12 Rules for Life - Book Notes
Jordan’s Book Notes - Series #2
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
Written by Jordan B. Peterson (Publication: January 16th, 2018)
I'm not a serial reader. And I certainly am not the biggest fan of the self-help genre. I find myself gravitating towards the genres of autobiography, memoir, and fiction most of the time. Autobiographical novels, where the author gives an account of aspects of their life while shedding light on values and stories, exude more humility because the speaker illustrates many life lessons; typically, with even no qualifications or scientific high-ground to give advice. Although non-fiction books authored by highly-qualified doctors, well-regarded public figures, or renowned individuals catch the eyes of potential readers much more effortlessly, I try to remind myself that at the end of the day, we are all just humans figuring out how to survive on this Earth given our subjective circumstances, genes, access to resources, etc. In other words, qualifications don't always certify that the author behind a popular novel is providing valuable insight.
Ethics and values are found within any piece of written material. Whether or not they are the explicit focus of the work, nearly every chapter, narrative, paragraph, or even sentence can allude to a tone of values in some identifiable way. I believe that a large portion of one's values can be detected by even simply perceiving the tone in which one writes. Sometimes, I forget that while reading someone's work, you can literally hear the contents of the piece in your head. Pretty sure the correct literary device that explains such a phenomenon is actually called "voice" as well. Since I'm a fan of the non-fiction genre, with considerable exception to the self-help sub-genre, I want to allot a generous amount of time towards sharing my key takeaways, favorite quotations, lesson learnings, and attempt to provide a novice analysis of Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
I've followed Jordan Peterson for a while. Hold up, let me correct myself, Dr. Jordan Peterson. Not only do we share the same first name, but after many years of listening to his online lectures, podcasts, and now since I've finished his most distinguished book, I can conclude that we share many of the same core values. Dr. Peterson is a Canadian professor of psychology, a clinical psychologist, public figure, author, husband, father, and genius. No, seriously, this man's IQ is completely off the charts.
I believe that there are many ways to measure and gauge a person's intelligence. Indeed, there are several categories that we can examine, each with their own corresponding metric of measurement. According to a plethora of academic sources, multiple theories suggest the presence of numerous intelligences. Broadly, such bits of intelligence include logical-mathematical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, and naturalistic intelligence. So that's the scientific approach to measuring it.
I ended up falling down a rabbit hole of that research because I thought to myself, "Jordan Peterson might be the most intelligent person I've ever listened to." And it boggles my mind how he consistently comes off sophisticated, heartfelt, empathetic, direct, comedic, theatrical, stubborn, appropriately emotional, and every other "normal" array of human temperaments all at the same time. To say his personality is "well-rounded" would be an understatement. It seems like he has such an easy time understanding other peoples' emotions. Maybe it's because he's become increasingly better at putting himself in other peoples' shoes through his clinical work, which undoubtedly exposes him to all walks of life on a regular basis.
I get a sense that he is highly visual and has keen attention to detail. He looks at a problem, no matter its scale or context, and commences step one, which is to break down every single inch of the issue and take it to its foundation before starting to form an opinion or strategy. He is the opposite of a regurgitator. He has mastered the art of synthesizing. Synthesizing is the opposite of regurgitating. Being very well-read in various historical and cultural categories, Peterson has an ever-expanding encyclopedia inventory within his own mind that comes in handy often, I'd assume.
I wish I had the memory retrieval skills that he has. I wish I had his retention ability as well. Peterson knows that always having a historical reference, factual backing, scientific conclusion, or relatable example to help aid his responses to questions he's asked can go a long way. He speaks in a very genuine tone. He never flaunts himself or behaves like an ignorant salesperson who isn't worth their salt. You know that phrase, right? Well, Jordan Peterson is a prime example of someone who IS worth his salt, no question about it. Although I have little first-hand experience with public intellectuals or clinicians of a similar caliber, I will say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for any and all individuals who exercise the practice of synthesizing more than regurgitating. Peterson is a leading example of how far such a discipline can take someone.
Before I get into my takeaways from the book, I just have a few more things to point out. For some reason, the public perception of Peterson is overwhelmingly split 50/50. I find this to be very interesting. To some, Jordan Peterson is a dangerous far-right white supremacist with Nazi Germany-esc beliefs, who encourages the concepts of racism, fascism, and radical conservatism. And to others, he is a politically removed generalist, who understands human motives from a scientific perspective, and wants to help people improve their lives through the encouragement of sound ethical values, discipline, mindfulness, and order. I adhere to the latter. Peterson has faced an unimaginable amount of backlash from a significant portion of the public sphere for his "radical viewpoints." When in reality, those viewpoints merely contain objective truths about the way humans naturally behave and what our motives ensue.
