Book Review: 12 rules for life – an antidote to chaos

19 Oct 2018

Jordan Peterson is a world renowned clinical psychologist who has been nominated for the Levenson Teaching Prize for his work as a professor at Harvard University and is currently a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. As an author, teacher and consultant to the UN, Peterson has challenged and reshaped our understanding of personality and how to live a meaningful life. His book ‘12 rules for life – an antidote to chaos’ is an international bestseller and a truly fascinating read with many thought provoking takes on history, religion, science and philosophy to help us be better human beings.

The overarching theme of the book is this idea of order and its antithesis, chaos. Order being when society acts in a completely predictable manner and we do exactly what is expected of us according to social norms, while chaos is when the unexpected happens. Peterson, contrary to conventional wisdom, argues that the meaning of life is not to find happiness but is instead to develop character in the face of suffering. For Taoists, developing character in the face of suffering is about walking the border between order and chaos and to do this is to stay on the path of life, in the Divine sense.

Below I have selected 3 ‘rules’ that had a profound impact on me as a I read them, but I encourage those who have not yet read this book, to do so as I am certain it will challenge your belief system and help you find the antidote to the chaos in your life.

Rule 4 – compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today

This one stood out to me as I think it is something that future generations will struggle with. Growing up in smaller towns, with less connectedness allowed us to be victorious in many different pursuits. In other words, it was easier to be labeled ‘good’ at something when we weren’t as connected. Fast forward to a world where we are far more connected, both digitally and physically and our ‘hierarchies of accomplishment are now dizzyingly vertical’.

In life, we are always at point A, moving toward point B, which we deem to be more desirable than point A. This is important as without this mindset, we simply could not stay motivated, it is essentially hope for a better tomorrow and without it, life would feel meaningless. However, when point B becomes too high or too chaotic, we can only ‘live in disappointment, even when we appear to others to be living well.’ And we see more and more people aiming too high, a problem that I believe emanates from social media as ‘influencers’ portray the perfect lives. It distorts our view and many of us have the feeling of living in mediocrity because of it.

The challenge here is being able to take stock and Peterson uses the analogy of a house inspector. A house inspector will disclose all flaws as you need to know this to be able to fix them. We must act as house inspectors and take a walk through our psychological homes, listening judiciously to what it says. Importantly though, we must not be ‘demoralised, even crushed by (our) internal critics lengthy and painful report of (our) inadequacies’. Understand who we are, our limitations and who we want to be, whilst accepting that we will never all be equal.

Rule 6 – set your house in perfect order before you criticise the rest of the world

We find ourselves questioning the meaning of existence when evil or misfortune is placed upon us. It can be something as significant as a sick child, or less significant, such as struggling with a tax return.

Nietzsche reminds us that “Distress, whether psychic, physical or intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism (that is, the radical rejection of value, meaning and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations.”

Peterson explains that these words refer to this idea that people who experience evil may certainly desire to perpetuate it. However, it is also possible to ‘learn good by experiencing evil.’ A bullied child may choose to bully others or may learn just how important it is to treat others with respect and to not push them around as it will make their lives miserable.

In this instance it would be very easy to do the wrong thing and blame the world for being unfair, but it is far more constructive to clean up your life before anything else. Are you taking full advantage of the opportunities offered to you? Are you working hard on your career, or even your job, or are you letting bitterness and resentment hold you back and drag you down? As Peterson puts it ‘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?’

Rule 9 – assume the person you are talking to might know something you don’t

True thinking, like listening, is rare. Carl Rogers wrote “The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.” Rogers even suggested that when in debate or conversation, a rule be set, and this rule was “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.”

“The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous.”

I think adding this to our routine could have tremendous impact on the world, simply restating what the person said to you in your own words and asking if you have understood them correctly may be what is required to get to a solution. Peterson talks of the advantages of doing exactly this.

Call it being open minded or courageous, you have to be willing to be influenced by the thoughts of others and we simply cannot be influenced by others if we do not listen and listen properly. The other advantage of doing this is that we can summarise and distill long winded problems, arguments or stories in to something that is not as heavy and more memorable. Finally, you avoid the straw-man argument. We are inclined to oversimplify, parody or distort someone’s view when they oppose our own. This is counterproductive and instead we should ‘give the devil his due, looking at his or her arguments from their perspective’. What this allows us to do is find value and learn from them and/or form a better argument against the views of this person, should you still disagree. You will be much stronger for this.

These are just 3 of the 12 rules and all added value to my life, whether I found myself agreeing entirely, partially or not at all. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts, so feel free to share below.