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.
Unlock the full book summary of 12 Rules for Life by signing up for Shortform .
Shortform summaries help you learn 10x faster by:
Here's a preview of the rest of Shortform's 12 Rules for Life summary:
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...
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...
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.
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...
"I LOVE Shortform as these are the BEST summaries I’ve ever seen...and I’ve looked at lots of similar sites. The 1-page summary and then the longer, complete version are so useful. I read Shortform nearly every day."
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:
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...
With Shortform, you can:
Access 1000+ non-fiction book summaries.
Access 1000+ premium article summaries.
Take notes on your
Read on the go with our iOS and Android App.
Download PDF Summaries.
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...
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...
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:...
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...
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...
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...
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...
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...
Reflect on what you learned from 12 Rules for Life.
What is your biggest takeaway from 12 Rules for Life?