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Note: This 12 Rules for Life summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise the Best Self Help Books of all time.
12 Rules for Life Review
Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is far more than just a book – it’s a blueprint for life.
And it’s a good one.
Filled with personal stories, anecdotes and enough wisdom to empty a highlighter, this book outlines 12 principles to live a life filled to the brim with integrity, contentment, and joy.
In the words of the subtitle, this book is truly an antidote too chaos.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say 12 Rules for Life is the best book I’ve read yet this year.
It’s impossible to read it and not be changed in some way. It should be mandatory reading for everyone under age 21 (and recommended reading for everyone up to age 120!)
For now, though, here’s my 12 Rules for Life summary…
12 Rules for Life Summary
One-Sentence Summary: Much more than a simple self-help book, 12 Rules for Life is a powerhouse of wisdom that takes issues and experiences that fall under the category of “chaos” and helps readers re-establish order via 12 simple yet profound pieces of life advice.
Full Summary: As per the structure of Peterson’s book, I’ve broken down this 12 Rules for Life summary into the foreword, the overture, the 12 rules for life, and the coda.
Ready to do this? Let’s dive in –
Written by Dr. Norman Doidge, a friend of Jordan Peterson and the author of The Brain That Changes Itself (FREE summary), the foreword introduces the reader to Peterson, whom Doidge describes as a keen thinker and enthusiastic teacher.
In fact, Dr. Peterson is a clinical psychologist from Canada. Once a professor at Harvard, he is now a Canadian professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
Doidge praises Peterson’s frankness and encourages readers not to reject the rules laid out in the book as confining or controlling. He explains that human beings crave order and may find the rules helpful and even comforting as they navigate the difficult challenges experienced in life.
In this short preface, Peterson explains how the book came to be. He tells the story of how he once decided to respond to some philosophical questions on the well-known, public forum site Quora.
Specifically, his response to the question, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” went viral.
The list he posted to Quora and its overwhelmingly positive reception (including thousands of social media shares) ended up catching the attention of a literary agent who reached out and solicited the book that is now 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Rule #1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to open yourself up to the world. It’s the opposite of a defensive posture. This competent stance – head up, shoulders back – isn’t meant to be combative, but is designed to help us feel and therefore be courageous.
Psychology has long recognized that good posture helps support good state of mind, and Peterson’s thoughts on this matter are consistent with that idea. He writes –
“To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order … It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality.” – Jordan Peterson
Good posture can actually help us trick ourselves into the courage we want to have. Peterson believes people with good character often have good posture. He cites the military as a good example. And since character is everything, good posture is a good place to start.
Rule #1 Summary:
“So attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind … Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead.” – Jordan Peterson
Rule #2: Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping.
Whether or not we identify as Christian, most of us are familiar with the Bible’s golden rule to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31 NIV)
In chapter two of Peterson’s book, he explains that this injunction is as much a call to care for our neighbors as it is a call to care for ourselves.
Most of us are far better at helping others than we are at helping ourselves.
If called upon to care for a sick animal, for example, most of us would carefully follow the protocol laid out for us. We would take the animal to the vet. We would fill the prescription. We would be present and available to care for the animal’s needs.
But when it comes to our own needs, how attentive are we? Year after year, studies continue to show that as much as 20 or 30% of medical prescriptions are never filled. And as much as 50% of medication given to individuals with chronic disease is not taken as prescribed.
And medicine is only one example of the way we should be properly caring for ourselves.
As human beings, we can be self-critical to a fault. Peterson writes…
“We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people as much to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself.” Jordan Peterson
Rule #2 Summary:
“You must help a child become a virtuous, responsible, awake being, capable of full reciprocity – able to take care of himself and others, and to thrive while doing so. Why would you think it acceptable to do anything less for yourself?” – Jordan Peterson
Rule #3: Make friends with people who want the best for you.
In Chapter 3 – using a painful anecdote from his own life – Peterson discusses the incredible power of friendships for good or evil in our lives.
Having good friends is much more than just having people with whom we get to do fun things. Good friends will challenge, encourage, support, and even criticize us when necessary. In short, good friends will be the iron that sharpens our iron and makes us a better version of ourselves.
With regard to people who consistently pick bad friends, Peterson writes…
“Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth – or, perhaps, when they refuse responsibility for their lives – they choose a new acquaintance, of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past.” – Jordan Peterson
A good framework of friendship has incredible potential to create and sustain improvement for individuals as well as society.
Rule #3 Summary: Whether you are a twelve-year-old or a ninety-year-old…
“It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing to choose people who are good for you.” – Jordan Peterson
Rule #4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
People are prone to comparison.
From the time we are very young, we begin looking to our peers or competitors in order to determine our own standards for success and failure.
