12 Rules for Life


Jordan Peterson

My Thoughts

Peterson draws on psychology, history, philosophy and religion to craft an exploration into the essence of what it means to be human.

Highlights & Summary Notes

The ancient part of your brain specialised for assessing dominance watches how you are treated by other people. On that evidence, it renders a determination of your value and assigns you a status. If you are judged by your peers as of little worth, the counter restricts serotonin availability.

1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back

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. The serotonin flows plentifully. This renders you confident and calm, standing tall and straight, and much less on constant alert.

Our anxiety systems are very practical. They assume that anything you run away from is dangerous. The proof of that is, of course, the fact you ran away.

If you came by your poor posture honestly—even if you were unpopular or bullied at home or in grade school—it’s not necessarily appropriate now. Circumstances change.

If you present yourself as defeated, then people will react to you as if you are losing. If you start to straighten up, then people will look at and treat you differently.

2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

People are better at filling and properly administering prescription medication to their pets than to themselves.

The world of experience: order, chaos, consciousness. It is our eternal subjugation to the first two that makes us doubt the validity of existence—that makes us throw up our hands in despair, and fail to care for ourselves properly. It is proper understanding of the third that allows us the only real way out.

  • Order is the place and time where the oft-invisible axioms you live by organise your experience and your actions so that what should happen does happen.
  • Chaos is the new place and time that emerges when tragedy strikes suddenly, or malevolence reveals its paralysing visage, even in the confines of your own home.
  • Consciousness is the process that mediates between order and chaos.

We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them. We are adapted, in the deepest Darwinian sense, not to the world of objects, but to the meta-realities of order and chaos, yang and yin. Chaos and order make up the eternal, transcendent environment of the living.

To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure.

You need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering.

If we wish to take care of ourselves properly, we would have to respect ourselves.

You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued.

To treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping is, instead, to consider what would be truly good for you. This is not “what you want.” It is also not “what would make you happy.”

You need to consider the future and think, “What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly? What career would challenge me and render me productive and helpful, so that I could shoulder my share of the load, and enjoy the consequences? ****What should I be doing, when I have some freedom, to improve my health, expand my knowledge, and strengthen my body?”

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.

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

When well-meaning school counsellors place a delinquent teen among comparatively civilised peers. The delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up.

Failure is easy, too. It’s easier not to shoulder a burden. It’s easier not to think, and not to do, and not to care. It’s easier to put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today, and drown the upcoming months and years in today’s cheap pleasures.

It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you. It’s appropriate and praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve.

If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not.

People who are not aiming up will do the opposite. They will offer a former smoker a cigarette and a former alcoholic a beer. They will over-ride your accomplishment with a past action, real or imaginary, of their own. But mostly they are dragging you down because your new improvements cast their faults in an even dimmer light.

Don’t think that it is easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. A good, healthy person is an ideal. It requires strength and daring to stand up near such a person.

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

There will always be people better than you.

You might come to realise that the specifics of the many games you are playing are so unique to you, so individual, that comparison to others is simply inappropriate.

When you have something to say, silence is a lie—and tyranny feeds on lies.

Be cautious when you’re comparing yourself to others. You’re a singular being, once you’re an adult. You have your own particular, specific problems—financial, intimate, psychological, and otherwise. Those are embedded in the unique broader context of your existence.

We are always and simultaneously at point “a” (which is less desirable than it could be), moving towards point “b” (which we deem better, in accordance with our explicit and implicit values). We always encounter the world in a state of insufficiency and seek its correction.

Here’s a hint. The future is like the past. But there’s a crucial difference. The past is fixed, but the future—it could be better.

Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak.

Called upon properly, the internal critic will suggest something to set in order, which you could set in order—voluntarily, without resentment, even with pleasure. Ask yourself: is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could set straight?

Then you ask yourself, “What could I do, that I would do, that would accomplish that, and what small thing would I like as a reward?”

You cannot aim yourself at anything if you are completely undisciplined and untutored.

You might start by not thinking—or, more accurately, but less trenchantly, by refusing to subjugate your faith to your current rationality, and its narrowness of view.

It means instead that you must quit manoeuvring and calculating and conniving and scheming and enforcing and demanding and avoiding and ignoring and punishing. It means you must place your old strategies aside.

