Book Review: Twelve Rules for Life

Peterson, Jordan B. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. (Random House Canada, 2018) Kindle-edition.


First off, I bought the book and read it just to spite all the people saying that Dr. Peterson is the Source of All Evil, Hero of the Alt-Right, Corrupter of Canadian Youth. I ended up learning a lot, cringing a lot, and deciding to make a few changes in how I manage my time and talents. I’m a little wary of Jungian-based analyses after ODing on Joseph Campbell and his acolytes when I was in college the first time, but Peterson makes sense in a lot of ways. Even if you disagree with his take on things, he’s got a wealth of material worth mulling over and considering.

It took a chapter or two for me to get used to Peterson’s style. I kept reading along thinking, “OK, this is nice, but where’s the meat?” Because Peterson doesn’t write like most self-help books, with a neat bulleted list of points and changes. Part of the book is about the stories we use to frame the world, be they Biblical, personal experiences, classical mythology, literature, or from other sources. That makes for a discursive writing style, one suited to stories-in-stories. It is a bit old-fashioned compared to books from within the past 40 years or so. I can see where it would be off-putting to readers who are expecting something like Steven Covey’s writing style.

That said, once I realized what he was doing, it worked. He is looking at life as a whole, how we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to society in general. Those all require some form of story for many people, so Peterson studies stories and experiences. He uses them as examples and as ways to emphasize his points. One of the criticisms of the book is that it leans too heavily on Biblical stories. Given the importance of Christianity in the formation of Western Civilization, the culture that surrounds most of Peterson’s readers, I don’t see it as too excessive. If you lump Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky in with the Bible, together they could be excessive for someone who disagrees with Christian teachings. However, Peterson also looks at Buddhism, The Tao Te-Ching, and other systems of thought.

So what are the 12 rules? (Stolen, er, borrowed from Nitay Arbel’s review. Brackets are Nitay’s expansion of Peterson’s rules.)

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back. [Be confident and assertive, project the same.]
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. [Take care of your physical and mental health — you owe it to yourself as well as to those who would otherwise be forced to care for you.]
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you. [Not frenemies, not hangers-on, not energy vampires, not yes-men, not bullies.]
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  5. Do not let children do anything that makes you dislike them. [Do not let children turn into unsocialized little tyrants because you are afraid to set boundaries. Children actively test for boundaries and actually want some set.]
  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’re 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. [Not just cats.]

With each point, Peterson pushes the idea that postmodernism is the way to personal and social chaos. Chaos is what leads to serious problems for individuals (getting in with the wrong crowd, not taking care of one’s self, discovering that your children are unpleasant—or even dangerous—little beasts). His rules help set a basic guideline for creating order in the world, or at least in our little pockets of it. I dare say we are seeing the consequences of lots and lots of people ignoring rules six and seven in the media at the moment [Thursday Feb. 22, 1606 CST].

I squirmed as I read 2, 4, and 7. “I’ll start working on weight control tomorrow,” “Since I didn’t get all these things done today, why bother starting any one of them? I’ll do them tomorrow.” And thus chunks of the past six months have disappeared. I started changing things the day after I read number seven.* And it is working. I knew what I should do, but this kicked me into doing it.

This is a book that deserves a close, slow read, one that you can mull over and chew on. It does help if you are familiar with some of his source references, but he explains things well. I don’t agree with some of his points entirely, but the book pushed me into sorting out why I don’t agree, instead of just saying “No, sometimes lying is OK,” for example (certain social situations came to mind.)

I can see why Peterson has power. Stories have power, and he offers positive stories and ways to make realistic, easy-to-see changes in how you operate. You don’t have to follow a set belief system, other than avoiding Communism and the worship of Social Justice as currently defined. And his stories have a point, a good point, one that makes sense. What a refreshing change from a great deal of the stories floating around these days.

I think the book is worth a read, even if you are not in search of rules for life. If you have never heard of mythology and the Bible, it will be a slog. Despite the current criticisms of the book, I couldn’t find anything “alt-right” in it, whatever that means. His politics seem to lean a little towards late 19th Century Social Democrat, so we would disagree on a number of economic ideas, but his fight with political correctness and zealotry is a good fight.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the author or the publisher in exchange for this review.


*I took a break between chapters 11 and 12, and went for a walk. While I was out, I met a new-to-me Manx cat who invited me to pet her. I obliged, then went home. Once back in my chair, I picked up my Kindle, swiped the screen, and saw the last chapter’s title. In my world, that sort of coincidence how the Great Author tends to work when He needs to get my attention. The next stage is generally the Universe hitting me with a cluebat if I don’t pay attention and think about what’s going on that I need to attend to.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Twelve Rules for Life

  1. Sounds like it is perhaps the opposite of Alt Right.

    The values of Christianity permit a level of peace that is not typical of human societies when you include prehistory.

    The values of the religions of modern socialism (which is all Marxist socialism) and communism do not really permit any peace at all. In theory, you could have could have legitimate peace inside the context of those religions under circumstances which will never exist in practice. In absence of their ‘secular’ New Jerusalem, a devout socialist or communist cannot in good conscience agree to leave someone in peace and stick to it.

    Socialism and communism have to some extent displaced true Christianity. Growing up, one may be exposed to socialist values, not Christian values, and hence never had the capacity to leave others in peace modeled for one. When one rejects socialism and communism because no one can appease them enough to be left alone, one does not necessarily develop the capacity to leave others alone. This might be what the Alt-Right is.

    If Peterson teaches values that can permit peace, he is probably not increasing the number of Alt-Right, and may be decreasing them.

    • The alt-right was made by the Left. We started out wanting to be left alone to keep our houses in peace, but the Leftists just wouldn’t stop interfering with our lives. They wouldn’t stop when we asked nicely. They wouldn’t stop when we offered them concessions (note that they never offer concessions). They told us for years, nay, decades, that their end goal is the destruction of our culture and replacement of us as a people. We now believe them.

      We do believe in turning the other cheek – but we ran out of cheeks a long time ago. Strong rhetoric is a tactic, not a goal. Any weapon my enemy uses against me is proper for me to use against him.

      “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.” – A. Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago


  2. On the downside, by the end of the week most people will think he had something to do with the school shooting in Florida.
    The Universe doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about the “one Steve” rule.

  3. I bought a copy as soon as I heard how much Jorden Peterson was annoying the SJW crowd, on the theory that the enemy of my enemy might not be my friend but he’s probably at least interesting. It is a serious piece of work. I haven’t had time to sit down and give it a the reading it deserves. Often I can skip around a bit, reading small bits, and get a pretty good idea of what’s going on, but when I did that with this book, the answer I got was “Nope, you are going to have to sit down and study this one from end to end.”

    One of the bits I did read first was about petting the cat. 🙂 (Finding out “The Door Into Summer” was about (partly) a cat was what first got me to read Heinlein).

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