The Book in Three Sentences
In this book summary of 12 Rules for Life, you’ll learn the answers to some of the most difficult questions. In the book, Jordan Peterson distills the complexity of the modern world into twelve practical rules. These rules are presented in the form of essays that make reference to mythology, psychology, religion, and personal anecdotes.
12 Rules for Life Summary
In 2012, Peterson started answering questions in Quora. When he answered the question: “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?”, the author outlined a series of rules that received a lot of attention. At the same time, his public lectures also attracted a massive online audience. Eventually, a literary agent contacted Peterson to write a guide that taught people what “living well” meant. Peterson immediately thought of the rules he wrote for Quora, so he compiled those rules in the form of twelve essays.
Rule 1: Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back
Animals like lobsters, wrens, and chickens have their own systems of hierarchy. This is all about survival since the strongest and the healthiest members have more chances of attracting high-quality mates and having offspring who thrive. In the animal world, territory is important and a matter of life and death. In many ways, something similar happens in the human world.
Lobsters are very protective of their territory and fiercely fight each other over it. The competitor who leaves not only loses the fight but also its confidence. When a lobster loses a fight, you can tell because of its posture and this is both a chemical and behavioral reaction. In the lobster world, winners are more likely to continue winning and losers are more likely to continue losing. This principle is called Price’s Law and is also a big component of human society, though most people know it as a variation of the Pareto Principle where a small fraction of the causes lead to most of the outcomes.
Female lobsters are attracted to alpha males. Dominant male lobsters are big, healthy, and powerful. All of this matters because lobsters have been around for millions of years and we behave similarly to them in some respects. When defeated, our posture changes, and others bully us.
Modern society is a hierarchy and your position in it determines how people treat you, how long you’ll live, the quality of the food you eat, the places you have access to, the romantic and sexual partners you might get, and so on. In other words, those who stand up tall and straight are in a safe position and their future looks bright.
To sustain this, you must have healthy habits and a stable schedule. Protect your sleep, eat a breakfast with fat and protein, and avoid alcohol and drugs. More importantly, the role you’re assigned in this hierarchy means nothing if you decide to reject it. The best way to do so is by fixing your posture. Don’t go through life like a defeated lobster just because you have bad habits or you were bullied. Stand up straight and you’re more likely to be happy, live in a nice neighborhood, get good resources, and find a desirable partner. Body language matters in the social space we live in. Straighten up and people will notice. You’ll change both physically and spiritually. Standing up straight means accepting life and it means you’re willing to turn chaos into order. This is a way to show the world and yourself that you’re worthy and competent.
Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping
People are more likely to give medicine to their dogs than to take it themselves. We seem to care more about other people (or our pets) than ourselves. On top of that, we see the scientific world in a reductive manner, a series of laws or a combination of atoms. We see the world of experience as a combination of chaos, order, and consciousness. While order and chaos make it difficult for us to care about ourselves, consciousness is the solution. Chaos is despair, confusion, and unexplored territory. Order, on the other hand, is explored territory, a biological structure that’s been around for millions of years. In a way, order is safe and certain. Yet we respond instinctively to chaos.
Our environment is divided into male and female personalities. We associate order with masculinity because historically, men were in charge of building things. We associate chaos with femininity because all things are born of the unknown. Women are picky by nature and they often say no. No matter where you are, order and chaos are there and they’re both valuable. We naturally look for order, but chaos can lead to growth too. Threats and dangers challenge you and help you reach your full potential.
For most people, being naked is the same as being unprotected and vulnerable. Clothes protect not only our bodies but also our egos. People are afraid to tell the truth because it makes them naked and vulnerable. So does mediating between order and chaos.
So why would anyone give medicine to their dogs but not themselves? Deep down, we see ourselves as naked, ugly, ashamed, scared, unworthy, and defensive. You know yourself naked, you know your secrets, insecurities, flaws, and inadequacies. In a way, you feel contempt for yourself and you find excuses to punish yourself. Your dog, on the other hand, is innocent, harmless, and more deserving. Being naked shows us both good and evil. Self-consciousness is one of the features that separates humans from other animals. This awareness shows us how our defenselessness, mortality, and nakedness, and how we can exploit such weaknesses in others. Inflicting pain voluntarily makes us unique in the animal kingdom.
To take care of ourselves, we have to respect others first. Despite all of our flaws, we still have the ability to turn chaos into order by expressing gratitude and being thoughtful of others. We all have a part to play in the world, so take care of yourself.
Rule 3: Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You
There are different reasons why people choose friends who aren’t good for them. When people have a low opinion of themselves, they spend time with troublesome friends. Sometimes they want to rescue that person. Or they want to save others because they want to do what’s right. Sometimes you might do it to publicly display your strengths. Or sometimes you hang out with them because it’s easy.
