12 Rules for Life

12 Rules for Life - by Jordan Peterson #

Date Read: 2023-07-10 #

Notes #


Standing up straight with your shoulders back is not something that is only physical, because you’re not only a body. You’re a spirit, so to speak—a psyche—as well. Standing up physically also implies and invokes and demands standing up metaphysically. Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being. Your nervous system responds in an entirely different manner when you face the demands of life voluntarily. You respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for a catastrophe. You see the gold the dragon hoards, instead of shrinking in terror from the all-too-real fact of the dragon. You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it. That can all occur practically or symbolically, as a physical or as a conceptual restructuring.

To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).

To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the flood, guiding your people through the desert after they have escaped tyranny, making your way away from comfortable home and country, and speaking the prophetic word to those who ignore the widows and children. It means shouldering the cross that marks the X, the place where you and Being intersect so terribly. It means casting dead, rigid and too tyrannical order back into the chaos in which it was generated; it means withstanding the ensuing uncertainty, and establishing, in consequence, a better, more meaningful and more productive order.

So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.

People, including yourself, will start to assume that you are competent and able (or at least they will not immediately conclude the reverse). Emboldened by the positive responses you are now receiving, you will begin to be less anxious. You will then find it easier to pay attention to the subtle social clues that people exchange when they are communicating. Your conversations will flow better, with fewer awkward pauses. This will make you more likely to meet people, interact with them, and impress them. Doing so will not only genuinely increase the probability that good things will happen to you—it will also make those good things feel better when they do happen.


We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued. You may therefore have to conduct yourself habitually in a manner that allows you some respect for your own Being

To treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping is, instead, to consider what would be truly good for you. This is not “what you want.” It is also not “what would make you happy.” Every time you give a child something sweet, you make that child happy. That does not mean that you should do nothing for children except feed them candy. “Happy” is by no means synonymous with “good.” You must get children to brush their teeth. They must put on their snowsuits when they go outside in the cold, even though they might object strenuously. You must help a child become a virtuous, responsible, awake being, capable of full reciprocity—able to take care of himself and others, and to thrive while doing so. Why would you think it acceptable to do anything less for yourself?


Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth—or, perhaps, when they refuse responsibility for their lives—they choose a new acquaintance, of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past. Such people don’t believe that they deserve any better—so they don’t go looking for it. Or, perhaps, they don’t want the trouble of better.

Here’s something to consider: If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself? You might say: out of loyalty. Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse. It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you. It’s appropriate and praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve.

If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not. This will help bolster your resolve to do what you should do, in the most appropriate and careful manner. People who are not aiming up will do the opposite. They will offer a former smoker a cigarette and a former alcoholic a beer. They will become jealous when you succeed, or do something pristine. They will withdraw their presence or support, or actively punish you for it. They will over-ride your accomplishment with a past action, real or imaginary, of their own. Maybe they are trying to test you, to see if your resolve is real, to see if you are genuine. But mostly they are dragging you down because your new improvements cast their faults in an even dimmer light.

It is for this reason that every good example is a fateful challenge, and every hero, a judge. Michelangelo’s great perfect marble David cries out to its observer: “You could be more than you are.” When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their souls, where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable. You play Abel to their Cain. You remind them that they ceased caring not because of life’s horrors, which are undeniable, but because they do not want to lift the world up on to their shoulders, where it belongs.

Don’t think that it is easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. A good, healthy person is an ideal. It requires strength and daring to stand up near such a person. Have some humility. Have some courage. Use your judgment, and protect yourself from too-uncritical compassion and pity.


There will always be people better than you—that’s a cliché of nihilism, like the phrase, In a million years, who’s going to know the difference? The proper response to that statement is not, Well, then, everything is meaningless. It’s, Any idiot can choose a frame of time within which nothing matters.

