Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for life

Jordan Peterson’s new best-selling 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos is different from most self-help books.   The author doesn’t promise happiness or success.  It is a manual for survival in a harsh, unforgiving world.

He teaches that suffering is inevitable, happiness is not a worthwhile goal, and the path of least resistance in life leads to failure, addiction, depression and hatred of oneself and ultimately of the human race.  But he says it also is possible to pull yourself together, listen to your best moral intuitions and live a life of meaning and integrity.

Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and also had a clinical psychology practice, which means that he had an opportunity to test his theories in practice.

He has been in the news for his opposition to his opposition to the revolution in thinking about gender and his defense of academic freedom.

12 Rules made a strong impression on me.  Peterson is the kind of writer with whom I hold imaginary conversations in my mind.  I think he has blind spots, which I will get to, but none that negate the value of the book.

Here are Peterson’s rules.

1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
2. Treat yourself like someone you were responsible for helping.
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else was today.
5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
8. Tell the truth—or at least, don’t lie.
9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
10. Be precise in your speech.
11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

The key fact about life is that it is suffering, Peterson wrote.  Even the most fortunate can expect to experience either serious illness or the illness of loved ones during our lifetimes and then old age and death.

Be grateful for whatever happiness and joy come your way, he says but make your life a quest for something meaningful, not for happiness.

Face with world standing straight with your shoulders back, he says, which is almost word-for-word something my mother told me when I was a boy.  This body language braces you to face the world and its challenges.  (A good breakfast also helps).

Making yourself strong isn’t everything, but it is the first step to anything.  Being weak and agreeable only sets you up to be a victim.

Look at what you do that hurts you.  Look at what you don’t do that you need to do.  If you are honest with yourself, you know what these things are.

Start with some improvement in your life that you know is within your power to make.  Don’t feel embarrassed if it seems trivial.  Just do it.  And then reward yourself for doing it.

Minor improvement day after day is like compound interest, Peterson wrote.  You’d be surprised how much you can change your life over time with tiny incremental changes.

Two of Peterson’s rules have to do with child-rearing.   He wrote about his and his wife’s experiences in getting very young children—their own children, and other children they were baby-sitting—to eat properly at mealtime and to go to bed quietly at bedtime.

On the one hand, he says, it is necessary to impose a minimum of discipline, if necessary involving a minimum of physical force, to set boundaries for a child’s behavior.  Children want and need boundaries in order to flourish.

But before you discipline a child, he said, you need to examine your motives.  Parents—all human beings—need to be aware of their capacity for being harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful.  And you need to praise and reward good behavior.

Another rule has to do with adolescents and risky behavior.   Children need to be able to take reasonable risks in order to learn courage and competence.  If they’re overly protected from danger as children, they’ll be helpless in the face of danger as adults.

One of the themes of Peterson’s book is the necessary tension between order and chaos.  We all need order, both internal and external.  But we also have to be able to face chaos, which is the realm of danger, adventure, the unknown and new possibilities.

Another is the universal capability of evil.   The difference between strong and weak people, Peterson wrote, is that strong people are aware of their capability for evil, while weak people are not, because they haven’t ever had an opportunity to be evil.   Pushed into chaos, such as military combat, and seemingly harmless people can be capable of horrible atrocities.

I myself have long believed in the existence of evil.   There is a difference between badness, which a failure to be good, and evil, which is hatred of the good.   Cain killed Abel, not to benefit himself, but because Abel’s sacrifices to the Lord were more acceptable than his.

There is a Cain in myself.  When one of my peers’ achievements exceeded my own, I felt a blow to my self-esteem and started to tear the person down in my own mind.  I cured myself of this by going to the other person and congratulating them on their accomplishment.  When I did this, I had a feeling as if a needle had been stuck into an infected boil, and all the poison started to drain away.

Peterson says you should pay attention to your resentments.  They are the keys to what you need to change.   As for myself, I’ve nursed resentments for years against people who’ve insulted me or wronged me.  I’ve come to understand that my resentment was really directed at myself, and my failure to respond adequately.  Nursing resentment neither helped me nor hurt the person I resented.  As someone said, it was like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.

Jordan Peterson

Once you’ve put your life in order and faced the evil in yourself, you need to find purpose in life.   If you’re unable to believe in the Christian or some other religion, you have to find it within yourself—although the Bible and the other great recurring myths and stories provide clues.