Before helping anyone, find out why that person has problems. Not everyone’s exploited or a victim. Success is a mystery, and virtue is inexplicable, but failure is a combination of bad habits. When you have a friendship you wouldn’t recommend to someone you love, don’t have that friendship yourself. Choose those who want to be better, not worse. Surround yourself with people who support you.
Rule 4: Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today
In small communities, every member could stand out at something. Whatever it was you did, you had the chance to come out ahead in that domain. Nowadays though, in the digitally connected world, you can compare what you do to what anyone in the world is doing and there will always be someone better. This makes it easier than ever to make you feel incompetent. There’s always someone richer, more successful, more beautiful, or more talented out there. There seems to be no escape from mediocrity and the voice in your head makes matters worse. But it’s our job to stop listening to our internal voice.
The problem is that we think of things in binary terms, but they’re rarely as simple as success or failure. There are shades of gray, especially in a world as complex as ours. Also, there isn’t just one domain to “succeed” or “fail” at. You can always pick a different game or make up your own. Accept the fact that we all play several games and that it’s impossible to win at all of them. Finally, we must stop comparing ourselves to others and replace that feeling with gratitude for what we have.
When we’re young, comparing ourselves to others is necessary because we need standards. As we grow up though, we become individuals and the conditions of our lives can’t be compared to that of other people.
We must know what’s broken before we can fix it and we’re all broken in one way or another. Our internal critic can tell us the extent of our damage if we let it and we can use that to set things in order. But before we can do this, we must take care of ourselves, those around us, and the world. Our life is full of tiny decisions, and improving a few of those can lead to better results. The key is to aim small and soon you’ll be able to make incremental changes to the point that today, you’re going to be better than yesterday. This is compound interest.
While focusing on specific goals is important, this focus blinds us to everything else. Our time, attention, and energy are limited, so we must choose what we see and what we ignore. When we get what we want or when things go well, nothing happens. But when we have problems, our lack of a broader vision overwhelms us. For instance, you might be unhappy and even if the thing you want is right before you, you can’t see it because you’re pursuing something else.
What you aim at determines your trajectory moving forward. Part of being human is desiring things, but we can’t get everything we want. Therefore, we must be conscious of our desires, articulate them, prioritize them, and organize them. This is the way forward. Also, pay attention to what happens in your surroundings, as well as what happens inside your head. Find something that bothers you, something to fix, and then go ahead and fix it.
Rule 5: Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything that Makes You Dislike Them
The best thing you can do for your child is to give them opportunities to be independent. If you have to micromanage everything they do because they misbehave, you’re depriving them of freedom. As soon as they’re old enough, children must learn what “no” means.
Frustrating interactions with your children add up and this builds resentment over time. It doesn’t help that a lot of parents are afraid of emotionally damaging their children. Despite what we were led to believe, children aren’t good by nature, so to become fully functional members of society, we must teach them and provide them with guidance.
A lot of parents fear that their children won’t like them or love them if they reprimand them. These parents want, in a way, to be their children’s friends. As a parent, you should never sacrifice respect for friendship. Your job as a parent is to teach children how to behave so that they have meaningful interactions with others. Disciplining a child is your responsibility. You should never get angry or seek revenge for their misdeeds and this demands constant effort. Children need, after all, rules and structure.
The words “discipline” and “punishment” scare modern parents, but they are necessary. To teach your children, determine what you want. Then encourage them to do it and when they do, give them a reward. For this purpose, negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. This happens because we feel more negative about a loss than we feel about a similar-sized gain. Negative emotions are a tool we can use to teach our children.
Overprotecting a child is doing them a disservice. By sheltering them from fear and pain, you’re not preparing them for the real world. Children must be disciplined in order for them to behave well in social situations and make friends.
So how do you discipline children? Don’t have too many rules or you’ll frustrate them. Then, you need to figure out what you’ll do when the child breaks one. As a general rule, use the least force to enforce rules.
Examples of rules include:
- Don’t hit unless you do it in self-defense
- Don’t bully others
- Eat in a civilized way
- Go to sleep peacefully
- Take care of your things
Using the minimum necessary force involves trying different things, such as verbal commands or glaring at them. For children, seeing that their good behavior is reinforced is the reward.
“No” never means violence. Time out is an effective strategy, just welcome the child as soon as they control their temper. Physical restraint must be needed if the child refuses, just hold them carefully but firmly.
These are the principles the author recommends:
- Limit the rules
- Use minimum necessary force
- Parents should come in pairs
- Parents should understand their capacity for vengeance, arrogance, resentment, and deceit.
- Your job as a parent is to make your children socially desirable
Rule 6: Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World
Throughout humanity, a lot of people questioned the value of our race’s existence and this led to some horrendous acts. By experiencing evil and suffering firsthand, those people inflicted it onto the world.
That said, some of them take responsibility for their own failure. This encourages them to take advantage of opportunities, work hard, get over bitterness, and resentment, treat those around them with respect, and develop good habits. If you know that what you’re doing is wrong, stop. If everyone did this, there would be no evil in the world.