Your eyes are tools. They are there to help you get what you want. The price you pay for that utility, that specific, focused direction, is blindness to everything else. This doesn’t matter so much when things are going well, and we are getting what we want (although it can be a problem, even then, because getting what we currently want can make blind us to higher callings). But all that ignored world presents a truly terrible problem when we’re in crisis, and nothing whatsoever is turning out the way we want it to. Then, there can be far too much to deal with. Happily, however, that problem contains within it the seeds of its own solution. Since you’ve ignored so much, there is plenty of possibility left where you have not yet looked.

Imagine that you’re unhappy. You’re not getting what you need. Perversely, this may be because of what you want. You are blind, because of what you desire. Perhaps what you really need is right in front of your eyes, but you cannot see it because of what you are currently aiming for. And that brings us to something else: the price that must be paid before you, or anyone, can get what they want (or, better yet, what they need). Think about it this way. You look at the world in your particular, idiosyncratic manner. You use a set of tools to screen most things out and let some things in. You have spent a lot of time building those tools. They’ve become habitual. They’re not mere abstract thoughts. They’re built right into you. They orient you in the world. They’re your deepest and often implicit and unconscious values. They’ve become part of your biological structure. They’re alive. And they don’t want to disappear, or transform, or die. But sometimes their time has come, and new things need to be born. For this reason (although not only for this reason) it is necessary to let things go during the journey uphill. If things are not going well for you—well, that might be because, as the most cynical of aphorisms has it, life sucks, and then you die. Before your crisis impels you to that hideous conclusion, however, you might consider the following: life doesn’t have the problem. You do. At least that realization leaves you with some options. If your life is not going well, perhaps it is your current knowledge that is insufficient, not life itself. Perhaps your value structure needs some serious retooling. Perhaps what you want is blinding you to what else could be. Perhaps you are holding on to your desires, in the present, so tightly that you cannot see anything else—even what you truly need.

Now you’re on a whole different kind of trajectory. Before, what was right, desirable, and worthy of pursuit was something narrow and concrete. But you became stuck there, tightly jammed and unhappy. So you let go. You make the necessary sacrifice, and allow a whole new world of possibility, hidden from you because of your previous ambition, to reveal itself. And there’s a lot there. What would your life look like, if it were better? What would Life Itself look like? What does “better” even mean? You don’t know. And it doesn’t matter that you don’t know, exactly, right away, because you will start to slowly see what is “better,” once you have truly decided to want it. You will start to perceive what remained hidden from you by your presuppositions and preconceptions—by the previous mechanisms of your vision. You will begin to learn.

Let’s return to the situation where your aim is being determined by something petty—your aforementioned envy of your boss. Because of that envy, the world you inhabit reveals itself as a place of bitterness, disappointment and spite. Imagine that you come to notice, and contemplate, and reconsider your unhappiness. Further, you determine to accept responsibility for it, and dare to posit that it might be something at least partly under your control. You crack open one eye, for a moment, and look. You ask for something better. You sacrifice your pettiness, repent of your envy, and open your heart. Instead of cursing the darkness, you let in a little light. You decide to aim for a better life—instead of a better office.

But you don’t stop there. You realize that it’s a mistake to aim for a better life, if it comes at the cost of worsening someone else’s. So, you get creative. You decide to play a more difficult game. You decide that you want a better life, in a manner that will also make the life of your family better. Or the life of your family, and your friends. Or the life of your family, and your friends, and the strangers who surround them. What about your enemies? Do you want to include them, too? You bloody well don’t know how to manage that. But you’ve read some history. You know how enmity compounds. So, you start to wish even your enemies well, at least in principle, although you are by no means yet a master of such sentiments.

