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12 Rules for Life (Summary)

Most humans crave order and meaning in existence, to deal with the terrifying uncertainty of the world. For much of history religion served this function (eg being a servant of God). But as secularism rises, a void remains that is filled by nihilism and empty ideologies.

Peterson believes that there is real meaning and good in existence. Look at it this way – if real evil exists (human suffering, especially inflicted by other humans), then good is the opposite of this – it is preventing evil from happening.

You should therefore conduct your life to produce good. This will lead to meaning. This will make your existence matter. Your actions will matter, taking care of your health will matter, having good relationships will matter.

Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

There is a part of your brain that is constantly monitoring signals to figure out your position in society. How you see others, and how others treat you, affect how you view yourself. If others kowtow to you, you elevate your own impression of status. If others denigrate you, you lower your internal status.

If you slouch, you convey defeat and low status to others; they will then treat you poorly, which will reinforce your status. (This can be reinforced in serotonin signaling, related to depression)

Fix your posture to get others to treat you better, which will make you feel better and stand tall, thus kicking off a virtuous cycle.

Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

Many people are better at filling prescriptions for their dogs than themselves. Similarly, you may self-sabotage yourself daily – by not taking care of your health, not keeping promises you make to yourself.

Peterson argues that you do this because of some self-loathing – that you believe you’re not worth helping. Instead, you have to believe that you have a vital mission in this world, and you are obliged to take care of yourself.

Nietzsche: “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”

Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you.

Surround yourself with people who support you and genuinely want to see you succeed. You will push each other to greater heights; each person’s life improves as the others’ improve. They won’t tolerate your cynicism, and they will punish you when you mistreat yourself.

Don’t associate with people who want to drag you down to make them feel better about themselves.

Don’t accept charity cases by helping people who don’t accept personal responsibility for their actions. People who don’t want to improve can’t be helped.

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

With mass media, it’s easy to compare yourself to the best of every field (looks, wealth, marriage, career) and think of yourself as miserably outclassed. But modern society is so complex that everyone has different goals – which makes comparing to other people pointless.

Drill deeply into your discontent and understand what you want, and why. Define your goals.

Transform your goals into something achievable today. If it’s not within your control, look somewhere else. Let every day end a little better than it started.

If you do this correctly, you’ll be unconcerned with other people, because you have plenty to do yourself.

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

Children test boundaries of behavior to learn the rules of the world. As a parent, your purpose is to serve as a proxy for society. You must teach the child what is acceptable, and what isn’t.

Children who receive no/incorrect feedback will learn the incorrect boundaries of behavior. They will be poorly adjusted and rejected by society, which will severely hamper their happiness. If you don’t teach children the rules, society will punish them for you, far less mercifully.

Set the rules, but not too many. Use the minimum necessary force to enforce the rules.

Rule 6: Put your house in order.

It’s easy to blame the outside world, a group of people, or a specific person for your misfortunes. But before you do this, question – have you taken full advantage of every opportunity available to you? Or are you just sitting on your ass, pointing fingers?

Are you doing anything you know is wrong? Stop it today.

Stop saying things that make you feel ashamed and cowardly. Start saying things that make you feel strong. Do only those things about which you would speak with honor.

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.

Doing good (preventing evil from happening, alleviating unnecessary suffering) provides your life with meaning. Meaning defeats existential angst; it gratifies your short-term impulses to achieve long-term goals; it makes your life worth living.

Think – how can I make the world a little bit better today? Pay attention. Fix what you can fix.

Think more deeply – what is your true nature? What must you become, knowing who you are? Work toward this.

Rule 8: Tell the truth.

You may lie to others to get what you want; you may lie to yourself to feel better. But deep down you know it’s inconsistent with your beliefs, and you feel unsettled.

You must develop your personal truth, and then act only in ways that are consistent with your personal truth.

Lies can be about how much you enjoy your job; whether you want to be in a relationship; whether you’re capable of something; that a bad habit isn’t that bad for you; that things will magically work out.

Once you develop your truth, you have a destination to travel toward. This reduces anxiety – having either everything or nothing available are far worse.

Act only in ways that your internal voice does not object to. Like a drop of sewage in a lake of champagne, a lie spoils all the truth it touches.

Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

People talk because this is how they think. They need to verbalize their memories and emotions to clearly formulate the problem, then solve it. As a listener, you are helping the other person think. Sometimes you need to say nothing; other times, you serve as the voice of common reason.

The most effective listening technique: summarize the person’s message. This forces you to genuinely understand what is being said; it distills the moral of the story, perhaps clarifying more than the speaker herself; and you avoid strawman arguments while constructing steelman arguments.

Assume that your conversation partner has reached careful, thoughtful conclusions based on her own valid experiences.

Rule 10: Be precise with your speech.

Anxiety usually comes from the unknown. You don’t know what the problem is, or something vague seems really scary. Specificity turns chaos into a thing you can deal with.

If you had a cancer in your body, wouldn’t you want to know where it is, what it is, and how exactly to treat it? Why don’t you treat every other problem in your life with the same clarity?

Be precise. What is wrong, exactly? What do you want, exactly? Why, exactly?

In interpersonal conflicts, specify exactly what is bothering you. Don’t let it spiral into an inescapable cobweb. If you let everyday resentment gather, eventually it may bubble up and destroy everyone.

Rule 11: Leave children alone when they are skateboarding.

Modern parenting has gotten overprotective. This is partly out of protecting children from danger, partly out of a call to equalize gender treatment, to ‘feminize’ boys and lower aggression.

Boys by nature are more aggressive. This is biological. They want to prove competence to each other. They want to inhabit that level of risk that pushes them to grow.

Let kids alone when they push against authority, toughen up, and do seemingly dangerous things. They need it to grow.

Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Life is tough. Good people get hurt. Suffering is pervasive.

You can hate the universe for this. Or you can accept that suffering is an undeniable part of existence, and loving someone means loving their limitations. Superman without any flaws is boring and has no story.

Notice little bits of everyday goodness that make existence tolerable, even justifiable. Watch the girl splash into a puddle. Enjoy a good coffee. Pet a cat when you run into one.