Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life

By April 5, 2018Other

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist who has taught at Harvard and the University of Toronto. He is something of a celebrity, mostly through his YouTube and TV appearances, where he comes across as cool, urbane, polite and determined. I have watched, three times now, his interview on the UK’s Ch4 where he politely bested the interviewer, Cathy Newman, for twenty minutes, to the point where she simply couldn’t proceed. That interview has been seen more than 1.6 million times on YouTube. He has recently been in Australia to launch this new book, which I thought I ought to buy. I have since discovered that two of my children also bought it, quite independently, as did my next-door neighbour and another friend. All thought it was good, though in different ways.

Peterson is well–read and thoughtful. His 12 Rules are not especially unusual, and you can find them here. They are directed at the individual rather than the community. It is the argumentation in the chapters that is the key to his book. He uses examples from his clinical practice, his own life and a wide range of sources. While he writes accessibly and well, from time to time I thought he over-argued. ‘Yes, yes,’ I wanted to say, ‘got that.’ But he would sometimes go on, and on. Summarising the argument is quite difficult, but I’ll have a go. To live sensibly is to be in a state of conscious Being, for your life then has Meaning. If I have it right, Meaning is the development of character in the face of suffering. We do like what we are used to, our comfort zone. That is Order. Outside it is Chaos, or at least potential Chaos. That scares us. But unless we have at least one foot in Chaos we will find life boring and stuffy, and we will not be in a real state of Being, for we will not be developing our character.

Now reality has a lot of Chaos in it, and we need to realise that a great deal of what we take for granted, or perhaps object to, is the outcome of millions of years of social and individual development. Human social order, with its ‘dominance hierarchy’, has been about for half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism either, for that matter. It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy — that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artifact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment … [We] have lived in a dominance hierarchy for a long, long time…. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees. If you want to know more, the first chapter will tell you about the lobster, which has been about for longer than we have, by far, and it exhibits traits of familiar social order. Yes, the biggest lobsters do very well, get the best females, and control their territory. Quite a small proportion of any society does most of the production of anything that is thought valuable, and quite a small proportion gets most of the goodies, wealth and honour. It has always been like that, he says. Protesting about it, as though there is some kind of general solution, is futile.

If you are going to grow up properly, you need to understand and operate within the dominance hierarchy of our own society. It’s do-able, for most people, if you agree that you do want to do it, and make it a real goal. You need to stand tall, put your shoulders back, and act as though you are important in the scheme of things. Not in an arrogant way, but in a self-confident way. Your life will improve as you make more little successes. (Rule 1) You won’t be as wealthy as Gina Rinehart or as successful as (I was going to say Steve Smith), but you will be a lot happier than you would be if you just sat there and whinged about the existing order (see ahead to Rule 4).

You will need to look after yourself in every way. Apparently we take what the vet says about the treatment of our dog far more seriously than we do about what the doctor says we should do about ourselves (Rule 2). You should choose your friends carefully (Rule 3), and monitor how you are going with respect to yourself and your past, not to someone else altogether (Rule 4). If you have children, you need to ensure that they understand about discipline, so that when your stint as parent is over they are able to discipline themselves (Rule 5). And let them do some things you think might be dangerous. First, they have to learn, and second, they will want to explore the limits of safety, whether you are there or not (Rule 11). Be sure to have sorted yourself out before you tell others how they should behave (Rule 6). Do what is important to you, not what is expedient (Rule 7). Don’t lie (Rule 8). Listen to others rather than talk over them: they might have something worth saying (Rule 9). Use your words carefully, so that you say what you actually mean (Rule 10). Be kind, even affectionate, where you can be (Rule 12).

As I said earlier, none of this is exceptional, and most people of my age will have discovered these maxims, or truths, for themselves. Life is a great learning experience. If it was only this extended advice there would be little to mark him out from other homily-offerers in the past, like the Rev Norman Vincent Peale (the power of positive thinking). But Peterson’s argument is much more fundamental. This is the world we have, and it is marked by social and biological systems that are millions of years old and therefore extraordinarily powerful. We might wish to change them (and indeed much of the last five centuries or so have been marked by strong desires all over the world to change what people did have). Root-and-branch desires for change, Peterson says, always fail. The revolutions just exchange one set of rulers for another. Order goes to Chaos then produces another Order, quite like the old one. It is much better, he says, to recognise what is reality and adapt to it.