And the direction of your sight changes. You see past the limitations that hemmed you in, unknowingly. New possibilities for your life emerge, and you work toward their realization. Your life indeed improves. And then you start to think, further: “Better? Perhaps that means better for me, and my family, and my friends—even for my enemies. But that’s not all it means. It means better today, in a manner that makes everything better tomorrow, and next week, and next year, and a decade from now, and a hundred years from now. And a thousand years from now. And forever

Pay attention. Focus on your surroundings, physical and psychological. Notice something that bothers you, that concerns you, that will not let you be, which you could fix, that you would fix. You can find such somethings by asking yourself (as if you genuinely want to know) three questions: “What is it that is bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” and “Would I actually be willing to fix it?” If you find that the answer is “no,” to any or all of the questions, then look elsewhere. Aim lower. Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it. That might be enough for the day.

Realization is dawning. Instead of playing the tyrant, therefore, you are paying attention. You are telling the truth, instead of manipulating the world. You are negotiating, instead of playing the martyr or the tyrant. You no longer have to be envious, because you no longer know that someone else truly has it better. You no longer have to be frustrated, because you have learned to aim low, and to be patient. You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely. You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself


We have two general principles of discipline. The first: limit the rules. The second: Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.

About the first principle, you might ask, “Limit the rules to what, exactly?” Here are some suggestions. Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture and bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.

About the second, equally important principle, your question might be: What is minimum necessary force? This must be established experimentally, starting with the smallest possible intervention. Some children will be turned to stone by a glare. A verbal command will stop another. A thumb-cocked flick of the index finger on a small hand might be necessary for some. Such a strategy is particularly useful in public places such as restaurants. It can be administered suddenly, quietly and effectively, without risking escalation. What’s the alternative? A child who is crying angrily, demanding attention, is not making himself popular. A child who is running from table to table and disrupting everyone’s peace is bringing disgrace (an old word, but a good one) on himself and his parents. Such outcomes are far from optimal, and children will definitely misbehave more in public, because they are experimenting: trying to establish if the same old rules also apply in the new place. They don’t sort that out verbally, not when they are under three.

Disciplinary principle 1: limit the rules. Principle 2: use minimum necessary force. Here’s a third: parents should come in pairs. Raising young children is demanding and exhausting. Because of this, it’s easy for a parent to make a mistake. Insomnia, hunger, the aftermath of an argument, a hangover, a bad day at work—any of these things singly can make a person unreasonable, while in combination they can produce someone dangerous. Under such circumstances, it is necessary to have someone else around, to observe, and step in, and discuss. This will make it less likely that a whiny provocative child and her fed-up cranky parent will excite each other to the point of no return. Parents should come in pairs so the father of a newborn can watch the new mother so she won’t get worn out and do something desperate after hearing her colicky baby wail from eleven in the evening until five in the morning for thirty nights in a row. I am not saying we should be mean to single mothers, many of whom struggle impossibly and courageously—and a proportion of whom have had to escape, singly, from a brutal relationship—but that doesn’t mean we should pretend that all family forms are equally viable. They’re not. Period.

Here’s a fourth principle, one that is more particularly psychological: parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful. Very few people set out, consciously, to do a terrible job as father or mother, but bad parenting happens all the time. This is because people have a great capacity for evil, as well as good—and because they remain willfully blind to that fact. People are aggressive and selfish, as well as kind and thoughtful. For this reason, no adult human being—no hierarchical, predatory ape—can truly tolerate being dominated by an upstart child. Revenge will come. Ten minutes after a pair of all-too-nice-and-patient parents have failed to prevent a public tantrum at the local supermarket, they will pay their toddler back with the cold shoulder when he runs up, excited, to show mom and dad his newest accomplishment. Enough embarrassment, disobedience, and dominance challenge, and even the most hypothetically selfless parent will become resentful. And then the real punishment will begin. Resentment breeds the desire for vengeance. Fewer spontaneous offers of love will be offered, with more rationalizations for their absence. Fewer opportunities for the personal development of the child will be sought out. A subtle turning away will begin. And this is only the beginning of the road to total familial warfare, conducted mostly in the underworld, underneath the false façade of normality and love.

