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Review: 12 Rules for Life (Part 2)

Author ,
Category Book Reviews
Date July 6, 2018

This article is the second part of an extensive review of Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It is not an endorsement of the book. The first part can be found here.

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RULE 4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

‘No matter how good you are at something, or how you rank your accomplishments, there is someone out there who makes you look incompetent.’ So begins this chapter. Peterson reckons we have “a critical internal voice”. ‘It condemns our mediocre efforts’, but it presupposes that we all have standards, though ‘we are not equal in ability or outcome and never will be – the winners don’t take all, but they take the most, and the bottom is not a good place to be.’ ‘Worthlessness is the default position’ and they are wilfully blind. Yet ‘… a whole generation of social psychologists recommended “positive illusions” as the only reliable route to mental health. Their credo? Let a lie be your umbrella.’ ‘Things are so terrible that only delusion can save you.’ What a dismal philosophy! Peterson offers an alternative approach. ‘If the internal voice makes you doubt the value of your endeavours – or your life, or life itself – perhaps you should stop listening.’ Don’t talk yourself into irrelevance.

‘Standards of better or worse are not illusory or unnecessary.’how

‘The idea of a value-free choice is a contradiction in terms. Value judgements are a precondition for action. If something can be done at all, it can be done better or worse. If there was no better and worse, nothing would be worth doing. There would be no value and, therefore, no meaning.’ ‘Success’ and ‘failure’ are generally understood but they are not absolutes, they are modified an generalized in our complex world. Similarly, there are many games or vocations – if one does not suit, then try another.’

We rarely play just one game – we have career, friends, family, projects, sports and so on. Yet if you are winning at all of them it might mean you’re not doing anything new and challenging. As youngsters we inevitably compared ourselves to others because standards are necessary. As we grow up we become increasingly individual and we compare ourselves less with others – ‘This is what gives existence its full and necessary meaning.’

But Peterson asks, ‘Who are you?’ Maybe you think you know, but maybe you don’t. We are neither master nor slave. You have a nature. ‘Before you can articulate your own standards of value, you must see yourself as a stranger – and then you must get to know yourself.’ For example, do you ask yourself what you want? You should. You should determine your moral obligations to yourself and to others. ‘Dare … to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself and express … what would really justify your life.’

How do you need to be spoken to? What do you need to take from people? What are you putting up with, or pretending to like, from duty or obligation? Consult your resentment. It’s a revelatory emotion, for all its pathology. It’s part of the evil triad: arrogance, deceit and resentment.

— Peterson call them the underworld Trinity, I call them my ADR. And the clinimax? ‘Be cautious when you’re comparing yourself to others.’ You are unique with you own particular embedded problems. ‘You must decide what to let go, and what to pursue.’

Now a sub-section on eyes. ‘Our eyes are always pointing at things we are interested in. We must see, but to see, we must aim, so we are always aiming.’ ‘We live within a framework that defines the present as eternally lacking and the future as eternally better. If we did not see things this way, we would not act at all.’ ‘But we can see. But we can aim too high. Or too low. Or too chaotically.’ What must we do? ‘The first step, perhaps is to take stock. Who are you?’ Just as a prospective house purchaser needs a housing inspector, you need an internal critic. You first need to know what’s broken before you can fix it — and according to Peterson, ‘… you’re broken.’ Yes, the report is not good, it’s long and painful. But cheer up, ‘The future is like the past. But there is a crucial difference. The past is fixed, but the future – it could be better.’ ‘Ask yourself: is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could, and would, set straight? Could you do it now? Ask honestly and with humility. That’s no simple matter. What bit of chaos might I eradicate at home, on my desk, in my kitchen, tonight, so that the stage is set for a better play? Aim small. And you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Do that for three years, and your life will be entirely different.’ Remember, ‘What you aim at determines what you see.’ ‘Seeing is very difficult, so you must choose what to see, and let the rest go.’

‘You might think, “I will make a different plan. I will try to want whatever it is that would make my life better.”‘ ‘But you must genuinely want your life to improve. You can’t fool your implicit perceptual structures. Not even a bit. You have to scour your psyche.’ ‘This is not theology. It’s not mysticism. It’s empirical knowledge.’ ‘We only see what we aim at.’ ‘What might we see?’ We might see morality and ethics and ‘Even older and deeper than ethics, however, is religion.’ ‘Religion is instead about proper behaviour.’ ‘You cannot aim yourself at anything if you are completely undisciplined and untutored. It is therefore necessary and desirable for religions to have a dogmatic element. What good is a value system that does not provide a stable structure?’ Peterson reinforces this notion by quoting from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas (ugh!). He continues,

Does that mean that what we see is dependent on our religious beliefs? Yes! You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not. You’re simply not an atheist in your actions. You can only find out what you actually believe by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.