Peterson doesn't enjoy wasting time chatting about trivial topics. He knows how severe some of the issues our global society is facing right now really are; thus, it is all the more critical to discuss them thoughtfully. Peterson stays in his lane because, technically, he is a specialist. Granted, he happens to be a phenomenal writer, entertaining speaker, and generalist within other domains too. However, he politely declines opportunities to speak on topics that he may not be well-versed in. A rarity nonetheless, because he has a thorough grasp on how detrimental it can be to receive disparaging backlash from the online public, academic communities, far-left media caucus, and other determined groups.
The alarms sounded when Peterson published what quickly became a massive bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, because books are something that the left recognizes as drivers of culture. The book became the occasion for vicious profiles and editorials. Still, it was difficult to attack the work on ideological grounds because it was an apolitical self-help book that was at once more literary and more helpful than most. Moreover, it ended up becoming a complete commercial success. In turn, critics were frustrated, which indicates that they were angry over the surge in common sense.
So, remember when I mentioned that I'm not the biggest fan of self-help books? Well, I have to make an exception for 12 Rules for Life. This book was imprinting. I'm not sure if that's even a word, but I'm going to use it anyway. Before I knew what the book's contents were, I was curious as to why Peterson decided on a title that includes the word "rules." I believe that "rules" fail to constitute a comforting or encouraging first impression for most people. People in power typically create rules; for example, school rules are the "laws" of a specific school. Over time, we started to perceive rules as restrictive, antagonistic and confining. So much so that, now, even simply reading the word on its own reminds us of the lasting impression we've branded ourselves with.
Personally, I do believe that there is an evident presence of rules from an array of entities that ARE unethically restrictive. I'll refrain from pointing any fingers, though. Rules can be established to protect the weaker class in society since they are disadvantaged if such regulations are broken. When rules are appropriately set and followed, they can provide a stable environment and human co-existence in a community, resulting in peace and order. From a governmental standpoint, this is the universal definition of what a rule entails. The ideological nature that Peterson attaches to the word "rules," as he repeatedly uses it throughout the book, is much different.
Growing up, I was neither a rule-breaker nor a rule-follower. I was certainly never the teacher's pet in school but wasn't the "bad" egg in class either. As I've gotten older, I now recognize that sure, I cheated on a few homework assignments, but who doesn't. I made up for the fact that I cut some corners by supplementing with focusing my attention on other outlets to increase my education and strengthen my personal growth. I've always viewed those methods of "cutting corners" as working smart instead of working hard. Why would I bend over backward to do busywork if it's not providing me with any new knowledge or worthwhile practice in completing it? Time is money.
Furthermore, If I were to view each separate entity's codex of rules as the end-all-be-all for which to gauge my morals, then my conscience would be confused almost 100% of the time. Some governments have concluded that killing unborn children while they're still in the womb is ethical. Other governments have financed the agendas of bombing entire countries. Some political groups have determined that threatening their opposers with violence and murder is ethical. Other socio-economic groups believe that censorship is okay, but only when it fits the narrative that they align with. Moreover, presently, Earth is inhabited by almost 8 billion human beings who have relatively different perceptions of what is morally acceptable. I point this out to add to the context of why Jordan Peterson wrote this book. He knows how diverse-minded we all are. So instead of advertising his rules through a lens of religious connotation, political position, or economic stance, he speaks from a scientific and psychological background. Since he's studied human motives for his entire career while also reading up on history and religious texts, I believe that he is highly qualified to make recommendations based on what we know about ourselves and the world.
I grew up having considerable exposure to Catholicism and learned about ethics and values from a young age. Specifically, the concepts of sacrifice and discipline. As I always say, it's essential to make sure that you're formulating your values independently. Groupthink can make it difficult for someone to go against the grain if they disagree. And even religions can sometimes cloud a person's moral code by being too forceful. While starting to read the book, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Peterson was going to reference the terms "sacrifice" and "discipline" very often.
An excerpt from the first page of Peterson's "Foreword" states, "Why should one be judged according to another's rule? After all, God didn't give Moses' The Ten Suggestions', He gave commandments; and if I'm a free agent, my first reaction to a command might be that nobody, not even God, tells me what to do, even if it's good for me. But the story of the golden calf also reminds us that without rules, we quickly become slaves to our passions, and there's nothing freeing about that."
The free will that God gave us is not only freeing but tempting. Temptation is a beautiful gift in the sense that our conscience is able to pick up on behaviors that we can recognize may be bad for us. Freewill results in temptation, temptation results in behaviors, and bad behavior results in guilt. Guilt/shame is a powerful emotion that results in propelling us towards atonement, putting ourselves one step closer to transcendence. Peterson states this progression very early on in the text. Although he isn't an overtly religious individual, he thoroughly utilizes biblical references and Christian terminology to provide context to his talking points.
