Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life

I am often accused of pessimism, not least of all by myself, but every so often I have cause to smile. Consider this: almost one year ago, Jordan Peterson was invited to give a talk at McMaster University in Toronto, where he was met with a predictably hostile reception from the usual gaggle of adolescent idiots in student guise. They banged drums, shook tambourines and blew an airhorn, drowning out his words – the customary reception given to speakers deemed heretical to social justice orthodoxy. Now, one year later, his newest book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos, has climbed international bestseller lists, and the once-obscure Canadian professor can legitimately claim to be the world’s most influential public intellectual. Is there a better testament to the power of ideas, or the futility of censorship?

As it happens, however, I owe Peterson an apology. In a moment of cynicism, I wrongly assumed that this book was going to be a straight-forward self-help manual, a synthesis of his most-easily-digestible advice for progressing in the world. Search his name on YouTube, and you’ll find thousands of smaller channels have chopped up his lectures, mining them for soundbites of advice on everything from finding love to living with disease. Indeed, his most quotable advice – “Clean your room” – has become something of a meme for Peterson fans, who love and admire him as much for his practical life advice as for his insights into psychology and mythology. 12 Rules For Life is very much a self-help book, in its intent and in its structure, but it’s also a convincing introduction to his particular philosophy of life and, even more radically, a stunning repudiation of the foundational beliefs of the modern progressive movement: that every inequality in life is de facto evidence of invidious discrimination, for example, or that human beings have no innate tendencies or desires, but are mere blank slates, helplessly shaped by our cultures. The opening chapter, “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back,” might seem innocuous in itself, but it draws upon an evolutionary model to make its point: human beings and lobsters have remarkably similar nervous systems, given that these evolved prior to the differentiation of our species, and so studying the lobster’s nervous system can provide insights into our own. For example, both lobsters and humans possess sophisticated means for gauging their standing in “the dominance hierarchy,” the intangible pecking order that separates the weak from the strong, the victorious from the vanquished, the well-fed from the starving.

[…] dominance hierarchies have been an essentially permanent feature of the environment to which all complex life has adapted. A third of a billion years ago, brains and nervous systems were comparatively simple. Nonetheless, they already had the structure and neurochemistry necessary to process information about status and society. The importance of this fact can hardly be overstated.

Those lucky few at the top of the hierarchy will eat the best foods, in the largest quantities, and mate with the choicest females (in the largest quantities). Their immune systems will function better; they’ll experience less stress. Life, in short, will be good to them. For the unlucky many, however, problems accumulate with stunning rapidity:

The ancient part of your brain specialized for assessing dominance watches how you are treated by other people. On that evidence, it renders a determination of your value and assigns you a status. If you are judged by your peers as of little worth, the counter restricts serotonin availability. That makes you much more physically and psychologically reactive to any circumstance or event that might produce emotion, particularly if it is negative. You need that reactivity. Emergencies are common at the bottom, and you must be ready to survive.

But this state of hypersensitivity is biologically costly, and “will even shut down your immune system, expending the energy and resources required for future health now, during the crises of the present. It will render you impulsive, so that you will jump, for example, at any short-term mating opportunities, or any possibilities of pleasure, no matter how sub-par, disgraceful or illegal.” How do you build a better future, when your very being is so cynical about your opportunities that it fixates on any gain – however small or ignoble – in the present? Peterson’s answer, at least partially, is to act out the confidence you don’t yet possess, first by attending, practically, to your posture. “If you present yourself as defeated,” he warns, “then people will react to you as if you are losing.”

This is a deeply personal book, in two senses of that word. Peterson has earned his massive following not only through insight and intelligence, but, even more importantly, by his obvious sincerity. He does not talk down to his audience, even when he is quite literally preaching, nor does he shy away from speaking truths he knows will be deeply unpleasant to his flock of disaffected, depressed young men. Here, for example, he asks his readers to consider the nature of their suffering, and what role they might be playing in prolonging it:

Maybe your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred for those who rose upward while you waited and sank. Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live. Maybe your willingness to suffer in failure is inexhaustible, given what you use that suffering to prove. Maybe it’s your revenge on Being. How exactly should I befriend you when you’re in such a place? How exactly could I?

Herman Melville expressed, even more succinctly, the allure of sadness: “There is nothing so slipperily alluring as sadness; we become sad in the first place by having nothing stirring to do; we continue in it, because we have found a snug sofa at last.” As a practicing clinical psychologist, no doubt Peterson has encountered his fair share of men and women comfortable in their sadness, and so he understands the importance of dislodging them from their sofas. Readers of this book expecting the relentless good cheer of most self-help books should be warned that Peterson serves up less saccharine fare.

The second sense in which this is a personal book is the more conventional one: Peterson discusses his own life extensively, from his childhood to his marriage, the hardships of his friends and the painful childhood illness of his daughter. In this regard, he sets himself apart from contemporary intellectuals with similar audiences (Steven Pinker and Sam Harris, for example), who are in general far less personally accessible to their fans, and much more reluctant to connect their ideas with their own lives in ways that their admirers might relate to. There is, at present, an entire generation of young men, adrift in life and experiencing some combination of anger, depression and anxiety, and in Jordan Peterson they have found not only a mentor but a father figure: someone they admire and respect, who has spoken up on their behalf and earned their trust. And that, too, fills me with optimism.