The problem? As Peterson points out, comparison distorts and destructs.
It takes the singular accomplishments or achievements of others and measures them against our shortfalls without the proper measuring stick of a full and complete context.
This is real life in an Instagram world. Social media is ripe for opportunities to engage in unhealthy comparison.
“Comparison becomes problematic when it becomes a way to repeatedly put one’s self down in the fashion of the ‘cliché of nihilism,’ where there will always be people better than you.” – Jordan Peterson
Peterson offers several strategies to help overcome constant comparison, including:
- Aiming higher with our goals;
- Paying better attention to the world around us; and
- Taking stock of circumstances and discovering possibilities for success or failure.
Rule #4 Summary: You’ll know you’re successfully eliminating unhelpful comparison when…
“You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely.” – Jordan Peterson
Rule #5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
Chapter 5 of Peterson’s book is about parenting.
But non-parents, take heart. There’s still plenty in there for you, too.
Chapter 5 is, perhaps, the most shocking chapter in the book, simply because Peterson says a lot of things that have become taboo in North America today.
For example, he advocates responsible physical punishment and unapologetically shames mothers who allow their sons to disrespect them and become “little God-Emperor[s] of the Universe”.
He shares examples of excellent parenting as well as tragic parenting. He lays the burden of parenting correctly and squarely on the shoulders of both moms and dads to raise human beings who will contribute positively to society.
Peterson encourages parents to be disciplinarians who inspire children to behave properly. He also advocates that parents should be merciful, caring, and “act as proxies for the real world”.
Bottom line: If you hate your kids, so will the rest of the world.
Rule #5 Summary: Peterson advises parents not to try to be their children’s friends, because…
“Friends have very limited authority to correct.” – Jordan Peterson.
Rule #6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
Peterson begins and maintains through chapter 6 that “Life is in truth very hard”. Examples in this chapter include weighty topics like suicide and the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
Peterson is quick to point out that, though most of us will never be driven to commit hostile acts against ourselves or others, the impulse to destroy our own life in other ways seems increasingly pervasive in our culture.
He asks, “How can a person who is awake avoid outrage at the world?”
There is so much wrong with the world. And yet there is so much right.
He shares several examples of people who have overcome incredible obstacles to make their lives matter in a world full of hurt. And he encourages us to do the same.
Rule #6 Summary: Peterson suggests several helpful steps for cleaning up your life and pursuing meaning, namely taking responsibility for your actions and reversing destructive habits. He writes…
“Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong.” – Jordan Peterson.
This is some of the simplest yet most impactful advice in the book.
Rule #7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
Chapter 7 begins with these words…
“Life is suffering. That’s clear. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth.” – Jordan Peterson
This is not a new point for Peterson (he reiterates it through the first six chapters). But in chapter 7, he does more to address the suffering of this world than he does in previous chapters.
In the face of suffering, we are often tempted to take the obvious, most comfortable path to “pursue pleasure. Follow [our] impulses. Live for the moment. Do what’s expedient.”.
But Peterson explains that these strategies are not fulfilling and will ultimately leave us feeling empty.
Peterson suggests that, instead of looking for the next rush of serotonin, there is an alternative, more compelling way to approach life: sacrifice.
While sacrifice ultimately cuts against the grain of what we want to do with our lives – and while it isn’t the sexy, culturally savvy answer to our pain or disappointment – Peterson suggests sacrifice, alone, improves the future.
Expedient things are quick and easy. They can also be manipulative and lazy.
But true meaning is none of these things. And isn’t true meaning what we all ultimately want?
Jesus features prominently in this chapter as an example of someone who made extreme sacrifices for the good of others.
Peterson also quotes Nietzsche, shares examples of Egyptian mythology as well as references to scientists and to Socrates who rejected expediency in “pursuit of the meaningful and true”.
Rule #7 Summary: Sacrifice is the key to improving the future.
Rule #8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.
This chapter begins with a personal anecdote from Peterson’s time in school studying clinical psychology when a young schizophrenic patient asked Peterson a question he didn’t want to answer.
Facing several awkward possibilities – including hurting the patient’s feelings – Peterson was tempted to tell a “little white lie” instead of being truthful with her.
But though the truth was not particularly kind, Peterson concluded – and maintains throughout chapter – that even small lies have unintended consequences and can be outright dangerous.
He goes on to explain that most people lie to themselves and others in small ways all the time. In fact, most of the time, we probably don’t even realize or acknowledge we’re doing it.
We’ve been taught to “manipulate the world into delivering what [we] want”.
But the worst of all lies, Peterson maintains, are “life-lies.” (A term coined by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, a world renowned philosopher and psychiatrist from the early 20th century.)
