12 Rules for Life – Jordan B Peterson

Here are 12 key takeaways from Jordan Pearson’s 12 Rules For Life. Click on the arrows to read more on that takeaway! The book is really comprehensive and I have extracted / occasionally paraphrased key ideas that resonated with me.

1. Project confidence – Stand up straight, shoulders back, look straight ahead.

Your brain has a chemical called serotonin. Low serotonin means decreased confidence. Low serotonin means less happiness, more pain and anxiety, more illness, and a shorter lifespan. Low serotonin means a higher probability of “defeat”. With each subsequent “defeat” the level of serotonin actually gets lower, producing a cycle of defeat, lower confidence and further defeats. Higher serotonin produces confidence, sense of security, ability to play for the long term, and generates “victories”. Each victory feeds into a positive cycle that then generates more serotonin / confidence and more victories. This also shows up in how we act and project ourselves. Feedback loops are critical – project yourself as miserable and defeated, give up your fair share once, and you will open yourself up to more exploitation and further defeats. So stand up for yourself and project confidence even when you don’t feel like it. Body language is part of a positive feedback loop – stand up straight, shoulders back – and people will be more likely start to treat you as someone competent, feeding into a positive feedback loop that will generate more victories.

2. Define your purpose and principles – articulate them and stand up for them, Take responsibility for your own care and demand fairness in relationships.

You would have heard – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This has nothing to do with being nice. If I am someone’s friend, family member, or lover, then I am morally obliged to bargain as hard on my own behalf as they are on theirs. If I fail to do so, I will end up a slave, and the other person a tyrant. It much better for any relationship when both partners are strong. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued. The ability to command fairness in relationships starts with self reflection. You need to know where you are, so you can start to chart your course. You need to know where you are going, so that you can stand up for your rights. You have to articulate your own principles, so that you can defend yourself against others if they seem to be taking inappropriate advantage of you. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. Choose your destination and articulate your self. “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.” 

3. Surround yourself with friends who want the best for you.  

Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth, they choose a friend who they know could be troublesome. Such people don’t believe that they deserve any better. Sometimes, people choose such friends because they want to rescue someone. But not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise.  If I stay in an unhealthy relationship with you, perhaps it’s because I’m too weak-willed and indecisive to leave. If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself? You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you. If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will encourage you when you do good and punish you carefully when you do not. This will help bolster your resolve to do what you should do. Make friends with people who want the best for you.

4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday. Do not compare yourself with others. Aim to be a little bit better, every day.

No matter how good you are at something, there is someone out there who makes you look incompetent. However, there is not just one game at which to succeed or fail. If you don’t succeed at one, try another. You can pick something better matched to your unique mix of strengths, weaknesses and situation. If changing games does not work, you can invent a new one. It’s also unlikely that you’re playing only one game. You have a career and friends and family members and personal projects and artistic endeavors and athletic pursuits. You might consider judging your success across all the games you play. You might object: I should be winning at everything! But winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult. Set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning. And you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And, with each day, your baseline of comparison gets a little higher, and that’s magic. That’s compound interest. Do that for three years, and your life will be entirely different. Now you’re aiming for something higher. What you aim at determines what you see!

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

Modern parents fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they punish them for any reason. This is not good. It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. Proper discipline requires effort. Every child should also be taught to comply gracefully with the expectations of civil society. This does not mean crushed into mindless ideological conformity. It means instead that parents must reward those attitudes and actions that will bring their child success in the world outside the family, and use threat and punishment when necessary to eliminate behaviors that will lead to misery and failure. The penalties for misbehavior become increasingly severe as children get older. You’re not doing your child any favors by overlooking any misbehavior. Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world. You love your kids. If their actions make you dislike them, think what an effect they will have on other people, who care much less about them than you. Those other people will punish them, severely, by omission or commission. Don’t allow that to happen. Better to let your children know what is desirable and what is not, so they become sophisticated denizens of the world outside the family. 

