Book Review-12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

“Freud had a point. He was, after all, a genius. You can tell that because people still hate him.” That’s what brought me to 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I’m a part of a list where folks discuss various aspects of positive psychology. A 20-page, academically written paper was sent to the group criticizing Jordan Peterson’s work 12 Rules for Life. Ultimately, as I skimmed through the paper, I felt like it sounded like sour grapes (see the fable). Peterson had sold two million copies of the book and been on the talk show speaking circuit. It felt like the people criticizing his work were frustrated that he wasn’t clear enough in his message (he was “opaque”) or that he was seemingly contradictory. That was enough to cause me to read it. Anyone who can create enough of a stir to get someone to write and cite for 20 pages was interesting to me.

The Backstory

In order to understand the context of the book, we need to understand that it started from a Quora post. Quora is a website where people can post questions and answers. Peterson answered a question “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” with a mixture of dead serious and tongue-in-cheek answers that the readers of the site loved.

As I was pondering the 20-page paper, I began to realize that, if you read the entire list with the dead-pan seriousness of an academic, it would be very confusing. Sarcasm is very hard to pull off in writing. Often, humor is attempted, and it’s lost on the audience. If you’re literal, you’ll miss the subtlety of how the structure is nonsensical. It’s like handing a builder one of Escher’s drawings and telling them to get to work building it. It can’t be done. So, I donned my humor cap, kept my sarcasm wand handy, and dove into the 12 Rules for Life.

Put Out the Fire

The Chaos Within

The world is a messy place. It seems to define chaos, as everything that we attempt to control wiggles its way out of our control and eventually goes sideways. From Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi to the explosion of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia to more mundane bridge failures, we cannot escape the fact that there is a chaos of our world that is hard to control. However, each of these disasters – and many more – are born not of external chaos but the chaos inside the hearts and minds of the people involved with the projects. This chaos – the chaos inside – is challenging to address and all too often overlooked.

The chaos comes from the ways that our images aren’t fully integrated. The ways that we see ourselves is fragmented and disjointed. We’re afraid of many things – most of which aren’t real. Hitler killed millions for fear that the Jews would somehow overpower his Aryan race. (See The Holocaust.) One can frame the event as a power move or as Hitler’s desire to make the world a better place. I see it as fear that, if he didn’t do something, the Jewish people would take over. That was apparently only one aspect of the chaos within him.

Iconoclasts believe they can make the world better. However, often they find themselves conflicted, confused, and disjointed. They cannot see the world as it is because they cannot see themselves as they are.

Take Responsibility First

Before you can set upon the journey of enlightenment, you must carry the burden of responsibility. You are responsible for yourself. You are not defined as a victim though you may have been victimized. You are responsible for your own healing just as you’re responsible for the results you receive. We can’t move forward if we’re spending all our time looking back at others to blame them for our misfortune.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all privileged. If we can read, we’re privileged. We’re privileged both that we have the skill and also that we have the time to exercise the skill. Too many people are burdened with the needs of basic survival and have no use for such frivolities as reading. Though Socrates wasn’t a fan of writing (and therefore reading), he did believe that leisure was a time for studying. Where leisure for us may be something totally trivial and useless, to the ancient Greeks, it was an opportunity to be more learned. (See Finding Flow for more.) It was something they aspired to be.

It’s not that there aren’t going to be uncontrollable things that negatively impact us and our world. It’s that no matter what they are, we must take responsibility for our part of the situation and commit to the process of healing ourselves whether there are others there to help us or not.

Chaos Within Order

Everything in life is made in layers. Our forests are made of trees, and our trees of leaves. There are patterns everywhere if we’re willing to look. Our seasons come and go, but, ultimately, they are just a cycle. Leaves are each different, but, together on a tree, they appear orderly as a part of the tree. So, too do trees seem orderly when viewed from the context of a forest.

Order or chaos often is a result of our perception – not an objective reality. David Bohm in On Dialogue explains that an acorn is not an oak tree. It’s the aperture through which an oak tree emerges. Chaos emerges from order – and order from chaos. We perceive only a small slice of what reality really is – one example is that we only perceive a moment in time.

Fear and the Lack of It

If we can delude ourselves into believing in order and our ability to control, then we can believe in our capacity to shelter our children from the realities of life. (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion – or delusion – of control.) The problem with this delusion is that, when something happens outside our control, we’re ill prepared for it. While the high anxiety of low income and the instability of it isn’t good for us, neither is feeling too safe and too orderly. We can’t learn to cope with the real evils of life if we’re unwilling to confront the reality that we live in.

Those who live without any fear in their life are bound to find a time when fear asserts itself. Without any skills for coping with fear, it can crush the uninitiated. Chicks that are “helped” out of their shell are likely to die, because they didn’t learn to struggle. (See The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children.) So, too. can children die a psychological death if they’re helped to avoid real conflict and fighting and are suddenly thrust into a frightening situation. It turns out that the absolute absence of fear isn’t good for us. So, parents, would you prefer to make your child safe – or strong?

