The Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson came to London earlier this year to promote his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos
He must have done a good job because it’s been top or near the top of the best seller charts ever since. I had the pleasure to meet him at an event at the Royal Society of Arts where I am a Life Fellow. Dr Peterson is both a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. With his students and colleagues, Dr Peterson has published over a hundred scientific papers, and his book Maps of Meaning
revolutionised the psychology of religion.
He has built a following of tens of millions of viewers with his online lectures on topics from ancient mythology to modern relationships. In an era of often disorienting change and divisive politics, his message, emphasising individual responsibility and ancient wisdom, has resonated around the world, especially with young people, and yes, it has to be said, especially with young men.
Peterson has now distilled his teachings into twelve practical principles for how to live a meaningful life. His basic message is that life is hard with battles against evil and suffering, and that you may as well face it clear-eyed and with some sense of bravery and adventure; and that political ideology is no answer when your life goes wrong. Some of his critics accuse him of right-wing bias but in truth he hates all ideologies.
His advice ranges from putting your own house in order before criticising others, to comparing yourself to who you were yesterday, rather than someone else today. Happiness, he says, is a futile goal. Instead we must search for meaning, not for its own sake, but as a defence against the suffering that is intrinsic to existence.
Drawing examples from his personal life as well as clinical practice, cutting-edge psychology and philosophy, and lessons from humanity’s oldest myths and stories, Dr Peterson offers an antidote to chaos, applying eternal truths to today’s problems.
Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.
We observe in nature how the struggle for survival, food, a mate, is based on a winner-takes-all principle. The brain chemistry alters with winning or losing and so does the posture. So it is in human societies where the top 1% have as much loot as the bottom 50 per cent and the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion. When Dr Peterson sees a new patient suffering from depression or other mental illness he first asks them about sleep. Waking up at the same time each morning is vital. Anxiety and depression cannot be easily treated if the sufferer has unpredictable daily routines. A good fat-and-protein-heavy breakfast comes next, as soon as possible, (no simple carbohydrates, no sugars, as they are digested too rapidly, and produce a blood-sugar spike and rapid dip.) Anxious and depressed people are already stressed and so their bodies are primed to hypersecrete insulin. The excess insulin will mop up all their blood sugar. Then they become hypoglycemic and psycho-physiologically unstable. All day.
Some people think they are losers. Maybe they are. But if they are they don’t have to continue in that mode. To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with your eyes wide open.
Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping.
The scientific world of matter can be reduced, in some sense, to its constitutional elements: molecules, atoms, even quarks. However, the world of experience has primal constituents, as well. One of these is chaos. Another is order. The third is the process that mediates between the two. Chaos is the domain of ignorance itself. It’s unexplored territory. But it’s also the demons that haunt us. It’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your career collapses, your marriage ends or your child gets some terrible disease.
Order by contrast is explored territory. That’s the hundreds-of- millions-of-year-old hierarchy of place, position and authority. It’s the structure provided by biology. Order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country. We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We are adapted, in the deepest Darwinian sense, not to the world of objects, but to the meta-realities of order and chaos, yang and yin. Chaos and order make up the eternal transcendent environment of the living.
To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure. That is where meaning is to be found.
Rule 3: Make Friends With People Who Want The Best For You.
People choose friends for all sorts of reasons, often bad. For example, they choose friends who aren’t good for them because they have low self-worth, or they want to rescue someone. Or because it’s easier. They get together and decide to sacrifice the future for the present. Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. The least likely reason is that they are a victim of unjust circumstances. It is far more likely that they have rejected the path upward, because of its difficulty. Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable. To fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time.
Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse. If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. Don’t think that it’s easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. It requires strength and daring.
Rule 4: Compare Yourself To Who You Were Yesterday, Not To Who Someone Else Is Today
When most people lived in small, rural communities it was easier for people to be good at something. You might be the one teacher in the village, or a good carpenter or baker. But in a globalised world only a few stand out. In the age of celebrity ordinary people have low self-esteem and the digital connections of Facebook exacerbate this.
No matter how good you are at something or how you rank your accomplishments, there is someone out there who makes you look incompetent. We are not equal in ability or outcome, and never will be. A very small number of people produce very much of everything. And that means that many feel they are at the bottom and that’s not a good place to be. So they play games to pretend that it’s not so bad and that makes it worse.
They need to dare to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to express what would justify their lives. They might then discover that what they imagined were dark desires were not so dark. Their partner might appreciate them more.
They first need to take stock of who they are. The past is a guide but that is fixed. The future is not fixed and could be better. And the happiness might not come in reaching some distant mountain peak but in the joy of the climb uphill.
Rule 5: Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them.
Children can be damaged as much or more by a lack of incisive attention as they are by abuse, mental or physical. This is damage by omission, rather than commission, but it is no less severe and long-lasting. Children are damaged when their “mercifully” inattentive parents fail to make them sharp and observant and awake and leave them, instead, in an unconscious and undifferentiated state. Children are damaged when those charged with their care, afraid of any conflict or upset, no longer dare to correct them, and leave them without guidance. It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child.
If a child strikes a mother repeatedly in the face it is trying to dominate her. Violence is no mystery, it’s the default. Peace is the mystery. It’s difficult. People often get basic psychological questions the wrong way round. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time that’s a mystery. Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How is it that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery. We’re breakable and mortal. A million things can go wrong, in a million ways. We should be terrified out of our skulls at every second. But we’re not. The same goes for depression, laziness and criminality.