This frequently-travelled path is much better avoided. A parent who is seriously aware of his or her limited tolerance and capacity for misbehaviour when provoked can therefore seriously plan a proper disciplinary strategy—particularly if monitored by an equally awake partner—and never let things degenerate to the point where genuine hatred emerges. Beware. There are toxic families everywhere. They make no rules and limit no misbehaviour. The parents lash out randomly and unpredictably. The children live in that chaos and are crushed, if they’re timid, or rebel, counterproductively, if they’re tough. It’s not good. It can get murderous.

Here’s a fifth and final and most general principle. Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world—merciful proxies, caring proxies—but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. That will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard, and security. It’s more important even than fostering individual identity. That Holy Grail can only be pursued, in any case, after a high degree of social sophistication has been established


Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here’s something to try: Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong.

So, simply stop, when you apprehend, however dimly, that you should stop. Stop acting in that particular, despicable manner. Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak of with honour


“No tree can grow to Heaven,” adds the ever-terrifying Carl Gustav Jung, psychoanalyst extraordinaire, “unless its roots reach down to Hell.”

Jung observed that the construction of such a moral hierarchy was inevitable—although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what the person acted out. It was what the person believed most deeply. Something enacted is not a fact, or even a set of facts. Instead, it’s a personality—or, more precisely, a choice between two opposing personalities. It’s Sherlock Holmes or Moriarty. It’s Batman or the Joker. It’s Superman or Lex Luthor, Charles Francis Xavier or Magneto, and Thor or Loki. It’s Abel or Cain—and it’s Christ or Satan. If it’s working for the ennobling of Being, for the establishment of Paradise, then it’s Christ. If it’s working for the destruction of Being, for the generation and propagation of unnecessary suffering and pain, then it’s Satan. That’s the inescapable, archetypal reality.


Someone living a life-lie is attempting to manipulate reality with perception, thought and action, so that only some narrowly desired and pre-defined outcome is allowed to exist. A life lived in this manner is based, consciously or unconsciously, on two premises. The first is that current knowledge is sufficient to define what is good, unquestioningly, far into the future. The second is that reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices. The first presumption is philosophically unjustifiable. What you are currently aiming at might not be worth attaining, just as what you are currently doing might be an error. The second is even worse. It is valid only if reality is intrinsically intolerable and, simultaneously, something that can be successfully manipulated and distorted. Such speaking and thinking requires the arrogance and certainty that the English poet John Milton’s genius identified with Satan, God’s highest angel gone most spectacularly wrong. The faculty of rationality inclines dangerously to pride: all I know is all that needs to be known. Pride falls in love with its own creations, and tries to make them absolute.

I have seen people define their utopia and then bend their lives into knots trying to make it reality. A left-leaning student adopts a trendy, anti-authority stance and spends the next twenty years working resentfully to topple the windmills of his imagination. An eighteen-year-old decides, arbitrarily, that she wants to retire at fifty-two. She works for three decades to make that happen, failing to notice that she made that decision when she was little more than a child. What did she know about her fifty-two-year-old self, when still a teenager? Even now, many years later, she has only the vaguest, lowest-resolution idea of her post-work Eden. She refuses to notice. What did her life mean, if that initial goal was wrong? She’s afraid of opening Pandora’s box, where all the troubles of the world reside. But hope is in there, too. Instead, she warps her life to fit the fantasies of a sheltered adolescent.

A naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie. One forty-something client told me his vision, formulated by his younger self: “I see myself retired, sitting on a tropical beach, drinking margaritas in the sunshine.” That’s not a plan. That’s a travel poster. After eight margaritas, you’re fit only to await the hangover. After three weeks of margarita-filled days, if you have any sense, you’re bored stiff and self-disgusted. In a year, or less, you’re pathetic. It’s just not a sustainable approach to later life. This kind of oversimplification and falsification is particularly typical of ideologues. They adopt a single axiom: government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad. Then they filter and screen their experiences and insist ever more narrowly that everything can be explained by that axiom. They believe, narcissistically, underneath all that bad theory, that the world could be put right, if only they held the controls.