It is this perspective, I think, that has made Peterson such an object of visceral dislike, even hatred, on the left of politics. One reader has already provided a link to a review of the book found in the LA Times Review of Book. It provides a good example of the kind of thoughtless bile addressed to Peterson. The author of the review, Houman Barekat, is not known to me, but the thirteen paragraphs of his review contain almost nothing about the book itself (the little there is, dismissive) but a great deal of personal abuse and vilification of Peterson. The latter must be used to it. His style must also drive critics from the left wild, because it is polite, careful and straightforward. He doesn’t rant, and sticks to his brief.

From Peterson’s perspective, feminism and other ideologies of protest fundamentally miss the point. ‘Patriarchy’, as he says, is one of those terms that you pull down from the sky as though it explains everything. It doesn’t, he argues. Indeed, it explains nothing. Same with capitalism or, if we were in the old Soviet period, communism. They are just futile terms that help one explain why one is discontented, but do nothing to help one get out of that frame of mind.

One reading got me this far. I think the book needs a second reading, so that I get to grips with the central arguments more forcefully. In the meantime, it is absolutely worth reading. If one thinks he is wrong, it is important to explain to oneself why one thinks so, not — as I have read a few times in reviews so far — just dismiss him with abuse. Aspects of the book, especially the search for explanations in our distant past, remind me of two other books that I took most seriously, Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mindand the Peases’ Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps.

I think Peterson is right about the perpetual ‘dominance hierarchies’ in human societies. But that doesn’t mean we cannot improve the society that we have. Of course we can, but as I have suggested several times, it is best done by incremental change, not by sweeping visions that then have to be implemented, always poorly. In the meantime, individuals following Peterson’s rules have a decent chance of living fuller, richer and more satisfying lives.










Join the discussion 31 Comments

  • spangled drongo says:

    Rule 5 is something people just don’t get today.

    Rearing kids is like breaking in horses.

    When you draw the line and make them observe it, as they begin to understand, they love and respect you for it.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    A wonderful summation Don. I’m passing this on to my grandchildren (and children) with the subject heading ‘must read’. Thanks.

  • bb says:

    My wife and I have been learning what Jordan Peterson is saying well before the book was published. It started with myself having become somewhat jaded with the never-ending minutiae of the climate change (now climate disruption) debate and had started to think I need to understand that in itself. Why is it that there is no recognition by enough people of what I see as a reality in the debate. In other words why the great divide on what I see as being obvious? I concluded it is not a scientific problem is more a psychological problem of belief. This led us to Peterson.

    I don’t know if you’re aware but he is putting his psychology lectures at Toronto University on the web and this was of great interest to us. There are three strands to it “Maps of Meaning”, “Personality and Its Transformations” and the “Bible series”. We had watched the first two already before that was any mention of the “12 rules for life” or the interview between him and Cathy Newman. What a devastating interview that was 8.7 million people have watched it in two months. His YouTube channel has 1 million subscribers and I have seen claims that there are something like 60 million views. He is also well involved in the fight for free speech in Canada where some very concerning things are happening. There the government has decided to pass laws that compel an individual to address others by the pronoun they wish. In other words if I refer to you Don as “he” and you say no you will be offended if I do not use “zie” I would then be liable for prosecution under Canadian law. An attempt was made to discipline a young teacher’s assistant at a Canadian university because she had referred to public comment on this issue.

    There is a way of funding people who have a presence on YouTube through something called Patreon. Through this he is getting a lot of financial support I have seen figures of $40,000 a month. Peterson has made public comment that he has managed to monetise opposition to social justice warriors, every time they attack him it results in more publicity and that money flowing in increases.

    Okay what is he? Well I’m not certain he certainly has changed me in that my thinking about human behaviour. I thought it could be described by the Humanist view. Briefly humans will treat each other well in the main because they expect the same behaviour in return. I now think I was totally wrong. Humans his clearly shows do not behave in that way. He gives humans much less credit than that and explains convincingly why.

    He came to loggerheads with a man called Sam Harris who is an avowed atheist and the real sticking point between them is that they have a different view of truth. What Peterson is saying is that truth is governed by our five senses as is reality. What anyone perceives as reality is in fact internal in the brain. We can use science and make careful assessment of many things to establish our reality. But there are many other things that humans think about, what about them? How are they determined to be true or not? He takes the pragmatic view espoused by William James that is are they useful or not? He connects Darwinian thinking to this, an organism that develops a beneficial attribute displaces those that do not have it. Many humans that believe in a God that forbids them doing certain things. The key question is not that God exists but is it it beneficial to those that believe? Peterson takes the view that the ancient writings in religious texts are really concerned with humans living together in an orderly fashion. His most extensive source for this is Christian but also Sumerian, Buddhism, Judaism are also considered. He considers himself to be a philosophical pragmatist. There is much more to say about him but I will leave it there.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thank you, bb — most interesting!

