12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

date Aug 27, 2019
authors Jordan B. Peterson
reading time 18 mins

Table of Contents

Counter-intuitive

Why a total free agent is not a good idea

if I’m a free agent, my first reaction to a command might just be that nobody, not even God, tells me what to do, even if it’s good for me. But the story of the golden calf also reminds us that without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions — and there’s nothing freeing about that.

What happens if there is nothing bad?

And even if it were possible to permanently banish everything threatening—everything dangerous (and, therefore, everything challenging and interesting)—that would mean only that another danger would emerge: that of permanent human infantilism and absolute uselessness. How could the nature of man ever reach its full potential without challenge and danger?

Pursuit of life is not happiness

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great documenter of the slave-labour-camp horrors of the latter, once wrote that the “pitiful ideology” holding that “human beings are created for happiness” was an ideology “done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel.” In a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual.

Violence is the norm, peace is not

Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: learned, inculcated, earned.

What does God lack?

told her an old Jewish story, which I believe is part of the commentary on the Torah. It begins with a question, structured like a Zen koan. Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack? The answer? Limitation.

What happens when you have everything?

If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being. That idea has helped me deal with the terrible fragility of Being.

Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

Winner takes all / Pareto’s principle

The majority of scientific papers are published by a very small group of scientists. A tiny proportion of musicians produces almost all the recorded commercial music. Just a handful of authors sell all the books…Similarly, just four classical composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky) wrote almost all the music played by modern orchestras.

Yin-Yang, Order-Chais, Mutable-Fixed

The Taoist symbol is a circle enclosing twin serpents, head to tail. The black serpent, chaos, has a white dot in its head. The white serpent, order, has a black dot in its head. This is because chaos and order are interchangeable, as well as eternally juxtaposed. There is nothing so certain that it cannot vary. Even the sun itself has its cycles of instability. Likewise, there is nothing so mutable that it cannot be fixed.

Mother Nature is harsh

It is because of the existence of such things, of course, that we attempt to modify our surroundings, protecting our children, building cities and transportation systems and growing food and generating power. If Mother Nature wasn’t so hell-bent on our destruction, it would be easier for us to exist in simple harmony with her dictates.

Being social hierarchically conscious beings

There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society..

How having a high status changes your thinking

If you have a high status, on the other hand, the counter’s cold, pre-reptilian mechanics assume that your niche is secure, productive and safe, and that you are well buttressed with social support. It thinks the chance that something will damage you is low and can be safely discounted. Change might be opportunity, instead of disaster. The serotonin flows plentifully. This renders you confident and calm, standing tall and straight, and much less on constant alert.

Positive feedback Loops

Circumstances change, and so can you. Positive feedback loops, adding effect to effect, can spiral counterproductively in a negative direction, but can also work to get you ahead. That’s the other, far more optimistic lesson of Price’s law and the Pareto distribution: those who start to have will probably get more.

Rule 2: Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping.

Too much order is not great either

Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly. It does so as the forced migration, the concentration camp, and the soul-devouring uniformity of the goose-step.

A balance of order and chaos

Order is not enough. You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging, because there are still vital and important new things to be learned. Nonetheless, chaos can be too much. You can’t long tolerate being swamped and overwhelmed beyond your capacity to cope while you are learning what you still need to know. Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering.

Better to be competent than to always protect

that extreme case, the too-cautious, too-caring parent merely substitutes him or herself for the other terrible problems of life. This is the great Freudian Oedipal nightmare. It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.

Knowing myself

But you know so much more about yourself. You’re bad enough, as other people know you. But only you know the full range of your secret transgressions, insufficiencies and inadequacies. No one is more familiar than you with all the ways your mind and body are flawed.

Nature vs evil

Dogs are predators. So are cats. They kill things and eat them. It’s not pretty. But we’ll take them as pets and care for them, and give them their medication when they’re sick, regardless. Why? They’re predators, but it’s just their nature. They do not bear responsibility for it. They’re hungry, not evil.