Life-lies are life-framing lies and/or naive visions that people believe and spend their energy trying to force into existence. Peterson writes –
“I have seen people define their utopia and then bend their lives into knots trying to make it reality.” – Jordan Peterson
Dishonesty is deeply harmful to ourselves and others. We weaken our character when we lie. And the first place we must learn to identify, acknowledge and speak truth is to ourselves.
After all, don’t we listen to ourselves more than we listen to anyone else?
Rule #8 Summary:
“See the truth. Tell the truth.” – Jordan Peterson
Rule #9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Chapter 9 is all about conversation.
Peterson first makes the important distinction between advice and genuine conversation. He believes good conversation involves “exploration, articulation and strategizing” as well as a healthy dose of careful listening.
Building off the previous chapter, he explains that at the heart of any good relationship is honesty. So if two individuals are communicating with honesty – both to themselves and each other – the conversation is valuable.
He is quick to caution the reader that…
“Not all talking is thinking. Nor does all listening foster transformation. There are other motives for both, some of which produce much less valuable, counterproductive, and even dangerous outcomes.” – Jordan Peterson
In other words, not all communication is created equal.
Peterson gives a good example of someone who is simply using discussion as a tool to establish dominance or to win an argument (for no other reason than winning).
One of the helpful keys Peterson offers in this chapter is the idea of “mutual exploration” within the context of conversation that involves “true reciprocity”.
Good conversations are as much about listening as talking, because listening is learning.
This type of discussion – where both parties are equally able to speak and to listen – “allows all participants to express and organize their thoughts”.
What a gift in the context of human relationship to hear and be heard.
Rule #9 Summary:
“[Good] conversation [is] the best preparation for proper living.” – Jordan Peterson
Rule #10: Be precise in your speech.
This chapter continues to build on good communication, with “focus” as a key theme.
Specifically, Peterson writes at length about human perception and being aware of our circumstances.
In Peterson’s opinion, our perception of the world around us is very limited. We cannot possibly understand the full complexity of any situation – only what we ourselves perceive with our own senses.
In prioritizing certain information that is relevant to us, we employ a process Peterson refers to as a “necessary, practical reduction of the world”.
This isn’t negative, but it is something to keep in mind as we evaluate what we believe we understand about people around us.
When our circumstances become chaotic or when life doesn’t go as planned, “the dreadful inadequacy of our senses reveals itself. Everything we hold dear crumbles to dust. We freeze. We turn to stone.”
But all is not lost. Peterson makes the point that negative, chaotic circumstances can actually be an opportunity to create something new and beautiful in our lives.
Peterson maintains that the worst choice we can make when faced with a frustrating situation is to ignore or deny its existence. Silence and ignorance (whether intentional or unintentional) are destructive decisions because they prevent us from clarification and articulation.
When we ignore issues in our lives, they tend to grow, not disappear.
Eventually, these issues can grow so large they demand our attention.
The answer: Communicate clearly and precisely.
Rule #10 Summary:
“Be precise in your speech. [Speech] can give structure and re-establish order.” – Jordan Peterson
Rule #11: Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding.
Peterson opens Chapter 11 with a story about a city that denied skateboarders a place to skate. It even installed physical barriers to prevent skateboarders from doing what they loved.
While the story is literal, it quickly becomes clear that it also serves as a metaphor.
In Peterson’s words…
“Beneath the production of rules stopping the skateboarders from doing highly skilled, courageous and dangerous things I see the operation of an insidious and profoundly anti-human spirit.” – Jordan Peterson
Building on this theme of acting anti-human, he addresses such issues as gender issues as well as the patriarchy.
(Peterson doesn’t believe the patriarchy is creating undue suffering in our world today. He believes culture is actually the oppressive structure.)
He doesn’t believe any hierarchy – based on issues such as gender or race – is responsible for creating winners and losers. Instead, he insists that people win or lose based on their own personal merit.
While Peterson makes some pretty bold assertions in this chapter, he does back them up with anecdotal and statistical support that make the claims feel superficially convincing.
Rule #11 Summary:
“If you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.” Jordan Peterson
Rule #12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
Peterson opens Chapter 12 with a humorous personal commentary on his preference for dogs over cats. But that’s as far as his comments on animals go until the end.
“Cats” in this chapter actually represent small, unexpected, positive moments we can enjoy every day.
The idea of slowing down long enough to pet a cat on the street can be translated into other moments of slowing down throughout our day. This is a creative twist on the old maxim to “stop and smell the roses”.
Peterson speaks specifically limitations in life that could easily prevent us from enjoying the little things if we let them. And he fiercely advocates that limitations and challenges do not need to define or disable us from living life to the fullest.
Much of this chapter is devoted to the story of Peterson’s daughter, whom he clearly loves with all his heart.
Mikhaila suffered from her earliest years of life with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The disease created unimaginable pain in her joints that could have resulted in Mikhaila’s being totally sidelined.