Strong Partnership

When we move from our childhood relationships and the reverse when we’re parents ourselves and instead focus on the relationships of peers, we’re confronted with the realization that partnerships work best when both parties are strong. A team of oxen will pull at twice the effort of the weaker ox. Yoked together, the stronger must stay in lockstep with the weaker, and therefore can’t take on more load than the weaker ox.

Our relationships are like that. We can’t carry the other person in a relationship of peers. We’ve got to find ways to be strong together.

Faulty Tools

Standing at the firing line trying to hit a target 20 feet down range, it seems like there’s no way to hit the bullseye. All the bullets are going in low and right of the target. Even fully supported on a gun rest, the shots are going low and right. No matter how still the gun is or how many attempts are made with the sights pointed right at the bullseye, the problem persists. Faulty tools will result in a faulty outcome. In this case, the sights can be adjusted to bring the bullets closer to the bullseye, but that’s not always the case.

Sometimes, when we’re looking to improve ourselves and our situation, we use the wrong tool – like trying to use a hammer to drive in a screw. Using the wrong tool won’t give us the right results. If you’ve been around tools for long enough, you’re bound to break one or two. Whether it’s a wrench that splits in half in your hand or a carabiner that snaps while you’re pulling a stump, faulty (or improperly used) tools fail to deliver the results. Once you’ve failed with the faulty tool, you’ll have to find one that works.

Delinquency Spreads

It seems to make sense on the surface. Bring in ex-convicts, who know what it’s like to get convicted of a drug-related crime, to talk to students about the horrors of drugs and how they can mess up your life. The result should be that the students should want to avoid drugs, right? Drug Avoidance and Resistance Education (DARE) thought so. However, the results said differently. In many cases, DARE students turned out to be more likely to use drugs. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.) So much for the idea of scaring kids straight.

Delinquency tends to spread more than stability. If you don’t believe me just ask the Kelloggs, who found that their adopted chimpanzee was teaching their son to bite the walls. Delinquency even spreads across species (see The Nurture Assumption for more).

Children Are Damaged

They’re damaged when the people who are supposed to care for them are unable to correct them for fear of alienating their friendship. Instead of being focused primarily on their responsibility to instruct, guide, and raise up, some parents seek a friend in their children.

Peterson continues beyond just saying that children are damaged by this parental failure. He says that discipline is a responsibility. It is not anger nor revenge, it’s a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgement. Failure to hold children accountable dooms them to having to learn important lessons of responsibility and consequences later in life, when they will be much more costly. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more on this.)

The Growth of Resentment

Mass shootings are a tragedy. Any shooting is a tragedy, but mass shootings seem to have a sense of pointlessness to them. By June of 2016, there had been over one thousand mass shootings in the United States. It’s far more than just Columbine. How these events happen isn’t a mystery. They happen as resentment grows until hatred spreads to everyone instead of just the people who have “wronged” the attacker.

Just as the Dalai Lama recommends exercises to bring about more compassion (see My Spiritual Journey and Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism), so, too, do the attackers replay their perceived victimization and rehearse their feelings of resentment until those thoughts expand beyond the anger with few people and encompass all of humanity.

Bargaining with the Future

Mischel did a simple test of delayed gratification with preschoolers. A single marshmallow now, or two in a few minutes. His simple test had ripples down the lives of the preschoolers. Those who could delay gratification ended up more successful in life. (See The Marshmallow Test for more.) Peterson agrees that the successful among us bargain with the future. That is, we’re willing to make sacrifices today for rewards tomorrow.

This can’t happen until the environment comes stable enough that the investments we make for the future can pay off. In a world filled with uncertainty and chaos, there’s no point in investing in the future, because there may not be one. Stress is evolution’s ultimate solution to the problem of short-term needs and making debts into the future. Stress allows us to consume more resources quickly to avoid the lion but at the expense of our immune system, digestive system, and others. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)


Veterans sometimes come home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Peterson explains that most PTSD comes not from what was veterans saw but instead from what they did. The break, it seems, doesn’t come from the stress outside of the veteran but instead from the lack of self-trust that comes from realizing they did something that they now find morally reprehensible. Certainly, this isn’t what happens in every case, but it seems to be happening in some.

How can you trust that you’ll do the right thing if you find that your best thinking led you to doing something that you now deeply regret? There may be an answer in Milgram’s work. He showed that most people would issue what they believed to be potentially lethal electrical shocks with very little manipulation. Perhaps when they’re able to see that they’re not alone in their capacity to do evil things, they’ll realize that they should accept they’re not perfect. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and The Lucifer Effect for more on Milgram’s work and How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Willful Blindness

Sometimes we don’t want to see. Sometimes seeing is uncomfortable and disconcerting. It disrupts our view of the world and in doing so makes us question everything – or at least many things. Rather than moving forward into the darkness, we turn back into the safety of what we know or what we believe we know. The problem is that this willful blindness distorts our perception of reality, and it dooms us to be held in a prison of our own making.