6. Focus on improving yourself, before trying to improve others and the world

Clean Up Your Life. Consider your circumstances. Start small. Have you taken 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? Do you have habits that are destroying your health and well-being? Are you truly shouldering your responsibilities? Have you said what you need to say to your friends and family members? Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no: Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong. Inopportune questioning can confuse, as well as deflect you from action. You can know that something is wrong or right without knowing why. Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own. Let your own soul guide you. Watch what happens over the days and weeks. When you are at work you will begin to say what you really think. You will start to tell your wife, or your husband, or your children, or your parents, what you really want and need. Your head will start to clear up, as you stop filling it with lies. After some months and years of diligent effort, your life will become simpler and less complicated. Your judgment will improve. You will become stronger and less bitter. You will move more confidently into the future.

7. Pursue what is meaningful not what is easy

Life is suffering. Life is short. What in the world should be done about that? The simplest, most obvious, and most direct answer? Pursue pleasure. Follow your impulses. Live for the moment. Lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate—but don’t get caught. In an ultimately meaningless universe, what possible difference could it make? The pleasure of expediency may be fleeting, but it’s pleasure, nonetheless. Why not simply take everything you can get, whenever the opportunity arises? The realization that pleasure could be usefully forestalled dawned on us with great difficulty. It runs absolutely contrary to our ancient, fundamental animal instincts, which demand immediate satisfaction (particularly under conditions of deprivation, which are both inevitable and commonplace). Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better. If you act properly, your actions allow you to be psychologically integrated now, and tomorrow, and into the future, while you benefit yourself, your family, and the broader world around you. Everything will stack up and align along a single axis. Everything will come together. This produces maximal meaning. Meaning trumps expedience. Meaning gratifies all impulses, now and forever. To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may neither know what you want, nor what you truly need. Meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord. You can set up the preconditions, you can follow meaning, when it manifests itself, but you cannot simply produce it, as an act of will. Meaning signifies that you are in the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between order and chaos, where everything lines up as best it can at that moment. Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient.

8. Tell the Truth. Speaking your mind puts your actions in harmony with your true desires.

If you say no to your boss, or your spouse, or your mother, when it needs to be said, you transform yourself into someone who can say no when it needs to be said. If you say yes when no needs to be said, however, you transform yourself into someone who can only say yes, even when it is very clearly time to say no. If you betray yourself, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it will, inevitably. Set your ambitions, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity. Imagine: you go to engineering school, because that is what your parents desire—but it is not what you want. Working at cross-purposes to your own wishes, you find yourself unmotivated, and failing. Your soul will reject the tyranny of your will. Why are you complying? You may not want to disappoint your parents (although if you fail you will do exactly that). You may lack the courage for the conflict necessary to free yourself. You may continue believing that there is someone who knows you better than you know yourself, and who also knows all about the world. You suffer because you are truly not meant to be an engineer. One day you have had enough. You drop out. You disappoint your parents. You learn to live with that. You consult only yourself, even though that means you must rely on your own decisions. You take a philosophy degree. You accept the burden of your own mistakes. You become your own person. By rejecting your father’s vision, you develop your own. And then, as your parents age, you’ve become adult enough to be there for them, when they come to need you. They win, too. But both victories had to be purchased at the cost of the conflict engendered by your truth. As you continue to live in accordance with the truth, as it reveals itself to you, you will have to accept and deal with the conflicts that mode of Being will generate. If you do so, you will continue to mature and become more responsible. You will ever more closely approach your newer and more wisely formulated goals, and become even wiser in their formulation. Your conception of what is important will become more and more appropriate. You will quit wildly oscillating and walk evermore directly towards the good. Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal—an ambition, and a purpose—to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal could be “live in truth.” If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth. Tell the truth. Or, at least, don’t lie.

