12 RULES FOR LIFE: An Antidote to Chaos


Reviewed by David P. Stang

Jordan Peterson

Jordan B. Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and has previously taught at Harvard. The New York Times has stated that he is “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now”; his lectures recorded on YouTube have attracted over seventy-five million views.

Peterson is also a clinical psychologist with an active practice. He and his wife are parents of a daughter, Mikhaila, and a son, Julian. Mikhaila has suffered enormous pain from years of combating rheumatoid arthritis and enduring multiple surgeries. Her father fondly regards her as a courageous hero. Peterson also has observed much suffering experienced by his patients, who described their emotional pain during their psychotherapy sessions with him, and he has learned about the suffering experienced by many of his students over the years.

In this new book he states, “The idea that life is suffering is a tenet, in one form or another, of every major religious doctrine….We can be damaged, even broken, emotionally and physically, and we are all subject to depredations of aging and loss….It is reasonable to wonder how we can expect to thrive and be happy (or even want to exist, sometimes) under such conditions.” In 1999 he published his first book, entitled Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which Peterson stresses constitutes the conceptual foundations of his 12 Rules.

Throughout his 12 Rules and YouTube lectures, Peterson presents a mixture of diverse classic literature and teachings of the past several thousand years emanating from pre-scientific cultures, with hypotheses and scholarship of modern-day science (including particularly neurological and psychological studies)—and he constantly injects firsthand, real-life examples of human and animal behavior which illustrate the concepts he is propounding.

Understanding one’s individual self as divine or sovereign, according to Peterson, reveals the pathway to meaning in life. A major foundational principle of his 12 Rules is that every human life is confronted by order and chaos. By order he means “the place where the behavior of our world matches our expectations and desires; the place where all things turn out the way we want them to.” Chaos, on the other hand, is the “domain of ignorance itself” and is “unexplored territory.” He tells us chaos is present when we feel despair and horror and is the place we end up when things fall totally apart. Order can be disrupted by chaos and chaos can be constrained by order. Within chaos, potential exists. He informs us that our attitude toward potential confers on us a certain moral obligation: The challenge is to live up to one’s potential. The potential is in the future. Contending with chaos that disrupts order is like meeting the Dragon head on.

As part of his extensive tour this year Peterson has been lecturing about his book. In his talks he stresses that his twelve rules can be comedic, but that they are really metaphors which point to a deeper philosophic and psychological meaning. In his book he urges his readers to focus on their individual patterns of thought, belief, and behavior. He stresses that his rules are not injunctions meant to make life easier. They are injunctions to make life more difficult. He asks his readers and listeners to aim higher and to seek to become the very best they can be. Peterson states that “I hope that what I’m aiming at is to tell people stories and provide them with clinical information that is derived from the best literature and science that I know so they can be fortified in their ability to contend with tragedy and malevolence.”

These are his rules:

Rule 1: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.”

Peterson emphasizes that standing up straight with one’s shoulders back  reveals not only self-confidence but also indicates vulnerability. When one is standing up straight (instead of crouching or cowering) one’s most vital spots are unprotected and exposed to danger, signifying that one has mastered order and that one is courageously prepared to face chaos head-on.

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

Peterson’s main point here is that people tend to treat themselves more poorly than they treat others for whom they are responsible for caring. So he advises us to treat ourselves in the same way we would like our children to be treated.

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

One way of treating yourself like someone you are responsible for helping is to make friends with people who want the best for you. Some people tear you down. Don’t put up with that, he instructs, find others who lift you up. Therefore you have an ethical responsibility to surround yourself with people who support you when you do good and criticize you when you misbehave.

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

This is also a rule about avoiding envy and excessive self-criticism or self-loathing. Peterson tells us that in life we face an eternal landscape of inequality. There will always be people more competent than we are. This should not lead us to despair, but rather encourage us to become the best we are able. This requires setting high goals, but ensuring that we choose goals that are possible for us to attain.

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

Here Peterson shifts his focus from what you can do to assist yourself in attaining your life goals to how best to treat your children so they may be optimally positioned to select and attain high life goals for themselves. If you dislike your children, Peterson informs us, others will dislike them too. Encouraging behavior in your children which enhances their likability is not an easy task because you need to correct your children when they misbehave or act anti-socially, but constant criticism seriously discourages them. It is more important to praise them when they do something right. Their good behavior needs to be quickly and positively acknowledged. If other kids want to play with your children it is a sign you are succeeding.