The early Christian church believed that everything revolved around humans. God created the heavens and the Earth, and his crowning achievement was mankind. It goes to reason, then, that we were placed in the center of the universe, and everything else orbited around us. Galileo was shamed, imprisoned, and punished for what we know now is the truth, that the Earth orbits the Sun – not the other way around. The beliefs of the church made them willfully blind to the reality of the observations that were being made. In contrast, the Buddha said that we must accept fact. If our belief contradicts facts and observations, then our beliefs must change, not the facts.

The prison happens when we refuse to go past the edge of the light of what we already know. If we refuse to explore into the darkness for fear that we might learn something that will change our beliefs, we’re necessarily trapped with a more incomplete view of the universe. Only with willingness to go forth in courage and learn can we begin to apprehend the universe. Nietzsche said that a man’s worth was determined by how much truth he could tolerate – and that means letting go of willful blindness.

The Past is Alive

Have you ever been reminiscing with old friends or your family and come across an event that you remember one way and they remember another? Maybe it’s what car you were in. It could be that you thought you were at the lake instead of stuck at home. It could be the people who were there at the event. Whatever the discrepancy, have you been surprised to find out that your perception was wrong? Maybe there’s photographic evidence. Maybe there’s a record of what happened. But in a moment, you realize that your perception of the past isn’t objective reality.

Our memories are not, unfortunately, dispassionate observers recording all the details like a video camera. Our memories are reconstructed and ephemeral. They don’t really exist for more than the moment. Each time we access a memory, we either impart new emotional residue to it or we take some away. Because of this, the past isn’t a fixed point that we can reference in our journey through life. Our past is a drifting dreamland, where what seems solid reveals itself to be nothing but smoke.

It’s not just our past and memories that change. What we know and what we knew are changing. Ancient cities are discovered that were thought to be made only of story and legend instead of clay and stone. The victors write the history books, and they can write them from their slanted point of view – whether that accurately conveys the real situation or not. Our views in the present about the evils of racism, slavery, nuclear power, and greenhouse gases influence our perception of the past.

Many elderly people look upon their youth with fondness and yearn for simpler times when things were better. Rewind the clock 100 years, and you increase suffering, death, and struggle. However, somehow, these objective realities are no match for the way that the person perceives the past. They can hold onto the best parts of the past – and maintain the best parts of today. The problem with this is that it can’t possibly be that we’d have advanced medicine of today back then and the simple, less-hectic life. You can’t have one without the other.

Risk Optimization

Have you ever done something just to feel alive? Did you take a measured risk because you were tired of the relative safety of your life? Maybe it would help if I provided some ways that people seek the appearance of danger. Maybe you got on a roller coaster at your favorite amusement park. Intellectually, you know it’s safe, but your vestibular system is screaming to the rest of your brain that this isn’t normal and therefore can’t be safe.

What about that corner that you rounded at twice the recommended speed just to see what would happen? Or the fight you picked with the bully at school, because you knew the teachers were standing close by?

The fact of the matter is we don’t seek to eliminate risk. Many would say that we cannot eliminate risk, that it’s a fool’s errand. (See The Black Swan for more about risk.) If we can’t eliminate it, we must seek to optimize it. We seek enough risk to motivate us – and not so much that we find ourselves overwhelmed by its presence. As we look at our life, we must realize that we’re not looking to totally eliminate risk, we’re looking to optimize the amount of risk we take into a comfortable range. (See Who Am I? for more about the motivator of savings – which is how we mitigate risk.)

Oedipal Mother

Peter Pan is an idealistic character, whose story of never growing up has enchanted many. However, the story behind the story is tragic. James Barrie’s story starts when he was six, and his mother’s favorite son, his brother, David, dies in a skating accident at thirteen. James becomes his mother’s confidant and supporter, entangling his view of himself with his mother’s views. His mother’s mental illness trapped David at the age of thirteen while James aged. Ultimately, this caused James to desire to remain at thirteen as well and gave rise to the story of Peter Pan. (See The Globalization of Addiction for more on this story.)

This is but one tragedy of many where a parent refuses to allow their children to grow up. They believe they live only for their child, and therefore their child’s appropriate attempts to distance themselves threatens the very existence of the parent. The bargain that is made is that the parent will do anything for the child, and, in return, the child will never leave the parent. The result is that nothing is ever the child’s fault. Everything wrong is because someone other than the child made a mistake. It’s a very dangerous bargain.

It’s at the heart of why I wrote The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable. I didn’t want to see more children damaged by unhealthy relationships with their parent, which choke the children like an emotional boa constrictor.


Philosophers have debated the meaning of life for millennia. There is no found or agreed upon answer to the grand question. However, finding the meaning of our lives is an important part of learning to cope with the challenging nature of life. It’s how Simon Sinek explains to motivate people in Start with Why. Peterson explains that a person who has a “why” can endure any “how.” Why we’re doing things at a global level, at a work level, and at a personal level makes all the difference to our willingness to persist when things get difficult. (See Grit for more on persistence.)

Perhaps if you’ll find your “why,” your meaning, in 12 Rules for Life.

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