Dr Peterson recommends three disciplinary principles:
Rule 6: Set Your House In Perfect Order Before You Criticise The World.
Some mass killers have explained their crimes by saying the human race is not worth fighting for. For such individuals the world of experience is insufficient and evil – so to hell with everything! Some have themselves been abused and so the cycle repeats itself in a tragic and terrible way. By June of 2016 there had been one thousand mass killings in the US in twelve hundred and sixty days. That’s one such event on five of every six days for more than three years. Everyone says, “We don’t understand.” But for Dr Peterson it is all too easy to be understood and has been since human time began.
He tells the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviet authorities but before he blamed the system he looked into his own life to see what he might have contributed to his fate. He then wrote The Gulag Archipelago,
a history of the Soviet prison system. This work finally demolished the intellectual credibility of communism, as ideology or society. And in so doing he helped to start a process that inevitably led to the collapse of the whole system.
This is perhaps Dr Peterson’s most famous rule. He says “If your life goes wrong, don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganise the state until you have ordered your own existence. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”
Rule 7: Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient).
Since there is so much suffering in life then one escape route is to pursue pleasure. Live for the moment. Do what’s expedient. But is there an alternative, more powerful and more compelling? Dr Peterson rehearses how the ancients worked out such problems. Sophocles 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. Life is indeed “nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes so memorably remarked. But man’s capacity for evil makes it worse.
The only way to understand Auschwitz and all the rest is to see that if there are things that are not good then there are things that are good. Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world.
If you act properly, your actions will allow you to be psychologically integrated now, and tomorrow and into the future, while you benefit yourself, your family, and the broader world around you.
Rule 8: 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. You can use words to manipulate the world into delivering what you want. This is spin. Alfred Adler called it the “life-lie.” Kierkegaard called it “inauthentic.” Deceit is at the route of all the great tragedies of human suffering: the torture chambers, the death camps and the genocides of the Nazis, of Stalin and of Mao. And it has not gone away.
But truth builds edifices that can last a thousand years. Hitler said the Third Reich would last a thousand years, But he also said you had to tell the big lie and his Reich was over in just thirteen terrible years.
Truth is either a collection of slogans or an ideology. It will instead be personal. Your truth is something only you can tell, based as it is on the unique circumstances of your life.
Rule 9: Assume That The Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t.
Listening is part of conversation. Even a lecturer must “listen” to his audience gauging their reaction to what she says; ‘listening’ to their body language; and reacting accordingly. Even thought is a type of conversation with yourself in which you need to listen to what you are saying and consider changing your point of view. The best conversation is one where it is the desire for truth itself – on behalf of all participants – that is truly listening and speaking. That’s why it’s engaging, interesting and meaningful.
So, listen to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.
Rule 10: Be Precise In Your Speech.
Precision specifies. When something terrible happens, it is precision that separates the unique terrible thing that has actually happened from all the other, equally terrible things that might have happened – but did not. If you shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses, reality itself will become unsustainably disorganised and chaotic. Then it will grow bigger and swallow all order, all sense, and all predictability. If the gap between pretence and reality goes unmentioned, it will widen, you will fall into it, and the consequences will not be good. Ignored reality manifests itself in an abyss of confusion and suffering.
You must determine where you have been in your life, so that you can know where you are now. If you don’t know where you are, precisely, then you could be anywhere. Anywhere is too many places to be, and some of those places are very bad. You must determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction.
Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding.
When children play they naturally test the limits of their capability. Playgrounds should ideally be designed to encourage and reward this. There is therefore an inevitable element of danger in this. If the authorities seek to design all the risk out of the playground then the children will not develop their capability nor will they enjoy it as much.
Dr Peterson in this chapter also goes into the clear differences between men and women describing the spirit that interferes when boys are trying to become men as no more friend to woman than it is to man. It will object, just as vociferously and self-righteously (“you can’t do it, it’s too dangerous”) when little girls try to stand on their own two feet. It negates consciousness. It’s antihuman, desirous of failure, jealous, resentful and destructive. Noone truly on the side of humanity would ally him or herself to become possessed by such a thing. And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.
Rule 12: Pet A Cat When You Encounter One In The Street.
People are social, but people are antisocial. People are social because they like the members of their own group. People are antisocial because they don’t like the members of other groups. Exactly why this is so has been the subject of continual debate. Dr Peterson thinks it might be a solution to a complex problem of optimisation. Such problems arise, for example when two or more factors are important, but none can be maximised without diminishing the others. A problem of this sort emerges, for example, because of the antipathy between cooperation and competition, both of which are socially and psychologically desirable. Cooperation is for safety, security and companionship. Competition is for personal growth and status. However, if a given group is too small, it has no power or prestige, and cannot fend off other groups. If the group is too large, however, the probability of climbing near or to the top declines. So it becomes too hard to get ahead.
Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better. It is possible that you can manage, if you are careful. People are very tough. People can survive through much pain and loss. But to persevere they must see the good in being. If they lose that, they are truly lost.
I have tried to precis Dr Peterson’s Rules in this blog, one of the longest I have ever written. But I suggest you read the book. It is well worth it. If you don’t have the time to read the book, then see him on video. There are numerous lectures and interviews on YouTube. I particularly enjoyed his interview on Channel 4 news where he absolutely demolished Cathy Newman.[ii]