    • JM says:

      ” I concluded it is not a scientific problem is more a psychological problem of belief.” Thanks BB you hit this right on the head.

      I have been asked many times “do you believe in climate change?” My answer is (now – was once) not “Yes” but refer to physical law and experimental findings. I refer to John Tyndall ‘s (the discoverer or the IR absorption properties of many gases) conclusion that CO2 is about the feeblest absorber of (what he called) the calorific rays and, water vapour was by far the strongest IR absorber of all the gases he experimented on (it is so strong he could not satisfactorily measure it). I refer to CO2’s IR spectra, Earth”s radiation spectra into space, and the ultra low black body temperature at the only CO2 absorption line that matters for global warming. (CO2’s 15 micron absorption IR wavelength equates to minus 80 degrees C – Wien’s Displacement Law calculation. 1st year university physics.)

      Ah! but I don’t reply “Yes” thus agreeing with “belief”. Therefore I do not believe and therefore I am denier! I reply what has belief got to do with (genuine) science? Are you refuting John Tyndall’s conclusions? Are you calling the discoverer also a denier? That merely infuriates the questioner more.

      So thank you so much BB I now have the response. The above is clear evidence, to “believe” in climate change is a psychological problem of belief, not a scientific problem.

      • JM says:

        This comment was from JMO not JM.

        • bb says:

          JMO I assume I am proceeding in this new world with difficulty. I think Peterson having done it for a very long time and does it so easily he forgets to explain to us mere mortals.

          We have five senses we use those five senses to build a model in our brain of what we call reality. This is a complicated subject but to give some idea look at this some of our thought processes are tied to perceptions through our senses. It is only these that we can tie science to. Science is really a way of discovering the validity of some human thought. But there is much more we need in order to function and survive. Science is no guide in terms of say morality. Science produced nuclear weapons that tells us nothing about how we should use them. For Peterson this is where philosophical pragmatism comes into play. William James it seems was the first to bring this into public consciousness. A man called Pearce I think proceeded him but was not all that good at communicating. Pragmatism as I understand it gauges ideas by their usefulness. If as a group humans think it is not useful to drop a nuclear bomb to get their way then it might be tested by another group of humans that think the opposite. Peterson and applies Darwinian thinking to this. Which of these groups has an advantage? The group that does will supplant the other.

          How many of the populace accepts or even cares about scientific method? They are driven by authority and that determines the other mode of thinking. There are many indicators that are shaking the climate change belief system but it will not be quick unless something dramatic happens. A writer some time ago Michael Crichton wrote about eugenics whose supporting belief systems had a similar trajectory. It took the death camps of Nazi Germany to end it. This is interesting

  • JimboR says:

    “I have watched, three times now, his interview on the UK’s Ch4 where he politely bested the interviewer, Cathy Newman”

    I admire your stamina watching it thrice… once was pretty painful.

    “His style must also drive critics from the left wild, because it is polite, careful and straightforward.”

    All my right-wing buddies keep telling me I should be outraged by this guy, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps I’m not as left leaning as I thought. I’d only seen him interviewed once (on our ABC) before your UK Ch4 tip above, so I’ve now endured that as well. I don’t think I’ve seen him say anything particularly controversial yet, although Cathy Newman repeatedly tried to verbal him into controversy, presumably in the interest of ratings.

    He seems to have become a bit of a poster-boy for a certain disaffected group, but personally I don’t find his opinions in any way offensive. Everyone that actually reviews his book seems to agree with your assessment: “none of this is exceptional, and most people of my age will have discovered these maxims, or truths, for themselves”. Good luck to him and his book sales.

    For a much less confrontational interview, you can always turn to our ABC:

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Jimbo, the other two times were for guests who wanted to see the section. I didn’t find it difficult at all, and thought I saw distinct resemblances to local female interviewers…

  • Bazza says:

    Perhaps I can help.

    * Rules for life.

    1) Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

    *Grandfather said that to a child who just wanted him to hug him. Hug.

    2) Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping.

    *Mentor someone if you had the fortune to be cared about and helped by someone responsible. Mentor.

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

    *Peer groups have great influence and that’s why many who can (and many who can’t) afford private education think a ‘better’ influence is as important as the education. Friends are not old boys networks.

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

    *Accept yourself — fall down seven times get up eight.

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

    *Children will always be doing things you do not like but love them anyway. Love and kindness.