Years of experimental medicine took an additional, excruciating toll on her life.
In his moving description of watching his daughter suffer and overcome, Peterson beautifully illustrated the marriage of tragedy and triumph – and appreciating the small moments of joy woven into our existence.
Rule #12 Summary:
“If you pay careful attention, even on a bad day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with small opportunities of just that sort. Maybe you will see a little girl dancing on the street because she is all dressed up in a ballet costume. Maybe you will have a particularly good cup of coffee in a cafe that cares about their customers. Maybe you can steal ten or twenty minutes to do some ridiculous thing that distracts you or reminds you that you can laugh at the absurdity of existence.” – Jordan Peterson
In this brief conclusion to the book, Peterson poses the following question…
“What shall I do with my newfound Pen of Light?”
While the question is theoretical, it also refers to a literal pen that Peterson received from an author friend. The pen has a built-in LED light that allows the reader to write in the dark.
Metaphorically, of course, Peterson is speaking of the darkness that accompanies uncertainty and disappointment in life.
He asks some additional questions: “What shall I do tomorrow? What shall I do next year? What shall I do with my life?”
His hope is that the wisdom gained from reading his 12 Rules for Life will help the reader to ask and answer similar questions long after finishing the book.
If you’re interested in listening to or learning more from Peterson, you can listen to his podcast here.
12 Rules for Life Criticism
Though the book has been largely well-received, it has also met its fair share of criticism since being published in 2018.
These criticisms include:
- Peterson’s anti-feminist stance and desire to destroy the myth of male oppression;
- The length of the book – At 409 pages, some argue he could have been more concise; and
- His allergy to anything “politically correct”, Peterson has been accused of projecting his own cultural biases into the work and ignoring relevant scientific research.
For more, check out this great satire of Peterson’s work.
12 Rules for Life Contents
- RULE 1 / Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- RULE 2 / Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- RULE 3 / Make friends with people who want the best for you
- RULE 4 / 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
- RULE 6 / Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
- RULE 7 / Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- RULE 8 / Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie
- RULE 9 / Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- RULE 10 / Be precise in your speech
- RULE 11 / Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
- RULE 12 / Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
12 Rules for Life FAQs
What Are the 12 Rules for Life?
Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for life are:
- Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.
- Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping.
- Rule 3: Make Friends With People Who Want the Best for You.
- Rule 4: 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.
- Rule 6: Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World.
- Rule 7: Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient).
- Rule 8: Tell the Truth – Or, at Least, Don’t Lie.
- Rule 9: Assume That the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t.
- Rule 10: Be Precise in Your Speech.
- Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding.
- Rule 12: Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street.
Click here for a summary of each chapter.
How Many Copies Has 12 Rules for Life Sold?
According to the publisher, Penguin Random House, 12 Rules for Life has sold over five million copies worldwide.
Best 12 Rules for Life Quotes
These 12 Rules for Life quotes come from The Art of Living's ever-growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes, and inspirational quotes.
"To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order… It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality."- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
"You must help a child become a virtuous, responsible, awake being, capable of full reciprocity — able to take care of himself and others, and to thrive while doing so. Why would you think it acceptable to do anything less for yourself?"- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
"Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth — or, perhaps, when they refuse responsibility for their lives — they choose a new acquaintance, of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past."- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
"If you pay careful attention, even on a bad day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with small opportunities of just that sort. Maybe you will see a little girl dancing on the street because she is all dressed up in a ballet costume. Maybe you will have a particularly good cup of coffee in a cafe that cares about their customers. Maybe you can steal ten or twenty minutes to do some ridiculous thing that distracts you or reminds you that you can laugh at the absurdity of existence."- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
"People create their worlds with the tools they have directly at hand. Faulty tools produce faulty results. It is in this manner that those who fail to learn from the past doom themselves to repeat it."- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
"Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world—merciful proxies, caring proxies—but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. That will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard, and security. It’s more important even than fostering individual identity. That Holy Grail can only be pursued, in any case, after a high degree of social sophistication has been established."- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
"People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare — just like true listening. Thinking is listening to yourself. It’s difficult. To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world."- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
"Human beings are, after all, seriously remarkable creatures. We have no peers, and it’s not clear that we have any real limits. Things happen now that appeared humanly impossible even at the same time in the recent past when we began to wake up to our planet-sized responsibilities."- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
"Hating life, despising life – even for the genuine pain that life inflicts – merely serves to make life itself worse, unbearably worse. There is no genuine protest in that. There is no goodness in that, only the desire to produce suffering, for the sake of suffering. That is the very essence of evil. People who come to that kind of thinking are one step from total mayhem. Sometimes they merely lack the tools. Sometimes, like Stalin, they have their finger on the nuclear button."- Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
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