There is another fundamental problem, too, with the life-lie, particularly when it is based on avoidance. A sin of commission occurs when you do something you know to be wrong. A sin of omission occurs when you let something bad happen when you could do something to stop it. The former is regarded, classically, as more serious than the latter—than avoidance. I’m not so sure.

Every game has rules. Some of the most important rules are implicit. You accept them merely by deciding to play the game. The first of these rules is that the game is important. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t be playing it. Playing a game defines it as important. The second is that moves undertaken during the game are valid if they help you win. If you make a move and it isn’t helping you win, then, by definition, it’s a bad move. You need to try something different. You remember the old joke: insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

What saves is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know. That is faith in the possibility of human transformation. That is faith in the sacrifice of the current self for the self that could be.

An aim provides a destination, a point of contrast against the present, and a framework, within which all things can be evaluated. An aim defines progress and makes such progress exciting. An aim reduces anxiety, because if you have no aim everything can mean anything or nothing, and neither of those two options makes for a tranquil spirit. Thus, we have to think, and plan, and limit, and posit, in order to live at all.



Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists. Because to specify the problem is to allow yourself to know what you want, say, from friend or lover—and then you will know, precisely and cleanly, when you don’t get it, and that will hurt, sharply and specifically. But you will learn something from that, and use what you learn in the future—and the alternative to that single sharp pain is the dull ache of continued hopelessness and vague failure and the sense that time, precious time, is slipping by.

Why refuse to specify? Because while you are failing to define success (and thereby rendering it impossible) you are also refusing to define failure, to yourself, so that if and when you fail you won’t notice, and it won’t hurt. But that won’t work! You cannot be fooled so easily—unless you have gone very far down the road! You will instead carry with you a continual sense of disappointment in your own Being and the self-contempt that comes along with that and the increasing hatred for the world that all of that generates (or degenerates).

If you shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses, reality itself will become unsustainably disorganized and chaotic. Then it will grow bigger and swallow all order, all sense, and all predictability. Ignored reality transforms itself (reverts back) into the great Goddess of Chaos, the great reptilian Monster of the Unknown—the great predatory beast against which mankind has struggled since the dawn of time. If the gap between pretence and reality goes unmentioned, it will widen, you will fall into it, and the consequences will not be good. Ignored reality manifests itself in an abyss of confusion and suffering.

Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. That will protect you from the tragedy of your life. How could it be otherwise?

Confront the chaos of Being. Take aim against a sea of troubles. Specify your destination, and chart your course. Admit to what you want. Tell those around you who you are. Narrow, and gaze attentively, and move forward, forthrightly.


One day, when I was a kid, I was out playing softball with some friends. The teams were a mixture of boys and girls. We were all old enough so that the boys and girls were starting to be interested in one another in an unfamiliar way. Status was becoming more relevant and important. My friend Jake and I were about to come to blows, pushing each other around near the pitching mound, when my mom walked by. She was a fair distance away, about thirty yards, but I could immediately see by the change in her body language that she knew what was going on. Of course, the other kids saw her as well. She walked right by. I knew that hurt her. Part of her was worried that I would come home with a bloody nose and a black eye. It would have been easy enough for her just to yell, “Hey, you kids, quit that!” or even to come over and interfere. But she didn’t. A few years later, when I was having teenage trouble with my dad, my mom said, “If it was too good at home, you’d never leave.”

My mom is a tender-hearted person. She’s empathetic, and cooperative, and agreeable. Sometimes she lets people push her around. When she went back to work after being at home with her young kids, she found it challenging to stand up to the men. Sometimes that made her resentful—something she also feels, sometimes, in relationship to my father, who is strongly inclined to do what he wants, when he wants to. Despite all that, she’s no Oedipal mother. She fostered the independence of her children, even though doing so was often hard on her. She did the right thing, even though it caused her emotional distress.