In my reviews so far, I’ve looked at video games, movies, anime, and tv shows… but not books. Let’s change that, shall we? Today, I’d like to discuss 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, a self-help book written by Jordan Peterson.
This book was originally a family recommendation, but I didn’t get far into it before it lost me the first time around, and I didn’t feel that resuming was worth the time investment. However, it’s been a few years since that attempt, and the sequel promotions reminded me the book existed, so I’m giving it a second chance.
There’s a lot to digest here, so this’ll be a two-parter. The first 6 rules I’ll cover now, the other 6 rules later. I obviously can’t review a self-help book the same way I’d review a story, so I’ll be doing this in an analytical style, on a chapter-by-chapter basis.
I know the man in quite controversial in some circles, but I want to go into this without prejudice, so I’m just going to disregard everything I’ve ever heard about him, positive or negative. His personality, his politics, his religious views, everything. Jordan Peterson? Who’s that? Never heard the name before. Let’s just start with a blank slate, and let the book speak for itself.
Stand up straight with your shoulders back
So this chapter opens on the subject of territorial disputes in the animal kingdom. Not all creatures are equal, and the strong prevail over the weak. That being said, they don’t want to risk deadly conflict, lest some other creature swoop in and kill them both. Thus, the weak submit to the will of the strong. You probably know that much already, but you may also learn some lobster trivia, as he focuses on them for an analogy. Why he did so much research on lobster territorial disputes and mating rituals, I don’t know, but that’s besides the point. Anyway, he goes on to discuss unequal distribution, survival of the fittest, and the nature of… well… nature.
It’s here where the book’s first problems start. He introduces a lot of big words and complex terms all at once. That would be fine, if this were a scientific paper, where the average reader already knows these terms… but it’s maybe not the best approach for the first chapter of a self-help book. We don’t all have a PhD. I’m fairly sure this was why I dropped it last time, and it took a few re-reads for me to fully get through it this time, even with a bachelor’s degree.
I won’t be combing through everything he says, just the key points and anything that sticks out like a sore thumb. One such thumb is the lobster analogy, specifically how gender factors into it. Note how he specifically draws attention to males being on top, and females vying for the top lobster’s ‘romantic’ attention. In lobster society, that hierarchy works perfectly fine… but if we follow the lobster/human analogy to its logical conclusion, the result is… dated, shall we say.
The former point, while at least half-true, is proving less and less true each day as society shifts towards gender equality. As for the latter’s implication… it’s just wrong, on multiple levels. Now granted, he may not have intended that subtext, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here… but such inferences will naturally arise when you call attention to male dominance without an equivalent female example. Just saying.
Anyway, moving on from lobsters, he notes the weak’s tendency to remain weak, which he attributes to a self-destructive feedback loop. Self-doubt feeds into you doubting yourself more, depression leads to self-isolation which leads to more depression, fear makes you avoid the thing you fear thus intensifying said fear, etcetera.
That leads into the chapter’s key point, which is standing up for yourself. You need to recognize your own flaws and confront them, so you can rise above them. Yeah, life sucks, but you can make it suck a bit less. Fix your posture, talk louder, and stop assuming that everyone’s better than you. At least in theory, it’s a reasonable point. Obviously, it’s not so simple in the real world, given factors such as addiction and natural disasters. It’s not a catch-all solution, either; you can’t fix depression by telling a depressed person to act less depressed, that’s not at all how that works. That being said, starting with something small like maintaining personal hygiene is usually a good start.
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
The second rule opens on a question: Why do people refuse to take medicine, even though it saves lives? A tough question indeed, one with no simple answer. We care for our pets, we complain when others risk their health pointlessly (coughcoughantivaxxerscoughcough), but seldom do we properly care for ourselves. Why?
In his search for answers, Jordan Peterson turned to ancient sources such as the Bible, or more specifically the Book of Genesis. While our current worldly understanding is based on objective truths (matter, physics, science), the ancients perceived the world through subjective experience (emotions, concepts, stories). Treating these two worlds of understanding as fundamentally distinct, he poses that the latter is ruled primarily by Order and Chaos. He then broadly defines them, positing also that God brought Order forth from Chaos.
This chapter takes a rather sharp genre shift compared to the previous one, going from a discussion of behavioral psychology to building a model of the metaphysical world. Personally, I’m not complaining, I love a good discussion of abstract thought. However, it gave me a momentary bit of whiplash.
Anyway, Order is stability, to put it most simply. We seek stability, since we already know how to handle it. Chaos is change. We don’t really like change, because it disrupts stability. However, Chaos isn’t inherently bad (freedom, opportunity), nor is Order inherently good (tyranny, inflexibility). If we are to find meaning in existence, we must be able to walk in both the light of Order and the darkness of Chaos.
