• Kamya Vishwanath

Understanding Jordan Peterson: 12 Rules For Life

I was only 15 years old when my brother had told me about a particular professor at his University who had decided to raise his voice against the political correctness wave that had washed over most parts of America and Canada. Impressed, I then decided to then watch a few of his lectures that were up on YouTube. To my amazement, someone with ideas so different from what the mainstream media had to offer made so much sense. While I found myself confused about where I stood on the spectrum, it was becoming clearer to me that I was a believer in the power of individualism. Listening to what Jordan Peterson had to say only made it clear to me that the debate between structuralists and individualists is still rife with differences and is seemingly never-ending.

Who is Jordan B Peterson and why should we care?

Jordan Bernt Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada. His first book “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief” was published in 1999 after he took 13 years to complete it. The book looks at mythology, philosophy and psychology among other things, to discuss the conceptualization of individual motivation. Over time, Peterson’s popularity has only increased. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers and hundreds of thousands have bought his books. Peterson is a polarizing figure – you can either adore him or hate him – and he makes no bones about it.

It is however impossible to be oblivious about him. For academic circles of today, rife with the need to metastasize every problem into a structural quagmire of multiple, seemingly irreconcilable factors, Peterson is a challenge. The simplicity of his ideas, their direct impact on the problem, without obfuscation are an academic version of the challenges today’s left faces from the likes of Trump – only that Peterson actually knows what he is talking about and is not racially stereotypical.

One of the main reasons why Peterson’s ideas haven’t been shot down outright is his unfathomable ability to make sense. As ironic as it might seem to have a thinker using mythology to describe personality development, Peterson bases much of his argumentation based on simple logic that just clicks. He uses simple words. His philosophy is simple.

12 Rules For Life: What is it about?

In January 2018, Peterson published his second book “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos”. He was inspired to write this book, funnily enough, after having answered a Quora question titled “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” He elaborated on 12 (out of the 42 he listed) that he felt were most pertinent for this generation to know. The 12 rules are ethical principles on how one can possibly lead a more fulfilling life.

In this article, part of a series of three, I intend to discuss 4 of the 12 rules that Peterson talks about. Each rule has required the laborious task of drawing out the most important takeaways from the vast amount of explanation and evidence.

Before I proceed with discussion, it’s essential to have a grasp of the sources of his book. Peterson borrows heavily from the works of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, whom Peterson looks up to quite zealously. Others who feature regularly in the text are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Piaget, Goethe, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others.

Reading this book will take a while, especially if you attempt to internalize and carefully understand the implications of what Peterson has argued. It is unlike any other self-help book that one comes across ever so often, which does indeed get the point across, but lacks the adequate scientific evidence backing it. All of Peterson’s arguments have been backed by statistics and are empirically verifiable (apart from his allusions to mythology, of course).

This book is a wake-up call; a wrap on the knuckles of sorts. At the very beginning of the book, Peterson asserts that the rules that he’s laying down here are not to live a suffering-free life, for no such thing exists. It’s to be able to live a life filled with suffering and still emerge victorious at the end of it.

Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back

The very first rule dives straight into one of the most crucial requisites for a more meaningful life: how one ought to present himself or herself. When Peterson discusses this, he isn’t referring to the false promises that one makes to oneself or the world. He takes a different approach to defining how and where self-confidence originates. Most psychologists tend to argue that confidence stems from within and that, in turn, reflects in action. This is not wrong, and can very well be empirically verified, but Peterson’s approach is more along the lines of behavioral psychology. The behavioral approach to well-being articulates that in order to think confidently, you have to first act confidently i.e., action necessarily precedes emotion in order to formulate perception. Peterson dwells, first, on the physiological implications of standing up straight with one’s shoulders back. He argues this by studying the neurological makeup a rather distant (yet so oddly proximate) creature- the lobster. Why did he pick a lobster? The reason is that lobsters have been deemed as one of the most significant determinants of tracing evolution owing to their complex neural circuity that can, in turn, be useful in understanding the human and other such intricate neural circuits. Just like man, they too respond differently to success and defeat.

When a lobster succeeds, Serotonin production in their body increases while Octopamine levels begin to decline. The opposite happens in a lobster that has just lost. While serotonin increase has the effect of enhancing the feeling of wellbeing, octopamine has varied effects, but, in lobsters, it controls some muscular functions. Thus, a losing lobster looks defeated- scrunched up, inhibited, and vulnerable. Peterson asks,

“If you present yourself as defeated, then people will react to you as if you are losing”.

