Intended to be an “antidote to chaos,” renowned psychologist Jordan Peterson’s wildly popular book, 12 Rules for Life, provides a blueprint for living a moral life of meaning and purpose. Since its publication in 2018, 12 Rules for Life has sold more than 5 million copies. Peterson, a former professor at Harvard and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, has also become a highly influential public intellectual and speaker, reaching millions every year via YouTube and podcasts.
Peterson believes that today, there is a hunger among younger people for rules and guidelines. While many young adults are taught that there’s no absolute right or wrong and that tolerance toward different values is essential, most still crave a moral compass to follow. In Peterson’s opinion, withdrawing from tradition and religion to reduce conflicts pushes us towards meaninglessness, which is detrimental to society and our happiness.
12 Rules for Life was written to help Peterson’s audience visualize an ideal life to aim for. The book draws upon many different fields, including: scientific research about psychology, cutting-edge neuroscience, ethical principles, mythology, religion, ancient traditions, and personal anecdotes.
One of the main goals of the book is to establish a shared code of conduct or sacred social contract. This is intended to help keep order in society and allow people to live together peacefully, predictably, and productively.
When reading 12 Rules for Life, you can expect to learn how to establish your core values that should drive your actions, control your emotions to make wise decisions, and prioritize who and what’s most important to focus your attention on.
In this article, learn about the major points Peterson makes in 12 Rules for Life, a summary of each chapter, and key takeaways you can start applying to your life to improve your relationships and well-being.
What Are Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life?
Jordan Peterson wrote 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos after receiving a lot of positive feedback when he answered a specific question on the website Quora. Peterson had previously contributed other opinions and answers to Quora questions, but one conversation, in particular, gained a considerable following and scored in the 99.9th percentile (meaning almost all readers enjoyed it, therefore Quora pushed it to the top of the response list).
The question that sparked the idea for 12 Rules for Life was, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” Peterson’s answer to this question described “rules for living,” which became the foundation for his best-selling book.
Below are the chapters, or “rules,” included in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
- Make friends with people who want the best for you.
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
- Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
- Be precise in your speech.
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
Overview of Each Chapter
Here’s a 12 Rules for Life summary by each chapter:
1. Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back
“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.”
To be human means you will have to suffer and deal with setbacks and pain. But how we respond to suffering makes all the difference. Peterson says, “The world is a hard place and a bitter place in many ways. And it’s touched with betrayal and malevolence. But there’s something in you that’s capable of taking that full on and transcending it.”
Whether we like it or not, there’s a dominance hierarchy embedded in nature—and we can tell a lot about someone’s status and confidence based on their physical appearance. When you don’t take care of yourself physically, your body and brain respond. When you’re defeated or feeling insecure, your posture drops, creating a vicious cycle in which you feel bad yourself, make poor decisions, act emotionally unstable, and fail to perform at your peak.
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 1:
- Accept the burden of being, which allows your nervous system to respond entirely differently than when you feel helpless.
- Undertake the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality.
- Start by taking care of your body, including getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet (such as a high-protein, high-fat, and nutrient-dense one), which will make you feel psycho-physiologically stable.
- Stand up straight, look people in the eye, and don’t be scared to state your opinions.
- Remember that circumstances can always change, and so can you. Create a positive feedback loop that gets you moving in the right direction.
2. Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping
“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.”
We all deserve respect. Therefore, start by extending some to yourself. Recognize that you’re important to other people and God and have vital roles to play in the world.
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 2:
- Operate as if you’re obliged to take care of yourself, knowing that no one else will do this for you.
- Keep the promises you make to yourself.
- Rather than blaming others for your misfortunes, take accountability and try to do better.
3. Make Friends With People Who Want the Best for You
“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.”
Christ said, “Don’t throw pearls to pigs.” It’s different if someone truly wants to get better and you are helping them to help themselves. However, the desire to change must come from within. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. As Peterson explains in this video, “Telling someone they aren’t living up to their full potential is actually a compliment.”
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 3:
- To reach your greatest potential, surround yourself with people who support your upward aim and those who want to grow.
- Be careful about “saving” others who have a victim mentality. Some people don’t actually want your help and need time to accept on their own that they need to change.
4. Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else Is Today
“The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity.”
Envy doesn’t serve us and can contribute to stress and lack of confidence. On the other hand, tracking your progress and celebrating your accomplishments can boost your motivation to keep improving.
“Memory is the past’s 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. That’s the purpose of memory. It’s not ‘to remember the past.’ It’s to stop the same damn thing from happening over and over,” says Peterson.
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 4:
- Focus on what’s in your control and fixable instead of worrying about others’ success.