The subject then transitions to the Garden of Eden, and the question of why God allowed the snake to do what it did. He rationalizes that, as an embodiment of Chaos, there was simply no way to stop the Fall from happening. Even if the snake was pre-emptively banished and the orderly garden walled off, Chaos would simply re-materialize from within. He raises a good point there… but I feel obliged to point out that his Chekhov’s Gun analysis of Eve is over-generalized at best, sexist at worst.
Afterwards, he circles back to the original question: why do some people care more about others than themselves? It’s because they see themselves as unworthy of care. We know better than anyone else who we are inside, when our naked self is exposed: weak, resentful, cowardly, pathetic, vulnerable… and so on and so forth. We’re not deserving of walking alongside God, alongside the greats, for we ourselves are not great.
He argues that the awareness of our capacity for wrongdoing is what separates us most from the other creatures. Predators may kill each other and play with their food, but they do it by instinct, not out of malice. We as humans don’t need to kill and torture each other so much… but as history has shown countless times, we do it anyway, just because we can.
Fact is, this isn’t the Garden, at least not anymore. This is Earth, and Earth sometimes sucks. I sometimes suck. You sometimes suck. We might be modelled in God’s image, but we’ll never be on the same footing as him… and that’s okay. We don’t have to be. That being said, the world won’t start sucking any less unless we change it. That includes you too, for you yourself are a part of this world. Identify something that you can improve, and work to improve it. When you do this, the world in turn will improve around you.
Another fair point… but this chapter is rather bloated, especially in the middle. Surely there was a more concise way to reach the same conclusion? We don’t need an extensive summary and analysis of the first part of Genesis. It’s literally the first section of the Bible, and most people have at least heard of Adam and Eve before. I’m not saying this bit should be cut entirely, but at least trim it down. While you’re at it, trim the Order/Chaos explanations and re-balance the example distribution, Chaos is skewed way too heavily towards the negative points. I know the book is titled An Antidote to Chaos, but combined with the attribution of femininity to Chaos… that conclusion speaks for itself.
Make friends with people who want the best for you
This chapter opens with the author’s early life. Another abrupt genre shift, this time from theology to autobiography… I’m sensing a pattern here. Anyway, he grew up without the benefits of modern technology, having to face the challenges of winter in Alberta (As a fellow Albertan, I sympathize), in the remote northern town of Fairview. Freezing to death is a very real threat when you’re this far north, for humans and house-cats alike. In this kind of situation, it’s important to have reliable friends.
Young Jordan’s past friend Chris, an inventive guy, didn’t have the best family life. He doesn’t know the exact details, but assumes a lack of parental attention was a contributing factor. Chris’ brother Ed started out fine, but grew into a drop-out drifter, and marijuana (illegal at the time) didn’t help either of them in the slightest. The three would cruise around town and crash parties. He didn’t much like doing this, but they went anyway, as they were disillusioned with life.
Jordan, still in school, decided he’d leave for college. His life improved as a result, and he believed a change in scenery would help his friends as well… but of course, he was wrong. He convinced Chris and a different friend to make a trip to Edmonton… but upon their arrival, they immediately sought the nearest pot dealers and fell back into the same old routine.
Later on, Jordan got the chance to meet back up with Ed, but their paths had split too much for them to remain friends. Ed bringing a high-as-a-kite friend with him to their reunion (in Jordan’s apartment, no less) didn’t exactly help. As for Chris, well… he committed suicide, following a psychotic breakdown.
And so Jordan got to thinking… why? Why do we surround ourselves with enablers of bad behavior? Part of the problem is the disillusionment with human nature. Some people only help others to feel better about themselves. Others, not understanding what caused the problem in the first place, accidentally make it worse. You’re not the perfect man that Christ was, you can’t see the past or the future. Maybe the helper is just trying to make themselves look good in front of others. Whatever the case, intention and understanding matters just as much as action, and these people know that first-hand.
Okay, before we continue, let’s rewind a bit. I have to address something. Namely, the part where he states Christ was the perfect man. I reject the concept of a perfect man. For starters, this assertion is contradictory. A perfect being, by its very definition, is without fault… but humans are inherently flawed. Jordan Peterson himself admits this in the previous chapter, in the section titled A Spark of the Divine:
“You may therefore have to conduct yourself habitually in a manner that allows you some respect for your own Being—and fair enough. But every person is deeply flawed. Everyone falls short of the glory of God.”
Even ignoring the blatant logical paradox, however, the sheer amount of variables in play make flawlessness an unrealistic standard to attribute to any singular organism, let alone one as mentally complex as a human. Even Jesus would’ve had his off moments while human, like with his fig tree vendetta and temper tantrum in Mark 11:12-20. Man simply cannot be defined as perfect, it’s an incompatible adjective.