We then move on to ‘The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization.’ ‘Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.’ This is psychological dynamite. Sadly, it’s not theological dynamite. Peterson sees little unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament and the God of both. The former is harsh and the latter is loving – this is Sunday school naivety. Nevertheless, ‘… you decide to act as if existence might be justified by its goodness – if only you behaved properly. And it is that decision, that declaration of existential faith that allows you to overcome nihilism, and resentment, and arrogance.’ ‘It [faith] is instead the realisation that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being.’

And how can you do that?

You might start by not thinking. This doesn’t mean “make yourself stupid”. It means the opposite. It means instead that you must quit manoeuvring and calculating and conniving and scheming and enforcing and demanding and avoiding and ignoring and punishing. It means you must place your old strategies aside. It means, instead, that you must pay attention, as you may never have paid attention before.

‘Focus on your surroundings.’ Ask yourself three questions: ‘”What is it that is bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” and “Would I actually be willing to fix it?”‘ ‘If you find that the answer is “no” … then look elsewhere. Aim lower.’ Search for something that bothers you … and then fix it. ‘That might be enough for the day.’

‘What do you know about yourself? You are, on the one hand, the most complex thing in the entire universe, and on the other, someone who can’t even set the clock on your microwave. Don’t over-estimate your self-knowledge.’

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 better. It is this, furthermore, that is communicated by those eternally confusing, glowing stanzas from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount [Luke 12:22-34], the essence, in some sense of the wisdom of the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount outlines the true nature of man, and the proper aim of mankind: concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is right in from of you. Do that only after you have determined to sacrifice whatever it is that must be sacrificed so that you can pursue the highest good.

‘Realization is dawning. You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself. Now, your trajectory is heavenward. That makes you hopeful. Ask, and ye shall receive. Knock, and the door will open. If you ask, as if you want, and knock, as if you want to enter, you will be offered the chance to improve your life, a little; a lot; completely’. ‘Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.’

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

This is an engrossing chapter on childrearing, not least because most of us parents have struggled with that task, and all of us have been on its receiving end, for better or worse. Peterson has probably seen more bad parents than most, chiefly those who dare not say “No” to their disobedient little treasures. And he gives a few hellish examples, including the offspring of a psychologist! Not saying “No” provides no reasonable boundaries for the youngster. It’s a looming disaster for child, parents, family and society. Some mothers have a penchant for objecting to requests from men under the guise of gender equality, but attend to every whim of their darling boy. Peterson concludes, ‘The future mates of such boys have every reason to hate their mothers-in-law. Respect for women? That’s for other boys, other men – not for their dear sons.’

What about bedtimes? Peterson calculated that a father who suffered 45 minutes of bedtime tantrums every night was spending about six working weeks each year ‘fighting ineffectually and miserably with his son.’ The outcome? ‘Resentment will inevitably build.’ Where does the fault lie and what can be done? Some say, ‘There are no bad children, there are only bad parents.’ This according to Peterson is ‘… dangerously and naively romantic. It’s too one-sided.’ So, it must be society’s fault – but that conclusion ‘explains nothing and solves no problems.’ Yet its ideologues call for “cultural restructuring”. But that destructs our stabilizing traditions by which we have slowly learned from our ancestors to live together and organise complex societies. ‘We tear them down at our peril.’ ‘Every person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution.’

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century French philosopher, was an ardent proponent of this idea that children are innocent – if only we could recapture our pre-civilised state and become the “noble savage”. You might want to recall that this awful father abandoned his five children to orphanages. Peterson gives Rousseau’s ideals short shrift: ‘But human beings are evil, as well as good, and the darkness that dwells forever in our souls is also there in no small part in our younger selves.’ ‘Children must be shaped and informed, or they cannot thrive.’ ‘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. Such children are chronically ignored by their peers. This is because they are no fun to play with.’ Such poorly-socialized children make tremendous demands on potential carers, so much so that the latter are quite likely to ignore them and respond to “nicer” children. And so the cycle continues.

Parents want to be loved by their children, but fear this will be lost if they chastise them.

