Review of “the most influential public intellectual’s” bestseller, according to the New York Times.

I got the book in early January and read it in the latter half of April 2020. I also bought the second part, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, recently.

The main reason I bought 12 Rules for Life was because a critic claimed that reading it ‘could be dangerous’. I just had to see for myself, because that couldn’t possibly be true.

In short: I can recommend it to everyone on a path of self-development. You can find more books I have read and reviewied here.


Content

12 Rules for Life describes a consistent and sound framework on how to take responsibility for yourself, bottom-up, from the worst possible situations.

  • Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  • Rule 2: Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping
  • Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best in you
  • Rule 4: Compare yourself who you were yesterday, not 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

The book does not only contain deeper descriptions of these rules, but also deeper context in both studies and philosophy surrounding them. While they appear to be ‘common sense’, plenty of people do not follow them - me included.

For those not knowing why they should follow them, Peterson does a good job at both explaining why someone might want to follow them, and the profound implications for when they do. Each rule will undoubtably improve the life of those following it. They will work even better when applied together.

Overall, this book is:

  • an extreme advocate for taking self-responsibility
  • a basic framework for interpreting and dealing with day-to-day struggles
  • sound in practice, you can still make it work in the worst case imaginable
  • basically, ‘If everything else turns south, you can still do these things’

You can find my detailed notes to each chapter as HTML-comments. I figured I don’t want to edit them. You can find very good notes here.


Review

Not just from a literary perspective – Jordan Peterson has his way with words – but also from a content perspective, this is an excellent book. Certainly one I highly recommend to anyone on a path of self- or character-development.

Main Takeaways

As with most things, even though nothing is fundamentally new, it does a good job of connecting supposedly separate things. Some of the more abstract parts deeply stuck with me, while the others were, well, too abstract, and I was unable to follow. Even though I’d like to add rules myself (e.g. about continuous self-improvement, researching different disciplines), they provide an abundantly stable foundation, if you don’t have one yet. It has massive implications itself – understanding even half of them could take a lifetime already. It’s certainly food for thought and well-written.

Criticism

The book has difficulty with varying levels of abstraction, and related to that, tangents. Certain relevant terms, such as neo-marxists, are not explained, but overall the book is very well-rounded.

Varying levels of Abstraction

Finding the right level of abstraction and detail for describing a complicated concept to someone is hard. Even more so, when you don’t know what sort of audience and background-knowledge to expect. There are chapters with just the right level of abstraction and deep references providing new and meaningful insights, but I was missing context in others.

This is both the biggest strength and weakness of this book: the large amount of assumed-to-be-known references allows for deeply insightful and concise high-level arguments, rarely seen in a book. At the same time, unfamiliarity makes for a partially confusing read. It was still possible to follow and understand most arguments without a full grasp of the context in the majority cases, but their comprehension would have provided significantly deeper insights.

Tangents

There is a similar dichotomy to the numerous tangents that were made: I appreciated a lot of them, but did not see the connection for others. Overall, I would overwhelmingly prefer to keep them.

Neo-Marxists

I am sure that Jordan Peterson knows better, but he still blames a lot of problems on Neo-marxists, beginning early on in the book. No explanation as to who they are and why they do what they do follows. I did not know whom he was referring to, even after reading the book. A short explanation of relevant terms would have been helpful. Arguably, the internet can provide that.

Conclusion

Do not make a mistake: this is a very well-rounded book. While it is no light read, it is easy to read. I appreciate the insights in divers directions, considerably refining my fundamentals.

I would recommend this book to everyone on a path of self- or character-development - you won’t regret it. It’s not written for the faint of heart, and e.g. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is more lighthearted and optimistic, there is a place and necessity for the uncompromising take ‘Twelve Rules for Life’ has. Go get it, you won’t regret it.

Favourite Quotes

It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so. - Mark Twain

There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.

He whose life has a Why to live for can bear almost any how. - Friedrich Nietzsche

You might be winning, but you are not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning.

If [your children’s] actions make you dislike them, think what an effect they will have on other people, who care much less about them than you - they will punish them, socially and severely.

If you are suffering - well, that’s the norm. People are limited and life is tragic. If your suffering is unbearable, however, and you are starting to become corrupted, here’s something to think about.

The successful among us delay gratification.

[.] if you abide, truthfully and courageously, by the highest of ideals, you will be provided with more security and strength than will be offered by any short-sighted concentration on your own safety.

You may find that if you attend to these moral obligations, once you have placed “make the world better” at the top of your value hierarchy, your experience ever-deepening meaning. It’s not bliss. It’s not happiness. It is something more like atonement for the criminal fact of your fractured and damaged Being.

Taking the easy way out or telling the truth - those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.

the smallest of lies is where the big lie starts

Hell comes when lies have destroyed the relationship between an individual or state and reality itself. […] Everything becomes frustration and disappointment. […] Tortured by constant failure, the individual becomes bitter.

In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That’s what makes it Paradise.

Memory is a tool. Memory is the pasts guide to the future. If you remember that something bad happened, and you can figure out why, then you can try to avoid that bad thing happening again.

People think they think, but it’s not true. It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking. True thinking is rare […]. It’s difficult.

Freud had a point. He was, after all, a genius. You can tell that because people still hate him.

The limitations of all our perceptions of things and selves manifest themselves when something we can usually depend on in our simplified world breaks down.

The past is not necessarily what it was, even though it has already been.