I don’t know why this is getting under my skin so much, it’s really just an issue with semantics. I wouldn’t have complained if he’d swapped ‘perfect’ with ‘ideal’, or if it were just a one-off comment, never to be brought up again. Point is, I reject the very idea of a perfect man. Anyway, this tangent has gone on for too long already, so let’s resume.
Another part of the problem is that the person doesn’t always want to be saved. Maybe it was beyond their control… or maybe they were negligent. The key problem with Order is the complacency that comes with it. The change of Chaos is a hassle, why put in the extra work to fix a slight issue when you can just ignore it? Do nothing, however, and a slight issue may become the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Problem is, you can’t force people to change, they’ll just retreat back into the comfort of a misaligned Order the first chance they get. What, then, can you do? Nothing. Don’t even try. It’s not worth it, for your sake or theirs. Perhaps, then, it’s time to reconsider your connections. Does this person appreciate you? Do they respect you, and push you to do better? Would you be proud to call this person your friend?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it may be better to just cut them loose, and connect with people who actually do care about you. In spite of the ‘perfect man’ complaint, I’d say this is one of this book’s better chapters: it’s more concise and focused, the personal angle makes it more relatable, the message works, and it’s not over-reliant on complex terminology.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
This chapter opens with a statement of fact: there will always be someone better than you. Your inner voice knows this, and it will not shut up about it. What’s the best way to respond? No, the answer isn’t nihilism… it’s to re-contextualize. Every choice has a certain value attached to it. Success… failure… it’s not just a two-sided coin. Everyone has a unique set of games to play, with different rules and win conditions. You may be a failure in one area, but that doesn’t make you a failure across the board. You may suck at Chess, but that doesn’t mean you can’t win a game of Rack-O or Four-In-A-Row.
So what does this mean? We come to better understand our strengths and weaknesses as we mature, deconstructing and reconstructing our sense of self, taking notes from the lessons of the past along the way… ultimately, you know what way works best for you. Compare yourself to others, but don’t let them decide your life’s path for you. Stop trying to be the next Bobby Flay, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, or whoever else it is you look up to. Don’t be afraid to be you; speak your mind, your wants and desires, be different.
The hunter-gatherer foundations of our brains are always tracking targets. Targets to track, targets to avoid, targets to hunt. Having something to aim at is what’s allowed us to get this far in life. This extends not only to the physical world but also the mental plane, where we constantly think about how much better we could be. One thing to remember, though, is that the past can’t change, and the present may suck… but the future doesn’t have to.
Be honest with yourself: What do you really want? Have a conversation with your inner voice, and be nice to it for once. Once you two can agree on something to change, do it, and reward yourself for your effort. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Maybe it’s something as simple as a bit of household cleaning for a snack. Keep doing these small things, and you can build a stronger foundation of Order over time. Don’t worry about the guy in the gorilla suit, you can’t control him… just focus on your needs. And if he gets in the way? Well, you already know what to do: re-assess the situation, switch things around as necessary. If you need to sacrifice some less-relevant tools, then so be it.
If the chapter wrapped up around this point, it would’ve been great… but it didn’t. No. Instead, it all goes downhill from here. He follows with a tangent on how religion exists to provide us with an even greater sense of purpose. He then attempts to discredit atheism by asserting that atheists don’t fully understand themselves yet, that their actions reflect their true underlying beliefs, and that a better understanding of the world and our ancestor’s ways of life will naturally lead to a path of faith. The last stretch is further bloated by the rephrasing of points that were already established several times over. Frankly, this bit doesn’t even need to be here; it’s condescending, overly preachy, adds little (if any) meaningful value, and derails what was otherwise a compelling message.
Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Rule 5’s opening bit is screaming children – you know the ones, the brats who yell as loudly as possible, and don’t stop until they get what they want. Nobody likes them. They don’t know what ‘no’ means, which is often attributed to bad parenting. A parent will naturally want to protect their child, but in doing so, they may be too soft on them. They don’t give the child the chance to fail, to realize that their actions may come back to haunt them. That doesn’t mean you should blame the parents. They’re just doing what they think is best, and some children will naturally be more insufferable than others, regardless of what the parents do. You can’t exactly pin the matter on society, either, as it’s happening on an individual scale.
Then an attack of modern society comes flying out of left field: he poses the push for diversity as a dangerous revolution which threatens to destabilize the order our ancestors worked so hard to establish. I figured there’d be controversy coming, just based on the title, but yeesh.
First of all, what? Just… what? Second, the call for diversity is not a revolution. It’s groups of people asking for the right to exist without being attacked for their beliefs, just as suffragists and abolitionists and exiled Jews asked of the world before. Third, it’s not just a personal issue. The group’s size is irrelevant, the fact that it’s a noteworthy group at all proves it’s more than just a problem with the individual. Fourth, demands for social change can be dangerous, sure, but not necessarily, and certainly not on a total anarchy-inducing scale. Some things cannot and will not change for the better otherwise. We may be weak, but c’mon, we’re not that weak. Give humanity some credit.