They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents – if that – and parents are more, not less, than friends. Friends have very limited authority to correct. Every parent therefore needs to learn to tolerate the momentary anger … after necessary corrective action has been taken.

‘It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. Proper discipline requires effort.’ Any suggestion that this combination of responsibility and difficulty is damaging to the child is readily accepted – it lets the parents off the hook, but, ‘It’s lazy, cruel and inexcusable.’ ‘We assume that rules will irremediably inhibit … intrinsic creativity of our children.’ Peterson replies that real creativity is ‘shockingly rare’ and ‘strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement.’ Rules and structure are not harmful. What is harmful is a toddler who repeatedly strikes his mother. Yet Peterson does not find such behaviour surprising – ‘Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default.’ ‘Children hit first because aggression is innate and second because aggression facilitates desire.’ ‘How hard can I hit Mommy? Until she objects. Given that, correction is better sooner than later.’ But parents are rarely ready for wisdom from others – it’s a fundamental rule of psychology and daily life: ‘There is just no talking to parents about their children – until they are ready to listen.’ That’s true and it too bad! And, ‘Scared parents think that a crying child is always sad or hurt. This is simply not true. Anger is one of the most common reasons for crying. Anger-crying and fear-or-sadness crying do not look the same. They also don’t sound the same.’

‘Modern parents are terrified of two frequently juxtaposed words: discipline and punish.’ They must be handled with care. ‘It’s not that it’s impossible to discipline with reward. Drawing on the seminal “operant conditioning” work of B F Skinner, the American behaviourist, Peterson demonstrates how to get a toddler to lay the table – you break the task into simple pieces and pat him on the head as each stage is mastered – that’s the reward. If the target is to have a more communicative teenage daughter then whenever she shares, you stop texting and listen – that’s the reward. ‘We need to learn, because we’re stupid and easily damaged.’ And we need positive as well as negative emotions: ‘… they’re all required to keep us alive and thriving.’ Peterson uses princess Aurora from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty to illustrate the foolishness of her parent’s desire to protect her from anything negative – the upshot is that it does not protect her, it makes her weak. But why should a child be subject to parental dictates? Every child is dependent upon parental care and must listen to and obey reasonable and coherent rules. ‘Every child should also be taught to comply gracefully with the expectations of civil society.’ It’s a case of reward and punishment. And here is a piece of Peterson classic wisdom: ‘There’s a tight window of opportunity for this, as well, so getting it right quickly matters. If a child has not been taught to behave properly by the age of FOUR [my emphasis], it will forever be difficult for him or her to make friends.’

Next, a big question: ‘How, then, should children be disciplined? Peterson answers, ‘This is a very difficult question, because children (and parents) differ vastly in their temperaments. Some children are agreeable. Others are tougher-minded and more independent. They can be challenging, non-compliant and stubborn. Some children are desperate for rules and structure. Others … are immune to demands for even minimal necessary order.’ Peterson offers some ideas. First principle, rules should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Limit the rules to, for example, ‘Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture or bully other children. Eat in a civilised and thankful manner. Learn to share. Pay attention when spoken to by adults. Go to sleep properly and peaceably. Take care of your belongings. Be good company. Act so that other people are happy you’re around. A child who knows [and presumably obeys] these rules will be welcome everywhere.’ Second principle, use the least force necessary to enforce these rules. ‘This must be established experimentally, starting with the smallest possible intervention. Some children will be turned to stone by a glare. A verbal command will stop another. A thumb-cocked flick of the index finger on a small hand might be necessary for some. Such a strategy is particularly useful in public places such as restaurants.’ ‘To ensure that such [good] things happen, you have to discipline your children carefully and effectively – and to do that you have to know something about rewards and about punishment, instead of shying away from the knowledge.’

And what about physical punishment? Ooh, err! Peterson answers those who maintain that there is no excuse for physical punishment. First, some misbehaviours, such as theft and assault, deserve sanction. Second, such sanctions are typically physical – deprivation of liberty, time out. Third, some misbehaviours must be halted immediately before disaster occurs – poking a fork into an electrical socket, running across a busy road. He writes, ‘The answer is simple: whatever will stop it fastest, within reason. Because the alternative could be fatal.’ Fourth, penalties become more severe as children get older. ‘Those unconstrained four-year-olds, in turn, are often those who are unduly aggressive, by nature, at age two.’ It is to foster ‘… the delusion that teenage devils magically emerge from once-innocent little child-angels. You’re not doing your child any favours by overlooking any misbehaviour.’ Fifth, ‘What no means, in the final analysis is always “If you continue to do that, something you will not like will happen to you.” Otherwise it means nothing’ ‘And what about the idea that hitting a child merely teaches them to hit? First: No. Wrong. Too simple. For starters, “hitting” is a very unsophisticated word to describe the disciplinary act of an effective parent.’ ‘Magnitude matters – and so does context and … timing.’ At the end of Peterson’s range of corrections is this:

