Review: 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson


I finally got around to reading Jordan Peterson’s second book, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos. I tried reading his Maps of Meaning last year, and was turned off by his incessant waffling an inability to get to the point. The same is principally true for 12 Rules of Life. However, as the book has twelve separate and essentially self-contained chapters, it’s a lot easier to get through this one instead. Overall, it’s not a bad book. The rules are based on a popular Quora post he wrote a few years ago, and now that his popularity exploded, it was arguably a very opportune time to cash in on his newfound celebrity status.

I am quite certain that most people who buy this book will not read it to the end. As you may know, 12 Rules for Life has become a mainstream success, and I just can’t imagine the buyer of mainstream books to have much tolerance for the kind of language Peterson uses and his incessant meandering. I read most of the book — a few parts I merely skimmed as they covered stories he’s been telling over and over, like his piece on the dominance hierarchy of lobsters. So, if you’ve watched his video lectures on Personality or his recent one on Psychological Interpretations of the Bible, a lot of the content will be very familiar to you.

The book is written in a style that is very close to how Peterson speaks. I don’t think this works very well, though. In spoken language, you easily accept redundancy and meandering. In fact, if you’re listening to a podcast while cleaning your room, pun intended, you may appreciate that the speaker is making the same point three times in a row. However, when reading a book, this only means that you’ll have to read many more words that don’t contain that much more information. Thus, 12 Rules for Life probably works better as an audiobook.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life

In the following, I will list Peterson’s twelve rules and briefly comment on them. Afterwards, I comment on the rules themselves. Lastly, I will share further general comments on the book, its style, and Peterson as a writer and person.

Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
‌That’s Peterson’s favorite “lobster” piece in long form. The summary is that the top male gets all the cash and all the women, so better get your act together. It’s self-help tropes dressed up in fancy words, essentially.

Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
‌Unlike the rule might suggest, this chapter quickly descends into a discussion of the concepts of order and chaos, sorry: Order and Chaos, and their biblical significance. It’s pretty garbled and mixes way too many ideas. The first few pages are interesting, though, as they discuss the observation that some people don’t take their meds. They don’t do what’s good for them. Why are they doing this? (I’d say it’s not so much self-sabotage, but an ability to make plans and stick to them.)

Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you
‌This is probably the most important chapter in the book. Making friends with people who have your back is only half of the rule. Its inverse is to avoid people who mean trouble. Peterson tells some chilling stories about people who were bad influences on him. It’s not spelled out like this, but the conclusion to draw is not only to cut off negative influences but to not even let them into your life. This is, for instance, why responsible parents obsess so much about the quality of schools. It’s not just the quality of education received, but also the quality of the children who attend. As Peterson remarks, “delinquency spreads”. It just takes one rotten apple to lead a few kids astray.

Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
This chapter is arguably the most profound one as the discussion of the psychological mechanisms involved in seeding self-doubt are described in quite some detail. Yet, this description does not generally apply. My mind works a bit differently than the supposed principle described, but I’d say that you can probably take something away from it.

Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
‌For parents or soon-to-be parents, this might be a particularly interesting chapter. In short, Peterson tells you how and why he disciplined his kids, how he disciplined the kids of friends, and how he wishes he would have disciplined the kids of strangers (throwing them to the ground). I don’t at all disagree with his general message as there are a lot of misbehaving kids around. However, I’m a bit surprised that the professionally offended have not yet come out of the woodwork and accused Peterson for advocating physical violence. This chapter also details why not disciplining your kids does not work. I was particularly amused by his observation that the most “progressive” women tend to raise bullies and wife-beaters.

Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
The message is, roughly, that if your room is a mess, you shouldn’t foster a love affair with Neo-Marxist thinking. This chapter is quintessential Peterson.

‌Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
If you only do what’s easy, you may lose sight of the real prize, and consequently pay the price. More concretely, this chapter points out the importance of delaying gratification. Well, I’d say that some people delay gratification so much that they never get to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but Peterson wants you to go back to the plantation anyway.

‌Rule 8: Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie
In short, if you lie, you’re a catalyst for corruption. Lying by omission is also bad. At its worst, your constant lies culminate in a “life-lie”, which will do you in. A poignant example is given by mentioning the case of people who work towards retirement, but once they retire, realize that they have nothing to live for anymore.

Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
‌Listen to people. You might learn that you’re talking to a “witch”, and you won’t get bored. While I think that there are people worth listening to and learning from, I’d say most are not and you are much better off avoiding their company. This is one of the more impractical chapters as Peterson talks a lot about psychological practice. Sure, if you want to be an effective psychotherapist, you better listen to a client. However, in real life, I’d suggest you adopt a rule of thumb that if someone appears to be dumb, you better move on — except if you want to get laid, but that’s another story.

Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
This is the most ludicrous chapter in the book. Jordan Peterson is a waffler par excellence, and I’ll quote a particularly ridiculous example from that very chapter below, yet he bloviates about the importance of precise speech. Maybe this chapter is supposed to serve as a warning example, and I just didn’t get the irony.

‌Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
‌Here we have a companion chapter to Rule 5, which also applies to older children. Basically, let your kids make mistakes and learn from them. This sounds like “boomer” advice, hailing from a time when crime only happened on TV. These days, in most large Western cities, you’d be insane if you let your teenage daughter go for a run after sunset, for instance.

Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
In short, enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Pet a cat, salvage a nice cup of coffee, bend your girlfriend over and fuck her when you’re horny. Okay, I admit, I added the last one myself.

The Problem of Using Metaphors as a Crutch for Understanding

With the twelve rules now out of the way, I think it’s fair to say that they are very eclectic. I don’t think they are even the most relevant. If you asked me for my philosophy of life, I’d say learn those two things:

1) Save yourself. Forget about the world.
2) Walk away.

In fact, I have found that walking away is much more powerful than trying to fix something. If your world is not in order, you can waste your entire life trying to make things right. This is an aspect Peterson mentions in his book, when some people assume the role of a martyr in their private life. However, this extends much further. Sexual relationships are one thing. Yet, there are also familial bonds. I essentially walked away from my family as my parents had treated me poorly, my father actively, and my mother by complacency. Yet, I could as well have wasted my entire life trying to get their approval.

This leads to a problem with psychology: In my view, psychologist have one particular kind of hammer, and they perceive everything to be the same kind of nail. I was a very messed up teenager, which was predominantly due to parental influences. After a lot of introspection and reading, I decided to seek out help and look for a psychologist. The first guy I spoke to, though, told me that if I ever wanted to solve my problems, I would have to ask my father for forgiveness for my actions. No, not God. I was supposed to ask my biological father for forgiveness, presumably because I resented him for almost succeeding in fucking up my life. I also learnt that I have to accept that I must be “eternally grateful for having bestowed the gift of life upon [me].” I chuckled, wished him a nice day, and kept looking for a different psychologist. I thankfully found one who didn’t try badgering me with hackneyed metaphors of the mythical quality and paramount importance of father and mother.

Come to think of it: That whacko, incidentally also a university-affiliated psychologist, must be a few years older than Peterson now, so maybe those metaphors were just all the rage back then. Indeed, Peterson reminds me a lot of that guy: Chaos, Order, Save your Father, The Holy Mother. Those metaphors are all crude concepts that, more often than not, prevent you from gaining an understanding of your particular position in the real world. You can of course take your starting position and apply it to such concepts, but I don’t think you gain much from it besides obscuring any insight you could have gotten.

Blind Spots of Jordan Peterson

Lastly, I would like to draw attention to a few points that undermine Jordan Peterson. In fact, I found some parts of 12 Rules for Life downright comical as they revealed that Jordan Peterson lives in a complete bubble, unable to introspect on his own actions. Let me start with a whammy.

Here is a quote from his book:

Some are not good at articulating themselves. They go off on tangents. They repeat themselves. They say vague and contradictory things. They’re hard to listen to.

You can probably guess from which chapter this is from (it’s from Rule 10). Now, read this paragram, which has been taken from that very chapter:

If you add some sugar to cold water, and stir it, the sugar will dissolve. If you heat up that water, you can dissolve more. If you heat the water to boiling, you can add a lot more sugar and get that to dissolve too. Then, if you take that boiling sugar water, and slowly cool it, and don’t bump it or jar it, you can trick it (I don’t know how else to phrase this) into holding a lot more dissolved sugar than it would have it if it had remained cold all along. That’s called a super-saturated solution. If you drop a single crystal of sugar into that super-saturated solution, all the excess sugar will suddenly and dramatically crystallize. It’s as if it were crying out for order. That was my client.

Yes, this tangent is taken verbatim from 12 Rules for Life, which is downright baffling. No, Peterson, you don’t “trick” water. There are very precise terms for describing chemical processes, but supposedly the mandate to be precise in your language only applies to others, not to you.

Here’s a bonus, which is even worse:

What you perceive as your computer is like a single leaf, on a tree, in a forest—or, even more accurately, like your fingers rubbing briefly across that leaf. A single leaf can be plucked from a branch. It can be perceived, briefly, as a single, self-contained entity—but that perception misleads more than clarifies. In a few weeks, the leaf will crumble and dissolve. It would not have been there at all, without the tree. It cannot continue to exist, in the absence of the tree. This is the position of our laptops in relation to the world. So much of what they are resides outside their boundaries that the screened devices we hold on our laps can only maintain their computer-like façade for a few short years.

My computer is “like a single leaf, on a tree”? This is the single most bizarre paragraph I have read in my entire life.