Anyway, remember that we’re inherently flawed? Remember that we’re not the perfect man (sigh…) that Adam was (Adam, Christ… either way, my point still stands) before the Fall? Well, guess what? That applies to kids, too. I know. Shocking, right? They need attention and discipline too, so that their chaotic tendencies don’t spiral out of control. Parental negligence can hurt their growth just as much as abuse does.
Yes, the child may get mad at you, but that’s inevitable. They won’t grow properly if you don’t crack down on inappropriate behavior. They will attempt to push their limits, find no resistance, and keep pushing until they become bullies or worse. Pushing back is better for both you and the child. This is followed by a few stories of his child-raising experiences, in which I learned he hates Elmo with a vitriolic passion.
I won’t penalize him for this opinion, but it hurts me inside… it hurts a lot.
That’s not to say that discipline is the only good way to raise children. Rewarding them for good behavior sometimes works just as well, perhaps even better sometimes. It’s just that you need to balance the carrot with the stick. They need to understand that the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Everyone fails, but with proper guidance, you can show them how to fail less often and succeed more often.
So then, how do you strike a fair balance? First, don’t take the totalitarian route. Let the child have some freedoms, otherwise you’ll both be unhappy. The rules will obviously vary by household, but if the child breaks a rule, punish them with the minimum required force. Your goal is to teach them a lesson, not to make them hate you. If physical action (such as time-outs, or in more extreme cases, spanking (agree to disagree on that one)) is needed to teach them that lesson, then so be it, but the punishment must be proportional to the crime.
A few other points: a two-parent relationship is more effective than single parenting, as it splits the burden of child-raising. Recognize your capacity for evil, but don’t get consumed by resentment. Finally, above all else, the parent must prepare their child and make them ready to blend with society. If the child’s unruliness annoys even the parents, you can just imagine how much worse it is for everyone else. If anything, being strict early on is an act of mercy for the child, it’s better than a punch in the face for being annoying later on.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly an expert in parenting. I don’t have children. I’m not interested in childcare, nor the child-creating ‘process’. Regardless, I recognize he raises some fair points… but you have to pick your way past a burning trail of inflammatory rhetoric to find them. I respect his right to have unpopular opinions, but did he really need to alienate an entire generation of people to make such a comparatively minor point, or did he only throw it in there because controversy sells? It just seems needlessly edgy.
Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
Speaking of edgy topics, the last chapter of this first half opens on the grim note of school shootings. Life sucks… and some people don’t handle this realization well. They’ll take their anger out on others, rationalizing that because life has no meaning, there’s no reason to care anymore. Worst-case scenario, they’ll take matters into their own hands, purging the world of its sins through death and destruction.
You can curse the fate that made your life suck… or you can look to yourself, and learn something from what transpired. Were you part of the problem? Was there something you could’ve done differently? Can you do something about it now? We can’t blame God for every single disaster that comes our way. Recognize that negligence and corruption often plays a role as well. Had we paid more attention to the warning signs, we could’ve avoided some disasters altogether. Had we just done something better, we could’ve been more prepared to deal with the inevitable.
Before you shake your fist at the heavens above for making things suck, see if there’s something you can do to make things not suck as much. Money problems? See if there’s some way to cut down on your spending. Flooding? Try installing flood guards. Confidence issues? Try standing up a little straighter. If there’s something you can do, then do it. Disasters will still inevitably come your way, but at least you won’t be living in a constant state of peril.
Yeah, that’s about it. This chapter is pretty short compared to the others, shorter even than the downhill stretch of Rule 4. That’s not a bad thing; if anything, the short length actually did it a favor. It’s a refreshing change from the huge blocks of text that came before, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
With that, we’ve reached the half-way point of the book, so I’m going to wrap this up for now. Like I said, there’s a lot to take in here. This is most likely the longest review-style post I’ve ever written, and I can feel that my brain cells are frying, so I’m gonna take a pause for now. If you have any additional thoughts, feel free to comment them down below.
Critique tl;dr – Rule 1 is well-researched, but it could really benefit from some restructuring. Rule 2 is decent, but it has a lot of excess fat to it. Rule 3, just ditch the ‘perfect man’ thing, and it’s good. Rule 4 had a strong start, but the last eight-or-so pages should’ve been re-distributed or scrapped altogether. Rule 5 offers some good points, but its tone is unnecessarily confrontational. Rule 6 is short, but aside from that, has no serious flaws.
One thought on “Regarding the 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Part I)”
Hello Tyler, that is some a piece of work! You seem quite critical of Jordan Peterson. Keep writing! Opa.
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