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

    *There is no such thing as perfect order and all families have dysfunction. Look at the world to see how families are political microcosms of what is happening out there. Then create a safe harbour.

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

    *Don’t just be a timeserver like many ‘successful’ people have been including Jordan Peterson. Meaning can be found in the menial — ‘know thyself’.

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

    *Lie when it’s necessary to protect people’s feelings, otherwise be a truth-teller to expose those who are deluded, corrupt or pedalling self help books
    as biblical truths. Jesus was a human being.

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

    *Assume that the person who is on a different side might sometimes be right. Try not to label and categorise.

    10) Be precise in your speech

    *Don’t talk and talk and talk on YouTube because you have learned how to debate and score points.

    11) Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding

    *Kids, go to the skateboard park (with helmet) so as not to bother your parents.

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

    *Rescue a cat from the RSPCA and look after it, keeping it indoors.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Clever, Bazza. But Peterson offered 400 pages or argument and 220 references to support his case, and you offered … what, exactly?

      • Bazza says:

        I offered an alternative to ploughing through his book.

        12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos is not written for my demographic, or, if older men find do find its messages have resonance (surely not women), then many men who have life experience remain confused as to how to evolve and adapt to ways of being that no longer depend on the confines of rigid binaries of behaviour.

        “At the core of Peterson’s social program is the idea that the onslaught of femininity must be resisted. Men need to get tough and dominant. And, in Peterson’s mind, women want this, too. He tells us in 12 Rules for Life: “If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men.… If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter.” “Healthy” women want men who can “outclass” them. That’s Peterson’s reason for frequently referencing the Jungian motif of the hero: the square-jawed warrior who subdues the feminine powers of chaos. Don’t be a wimp, he tells us. Be a real man.”

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Again, Bazza, you need to read the book, not just pluck out paragraphs from reviews. As it happens, I don’t think ‘resisting the onslaught of femininity’ (what a phrase ! and certainly not his) is the core of his message at all. Sorry, Bazza. If you want to participate in a real discussion, you have to read the book. You know, like book clubs, where everyone is supposed to read the book before they talk about it…

        • David says:

          Bazza, thanks for the summary. No need to read him now. I get the feeling you have got this guy pegged.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Yes, davie, too much information can be a dangerous thing for a closed mind.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Anyway, I’m reading a book on antigravity at the moment.

            I can’t put it down.

  • margaret says:

    There are people of faith who are followers of Peterson but I think it would be better for them to return to the teachings of Jesus himself.

    Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister, Publishing Manager for the Australian College of Theology and editor of the academic journal Colloquium.

    As you can imagine, if I couldn’t read Men are From Mars … and Why Men Don’t Listen … then I’m not a candidate for reading a 400 page book on dominance theory. Sounds like an academic’s dream of Fifty Shades of Grey.

  • margaret says:

    And for the scientists …

    “We can wish to hold on to the past and choose to emulate the societal structure of ancient animals. But the fact lobsters have survived for so long without changing is a reflection of how well they are adapted to their environment – and how little this has changed. Human ancestors have left the ocean, developed lungs, vocal cords and many things in between. We have explored continents, built flying machines and some of us even live outside the Earth. We crave change and challenge. We also try to make our societies more fair and balanced and aspire to make humanity better and more advanced.”

    • spangled drongo says:

      “We crave change and challenge. We also try to make our societies more fair and balanced and aspire to make humanity better and more advanced.”

      Moses was 2,000 years ahead of Mohammed with rules for life and Jordan Peterson is only confirming what is necessary for any sound culture to continue to survive and function.

      And your link, marg, is typical academic blither.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Totally off topic.
    Don are you aware that Norton security is telling me that your site is a “dangerous site” & I should not open it

    I wonder where that comes from.

  • Bazza says:

    A contrast to Jordan Peterson perhaps.

    “Winton has raised two sons and is now a grandfather, and observes that “we are often massively derelict in taking responsibility for the young men in our lives… and I think men have a grave responsibility that they don’t take seriously when it comes to boys.”
    “I think it’s incumbent upon men to be conscious of what kind of modelling and what kind of example they set to young people.”

  • Don, This comment is off subject.

    At the end of comments on your ‘The power of grant money’ (26.1) I submitted a late comment after waiting to see what the consensus of opinion was on the subject of the GBR thinking that you might be stimulated to seek more information. The subject I very briefly alluded to has,in my opinion, considerable relevance to the GBR but just never sees the light of day. This is my second attempt to excite your curiosity, failing to do so now will lead me to desist.

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