An Introduction to 12 Rules for Life

Reading Time: 7 mins

A diagram of Peterson's 12 Rules for Life

After my last post on the three underrated ingredients of recovery, I’ve found myself thinking more about what has helped me in my journey so far.

One resource that I’ve come back to several times over the past three years is 12 Rules For Life by Jordan B Peterson.

Dr Peterson has earned quite a fan club over the last five years with his seemingly no-nonsense approach to life. With pithy anecdotes and catchphrases like “tidy your room”, he’s encouraged many to take control and responsibility for their futures. He also has a reputation for being uncompromising and steadfast in his arguments, which has earned him his fair share of detractors.

Whatever your thoughts on his style, I think people would be hard-pushed to deny that Peterson is, above all else, a thinker. He sees power and purpose in the ability to reason, and 12 Rules For Life is an eclectic mix of concepts from ancient to modern. This melting pot of ideas excited me when I first read it, and each time I go back to it, a dozen new thoughts occur to me. These pages shaped much of my current thinking about my recovery from mental illness.

Over the next 12 months, I want to take a deep dive into each rule in the book. I want to discuss the questions it raises, share my experiences of each chapter, and illustrate how they have helped me in healing myself.

Before I do, in this post, I want to give an overview of the book as a whole. I’ll explain the main premises you need to consider when reading and things I would have found helpful when I first opened it. Remember that this isn’t a review as such – just a few opinions on who I think this book could help.

Suffering, Order and Chaos

The fundamental theme of 12 Rules – which will hopefully become more evident in the subsequent posts – is that suffering is inherent in life, and to pretend otherwise makes a mockery of what it means to be alive.

Many might see this view as pessimism at its finest, but it was refreshing to see this written in black and white.

Since my teens, I’ve struggled with questions that have felt too big to grapple with. Why am I here? Why should I matter to anyone? Will it always hurt like this?

What’s the point?

The banishment of all suffering is impossible and, in fact, undesirable. Instead, Peterson suggests that our point is to overcome. To bear our suffering and use it as a tool to make things better. Central to this is the duality of order and chaos. In his introduction, Peterson espouses that both order and chaos must exist in the world. They are inextricably linked, and both are necessary to nature, society and personal growth.

Order is the realm of rules and patterns. The structure and systems make our world more predictable and, arguably, safer. However, too much order leads to stagnation. If there is too much order, the system cannot adapt, and – should a sudden change occur – the system dies. Too much order also leads to tyranny and suffering.

Chaos, on the other hand, is the realm of creativity. It is the constant destruction and regeneration of our world and leads to discoveries, growth and change. Too much chaos also leads to suffering, as the rules which govern our understanding of the world no longer make sense. We cannot survive in a world with no rules.

Peterson further posits that the most fruitful place for humanity to occupy – both on an individual level and as a whole – is the fine line between order and chaos. He cites the Taoist Yin-Yang, with the line separating the light and dark halves representing the “divine way”.

When we exist in (and can make use of) both order and chaos, then opportunity opens up to us. We can both tame our world and regenerate it. We can make sense of the essential things. When things cease to be helpful, we can destroy them and use the pieces to build something better. When suffering strikes, we can find a way to rebalance.

In other words, we can truly live.


Don’t Take Things Too Literally

Peterson uses many stories to illustrate his main points. From children’s books, like There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon, to epics like Paradise Lost, Peterson evidently believes in the power of stories to help mankind understand the world around it.

One of the stories Peterson often wields is the Bible. While he is sometimes coy in public about his faith, there’s no doubt that Peterson sees the Bible as a critical symbolic instruction manual on how to live well. As a staunch atheist, this was quite a challenge to engage with. That being said, I was more able to take stock of it when I started to see it as a theoretical exercise.

It helped me to look at the references to God as representative of the optimal “Self”. If all of our best qualities were turned up to eleven, and all our worst were struck from our soul, who would we be? How much good would we do? Approaching the religious allegories in this way when they made an appearance helped me to take away more than I otherwise would have.

This might be something to keep in mind as you read through if you’re agnostic or atheist.


12 Rules – A Thousand Takeaways

Trust me when I say you’ll gel with some rules more than others. There are some that I found life-changing (such as Rules 2 and 7). Others left me slightly cold or otherwise disengaged.

Even within these chapters that didn’t land, there were several things – small anecdotes, for instance – that I could take away and use.

I recently saw a comment bashing the book on Reddit, where the OP stated that many of Peterson’s rules were “so vague that they could apply to anyone”. I wouldn’t quite agree, but I think they could be valuable and applicable to many people in many situations. And I don’t see this as a negative.

Don’t expect to agree with every statement or follow every thought, but if you approach the book with an open mind, there are a lot of takeaways.


Who Is This Book For?

In short, this book could be for anyone.

However, I think you’ll get the most use out of it if you’re someone who:

  • Approaches things with curiosity, not judgement
  • Enjoys being made to think – deeply and broadly
  • Often struggles with negative thoughts about the enormity of life and the pain within it


The 12 Rules for Life

So what are the rules? I’ve listed them below in the order they appear.

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth–or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Over the next year, I’ll be tackling each rule in this order, and I’ll link to each using the list above, so make sure to save this page and check back the first Monday of each month.

Ultimately, I found this book to be a beacon of hope and an image of what could be. Needless to say, it’s helped me massively. I hope you find something within the posts that helps you too.

Thank you so much for reading – I’ll be posting the first rule on Saturday 11th June. I hope you enjoy my ramble through. Please let me know what you think in the comments below, or see my contact page to reach me directly!

Until the next post!

Bronwyn @ LBT x