I picked up this book due to the noise Jordan Peterson (JBP) is making in the media these days. YouTube frequently recommends videos of him, and Sam Harris has had two debates with JP, which I will eventually watch. My sum up of 12 Rules For Life is that the rules are very good but the book is weak. It is verbose, pseudo-rigorous, overcomplicated. A simpler version listing each of the 12 rules along with a couple of paragraphs describing the rule and its importance would make for a much more welcome reading.

Even though the score I ascribe is low, I don’t leave this book being a lesser man ;-). The main ideas and one or two tips for day-to-day personal improvement are important and effective.

Main ideas and tips

In my reading of 12 Rules, its fundamental principle is to not wish for happiness or a happy life free of tragedy. Life in essence is tragic and there is nothing we can do to stop its tragic nature. We will die, the people we love will die, there’s violence out there, disease, betrayal. Instead of wishing for something impossible, we must rather prepare ourselves to be strong in the face of adversity. Strong for our own sake and the sake of our families and our communities. This is even more important because we humans have the capacity to make a tragic situation even worse. And the pit of worse is bottomless.

The second big idea is that we change the world by changing the individual first. Each one of us must strive to be a better person (“compare yourself to who you were yesterday”) every day. And here is where I found this simple and powerful tip. I think the I would do (emphasis mine) is the key that makes the tip actionable:

“… ask yourself, “What could I do, that I would do, that would accomplish that [make life a little bit better], and what small thing would I like as a reward?” Then you do what you have decided to do, even if you do it badly. Then you give yourself that damn coffee, in triumph. Maybe you feel a bit stupid about it, but you do it anyway. And you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And, with each day, your baseline of comparison gets a little higher, and that’s magic. That’s compound interest. Do that for three years, and your life will be entirely different. Now you’re aiming for something higher. Now you’re wishing on a star. Now the beam is disappearing from your eye, and you’re learning to see. And what you aim at determines what you see. That’s worth repeating. What you aim at determines what you see.”

Other points in favor

  • Rules: As I said before, all 12 rules are important. Reading them validated rules of my own, and also articulated ideas and precepts that I only intuited.
  • Parenting: I was glad to read a parenting rule in the book. I’m not a fan or foe of children. I’m children-neutral. Always suspicious of the idea that children shall not be disciplined harshly lest we neutralize the traits we treasure so much: innocence, creativity, joy, playfulness. JBP says “It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. It is not anger at misbehavior. It is not revenge for a misdeed. It is instead a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgment.”
  • Physical content: we should all try to list and frequently revisit our own ethos. Having a list of coherent set of values to abide by (including the continuous look for personal growth, taking responsibility for our actions, venerating cats) is very important. Having the principles written in a book (a book that we can hold in our hands) helps with the assimilation of such principles. Calibrate your moral compass.

Major weakness of the book

One element that disappointed me, especially when coming from someone who is supposedly thoughtful, logical, conversant with the methods of science, and an expert in psychological biases, was the reverence for religious texts that JBP exhibits in the book. To him, religious texts sit above all forms of knowledge because they contain wisdom collected over eons (perhaps even predating the appearance of mammals on earth) and synthesized in stories from which we can extract the fundamental truths of life. Somewhere in Rule 4, he states: “[The Bible] is the product of processes that remain fundamentally beyond our comprehension.” Really, JBP? Fortunately for us, JBP “helps us” extract those fundamental truths with his studied interpretations of the texts.

The problem is… with such interpretative license, one can find those same truths (or any “truths”) in any story.

I didn’t mind (for the first while) reading passages of the Bible or learning about Horus and Osiris and the significance that JBP ascribes to their tales but 12 Rules For Life would have gained two or three points (and saved some trees) by leaving out unnecessary postulates.

Rule 10 dictates us to be precise in our speech. The book is 400 pages long and scoring high in lengthiness did not add points to the precision category. To the contrary, it subtracted from it. In many occasions I struggled with JP’s meanderings into theses of human motivation, biblical and non-biblical exegeses, and stories of clinical patients while trying to connect these with the Rule For Life being explained.