How to take good care of yourself:

You must determine where you are going, so that you can bargain for yourself, so that you don’t end up resentful, vengeful and cruel. You have to articulate your own principles, so that you can defend yourself against others’ taking inappropriate advantage of you, and so that you are secure and safe while you work and play. You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself.

Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you.

Wanting and needing help

Imagine someone not doing well. He needs help. He might even want it. But it is not easy to distinguish between someone truly wanting and needing help and someone who is merely exploiting a willing helper. The distinction is difficult even for the person who is wanting and needing and possibly exploiting.

Villain vs Hero

But a villain who despairs of his villainy has not become a hero. A hero is something positive, not just the absence of evil.

Down is a lot easier than up

The same thing happens when well-meaning counsellors place a delinquent teen among comparatively civilized peers. The delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up.

Before helping someone

Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn’t merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation. It’s the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable. In my experience—clinical and otherwise—it’s just never been that simple. Besides, if you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past.

Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

To fail in the longterm, you cultivate small bad habits today

Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable. To fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time. And once someone has spent enough time cultivating bad habits and biding their time, they are much diminished.

Small improvement is better than drastic change

Rogers believed it was impossible to convince someone to change for the better. The desire to improve was, instead, the precondition for progress. I’ve had court-mandated psychotherapy clients. They did not want my help. They were forced to seek it. It did not work. It was a travesty.

Why compare when there’s plenty to do?

To begin with, there is not just one game at which to succeed or fail. There are many games and, more specifically, many good games — games that match your talents, involve you productively with other people, and sustain and even improve themselves across time.

What happens if you fail

If you don’t succeed at one, you can try another. You can pick something better matched to your unique mix of strengths, weaknesses and situation. Furthermore, if changing games does not work, you can invent a new one.

We are playing many games

It’s also unlikely that you’re playing only one game. You have a career and friends and family members and personal projects and artistic endeavors and athletic pursuits. You might consider judging your success across all the games you play.

Why comparison is baseless

When the internal critic puts you down using such comparisons, here’s how it operates: First, it selects a single, arbitrary domain of comparison (fame, maybe, or power). Then it acts as if that domain is the only one that is relevant. Then it contrasts you unfavourably with someone truly stellar, within that domain.

Focus on yourself

The big ape could be safely ignored. That’s how you deal with the overwhelming complexity of the world: you ignore it, while you concentrate minutely on your private concerns. You see things that facilitate your movement forward, toward your desired goals. You detect obstacles, when they pop up in your path. You’re blind to everything else (and there’s a lot of everything else—so you’re very blind). And it has to be that way, because there is much more of the world than there is of you.

Unique problems with unique solutions

You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely. You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself.

Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

Too much order in parenting

The desire of his parents to let their child act without correction on every impulse perversely produced precisely the opposite effect: they deprived him instead of every opportunity to engage in independent action…It was a classic example of too much chaos breeding too much order.

Balancing personal problems with societal help

Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. We have learned to live together and organize our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works.

Kids are always testing permissible behaviour

snake does not have to be taught to strike. It’s in the nature of the beast. Two-year-olds, statistically speaking, are the most violent of people. They kick, hit and bite, and they steal the property of others. They do so to explore, to express outrage and frustration, and to gratify their impulsive desires. More importantly, for our purposes, they do so to discover the true limits of permissible behaviour.

Being firm and consistent in the enforcing the rules and boundaries

Consistent correction of such action indicates the limits of acceptable aggression to the child. Its absence merely heightens curiosity—so the child will hit and bite and kick, if he is aggressive and dominant, until something indicates a limit.

By fully present with kids

Your daughter has been very reserved since she became a teenager. You wish she would talk more. That’s the target: more communicative daughter. One morning, over breakfast, she shares an anecdote about school. That’s an excellent time to pay attention. That’s the reward. Stop texting and listen. Unless you don’t want her to tell you anything ever again.