You no longer have to be envious, because you no longer know that someone else truly has it better. You no longer have to be frustrated, because you have learned to aim low, and to be patient.

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

Modern parents are simply paralysed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason. They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good.

It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. It is not anger at misbehaviour. It is not revenge for a misdeed.

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.

People often get basic psychological questions backwards. (e.g. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time that’s the mystery)

When someone does something you are trying to get them to do, reward them.

Emotions, positive and negative, come in two usefully differentiated variants. Satisfaction (technically, satiation) tells us that what we did was good, while hope (technically, incentive reward) indicates that something pleasurable is on the way.

The friendless child too often becomes the lonely, antisocial or depressed teenager and adult. This is not good. Much more of our sanity than we commonly realise is a consequence of our fortunate immersion in a social community.

Bad laws drive out respect for good laws.

Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.

6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world

Distress, whether psychic, physical, or intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism (that is, the radical rejection of value, meaning and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations.

We build structures to live in. We build families, and states, and countries. We abstract the principles upon which those structures are founded and formulate systems of belief. At first we inhabit those structures and beliefs like Adam and Eve in Paradise. But success makes us complacent. We forget to pay attention. We take what we have for granted. We turn a blind eye. We fail to notice that things are changing, or that corruption is taking root. And everything falls apart. Is that the fault of reality—of God? Or do things fall apart because we have not paid sufficient attention?

Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is.

Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak of with honour.

You will then begin to discover new, more subtle things that you are doing wrong. Stop doing those, too. After some months and years of diligent effort, your life will become simpler and less complicated.

7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Delayed gratification — that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present.

It takes a long time to learn to keep anything later for yourself, or to share it with someone else (and those are very much the same thing as, in the former case, you are sharing with your future self).

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.

What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice.

Something valuable, given up, ensures future prosperity.

Consider then that the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering is a good. Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.

Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world.

Meaning trumps expedience. Meaning gratifies all impulses, now and forever. That’s why we can detect it.

You may come to ask yourself, “What should I do today?” in a manner that means “How could I use my time to make things better, instead of worse?”

There is no faith and no courage and no sacrifice in doing what is expedient. There is no careful observation that actions and presuppositions matter, or that the world is made of what matters.

To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may neither know what you want, nor what you truly need. Meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord. You can set up the preconditions, you can follow meaning, when it manifests itself, but you cannot simply produce it, as an act of will. Meaning signifies that you are in the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between order and chaos, where everything lines up as best it can at that moment.

What is expedient works only for the moment. It’s immediate, impulsive and limited. What is meaningful, by contrast, is the organisation of what would otherwise merely be expedient into a symphony of Being.

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

Someone living a life-lie is attempting to manipulate reality with perception, thought and action, so that only some narrowly desired and pre-defined outcome is allowed to exist.

A naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie.

A sin of commission occurs when you do something you know to be wrong. A sin of omission occurs when you let something bad happen when you could do something to stop it. ("If you see fraud and don’t say fraud, you are a fraud." — Nassim Taleb, Antifragle)

If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself.

Researchers have recently discovered that new genes in the central nervous system turn themselves on when an organism is placed (or places itself) in a new situation. These genes code for new proteins. These proteins are the building blocks for new structures in the brain. This means that a lot of you is still nascent, in the most physical of senses, and will not be called forth by stasis. You have to say something, go somewhere and do things to get turned on. And, if not…you remain incomplete, and life is too hard for anyone incomplete.

A vision of the future, the desirable future, is necessary. Such a vision links action taken now with important, long-term, foundational values.

If you make a move and it isn’t helping you win, then, by definition, it’s a bad move. You need to try something different. You remember the old joke: insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

“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.

An aim reduces anxiety, because if you have no aim everything can mean anything or nothing, and neither of those two options makes for a tranquil spirit.

You must make friends with what you don’t know, instead of what you know. (see "Via Negitiva" in Antifragile)

You should never sacrifice what you could be for what you are. You should never give up the better that resides within for the security you already have.

Set your ambitions, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power.

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

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. That’s the purpose of memory. It’s not “to remember the past.” It’s to stop the same damn thing from happening over and over.

People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare—just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world.

A method for solving disputes: Stop the discussion for a moment, and institute this rule: ‘Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.’

  • You genuinely come to understand what the person is saying.
  • The act of summary aids the person in consolidation and utility of memory.
  • The difficulty it poses to the careless construction of straw-man arguments.

