the best today - indulge your basest desires all the time. Even lie, cheat, and steal to get what you want. Do these things even if you know it makes your future self worse off than better.
Of course, we know this is what we shouldn’t be doing. We know we should be doing the hard things today to make our lives better in the future. We should suppress our immediate impulses to bring future rewards, like studying today and putting off partying to build the career we really want.
One obstacle is our powerful biological instincts - they kept us alive in the Stone Age, but they’re counterproductive today (overeating 100,000 years ago helped us survive a period of famine; today it leads to obesity). But on a higher conscious level, it’s hard to answer: why? How do we define what’s good and worth doing, and what isn’t?
In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson tackles it this way: it seems intuitively true that certain things can be defined as Evil - most abhorrently, conscious human malevolence. Auschwitz, mass shootings, enslavement, knowing torment of others - these are all things most people believe are bad, even without having to read a philosophy book. You likely believe the world is better off without these things happening.
If there is such a thing as Evil, then Good must be the antithesis of Evil - Good is whatever stops Evil from happening. Good alleviates unnecessary pain and suffering.
In the most extreme of cases, literally fighting evil is good - as typified in the Union’s antislavery stance in the Civil War, and the Allies’ anti-Holocaust stance in World War II. But all actions exist on a spectrum, and resolving even little bits of bad are good. This could mean counseling a friend to get out of a bad situation. This could mean improving...
This rule discusses not only lying to others, but also lying to yourself and obscuring your personal truth. Instead, you need to develop your personal truth, then act consistently with it. This chapter is fairly abstract, but try to see if its principles resonate with a specific problem you have in life.
Day to day, you may lie to the outside world to get what you want and to avoid pain. You tell lies to appear more competent, to gain status, to be well-liked, to prevent conflict. This is you manipulating the world.
On a deeper level, you may lie to yourself about what you want. You might have a dream life envisioned by your younger self, without probing carefully into whether you really want it (career and retirement goals are common examples here). You may entertain ideas about what you really want, but deceive yourself into thinking they’re impossible to reach or undesirable after all. You then act in ways that you paper over with more lies, but deep down you know it’s inconsistent with your beliefs, and you feel unsettled.
Beware of the big lie (in Hitler’s terms) something so large and audacious that you cannot accept someone would intentionally fabricate it. This could be about who to blame for your faults, or what you should do with your life.
You may not be actively misleading other people, but merely lying by omission. This isn’t any better. If your boss does something you dislike, not confronting her about it is still lying - you’re acting inauthentically, not in accordance with your beliefs. If you habitually avoid conflict, don’t complain when mistreated, and suppress your own ideas, you’re still lying to yourself. This makes you feel weak, because your existence has little real meaning. You’ve become a tool to be used, obliterating your independence.
Even worse, on a meta level, you may be in denial about lying to yourself. You may believe that your truth is the only truth, and that no amount of new knowledge can change what you believe. That all important facts have been discovered, and that...
Learn to stop lying to yourself and others. Develop a personal truth to live by.
When recently have you felt you told a lie, to others or to yourself? Describe what happened. How did that make you feel? (Remember: this might not be literally telling a lie in conversation, but more generally telling a lie means acting in a way that contradicts your beliefs.)
We’ve all been in situations where someone seems to be talking endlessly, and we’re tempted to disengage.
But take a more generous view of the situation. People talk because this is how they think. They explore past events, discover how they feel about it, simulate the world, and plan how to act in it. They can figure out what stupid things they shouldn’t do, then not do them. They formulate the problem they are struggling with, before designing a solution. You’re doing them a favor by listening.
Some people are capable of thinking alone and have internal conversations with themselves. This is more difficult than talking out loud with another person - it requires you to model other points of view (in effect being multiple people at the same time), have the models disagree, and resolve the disagreement. This is demanding, requiring you to tolerate conflict and adjust your perceptions of the world internally.
Thus, many people prefer to talk to a listener. They organize their brains with conversation.
Thus rises the classic stereotype in how men and women treat conversation differently. Women want to converse as a mode of thinking, going over their day and struggles they’ve faced. In response, men want to design efficient solutions and move on. Rushing this process robs the speaker of their ability to think, and it signals that you dismiss the importance of what the speaker has to say. Instead, the speaker feels a need to formulate the problem in conversation. They need to be listened to and questioned to ensure clarity in the formulation. Only then is there a problem that is solvable.