For the child who is pushing the limits in a spectacularly inspired way, a swat across the backside can indicate requisite seriousness on the part of a responsible parent. There are some situations in which even that will not suffice. And if you’re not thinking such things through, then you are not acting responsibly as a parent. You’re leaving the dirty work to someone else, who will be much dirtier doing it.

Peterson’s third principle is, parents should come in pairs. ‘Raising young children is demanding and exhausting.’ Mistakes are inevitable. Having someone else to observe, step in and discuss is a bonus. Fourth principle, parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful. ‘Very few people set out, consciously, to do a terrible job as father or mother, but bad parenting happens all the time. This is because people have a great capacity for evil, as well as good – and because they remain wilfully blind to that fact.’ ‘Beware. There are toxic families everywhere. They make no rules and limit no misbehaviour. The parents lash out randomly and unpredictably.’ And the fifth principle: ‘Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable.’

Finally, ‘… you make your children behave. You take responsibility for their discipline. You take responsibility for the mistakes you will inevitably make. You can apologize, when you are wrong, and learn to do better.’

You love your kids, after all. If their actions make you dislike them, think what an effect they will have on other people. Those other people will punish them, severely, by omission or commission. Don’t allow that to happen. Clear rules make for secure children and calm, rational parents. Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society establish, maintain and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld where everything is uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a committed and courageous parent can bestow.

‘Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.’

RULE 6. Set you house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

The shortest chapter of the book, just 13 pages long. It begins with the Sandy Hook and Columbine schools young killers who judge and curse life, the system, and people as evil. ‘Nothing means anything anymore. Kill mankind. No one should survive,’ they say. But according to Peterson, ‘Life is in truth very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction. Sometimes suffering is clearly the result of a personal fault such as wilful blindness, poor decision-making or malevolence. Whose fault is it, then?’ Leo Tolstoy certainly had it bad and he questioned the value of human existence. How to escape from the conclusion that life is meaningless and evil? Try as he might Tolstoy could raise only four answers. First, childishly ignore the problem. Second, pursue mindless pleasure. Third, trudge on regardless. Fourth, destroy life, by mass murder and suicide. Here again is the Cain and Abel narrative as the murderous forerunner, the ‘first act of post-Edenic history.’

‘Why? Why is there so much suffering and cruelty?’, Peterson asks. Well, perhaps it really is God’s doing – or the fault of blind, pointless fate. ‘Cain, in his rage, kills Abel. But he destroys Abel primarily to spite God.’ This is taking vengeance to the ultimate extreme. ‘But people emerge from terrible pasts to do good, and not evil.’ The gulag-imprisoned Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a notable example. He could have become resentful and bitter. But the great writer ‘… did not allow his mind to turn towards vengeance and destruction. He opened his eyes, instead. Solzhenitsyn pored over the details of his life … and … he let what was unnecessary and harmful die, and resurrected himself.’ The ancient Hebrews were not such good virtuous models: ‘As their fortunes rise, success breeds pride and arrogance.’ Then they would ‘… repent, at length, blaming their misfortune on their failure to adhere to God’s word. They rebuild their state, and the cycle begins again.’

‘If you are suffering – well, that’s the norm. People are limited and life is tragic. If your suffering is unbearable, however, and you are starting to become corrupted, here’s something to think about.’ ‘Consider your circumstances. Start small.’ Think about your bitterness and resentment, how you treat your family, bad habits, responsibilities ducked and so on. In other words, ‘Have you cleaned up your life?’ and ‘If the answer is no, here’s something to try: Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is. Every person is too complex to know themselves completely. So simply stop. Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganise 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? Watch what happens over the days and weeks. After some months and years of diligent effort, your life will become simpler and less complicated. You will become stronger and less bitter.’ ‘Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.’ 

This article is to be continued.

This is a second part of a review of 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. John Ling is a  retired lecturer at Aberystwyth University and author of a number of books on medical ethics. His personal website can be found at


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