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

Peterson admits that with all the suffering, distress, abuse, malevolence, injustice, distraction, and tragedy existing within humanity it is very easy to form a highly pessimistic belief structure which concludes that life is meaningless and not worth living. Most people with this attitude constantly criticize others and blame them or the institutions they are associated with for causing their suffering. Peterson suggests a more helpful and promising response to such suffering: “I won’t blame others until I have done everything I can to set my own life right.”

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

Throughout his book Peterson makes reference to the writings and theories of Carl Jung, whose writings greatly influenced him. Jung contended that by our very human nature we all possess a shadow or dark side. Ironically, even when one chooses to aim high and seriously work toward becoming the best one can be, one’s dark side activates and seeks to undermine the goodness one desires to attain and achieve.  When your dark side predominates you’ll be inclined to do what is expedient. This is wrong, he says. Don’t do it. Instead, go for meaning.

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

Peterson explains that lying and not telling the truth obviously constitutes pure expediency. This is a choice which is about as morally wrong as you can get. He states that taking the easy way out in contrast to telling the truth are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. He says they are utterly different ways of existing. The pathway of not telling the truth uses words to manipulate the world into delivering you what you want. This style of living in the world has been called a “life-lie.” Instead, your meta-goal should be to live in truth.

Rule 9: “Assume the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t.”

To follow this rule, Peterson says, you need first to recognize your own unbearable ignorance. You have to decide what is more important: what you know or what you don’t know. If you decide what you don’t know is more important you need to surround yourself with learning what you don’t know. You should spend every possible moment trying to find out what you don’t already know. If you listen with concentration and a desire to learn then listening can become a self-transforming exercise.

Rule 10: “Be precise in your speech.”

This is a variant of the scriptural injunction: “Knock and the door will open” and, “Ask and you shall receive.” You don’t reach what you don’t aim at. If you specify the nature of the person you want to bring into being, then the probability of what you want to become dramatically increases. When you aim for that higher good with precision and serious intent you will be transformed into what you are seeking.

Rule 11: “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.”

This rule, like Rule 5, is directed at parents regarding how they treat their children. Its principal injunction is to provide encouragement to one’s children. The world is a hard and bitter place and also a place of betrayal and malevolence. To interfere with the child who is skateboarding by sheltering that child from danger prevents the child from being able to learn how to deal with risks and to learn independence. Also, it is good for parents to encourage their children to aim high in life. However it robs children of the freedom to discern for themselves what course they will follow in life if their parents seek to force upon them the choice of a life’s purpose and vocation.

Rule 12: “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”

This rule, Peterson lets us know, is a meditation on fragilitya discussion of what to do when you don’t know what to do; how to face a terrible tragedy such as serious illness and death. This rule necessarily concerns itself with crisis management. When the future presents itself as a horror show bearing down like a giant avalanche, you need to cut what you consider to be an unavoidable and unbearable tragedy into a shorter time period. Thus, when you are at your wit’s end, be grateful for a cat who walks up to you on the street. Reach down and pet it.

In his lectures regarding 12 Rules recorded on YouTube, Peterson leaves his audience with a message of hope while simultaneously presenting them with a challenge: Everyone is subject to suffering and malevolence, yet there is a greater reality, which is the ability of the human spirit to prevail. Peterson in both of his books writes admiringly about the great heroes in world mythology. Therefore it is not surprising that he invites us also to become heroes, just as he regards his courageous daughter Mikhaila as a hero. He explains that the Holy Grail is a symbol of ultimate value, and that each knight seeking the Grail entered the forest at its darkest spot to him.

Peterson asks what could justify your life so thoroughly as to make you the best player of all possible life games. His response: “Take the tragedy of the world on to your shoulders and fight with all your ability against the malevolent forces.”

And how does one achieve this? In Maps Peterson answers: “Serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself—not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates you above him, but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.”

This sacred undertaking leads us to realize, Peterson says in 12 Rules, that “Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes precedence over precisely that.” Such is Jordan B. Peterson’s “Antidote to Chaos.”♦

From Parabola Volume 44, No. 1, “Change & the Changeless,” Spring 2019. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Four times a year Parabola has explored the deepest questions of human existence. Without your support, we would cease to exist. Please consider helping us by making a donation