Peterson also talks about “rationality”, calling it a “person”. He mentions the danger of “rationality falling in love with its own creation”. I’d say this charge most definitely applies to the author of 12 Rules for Life. You can presumably call Peterson willfully blind. He, the old man with the messiah complex who is lashing out at the world with his waffly language! Why use one word when you can instead write, “the theater of the imagination”? I think there is only one non-STEM subject where, at least at the very few good faculties in the world, people teach you to write properly. That subject is, or presumably was, philosophy. If you claimed that the “screened devices we hold on our laps” are “like a single leaf, on a tree”, they would probably have a chat with the admissions officer and asks what the hell went wrong when they let you in, in addition to telling you that your words obscure your thoughts, or that if you can’t express yourself clearly, you can’t think clearly.

On a side note, I cringe whenever I see emoticons printed in a book written by an adult. It grosses me out as it’s utterly juvenile.

I have made a few more remarks on the book, but they are quite specific and also more related to the person Jordan Peterson. I will turn them into a separate post. This review is long enough as it is already. In summary, if you haven’t watched much of Peterson’s material online and wonder what the fuss is about, 12 Rules for Life will get you up to speed. However, the more you’ve consumed of Peterson’s material, the less you will get out of this book.

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11 thoughts on “Review: 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

  1. I’m less and less impressed with Peterson as time goes on. Much of his popularity comes from his dramatic stage presence. It’s a performance. A typical bland psych prof reciting the same ideas would get nowhere.

    For Peterson, I think “Be precise in your speech” means “Avoid saying the phrase that will ruin your career in the media.”

    1. Nassim Taleb would call him IYI (Intellectual Yet Idiot)
      Let’s make it simple: he’s a fucking idiot.

  2. “I thankfully found one who didn’t try badgering me with hackneyed metaphors of the mythical quality and paramount importance of father and mother.”

    I hope this second guy was more interested in what you feel towards your parents rather then telling you what to feel about them right off the bat.

    1. That guy was amazing. He was close to retirement age, a bit life-weary and cynical. He treated me pro bono for about four years, as his personal hobby, until I moved away. The assessment of the public healthcare provider was that my case doesn’t warrant psychological treatment, to which he remarked that we can ignore that as most of the people he’s treating (“treatment-resistant women in their early 30s”) don’t even want to change, instead looking for some kind of justification for whatever it is they are doing. Compared to that, he said, helping me to work through my issues would be a genuine breath of fresh air, which he’d be happy to do on his own dime.

      1. Then why were those treatment-resistant women there in the first place? Now that I think about it, in my little experience with counselling, it can be argued that my female counsellor (you know who) was arguably trying to help me feel better and make peace with the plans I had in mind. She was the one subtly justifying my choices, though she also did say that it seemed like I had already thought over things thoroughly. So unfortunately, till this day I still don’t know what a good shrink would be like. I’m immensely glad you got the support you needed.

      2. There are two aspects:
        – More women than men go to psychotherapy. For some it’s even a social marker or status symbol.
        – Most people don’t really want to change. Yet, they still like to delude themselves.

      3. Glad it went well for you. Thanks for sharing. I did pick up subtle hints here and there.
        As for the ones not willing to change: my therapist makes an assessment after the first year and then fires the change-resistent.
        I’m a tough case, so I don’t even want to imgine how stubborn those are who don’t want to change. That being said ISTDP iis the most heads-on thing I’ve ever experienced in my life – dunno what kind of a fucked up whacko you gotta be to not get your ass moving with this kinda therapy.

  3. On Peterson: thanks Aaron, I was hesitant to buy 12 rules because I suspected precisely what you said here. I might have a go at Maps of Meaning in the future.
    Yeah, he has a good stage presence and that explains a lot of his appeal. On the other hand, I would argue that beyond his ramblings, he seems to be generally right.

    I am happy to say I have never had counseling in my life (except the occasional non optional talk with the high school psychologyst). In my country most psychologysts are essentially psychoanalysts so I distrust them instinctively.

    1. What exactly is he right about? I find his ideas so vague that it’s hard to even make sense as to what exactly he is postulating.

  4. Excellent review Aaron. It’s refreshing to find someone who doesn’t just swallow Peterson’s word salads without any consideration for whether they are actually true or not. I’m still not sure whether he thinks of himself as a philosopher or a psychologist. He seems to use his authority to drive home many of his points. Oddly enough, that is what he proclaims to be mainly against in his work.

    I liked the podcasts he did with Sam Harris because Sam is clearly not impressed with his bizarre logic which often seems to contradict itself. Did you catch those? Apparently they are going on stage together for some sold-out conversations later this year.

    That said, I think it’s perhaps a good thing that someone like Peterson is causing people to at least think a little more (even those impressed by him). And I do agree with him on the free speech issues that catapulted him into the spotlight.

    Thanks again for your honest review. Your meditation book looks interesting.

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