Another excerpt from the beginning of the book that I resonated with was, "One neat thing about the Bible story is that it doesn't simply list its rules, as lawyers or legislators or administrators might; it embeds them in a dramatic tale that illustrates why we need them, thereby making it easier to understand." Professor Peterson doesn't just propose his twelve rules; he tells stories to support his knowledge of many fields as he illustrates and explains why the best rules do not ultimately restrict us, but instead facilitate our goals and make for fuller, freer lives. The truth is freeing!
In Peterson's 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, each chapter explicitly states one of the rules. I believe he did this deliberately so that, at the very least, the titles of each chapter would be ingrained into the reader's memory.
Here are the 12 rules:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
- Make friends with people who want the best for you.
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
- Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
- Tell the truth - or at least, don’t lie.
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
- Be precise in your speech.
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
I carefully and tediously selected the following excerpts from the many handwritten booknotes I made while reading the book. I find that scribbling, highlighting, or jotting down indicators helps me retrieve a book’s contents much easier. Thus, improving my overall retention of what I’ve just read. Of all the books I’ve ever read, this one contains the largest amount of booknotes, by far. It was bittersweet having to decide which ones would make it into my official book notes entry. But alas, here we are. The following excerpts were pulled from all twelve of Peterson’s chapters. Many of which contain philosophical references, biblical stories, and universal human truths. A lot of these spoke to me, and also reaffirmed previous opinions I already had. I learned quite a bit; and plan on utilizing this condensed glossary for continued reference in the future. Enjoy!
- “Often translated as feminine and masculine, or even more narrowly as female and male. Yin and yang are more accurately understood as chaos and order. The Taoist symbol is a circle enclosing twin serpents, head to tail. The black serpent, chaos, has a white dot in its head. The white serpent, order, has a black dot in its head. This is because chaos and order are interchangeable, as well as eternally juxtaposed. There is nothing so certain that it cannot vary. Even the sun itself has its cycles of instability. Likewise, there is nothing so mutable that it cannot be fixed. Every revolution produces a new order. Every death is, simultaneously, a metamorphosis.”
- “When naive people discover the capacity for anger within themselves, they are shocked, sometimes severely.”
- “When the wakening occurs, when once-naive people recognize in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially), their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons in life.”
- “To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the binding of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and morality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality.”
- “Chaos is the domain of ignorance itself. It’s unexplored territory. Chaos is what extends, eternally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all disciplines.”
- “Order, by contrast, is explored territory. That’s the hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old hierarchy of place, position and authority. That’s the structure of society. It’s the structure provided by biology too. Order is the Shire of Tolkein’s hobbits: peaceful, productive and safely inhabitable, even by the naive. Chaos is the underground kingdom of dwarves, usurped by Smaug, the treasure-hoarding serpent.”
- “Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the aforementioned yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic, and arguable, behavioral match.”
- “Chaos, the unknown, is symbolically associated with the feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers. Chaos is mater, origin, source, mother; materia, the substance from which all things are made. It is also what matters, or what is the matter - the very subjective matter of thought and communication. In its positive guise, chaos is possibility itself, the source of ideas, the mysterious realm of gestation and birth.”
- “Naked means vulnerable and easily damaged. Naked means subject to judgement for beauty and health. Naken means unprotected and unarmed in the jungle of nature and man. This is why Adam and Eve became ashamed, immediately after their eyes were opened. Beauty shames the ugly, strength shames the weak, death shames the living, and the Ideal shames us all.”
- “We are aware of our own defencelessness, finitude, and morality. We can feel pain, and self-disgust, and shame, and horror, and we know it. We know what makes us suffer. We know how dread and pain can be inflicted on us - and that means we know exactly how to inflict it on others. We know how we are naked, and how that nakedness can be exploited - and that means we know how others are naken, and how they can be exploited.”
- “Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. That is the best definition of evil I have been able to formulate. Animals can’t manage that, but humans, with their excruciating, semi-divine capacities, most certainly can.”
- “The entire Bible is structured so that everything after the Fall - the history of Israel, the prophets, the coming of Christ - is presented as a remedy for that Fall, a way out of evil.”
- “If we wish to take care of ourselves properly, we would have to respect ourselves - but we don’t, because we are - not least in our own eyes - fallen creatures. If we lived in Truth; if we spoke the truth - then we could walk with God once again, and respect ourselves, others, and the world. Then we might treat ourselves like people we cared for. We might strive to set the world straight. We might orient it toward Heaven, where we would want people we cared for to dwell, instead of Hell, where our resentment and hatred would eternally sentence everyone.”
- “According to this philosophy, you do not simply belong to yourself. You are not simply your own possession to torture and mistreat. This is partly because your Being is inexorably tied up with that of others, and your mistreatment of yourself can have catastrophic consequences for others.”