12 Rules is full of references to Bible stories, myth and legend, and to the thought of writers such as Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Carl Jung and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

I think the main effect of these references is to convince the young male reader that, in trying to get rid of bad habits and form good habits, he is engaged in an epic quest.  Which he is!

Nothing is more difficult than to change yourself.   “He that ruleth his spirit [is better] than he who taketh a city.”  (Proverbs 16:23)

Peterson also illustrates his ideas with highly pertinent references to his own life and struggles, his self-destructive friends and his therapy clients.

The last chapter of the book is about his beloved daughter Mikhaila and her eight-year struggle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which was both crippling and severely painful, and how the family coped.

The culmination was that she was saved by something that could just as easily not have happened.  To me, this is terrifying.  But it also is the human condition.  We all hang by weaker threads, and skate on thinner ice, than we know.


The main blind spot in Peterson’s book is lack of mention of the need for community.  People can and do get together to provide moral support for each other, and to work for social change.

Peterson is unduly skeptical of the possibility of collective action.  Maybe it is because he made his own way in life without the support of an old-boy network.   Maybe it is because he sees collective action in terms of Nazis, Communists and campus radicals.

I do think he is on the right side of the controversies in which he is directly involved—the excesses of campus radicals, the futility of identity politics and the defense of academic freedom.   His broader thinking consists of generalizations about abstractions such as Equality, Hierarchy and The Left, disconnected from actual economic and political institutions.

None of this proves his 12 Rules are wrong. There is no contradiction between solidarity and self-reliance.  A would-be community organizer or political activist would do well to follow Peterson’s 12 Rules, except the one about no doing anything until your house is in perfect order.


Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist.  This web site has links to videos of (among other things) his lectures on the Bible and on his previous book, Maps of Meaning.

What’s So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson? by Tom Bartlett for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Jordan Peterson: ‘The pursuit of happiness is a pointless goal’ by Tim Lott for The Guardian.

Book Review: Twelve Rules for Life by Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex.  Why C.S. Lewis might not approve of Jordan Peterson.




Afterthought [4/18/2018]

In addition to this blog, I write book reviews, which I send by e-mail to friends and acquaintances.  Some but not all of these reviews appear on this blog.  If you would like to get on my e-mail list, contact me at <philipebersole6(at)gmail(dot)com>.

Two of my e-mail correspondents set me a link to this review of 12 Rules.

Jordan Peterson and Fascist Mysticism by Pankaj Mishra.

I did read Mishra’s review before I made this post, but didn’t link to it because it was about the tendencies that Mishra thinks Peterson represents, not about what Peterson actually wrote.

I think Mishra had it in him to write a much better review, based on the ideas in his book, The Age of Anger, arguing that Peterson’s Victorian rugged individualism is insufficient to help people shipwrecked by a heartless modernity.

I also was sent this link.

Sorry, Jordan Peterson: rage isn’t a great look for a self-help guru by Nesrine Malik for The Guardian.

I agree Peterson was intemperate in his response to Mishra’s review.

Click on the links to the two articles if you’re curious.  But I recommend (assuming you don’t have time to read 12 Rules itself) that you watch Peterson’s videos, read the linked reviews from the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Guardian and Slate Star Codex and judge for yourself.

[Headline changed 7/21/2018]

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One Response to “Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for life”

  1. Steve Badrich Says:

    This is interesting–and characterized, as usual, by Phil’s willingness to think things through, put someone’s else’s arguments in context, and find something plausible within the quite different, and necessarily partial, views of others. Speaking of today’s unforgiving world: in this morning’s New York Times, the columnist David Brooks has a column about social isolation and loneliness, and the destructive effects on millions caused by turning away from actual human connection toward the mirage-world of social media. Some of the figures Brooks cites are striking. Depression, I believe he writes, is up “tenfold” since 1960. A majority of children born to mothers under 30 today are born outside marriage. (These figures quoted from memory from a column I skimmed this morning.) What Brooks DOESN’T grasp, in my opinion, is the causal connection between the hyper-capitalist, hyper-individualist world that Brooks and other Times columnists like Tom Friedman have advocated for decades–and the stressed-out American citizens who pass us every day on the sidewalk, or stare back at us from the bathroom mirror.–Steve Badrich, San Antonio, Texas

    Liked by 1 person

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