Rules

The 12 Rules can be contained in the last Rule: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Petting a cat in Inle Lake (POV)
This feline came up to us during lunch in Inle Lake, Myanmar (2013)

For completeness, here’s the list of rules in order of appearance:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is 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

Highlighted passages

  • Rule 1
    • Many bureaucracies have petty authoritarians within them, generating unnecessary rules and procedures simply to express and cement power. Such people produce powerful undercurrents of resentment around them which, if expressed, would limit their expression of pathological power. It is in this manner that the willingness of the individual to stand up for him or herself protects everyone from the corruption of society.
    • There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.
  • Rule 2
    • Question for parents: do you want to make your children safe, or strong?
    • 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.
  • Rule 3
    • 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.
  • Rule 4
    • How do you need to be spoken to? What do you need to take from people? What are you putting up with, or pretending to like, from duty or obligation? Consult your resentment. It’s a revelatory emotion, for all its pathology… But resentment always means one of two things. Either the resentful person is immature, in which case he or she should shut up, quit whining, and get on with it, or there is tyranny afoot—in which case the person subjugated has a moral obligation to speak up. Why? Because the consequence of remaining silent is worse.
    • 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?” Then you do what you have decided to do, even if you do it badly. Then you give yourself that damn coffee, in triumph. Maybe you feel a bit stupid about it, but you do it anyway. And you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And, with each day, your baseline of comparison gets a little higher, and that’s magic. That’s compound interest. Do that for three years, and your life will be entirely different. Now you’re aiming for something higher. Now you’re wishing on a star. Now the beam is disappearing from your eye, and you’re learning to see. And what you aim at determines what you see. That’s worth repeating. What you aim at determines what you see.
    • You can find such somethings by asking yourself (as if you genuinely want to know) three questions: “What is it that is bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” and “Would I actually be willing to fix it?” If you find that the answer is “no,” to any or all of the questions, then look elsewhere. Aim lower. Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it. That might be enough for the day.
  • Rule 5
    • Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing. 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. Thus, altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good, given the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.
    • It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. It is not anger at misbehavior. It is not revenge for a misdeed. It is instead a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgment.
  • Rule 6
    • 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.
  • Rule 7
    • We’ve established predictable routines and patterns of behavior—but we don’t really understand them, or know where they originated. They’ve evolved over great expanses of time… [note: His point could be made clearer, in a more rigorous manner, otherwise it can read as “people figured things out 2000 years ago, we shouldn’t not question their commandments”]
    • Life is indeed “nasty, brutish and short,” as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes so memorably remarked. But man’s capacity for evil makes it worse. This means that the central problem of life—the dealing with its brute facts—is not merely what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering, but what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering and evil—the conscious and voluntary and vengeful source of the worst suffering
    • As the Christian revolution progressed, however, the impossible problems it had solved disappeared from view. That’s what happens to problems that are solved. And after the solution was implemented, even the fact that such problems had ever existed disappeared from view. Then and only then could the problems that remained, less amenable to quick solution by Christian doctrine, come to occupy a central place in the consciousness of the West—come to motivate, for example, the development of science, aimed at resolving the corporeal, material suffering that was still all-too-painfully extant within successfully Christianized societies.
    • What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief… 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.
  • Rule 8
    • The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power.
  • Rule 9
    • When someone opposes you, it is very tempting to oversimplify, parody, or distort his or her position. This is a counterproductive game, designed both to harm the dissenter and to unjustly raise your personal status. By contrast, if you are called upon to summarize someone’s position, so that the speaking person agrees with that summary, you may have to state the argument even more clearly and succinctly than the speaker has even yet managed. 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. This will make you much stronger. Then you will no longer have to misrepresent your opponent’s position (and may well have bridged at least part of the gap between the two of you). You will also be much better at withstanding your own doubts.
  • Rule 10
    • 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. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague. The destination remains unproclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.
  • Rule 11
    • any hierarchy creates winners and losers. The winners are, of course, more likely to justify the hierarchy and the losers to criticize it. But (1) the collective pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy (as some will be better and some worse at that pursuit no matter what it is) and (2) it is the pursuit of goals that in large part lends life its sustaining meaning. We experience almost all the emotions that make life deep and engaging as a consequence of moving successfully towards something deeply desired and valued. [Postulate: hierarchies are inherent to culture and, even deeper, to our biology. Hierarchies are the inevitable consequence of striving for goals (as some people will be better than others), and the pursuit of goals is what renders life meaningful.]
    • In societies that are well-functioning—not in comparison to a hypothetical utopia, but contrasted with other existing or historical cultures—competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status. Competence. Ability. Skill. Not power.
  • Rule 12
    • During much of this period, we were overwhelmed. 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. So how do you manage? Here are some things we learned: Set aside some time to talk and to think about the illness or other crisis and how it should be managed every day. Do not talk or think about it otherwise. If you do not limit its effect, you will become exhausted, and everything will spiral into the ground.
    • To me, cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being, in an almost pure form. Furthermore, they are a form of Being that looks at human beings and approves.