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12 Rules For Life by: Jordan B. Petersonv

In case you’ve been sleeping, or have tuned out the news, Jordan Peterson is the “it” guy of philosophy and psychology. But as it happens, he has some staying power and may very well not be yesterday’s newspaper; certainly not if he can continue to turn out books of this power and merit.

And definitely because he is, as the writer of the introduction explains, one who elucidates an IDEOLOGY, not an IDEOLOGUE. “Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science of philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer
remedies that will perfect it. Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to ‘make the world a better place,’ before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within … That’s hubris, of course, and one of the most important themes of this book, is ‘set your house in order’ first, and Jordan provides practical advice on how to do this.”

Peterson came to virtually instant fame for taking a stand: he refused to “use compelled speech.” A Canadian, he was brought up before the chillingly named Human Rights
Tribunal for refusing to use his students’ “preferred
pronouns,” but agreed to use the “they and them” unless he was referring to someone in the singular, and otherwise said he would use he or she. He drew a line between refraining from using offensive speech (he agrees with this) and being “compelled” to use made-up words per the individual student’s particular preference.

He became the darling of the conservatives, and the bête noire of the progressives.

Along the way, he wrote a couple of books that have not only become best sellers, but have provided some solid, researched, and clinically well-documented insights into living a richer, more rewarding, less “chaotic” life.

Peterson’s first score was “Maps of Meaning,” and a series of lectures on the subject, in which he explores how human beings find meaning – both because we appear to be specifically wired to do so, and the ways in which we go about doing it. He uses such disparate resources as The Bible, Disney movies, and fairy tales to explain the process. Being a lover of fairy tales, he got my immediate attention.

Jordan B. Peterson, the “it” guy of philosophy and psychology.

In an early lecture, he asked listeners to consider a baby: you don’t need to explain to a baby “how” or “why” to play peek-a-boo. The child is born “getting” the game. Human beings, it seems, are hard-wired for game playing. Children on the playground take it up a notch and will set minimal rules for a particular game – tag, for example. As we get older, our games become more complex, but our interest in them never seems to fail. And so with the stories we tell: they have meaning far beyond what appears on the surface. If we simply take them at that level, we’ll be entertained. If we dig deeper, we can enrich and improve our lives.

This book is a set of twelve —I’m certain he chose the number for many reasons— “rules” for doing what he says is most important for any person: “clean your room.” By that he means set about establishing some order in the chaos that is inherent in life – oddly enough, so that you can ENJOY the chaos. Managed chaos, evidently, is the ideal point of balance for a life that is interesting, but not terrifying; exciting, but livable. (And, in his lexicon, male = order, female = chaos. Together, they are a creative force. Apart, things stall.)

The rules themselves are NOT the Ten Commandments. Or even the Twelve Commandments. They are guidelines for getting more “juice” out of your life. And while they seem simple, even simplistic, the more you consider them, the more they help smooth the snarls out of the knotted hair of everyday life.

Take Rule #1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back. (I will confess to actually taking this to heart in the simplest of ways: every so often I’ll catch myself slumping over, and I’ll take a moment and correct my posture, sit up or stand up straight – and yes, it works, if even just on a “boy my back feels better” level!) Peterson explains the straight-out
chemistry of this, using the primitive lobster as an exemplar. It turns out that “boss” lobsters, the ones who win the fight, get the girl or guy lobster, and the best, safest hiding spots, are the lobsters who have the most serotonin (the feel-good chemical depressed people often lack) and who, in circular feedback loop fashion, spread out the most, stand tallest, with claws most widely displayed. The more they do that, the more they win, the more serotonin is produced, the more likely they are to win the next time, and so on. He suggests simply stand up straight – even if you don’t “win,” you’re going to feel better.

It is within Rule #1 that he introduces us to a concept that will recur, so it’s worth noting: the Pareto distribution. Mathematician Vilfredo Pareto noted, in the late 1800s, that wealth wasn’t spread out on the famous “bell” curve, but that from time to time and place to place and economic model to economic model, wealth would clump in the hands of a very small number of people – no matter how it had originally been distributed. The same was true of things like words: 90 percent of communication occurs using just 500 words (out of many thousands). In fact, the principle is ubiquitous in the distribution of things.

Mathmetician Vilfredo Pareto

What has that got to do with Stand Up Straight? Go back to that idea of “winning,” or getting rewarded. If Pareto’s
distribution is on target, and it appears that it is, odds are most of us won’t “win” most of the goodies. There is a thing he calls the “Dominance Hierarchy,” and while you may not sit at the top of it —in fact, probably you won’t— your life can nevertheless be happier and more rewarding, so why not make it so? “To stand up straight with your shoulders back,” he writes, “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.”

Rule #2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping. I still recall a day when it dawned on me that, as an adult, I could take care of the vulnerable kid that still resides in all of us, no matter how old or accomplished we become. It was a wonderful insight – and greatly liberating, yet at the same time laughably simple. You needn’t be a
victim, even when you are a victim – bad things will happen, life is unpredictable and even “unfair.” “Chaos is where we are when we don’t know where we are, and what we are
doing when we don’t know what we’re doing. It is, in short, all those things and situations we neither know nor understand.” (Later, we learn that it’s also what makes life so INTERESTING.) Helping, of course, is the “policeman” who walks a lost child home (but who can become the intolerant bully), the orderly line in which we wait our turn (but which can turn into intolerable bureaucracy). It’s also the disorderly kindness and selfless acts of love and courage (which can become smothering refusal to let you run or jump or explore for fear that you might skin your knee). “It is far better to render beings in your care competent than to protect them.” Take just enough care of them that they survive to take care of themselves.

Each of the rules (and I won’t give them all away here) is deceptively simple. In true Petersonian fashion, he sets the rule up, begins a long and winding explanation of how and why he arrived at it, and eventually works his way back “home” with a satisfying mental “ping” that tells you, “See? This is why this is a good basic rule for life.”

I won’t lie: it’s deceptively easy reading, which is to say, written in a flowing and even vernacular manner – Peterson isn’t pedantic. But if you take the time to dwell on what he’s written, and dig into the A-B-C connections, it’s deep and clearly the product of many years clinical work with people and studying the hard science of neuro-biology. As with any set of self-help guidelines, the rules can be as easy to follow (stand up straight, literally) or as difficult (in all ways and in all parts of your life, stand up straight) as you wish. Either way, it’s an interesting read – and as long as people are going to be talking about this man for his 15 minutes (or more) of fame, what more lobster-like way to find out what all the noise is about than to read something he’s written that might actually increase your serotonin level for your pains?

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.