9. Learn to listen, including to yourself.

People need to think. When people think, they simulate the world, and plan how to act in it. We simulate the world, and plan our actions in it. We make little avatars of ourselves. We place those avatars in fictional worlds. Then we watch what happens. If our avatar thrives, then we act like he does, in the real world. Then we thrive (we hope). If our avatar fails, we don’t go there. People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. 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. Viewpoint One is an avatar in a simulated world. It has its own representations of past, present and future, and its own ideas about how to act. So do Viewpoints Two, and Three, and Four. Thinking is the process by which these internal avatars imagine and articulate their worlds to one another.

People organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: It takes a village to organize a mind. So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

10. Be precise in your speech – say exactly what you mean.

Precision specifies. When something terrible happens, it is precision that
separates the unique terrible thing that has actually happened from all the
other, equally terrible things that might have happened—but did not. This can avoid making topics too complex or ambiguous to handle. Be careful with what you tell yourself and others about what you have done, what you are doing, and where you are going. Search for the correct words. Organize those words into the correct sentences, and those sentences into the correct paragraphs. You must determine where you have been in your life, so that you can know where you are now. You must determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction. Random wandering will not move you forward. It will instead disappoint and frustrate you and make you anxious and unhappy. Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. Admit to what you want. Tell those around you who you are. Narrow, and gaze attentively, and move forward, forthrightly. Be precise in your speech.

11. Articulate your wants and do not bottle them up.

If you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequences—and infer the motivation. When someone claims to be acting from the highest principles, for the good of others, there is no reason to assume that the person’s motives are genuine. People motivated to make things better usually aren’t concerned with changing other people—or, if they are, they take responsibility for making the same changes to themselves (and first). Insufficiently aggressive women—and men, although more rarely—do too much for others. They tend to treat those around them as if they were distressed children. They tend to be naïve. They assume that cooperation should be the basis of all social transactions, and they avoid conflict. They continually sacrifice for others. This can become counterproductively one-sided. Because too-agreeable people bend over backwards for other people, they do not stand up properly for themselves. Assuming that others think as they do, they expect—instead of ensuring—reciprocity for their thoughtful actions. When this does not happen, they don’t speak up. They do not or cannot straightforwardly demand recognition. The dark side of their characters emerges, because of their subjugation, and they become resentful. There are only two major reasons for resentment: being taken advantage of (or allowing yourself to be taken advantage of), or whiny refusal to adopt responsibility and grow up. If you’re resentful, look for the reasons. Are you feeling hard done by, in an immature manner? If, after some honest consideration, you don’t think it’s that, perhaps someone is taking advantage of you. This means that you now face a moral obligation to speak up for yourself. You must also know clearly what you want out of the situation, and be prepared to clearly articulate your desire. It’s a good idea to tell the person you are confronting exactly what you would like them to do instead of what they have done or currently are doing. If you try to determine exactly what you want, you might find that it is more difficult than you think. The person oppressing you is likely no wiser than you, especially about you. Tell them directly what would be preferable, instead, after you have sorted it out. Make your request as small and reasonable as possible—but ensure that its fulfillment would satisfy you. In that manner, you come to the discussion with a solution, instead of just a problem.

12. Remember to step back and be grateful for even the smaller pleasures

We have limitation. If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen already has. No limitation, no Being. Existence and limitation are linked. Perhaps this is because Being requires Becoming, perhaps, as well as mere static existence—and to become is to become something more, or at least something different. Of course, it’s one thing to say, “Being requires limitation,” and then to go about happily, when the sun is shining and your father is free of Alzheimer’s disease and your kids are healthy and your marriage happy. But when things go wrong? You must stay functional through all of them. When worries associated with the crisis arise, remind yourself that you will think them through, during a scheduled period dedicated to this. The parts of your brain that generate anxiety are more interested in the fact that there is a plan than in the details of the plan. Don’t schedule your time to think in the evening or at night. Then you won’t be able to sleep. If you can’t sleep, then everything will go rapidly downhill. Shift the unit of time you use to frame your life. When the sun is shining, and times are good, and the crops are bountiful, you can make your plans for the next month, and the next year, and the next five years. You can even dream a decade ahead. Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better. 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. And maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a sign will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds of the wonder of Being.

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