The strength and success of a male lobster is also further validated when the female lobsters then leave it to nature to decide who the strongest of them all is, and then mate only with those that emerge victorious. Peterson argues,

“Circumstances change, and so can you”

The central thesis of this argument is that those at the bottom will continue to remain at the bottom because the odds are mathematically against them – until they choose to alter them. He argues constantly on the existence of “dominance hierarchies” and says that they are based on competence. In order for one to rise up, Peterson claims that moving past physiology, one must also interpret the rule metaphysically. To stand up straight with your shoulders back,

“…means withstanding the ensuing uncertainty and establishing, in consequence, a better, more meaningful and more productive order.”

Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

The second rule is a more consequential than the first, he claims. In one of his public lectures, Peterson says that the essence of the discussion under the rule revolves around,

“Why people don’t like themselves very much. Why the hell should you take care of something as sorry and wretched as you are?”

The reason, he argues, is that humans have always been an incompetent and incapable being. But if that is true, Peterson adds, the impossibility of action cannot be attributed to you, and you alone. Therefore, you have no legitimate reason to hate yourself as such. Existence is the irreducible truth of Being. Pep talk aside, what does this actually mean? Peterson follows a remarkable trajectory derived from mythology and science in making this point. He introduces the story of how humans were created and how creation of a Being was itself a creative process that required subjective, lived experiences. As opposed to this, science focused on how ‘Matter’, was of more consequence than pain. The world of experience was radically different from that of science’s constituent elements – entropy (chaos and order). Peterson defines chaos as a normative entity, an unexplored territory that subsumes the domain of ignorance. Order, therefore, refers to the explored territory. The two, however, are not independent of good and bad; the former has the positive elements of freedom and the latter, negative elements of tyranny. Borrowing from the works of Carl Jung, he argues that “doing unto others as you would have other do unto you” and “loving thy neighbor” were two statements to be read harmoniously. It did not mean being nice to another person, for that would make no sense. It meant to treat them with what was the best for them. Doing what is best for someone needn’t always mean that it would make them feel the happiest, but it would be what was most necessary at that point in time.

Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you

As a college student living the very reality that Peterson alludes to, this rule hits home. Peterson begins by illustrating how his personality was influenced by a multitude of people- all of which he surrounded himself with because of the goodness of their company. Through this rule, the underlying idea that he tries to convey is that there tend to be people who claim to be your friends, but downplay all your achievements, or drag you down with them. Long story short: cease to remain in their company.

At one level, people tend to befriend people who aren’t good for them because they think they can rescue them. However, as he rightly points out,

“…not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise…”

The reasons behind wanting to save someone might be genuine and out of the sheer willingness to do the right thing. Perhaps it could be because one would like to convince oneself that they aren’t completely irresponsible when compared to a third person. The test for as to whether or not this friendship should remain borrows from the previous rule: would you wish such a friendship upon any other dear one?

“Loyalty is not identical to stupidity”

It’s a good thing to choose people who are good to you. The entrapment of being in a relationship that brings more harm than good is a very dangerous feeling. It makes one feel uneasy for it probably goes against one’s stated principles. The rule can be read broadly in terms of looking at the word friend to mean any person who is toxic and poses a risk to your peace of mind.

Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

“There will always be people better than you”

Without sugarcoating things, in the fourth rule, we are introduced to the idea that in order to truly succeed, one needn’t always win. To not look at success as a mere binary, Peterson urges his readers to understand that there tend to be many good games that one can partake in. There are innumerable opportunities to flourish. If they don’t exist, create them.

Peterson breaks down the mechanism through which we tend to compare ourselves with another person. The internal critic in us first selects a “single, arbitrary domain of comparison” after which it proceeds to view that in isolation. Then it contrasts one’s own capabilities with those of someone truly stellar in that field. By doing this, they further bridge the gap between the two and reduce any scope for learning and growth.

In most of his lectures and underlying the very idea of this rule, Peterson stresses the importance of discipline. He believes that this sense of discipline is something that must emerge in order for one to be closer to a more worthy version of himself or herself. In order to aid this, he dares us all to be truthful and articulate what we mean, because when we do, we would be less likely to stray from where we ought to be.

“Take stock”

Before we embark upon any journey, Peterson says that we must first have something to aim at before we begin navigating.

“What you aim at determines what you see.”

We may aim too high or too low. In order to ensure that we’re fully aware of where we are, taking stock means to make a note of all the “hidden flaws”. Regardless of what the routine may be, he says that one mustn’t be hard on oneself.

Ultimately, Peterson once again stresses on the importance of behavior as a determinant of belief. To act first and then understand what one might feel about it can help shape belief. He says,

“You are too complex to understand yourself”

But pay attention to all the things that you could fix and would fix. The little things will add up.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

About the Author​​

​​Kamya Vishwanath is extremely passionate about her political opinions and reads extensively about the subject. A strong advocate of mental health and combating stigma around the same, she has interned with the Spastics Society of Karnataka and the Center for Law and Policy Research and continues to write passionately about mental illness.

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