The goal is not to protect, but to maximise learning

the fundamental moral question is not how to shelter children completely from misadventure and failure, so they never experience any fear or pain, but how to maximize their learning so that useful knowledge may be gained with minimal cost.

Why making friends is important

If a child has not been taught to behave properly by the age of four, it will forever be difficult for him or her to make friends. The research literature is quite clear on this. This matters, because peers are the primary source of socialization after the age of four.

2 rules for parenting and patience

Disciplinary principle 1: limit the rules. Principle 2: use minimum necessary force. Here’s a third: parents should come in pairs. Raising young children is demanding and exhausting. Because of this, it’s easy for a parent to make a mistake.

Rule#6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

Organize your own world first

Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? Let your own soul guide you.

Rule #7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).

Delayed gratification

People watched the successful succeed and the unsuccessful fail for thousands and thousands of years. We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.

Socialism

The socialism that soon afterward became so attractive to me as an alternative proved equally insubstantial; with time, I came to understand, through the great George Orwell, that much of such thinking found its motivation in hatred of the rich and successful, instead of true regard for the poor. Besides, the socialists were more intrinsically capitalist than the capitalists. They believed just as strongly in money. They just thought that if different people had the money, the problems plaguing humanity would vanish. This is simply untrue. There are many problems that money does not solve, and others that it makes worse.

Maybe it’s my own fault

Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you.

Rule#8: Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.

The voice of authenticity vs inauthenticity

“Did what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my methods were wrong. I still have something to learn.” That is the voice of authenticity. “Did what I want happen? No. Then the world is unfair. People are jealous, and too stupid to understand. It is the fault of something or someone else.” That is the voice of inauthenticity.

Uh! The parent that never wants their kids to leave home

The inability of a son to thrive independently is exploited by a mother bent on shielding her child from all disappointment and pain. He never leaves, and she is never lonely. It’s an evil conspiracy, forged slowly, as the pathology unfolds, by thousands of knowing winks and nods. She plays the martyr, doomed to support her son, and garners nourishing sympathy, like a vampire, from supporting friends.

Memory is not objective truth

Memory is not a description of the objective past. Memory is a tool. Memory is the past’s guide to the future. If you remember that something bad happened, and you can figure out why, then you can try to avoid that bad thing happening again.

Rule #9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

If you’re reading this book, there’s a strong probability that you’re a privileged person. You can read. You have time to read. You’re perched high in the clouds. It took untold generations to get you where you are. A little gratitude might be in order. If you’re going to insist on bending the world to your way, you better have your reasons. If you’re going to stand your ground, you better have your reasons.

Are fewer people better?

No one in the modern world may without objection express the opinion that existence would be bettered by the absence of Jews, blacks, Muslims, or Englishmen. Why, then, is it virtuous to propose that the planet might be better off, if there were fewer people on it? I can’t help but see a skeletal, grinning face, gleeful at the possibility of the apocalypse, hiding not so very far behind such statements. And why does it so often seem to be the very people standing so visibly against prejudice who so often appear to feel obligated to denounce humanity itself?

Why communism rose?

When the communists established the Soviet Union after the First World War, people could be forgiven for hoping that the utopian collectivist dreams their new leaders purveyed were possible. The decayed social order of the late nineteenth century produced the trenches and mass slaughters of the Great War. The gap between rich and poor was extreme, and most people slaved away in conditions worse than those later described by Orwell.

Debate on equal pay

The introduction of the “equal pay for equal work” argument immediately complicates even salary comparison beyond practicality, for one simple reason: who decides what work is equal? It’s not possible. That’s why the marketplace exists.

Every individual is unique

Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. That sentence should be written in capital letters. Every person is unique — and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability. Period. None of this complexity is ever discussed by the postmodern/Marxist thinkers.

Why agreeable people eventually get bitter

Agreeable, compassionate, empathic, conflict-averse people (all those traits group together) let people walk on them, and they get bitter. They sacrifice themselves for others, sometimes excessively, and cannot comprehend why that is not reciprocated.