12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson


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Touted by the New York Times as “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now”, Jordan Peterson’s bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is clear proof that this guy has a lot to say about the state of our current world and what we should be doing about it.

With a title like “12 Rules for Life”, you would think that Peterson’s book would serve as a kind of manifesto that belongs in the self-help section - yet another how-to guide for living a good, easy and happy life, broken-down and reduced to twelve simple “rules”.

In fact, it’s the complete opposite.

Each of Peterson’s “rules” are roughly 30 pages in total, and he goes to great length in explaining each of them. He uses examples from mythology, philosophy, psychology religion, poetry, literature and even Disney to argue the case that life is simply made up of order and chaos, and it is our job to navigate between the two.

His book doesn’t offer false hope or claim to have the solution to life’s problems. It doesn’t deny the fact that that life can, often does, and inevitably will, just plain suck from time to time. Nor does it hide away from the fact that as self-aware, intelligent and emotional beings we are destined to suffer throughout our lives, and that sometimes there is simply nothing we can do about that but make the best out of a bad situation - to find order within the chaos wherever and however we can.

Now it might be tempting to simply assume the role of victim and proclaim the world to be unfair and unjust, to accept your lot in life and complain about the unfair cards you have been dealt, but Peterson says that if you buy into this idea you deny yourself the ability to do anything about it.

By constantly telling ourselves that everything terrible happens to us, Peterson argues that soon we stop looking for - and eventually can’t even see - the many instances and opportunities that DO EXIST for us to play an active role in the shape of our lives.

In response, Peterson’s “twelve rules for life” are all aimed at encouraging us to take responsibility for our own lives, to refocus and reorient our lives in order to restore order and cope with the chaos.

Rule #2 “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”
This speaks to the notion that part of life’s “purpose” should not be simply to help others, but to also help ourselves. As Peterson says, we ‘believe that other people shouldn’t suffer’ and make the choice, when available, to alleviate the pain and stress of those around us in any way we can.  Put simply, we see an opportunity to help and make improvements in someone else’s life, yet when it comes to our own lives we often admit defeat and deny any opportunity to exist that could improve our own lot. 

Rule #4 “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today”
This is all about giving that inner critic (that we always try to ignore) a role to play in assisting us do that very thing. ‘When you buy a house and prepare to live in it’, says Peterson, ‘you hire an inspector to list all its faults…[and] you’ll even pay him for the bad news.’ Why? Because ‘you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken.’ ‘The internal critic can, according to Peterson, play a similar role…

‘Pay attention. Focus on your surroundings, physical and psychological. Notice something that bothers you, that concerns you, that will not let you be, which you could fix, that you would fix…and then fix it. That might be enough for the day, but it means you will have made your tomorrow better than your today.’  

It becomes clear very early on in this book that Peterson has a lot to say, and he does - within its 400 pages - say a lot. At times, the book seems to lack direction and focus, but maybe that’s because life itself lacks direction and focus from time to time. His interpretation of passages from the Bible, from literature, and philosophy, are, at times, very complicated, but then again, life is complicated and any attempt to unravel its mysteries must surely be so too.

Maybe all of this was deliberate. Maybe the very structure (or lack of structure), complexity and intricacy that fills these pages is Peterson attempting to capture life in its entirety, full of obstacles and misdirection but, if one’s looking closely, full of unexpected moments of wisdom and clarity.