As a listener, you are helping the other person think. True listening is paying attention and accepting what the person has to say.
When you have a problem, there is often the temptation to paper it over, to think the problem will go away by itself. It’s easier to keep the peace and avoid the anxiety, despair, sadness that will come with confronting your problems. It’s easier to pretend the problem doesn’t exist than to admit it does and the pain that accompanies it.
Maybe you hate going into work everyday. Maybe you can’t stand the way your partner chews. Maybe you stare blankly at the ceiling each morning, unable to drag yourself out of bed. Maybe you feel a simmering level of rage throughout the day. You don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s more pleasant not to think too hard about it and try to get through another day.
Left unaddressed, this will gradually build until it leads to a catastrophic failure. You will regret not having acted sooner.
Specificity turns chaos into a thing that you can deal with. If you have a vague unease, you will struggle with it until you define it explicitly and give it a concrete form. Once you precisely identify the issue, you will likely realize that you were far more afraid than you should have been, and you now have a specific target to confront.
If you have a cancer somewhere in your body, wouldn’t you want to know where and what it is as soon as possible, so you can do something about it? Why don’t you treat every other problem in your life with the same urgency and clarity?
Give structure to the chaos through specific speech. If you speak carefully and precisely, you can make order from the chaos, develop a new goal, and navigate to it.
Precision sorts out the uniquely terrible thing from all the other, equally terrible things that did not happen. If you have a pain in your abdomen, you start with a vague set of terrifying possibilities. Then you go to the doctor, who collapses the possibilities into a single, clear diagnosis. You feel less anxiety, certain now that it’s addressable, and you laugh at your previous anxiety. Why are your other concerns and problems any different?
You cannot move in life...
Give your problem specific form, and it becomes easier to deal with.
What is a vague problem you have that you’ve been avoiding? Describe it and how you feel about it.
(Shortform note: Depending on your viewpoint, this can be a controversial chapter as Peterson bemoans the “postmodernist” interpretation of gender as a social construct. He criticizes the assertion that biological differences between men and women do not exist.)
This chapter is meandering and confusing, but the main point is this: modern society desires gender equality. When gender equality means equal opportunity, rights, and treatment, this is good.
However, it can be taken too far - like denying any biological difference between males and females, and insisting that behavior and outcomes be equal in every way. This idea of literal, complete quality is not supported by biology, and it could be counterproductive because it forces people against their nature. For example, we might raise boys to “feminize” them, erasing their biological tendencies and making them less independent and more agreeable. This is counter to their nature and can cause unintended consequences.
Some postmodernist thinking claims that all of gender is entirely a social construct, that it was popularized by men to oppress women. This began with roots in communist ideals that all people should be equal, that the rich exploited the labor of the poor, and that social structures were put in place by the rich to oppress the poor. When implementing this idea largely failed in the Soviet Union and China, the Marxist ideals were rewritten, from the idea of oppression of the poor by the rich, to oppression of everyone by the powerful.
When extended to its logical conclusion, this promoted skepticism that every cultural construct and hierarchy was merely constructed by the powerful to continue their oppression - science benefits only the scientists, gender classification benefits only the males, management benefits only the managers, measurement of skill benefit only the skilled. As the thinking goes, every hierarchy is an artificial construct made up to selfishly benefit the powerful and to exclude others. This means everything in...
Suffering in life is guaranteed. This idea is present in every major religion, and it’s obvious from everyday life. Outcomes are unequal. People are born with different abilities. Some people get worse treatment than others. Peterson’s daughter suffered from unexplained juvenile rheumatoid arthritis for decades, enduring years of chronic pain and risking amputation. There is little more to question the sanity and justice of the world than having an ill child. What kind of god would allow this to happen?
One response to this, as stated above, is to hate your god or the universe for these outcomes. Stretched to its extreme, this becomes hatred of existence, and the desire to destroy existence itself. When practiced, this leads to genocide and mass murders. Clearly this is evil, causing suffering in the name of suffering, and not the right response.
Another response, which only partially mitigates the suffering, is to acknowledge that limitation is critical to making existence meaningful. When Superman was created as a comic book character, he had infinite powers and could overcome any situation. This became boring. There was nothing for him to struggle against, so he couldn’t be admirable; no lesson for him to learn, so he couldn’t grow. In response, the writers had to make him weak to kryptonite to make his stories interesting.
Peterson could have wished for her daughter to have an indestructible metal skeleton, or an inhumanly high threshold to pain. But then her...
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