If you happened upon a listing of Jordan B. Peterson’s book 12 Rules For Life on Amazon.com or another online bookseller, you might get the impression that he is a writer in the school of Malcolm Gladwell or maybe the Freakonomics team. For example, this blurb:
“Humorous, surprising and informative, Dr. Peterson tells us why skateboarding boys and girls must be left alone, what terrible fate awaits those who criticize too easily, and why you should always pet a cat when you meet one on the street.”
Oh, sounds fun. Some light, entertaining reading with a little counter-intuitive self help to boot. Sign me up!
Well, if you’re like me and did not have any prior exposure to Jordan B. Peterson, you’re in for a lot more than you bargained for.
12 Rules For Life has the subtitle “An Antidote to Chaos.” That subtitle provides a more meaningful clue toward what you’re getting into here. Peterson’s world (and yours if you think hard enough about it) is one in which “things fall apart” and we need certain Rules to keep going and even thrive in the face of inevitable suffering, followed by the fact that no one here gets out alive. Or, more succinctly, life sucks and then you die.
But you are here now, and focusing on the negative only makes the inevitable suffering that much worse. That’s why you need the Rules. While you’re alive, you want to be reaching for the best of what this world has to offer, and there is plenty. (Which is where petting the cat you meet on the street comes in, from the blurb quoted above. You’ll have to read the book to see what exactly Peterson is getting at there.)
And there are many things you can do to make your own personal lot in life better if you pay attention to how you think and how you act. This isn’t a self help book about how to work hard and stay motivated; it’s a book about how to be the best version of yourself to succeed by the world’s rules.
And Peterson sees the world’s rules as very important. Both our biology and our cultural/religious traditions exist as they do for a reason: they have served us well in a world where things fall apart, as an “antidote to chaos.” Bucking those traditions and/or bucking nature shouldn’t be done lightly. (This is an area where Peterson has caused some controversy; more on that in a moment.)
12 Rules For Life is over 350 pages long, which means you’re getting a LOT of meat on the bones of these 12 rules. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor who pulls widely from cultural history, religion (Christianity in particular), his clinical patients, and simple observance to flesh out the Rules into a somewhat messy whole. Many times it feels like he is meandering, and you will feel like you’re not sure what we’re talking about anymore, though he always (somehow) winds his way back to the rule at hand.
I didn’t always agree with his conclusions. For example, one of his rules is “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” I like the rule — most of us do tend to treat others better than we treat ourselves many times, and Peterson’s observation rings true that people are more likely to ensure their sick pet gets its medicine than they are to take their own medicine. But Peterson goes to great lengths to essentially say that the reason for this is a kind of self-loathing, that we don’t think we deserve to be treated as well as other people or (maybe especially) innocent animals. To me, that’s overkill — maybe we’re simply not as objective about our own needs as we are about the needs of others. Not everything is complicated and chaotic.
I think 12 Rules For Life should be read and discussed by everybody. It is an extremely thought-provoking book.
That said, Peterson has become a very polarizing figure politically (though I missed out on this fact until researching him while reading this book). He believes the “radical left” in society and (especially) academia has become a dangerous force, a sort of thought police that teaches the will of the minority should always prevail over the will of the majority, even if it means upending institutions and traditions that serve a worthwhile and even life-sustaining purpose. (I am paraphrasing my understanding of Peterson’s positions; it’s difficult to summarize a nuanced position in one sentence.) As you might imagine, this stance has made him popular among many people on the political right, who hold him up as a scientist confirming their worldview. Many on the political right have also given him money to disseminate his thoughts more widely (via YouTube videos in particular). On the left, many have pegged Peterson as using biology and tradition like a hammer to keep people down who have traditionally gotten the short end of the stick — women in particular.
I read 12 Rules For Life with the political thoughts from both sides in my head, trying to understand what it is about his ideas that stir such passion. It’s not hard to understand. He has strong views, and states them boldly. But he also backs them up with real reasoning. You may not always buy his reasoning; like I said, not everything rang true to me. But I respect the opinions, and I never took them to be hateful. (I will be clear here: I read the book but have not done any sort of analysis on other content or views that Peterson may have published elsewhere.)
I’d suggest you get a copy of 12 Rules For Life and decide for yourself.