- When something bothers you or makes you feel jealous or insecure, question why.
- Observe characteristics in others that rub you the wrong way, then use that information to fuel yourself to become better.
- Always seek to learn from your mistakes.
5. Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them
“More often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason. They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents (if that). Parents are more, not less than friends.”
Children require discipline and solid examples from their parents to grow into their best selves. “Friends have very limited authority to correct,” says Peterson, so it’s parents’ job to do the disciplining.
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 5:
- Because it’s important for children to get along with their peers and respect their elders, train them to socialize well, cooperate, and follow the rules. Otherwise, children risk being ostracized and missing out on opportunities.
- Establish clear rules for your children, then reinforce them.
- While being unnecessarily tough on your kids isn’t encouraged, be willing to withstand their temporary anger when they break your rules and are punished.
6. Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World
“Intolerance of others’ views (no matter how ignorant or incoherent they may be) is not simply wrong; in a world where there is no right or wrong, it is worse: it is a sign you are embarrassingly unsophisticated or, possibly, dangerous.”
We are all human and every one of us is a work in progress. Focus your energy on doing what you can to improve your life. In Peterson’s words, “Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 6:
- Hold back the urge to judge others harshly and act with arrogance.
- Identify your own destructive habits and behaviors that need to be corrected before you nitpick others’ actions.
- When unsure of what’s right versus wrong, seek wisdom from your ancestors, your culture, and those you admire.
- Follow Peterson’s advice: “Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better.”
7. Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient)
“The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.”
It’s easy to pursue instant gratification, but this is not a good long-term strategy for achieving happiness and contentment. According to Peterson, “You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person.”
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 7:
- Embrace hard work and sacrifice, knowing they are inevitable and necessary to become a well-rounded, wise person.
- Be willing to give up pleasurable but superficial things that would make you feel good now in order to live a life of deeper meaning in the future.
- Strive for meaning, which you can think of as the balance between order and chaos.
8. Tell the Truth—Or, at Least, Don’t Lie
“Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better.”
Even when you’re dealing with hardships and feeling confused or desperate, still tell the truth. This is a display of vulnerability and authenticity that builds trust. While telling the truth can sometimes be uncomfortable, remember that it is a way to best serve others and yourself.
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 8:
- Identify your core values and life purpose and then keep asking yourself if your character and behaviors are moving you toward them.
- Never lie to yourself and ideally not to others. Be willing to face the truth and admit when you’re not acting according to your own standards.
9. Assume That the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t
“Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.”
Every encounter has the potential to teach you something valuable. Therefore, it’s imperative to give people your full attention, stay curious, and ask insightful questions that make you wiser.
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 9:
- Display humility and keep an open mind in order to keep learning.
- Practice engaged, active listening, which is a sign of respect and great communication skills.
- Listen to yourself, as well, without judgment. Let yourself think out loud, which is how you make sense of the world and your experiences.
10. Be Precise in Your Speech
“Random wandering will not move you forward. It will instead disappoint and frustrate you and make you anxious and unhappy and hard to get along with.”
You’ll only know that something isn’t working for you if you’ve established precisely what you want. Being precise helps you pinpoint when you’re missing the mark and when there’s a problem. This way, you can start to fix it.
Peterson says, “What you aim at determines what you see” and that we must “act diligently towards some well-articulated, defined and temporary end. Make your criteria for failure and success timely and clear, at least for yourself (and even better if others can understand what you are doing and evaluate it with you).”
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 10:
- Be very specific when visualizing your ideal life and setting standards that you want to uphold.
- When you’re too vague with your goals or path, this allows your boundaries to be crossed easily and for you to lose sight of what matters most.
- On the other hand, when you’re specific, you hold yourself and others accountable.
- While it can hurt to admit that things aren’t going to plan, embracing failure and learning from it is the best way to move forward and avoid feeling hopeless or continuously disappointed.
11. Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding
“Even if it were possible to permanently banish everything threatening—everything dangerous (and, therefore, everything challenging and interesting)—that would mean only that another danger would emerge: that of permanent human infantilism and absolute uselessness. How could the nature of man ever reach its full potential without challenge and danger?”
Some people are bigger risk-takers than others, but to some extent, we all want to experiment and learn lessons “the hard way” for ourselves. To optimize our lives, we need to be willing to do hard things and fail instead of remaining within our comfort zone forever.
If we remain risk-averse—and insist that our children do the same—our lives can feel boring and stifled, often leading to resentment. This is especially true among very agreeable people who fear speaking up for themselves or being bold.