If you first give the devil his due, looking at his arguments from his perspective, you can (1) find the value in them, and learn something in the process, or (2) hone your positions against them (if you still believe they are wrong) and strengthen your arguments further against challenge.

A dominance hierarchy conversation — where one participant is trying to attain victory for his point of view.

When a genuine listening conversation is taking place, one person at a time has the floor, and everyone else is listening.

Women are often intent on formulating the problem when they are discussing something, and they need to be listened to—even questioned—to help ensure clarity in the formulation.

A conversation of mutual exploration has a topic, generally complex, of genuine interest to the participants. Everyone participating is trying to solve a problem, instead of insisting on the a priori validity of their own positions.

The conversation of mutual exploration requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known. You already know what you know, after all—and, unless your life is perfect, what you know is not enough.

Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.

10. Be precise in your speech

When we look at the world, we perceive only what is enough for our plans and actions to work and for us to get by.

Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission.

Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future? Because the possibility of a monster lurks underneath all disagreements and errors.

If you wait instead until what you are refusing to investigate comes a-knocking at your door, things will certainly not go so well for you.

Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists.

When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it—often communally, if we negotiate; if we reach consensus.

Something is out there in the woods. You know that with certainty. But often it’s only a squirrel. If you refuse to look, however, then it’s a dragon, and you’re no knight: you’re a mouse confronting a lion; a rabbit, paralysed by the gaze of a wolf. And I am not saying that it’s always a squirrel. Often it’s something truly terrible. But even what is terrible in actuality often pales in significance compared to what is terrible in imagination. And often what cannot be confronted because of its horror in imagination can in fact be confronted when reduced to its-still-admittedly-terrible actuality.

If you shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses, reality itself will become unsustainably disorganised and chaotic. Then it will grow bigger and swallow all order, all sense, and all predictability.

You must determine where you have been in your life, so that you can know where you are now. You can’t get from point A to point B unless you are already at point A, and if you’re just “anywhere” the chances you are at point A are very small indeed.

Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life.

11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

We’re hard-wired to enjoy risk. We feel invigorated and excited when we work to optimise our future performance, while playing in the present. Otherwise we lumber around, sloth-like, unconscious, unformed and careless.

Almost 80 percent of students majoring in the fields of healthcare, public administration, psychology and education, which comprise one-quarter of all degrees, are female.

Among never-married adults aged 30 to 59, men are three times as likely as women to say they do not ever want to marry (27 vs 8 percent).

Culture takes with one hand, but in some fortunate places it gives more with the other. To think about culture only as oppressive is ignorant and ungrateful, as well as dangerous.

Consider this in regard to oppression: any hierarchy creates winners and losers. The winners are, of course, more likely to justify the hierarchy and the losers to criticise it. But (1) the collective pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy (as some will be better and some worse at that pursuit not matter what it is) and (2) it is the pursuit of goals that in large part lends life its sustaining meaning.

In societies that are well-functioning competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status.

The most valid personality trait predictors of long-term success in Western countries are intelligence (as measured with cognitive ability or IQ tests) and conscientiousness (a trait characterised by industriousness and orderliness).

The problem with SJW gender arguments: "Gender is constructed, but an individual who desires gender re-assignment surgery is to be unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa)". The fact that both of these cannot logically be true, simultaneously, is just ignored.

There are only two major reasons for resentment: being taken advantage of (or allowing yourself to be taken advantage of), or whiny refusal to adopt responsibility and grow up.

If you can push your point past the first four responses and stand fast against the consequent emotion, you will gain your target’s attention—and, perhaps, their respect. This is genuine conflict, however, and it’s neither pleasant nor easy.

If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men. They want someone to contend with; someone to grapple with. If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter.

There aren’t that many men around who can outclass women enough to be considered desirable (who are higher, as one research publication put it, in “income, education, self-confidence, intelligence, dominance and social position”).

12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

People are social because they like the members of their own group. People are antisocial because they don’t like the members of other groups.

Cooperation is for safety, security and companionship. Competition is for personal growth and status.

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.

A superhero who can do anything turns out to be no hero at all. He’s nothing specific, so he’s nothing. He has nothing to strive against, so he can’t be admirable. Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation.

The demands of everyday life don’t stop, just because you have been laid low by a catastrophe. Everything that you always do still has to be done.

Maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it.