- “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.” Every time you give a child something sweet, you make that child happy. That does not mean that you should do nothing for children except feed them candy. “Happy” is by no means synonymous with “good.” You must get children to brush their teeth.”
- “You need to know where you are, so that you can start to chart your course. You need to know who you are, so that you understand your armament and bolster yourself in respect to your limitations. You need to know where you are going, so that you can limit the extent of chaos in your life, restructure order, and bring the divine force of Hope to bear on the world.”
- “But a villain who despairs of his villainy has not become a hero. A hero is something positive, not just the absence of evil.”
- “Maybe your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred for those who rose upward while you waited and sank. Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live. Maybe your willingness to suffer in failure is inexhaustible, given what you use that suffering to prove. Maybe it’s your revenge on Being.”
- “Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse. 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.”
- “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 become jealous when you succeed, or do something pristine. They will withdraw their presence or support, or actively punish you for it. They will override your accomplishment with a past action, real or imaginary, of their own. Maybe they are trying to test you, to see if your resolve is real, to see if you are genuine. But mostly they are dragging you down because your new improvements cast their faults in an even dimmer light.”
- “Every game comes with its chance of success or failure. Differentials in quality are omnipresent. Furthermore, if there was no better or worse, nothing would be worth doing. There would be no value and, therefore, no meaning. Why make an effort if it doesn’t improve anything? Meaning itself requires the difference between better and worse.”
- “The world allows for many ways of Being. If you don’t succeed at one, you can try another. You can pick something better matched to your unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, and situation. Furthermore, if changing games does not work, you can invent a new one.”
- “But winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult. You might be winning but you’re not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning.”
- “Of course, it’s easier in the moment to stay silent and avoid conflict. But in the long term, that’s deadly. When you have something to say, silence is a lie - and tyranny feeds on lies.”
- “The successful adult then must learn how to be just the right amount of different from everyone else.”
- “Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak. Much of happiness is hope, no matter how deep the underworld in which that hope was conceived.”
- “What you aim at determines what you see.”
- “We only see what we aim at. The rest of the world (and that’s most of it) is hidden. If we start aiming at something - something like ‘I want my life to be better’ - our minds will start presenting us with new information, derived from the previously hidden world, to aid us in that pursuit. Then we can put that information to use and move, and act, and observe, and improve.”
- “We must become conscious of our desires, and articulate them, and prioritize them, and arrange them into hierarchies.”
- “It is the declaration of faith that keeps hatred of Being, with all its attendant evils, at bay. And, as for such faith: it is not all the will to believe things that you know perfectly well to be false. Faith is not the childish belief in magic. That is ignorance or evil willful blindness. It is instead the realization that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being. It is simultaneously the will to dare set your sights on the unachievable, and to sacrifice everything, including your life.”
- “Aim high. Set your sights on the betterment of Being. Align yourself, in your soul, with Truth and the Highest Good. There is habitable order to establish and beauty to bring into existence. There is evil to overcome, suffering to ameliorate, and yourself to be better.”
- “You are telling the truth instead of manipulating the world. You are negotiating instead of playing the martyr or the tyrant. 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. You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have been tailored to you, personally and precisely. You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself.”
- “If a society does not adequately reward productive, prosocial behavior, insists upon distributing resources in a markedly arbitrary and unfair manner, and allows for theft and exploitation, it will not remain conflict-free for long. If its hierarchies are based only on power, instead of competence necessary to get important and difficult things done, it will be prone to collapse as well.”
- “Sacrifice will improve the future.”
- “Thus, the person who wishes to alleviate suffering - who wishes to rectify the flaws in Being; who want to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create Heaven on earth - will make the greatest of sacrifices, of self and child, of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good. He will forego expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world.”
- “Socrates rejected expediency, and the necessity for manipulation that accompanied it. He chose instead, under the direst of conditions, to maintain his pursuit of the meaningful and the true.”
- “Christ could have pursued the temptation of power, but didn’t.”
- “Through the great George Orwell, much of such thinking found its motivation in hatred of the rich and successful, instead of true regard for the poor. Besides, the socialists were more intrinsically capitalist than the capitalists. They believed just as strongly in money. They just thought that if different people had the money, the problems plaguing humanity would vanish. That is simply untrue.”
- “Above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions of people.”
- “Meaning trumps expedience. Meaning gratifies all impulses, now and forever. That’s why we can detect it.”
- “It is our responsibility to see what is before our eyes, courageously, and to learn from it, even if it seems horrible - even if the horror of seeing it damages our consciousness, and half-blinds us. The act of seeing is particularly important when it challenges what we know and rely on, upsetting and destabilizing us. It is the act of seeing that informs the individual and updates the state. You are by no means only what you already know. You are also all that which you could know, if you only would. Thus, 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 - and certainly not when you have already caught a glimpse, an undeniable glimpse, of something beyond.”