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 11:
- Encourage your kids instead of sheltering them. Teach them to be brave, try hard things, say what they mean, and find the lessons in everything.
- “To interfere with a child’s willingness to take necessary risks is not love or empathy, but cowardice on the part of the parents,” says Peterson.
12. Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street
“Perhaps you are overvaluing what you don’t have and undervaluing what you do.”
Rest assured that most people are resilient and can bounce back from pain and losses as long as they still have hope for the future and appreciation for their time on this planet. As Peterson states, “Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak. Much of happiness is hope, no matter how deep the underworld in which that hope was conceived.”
Biggest Takeaways From Chapter 12:
- Concentrate on the day in front of you and the opportunities you have right now.
- Look for the good around you every day, let go of what’s out of your control, and become comfortable with uncertainty.
- Practice gratitude, even in hard times, by focusing on all that you’re fortunate to have, as well as big and small opportunities that come your way.
Best Quotes From 12 Rules for Life
Below are some of the most highlighted and repeated quotes from 12 Rules for Life:
- “We require routine and tradition. That’s order. Order can become excessive, and that’s not good, but chaos can swamp us, so we drown—and that is also not good. We need to stay on the straight and narrow path.”
- “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities.”
- “You are by no means only what you already know. You are also all that which you could know, if you only would. Thus, you should never sacrifice what you could be for what you are. You should never give up the better that resides within for the security you already have.”
- “When you have something to say, silence is a lie.”
- “Always place your becoming above your current being.”
- “Listen to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.”
- “You need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering . . . That is where there is something new to master and some way that you can be improved. That is where meaning is to be found.”
- “People organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds . . . The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: It takes a village to organize a mind.”
- “And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”
- “You remember the past not so that it is ‘accurately recorded,’ but so that you are prepared for the future.”
- “Truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best use of the future’s possibilities. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness.”
Critical Reception for 12 Rules for Life
12 Rules for Life has gained worldwide recognition—becoming a bestseller in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom—and is one of the most popular nonfiction, “self-help” books of the past decade. There have been some criticisms of 12 Rules for Life that are worth pointing out, including that Peterson can sometimes come off as arrogant and contradictory.
Despite the book’s popularity, some critics and readers felt that Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life missed the mark on certain points, such as:
- Being overly wordy: The book is 409 pages long, which has turned some off to reading it in its entirety, especially young adults in college (one of Peterson’s main target audiences).
- Having a semi-anti-feminist stance: Some argue that Peterson takes an anti-feminist stance in the book by encouraging certain aspects of oppression, such as women focusing more on raising children than on their careers. To his defense, Peterson says he was trying to explain the benefits of traditional values and family structures (for example, two-parent households being more advantageous for raising children than single-parent homes).
- Not being “politically correct”: Certain cultural biases have been pointed out in the book, such as a leaning toward heterosexual Christian values and customs. As a psychologist and “scientist,” his critics feel that he should be more inclusive and science-based.
- Presenting opinions and anecdotes as facts: Peterson writes about many personal examples, stories, and observations in the book, sometimes failing to make it clear if his opinions are backed up by research.
On the other hand, many well-known authors and political figures have praised Peterson’s work, including Dr. Oz, Tucker Carlson, and David Brooks from The New York Times.
Below are some examples of praise for 12 Rules for Life:
- “If you were to design in a laboratory a message and a messenger perfectly calibrated to scratch the itch of millions of lost millennial souls, Peterson’s your man and 12 Rules for Life is the message.” —David French, National Review
- “Peterson can take the most difficult ideas and make them entertaining . . . He is fast becoming the closest that academia has to a rock star.” —The Observer
- “By combining knowledge of the past with a full-hearted optimism and a generous attitude toward his readers and listeners, Peterson generates an impressive level of intellectual firepower.” —Robert Fulford, National Post
Recommended Reading for Those Who Love 12 Rules for Life
Peterson’s follow-up to 12 Rules for Life, entitled Beyond Order, dives further into guidelines he recommends that we follow to manage current chaotic events. Peterson says, “While chaos, in excess, threatens us with instability and anxiety, unchecked order can petrify us into submission. My hope is that Beyond Order helps readers balance the two fundamental principles of reality itself, and guide us along the straight and narrow path dividing them.”
Looking for more help determining your values, establishing your life’s path, and building your character? For those who found value in 12 Rules for Life, other well-known self-help books to consider reading include:
- Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
- Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida
- Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferris
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown
- Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
- Antifragile by Nassim Nichol Taleb
- The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
Want to learn more about how to create a clear vision, write personal and professional development goals, and shift into a growth mindset? Check out: 20 Life-Changing Personal Development Goals.