12 Rules for Life

Taking the easy way out or telling the truth – those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.

While having had 12 Rules for Life firmly placed in the back of my head as “I do want to read this” for quite some time, in the face of all the other books that wait in my “unread” shelf, it’d probably have taken quite some time until I’d actually bought and read it. So when I came upon this book in a public bookcase, I took it as motivation to just start reading it then. This encounter with the book also mirrors its spirit in some way, since a lot of Peterson’s writing here is more or less a figurative kick in the pants.

And while (to get the negative out of the way) the book could probably have done with half the number of pages, it is still an incredibly worthwhile read.

What to strive for

Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

Most people are perfectly able to care for others they are responsible for helping, be it friends, relatives, children or even pets, and often will go out of their way to do so. But when it’s time to care for themselves, people more often than not fail to put in the same effort. Observing this sometimes even sacrificial behavior towards others, Peterson asks the question:

Why would you think it acceptable to do anything less for yourself?
You need to consider the future and think, “What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly? What career would challenge me and render me productive and helpful, so that I could shoulder my share of the load, and enjoy the consequences? What should I be doing, when I have some freedom, to improve my health, expand my knowledge, and strengthen my body?”

Make friends with people who want the best for you

If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not.

Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning. 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.

Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

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.

Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future. […] The successful sacrifice.

You may come to ask yourself, “What should I do today?” in a manner that means “How could I use my time to make things better, instead of worse?”

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 any precedence over precisely that.

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

Taking the easy way out or telling the truth – those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.

Set your ambitions, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power.

If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth.

Be precise in your speech

You must determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction. Random wandering will not move you forward. It will instead disappoint and frustrate you and make you anxious and unhappy and hard to get along with (and then resentful, and then vengeful, and then worse).

This is a painful truth to everyone who ever found himself at the end of an hours-long digital marathon, pointlessly watching “only one more video”, playing “only one more game”, looking at “only one more meme”, until the day is over and you realize you have done nothing at all, wasted all your precious time you could also have used to work on the project you long since wanted to work on, work out, or even just go outside for a walk, all of which might have added meaning to your life, instead of draining it and making you miserable.

Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

Aggression underlies the drive to be outstanding, to be unstoppable, to compete, to win—to be actively virtuous, at least along one dimension. Determination is its admirable, pro-social face.

What to be cautious about

Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?

Beware of single cause interpretations—and beware the people who purvey them.

Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you.

How shall I deal with the enlightened one? Replace him with the true seeker of enlightenment. There is no enlightened one. There is only the one who is seeking further enlightenment. Proper Being is process, not a state; a journey, not a destination.

sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s not the world that’s the cause. The cause is instead that which is currently most valued, subjectively and personally. […] If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.

Tell the truth

If you pay attention to what you do and say, you can learn to feel a state of internal division and weakness when you are misbehaving and misspeaking.

Sometimes I was using the words of others to avoid the responsibility of thinking for myself.

“Did what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my methods were wrong. I still have something to learn.” That is the voice of authenticity. “Did what I want happen? No. Then the world is unfair. People are jealous, and too stupid to understand. It is the fault of something or someone else.” That is the voice of inauthenticity.

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.

General advice

What you aim at determines what you see.

Someone hiding is not someone vital. Vitality requires original contribution.

If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself.

Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish.

Meaning trumps expedience. Meaning gratifies all impulses, now and forever. That’s why we can detect it.

There is no faith and no courage and no sacrifice in doing what is expedient.

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

If you listen, instead, without premature judgment, people will generally tell you everything they are thinking—and with very little deceit. People will tell you the most amazing, absurd, interesting things. Very few of your conversations will be boring. (You can in fact tell whether or not you are actually listening in this manner. If the conversation is boring, you probably aren’t.)

Women are often intent on formulating the problem when they are discussing something, and they need to be listened to—even questioned to help ensure clarity in the formulation. Then, whatever problem is left, if any, can be helpfully solved. (It should also be noted first that too early problem-solving may also merely indicate a desire to escape from the effort of the problem-formulating conversation.)

Peterson also shares a rule or technique which I’m eager to try out and think should be the default how serious debates are pursued. It surely would prevent pointless emotionalized accusations and talking past each other, which seem all too prevalent in today’s society:

‘Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.’ […] If you really understand a person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.