Rule 7: Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient)
Life is suffering. The easy way out involves pursuing pleasure and doing everything you can to get it. People have been pursuing instant gratification for thousands of years. The alternative is sacrifice. This involves giving up something of value now so that you can get something of greater value in the future. The bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the reward. Usually, being successful requires you to delay gratification. By making the proper sacrifice now, you can make the future better. The opposite of expedience is meaning and meaning is the right balance between order and chaos.
Rule 8: Tell the Truth – Or, At Least, Don’t Lie
When confronted with telling a story or answering truthfully, always choose the latter. Lies, even when well-meant, can lead to uncomfortable situations or can have serious consequences. Practice telling the truth until it becomes second nature.
Lying is a way to manipulate others to get what you want. But if you’re not careful, you can also lie to yourself as a way to confront reality. But there’s an alternative to get what you want, you can accept reality and you can speak your mind as uncomfortable as it may be. Don’t hide. Reveal yourself to others, but more importantly, reveal yourself to yourself. Say no when you have to and face the consequences of doing so. More importantly, say no as often as you can, or else you’ll become the person who agrees to everything, and by the time you want to refuse, you’ll be unable to do so. Embody the voice of authenticity. Take responsibility for your actions and don’t lie.
Telling the truth often leads to conflict, but conflict can lead to victory too, you just have to be willing to deal with the conflicts as they come up. Lies corrupt the world. A little lie can snowball into more lies until everything falls apart.
Rule 9: Assume that the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t
Instead of giving advice, listen. People talk because that’s how they listen, but they can’t do it alone. Talking is a way to simulate a world where fictional versions of ourselves play out different scenarios. The person who listens collaborates and tests your claims. Listening to someone else is allowing the person talking to listen to themselves. You can communicate with the talking person, by using facial expressions, but not replying verbally.
The act of listening is rare. Listening without judgment is even rarer. It’s worth mentioning that there are different conversational variants. There is something called the dominance-hierarchy conversation. Through this type of conversation, the speaker wants to denigrate those with opposing viewpoints, use selective evidence, and impress the listeners. The goal isn’t to think, but to gain support for an oversimplified view of the world.
Another variant is the lecture. The lecturer talks and the audience talks back, but not verbally (though they can use their postures or facial expressions). The job of the lecturer is to tell stories around facts in a way that the audience can understand.
The last type of conversation is mutual exploration where listener and speaker organize their thoughts around a complex topic they’re mutually interested in. You must respect each other’s conclusions. The goal of this type of conversation isn’t to win, but to explore a topic together.
Rule 10: Be Precise in Your Speech
The perception of the things around us is a tiny part of a larger and much more complex ecosystem. As soon as the world changes so will our beliefs. Our view of the world (and everything in it) is reductive. We see the things around us in terms of their usefulness. Similarly, we identify ourselves with fictional characters, sports heroes, or patriotic symbols. We tell ourselves stories related to everything around us, but as the world changes, so do those stories.
When there’s conflict, you have to sort it out even if it ends up in a fight. Addressing and solving problems (as painful as it can be) is worth the trouble. Unprocessed reasons for failed marital problems will follow everyone involved for the rest of their lives. The fights you’re not having often signal the beginning of the end. Dealing with those problems means facing chaos. To give structure to chaos, you first have to let it unfold. So speak carefully and precisely.
We organize our soul and world through communication. By using precise language, you turn them into objects that will work for you. They are useful and simple. Vague language makes the world around you complex, unmanageable, and overwhelming. To discover your life’s meaning, you must articulate thoughts and phrases in a precise manner. Confront the chaos, map out the future, and admit your desires.
Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding
Kids who skateboard are skilled and worth admiring. But since skateboarding can be dangerous, not everyone sees it that way and a lot of playgrounds were demolished. Despite their danger, playgrounds are important because they’re challenging. Humans are attracted to danger and risk, it invigorates us and excites us. But there’s something inherently wrong about preventing others from doing what they love, even if there’s danger involved in their favorite activity.
In the past few decades, it seems that humanity has naturalized its ability to destroy. Yet this is the same race that’s capable of some truly amazing feats, such as parkour, mountain biking, crane climbing, freestyle snowboarding, surfing, and of course, skateboarding.
Rule 12: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One On the Street
Being alive means embracing our own limitations. Without limitations, we would be depriving ourselves of being us. Our limitations are what propel us forward in life. Without limitations, we would be nothing. We don’t love people despite their limitations, we love people because of their limitations. Aim high and act in accordance with your goals. The things you can control should be in order. Everything in disorder you should repair.
Cats aren’t social animals, they’re semi-domesticated, and they don’t do tricks. When you see a cat on the street, you should pet it. This is a simple pleasure in life that no one can take away from you.
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