Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life

Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t

If you make happiness the meaning of life, every time you’re not happy, you’ll feel like a failure.

If, however, you do what’s meaningful in every situation, even failure will have a purpose. Failing will still be painful, but your perspective will never feel “empty,” and you’ll always have reason to look forward to the future.

This is one of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, and, like all of them, it’s common sense that somehow still stabs you right in the heart. We’re great at ignoring common sense until someone hits us over the head with it. This is what Peterson does in his book, which many criticize for being too verbose.

“He could’ve said that in a few paragraphs!” Well, he did. The book is based on a viral Quora answer Peterson wrote. But a post on a website does not hold the same power as a book full of stories. It’s true: Most self-help books are too long. But through their packaging, they can do a better job of spreading and delivering a message than any blog post ever can.

Like his book, Peterson is a controversial figure. I’m not here to discuss his politics, his logic, or his views on our culture. I’m here to learn. I only have “a few paragraphs,” but this is how I interpret his 12 lessons.


1. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.”

If you face a bad day with a good attitude, it can still be a meaningful one. Posture holds power. While you can overdo the “fake it till you make it” of how you carry yourself, making an effort to not collapse in the face of adversity — both mentally and onto the couch — is empowering.

You control whether you walk straight or slouch, whether you smile or look grumpy, whether you focus on what went wrong or what needs to be done. Reminding ourselves of this control when times are tough can dramatically transform our experience of how tough times actually are.

Show up, stand straight, smile. Conquer your attitude, conquer the day.

2. “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”

The only perspective we have on life is our own, and since we have to look at everything that’s in it, it’s easy to miss things. Our friends, however, see only small parts of us — but those parts they can see clearly.

It’s easy to see a relationship isn’t working when it’s not yours. When it’s your friend making the career choice, the answer seems obvious.

Ask yourself: “What would my friends tell me to do?” What would a neutral observer see and say? If you can look into the mirror and tell your reflection the tough truth they need to hear, you’ve finally learned to act in your own best interest.

3. “Make friends with people who want the best for you.”

If your friends are more worried about losing you than loving you, they’ll keep you around at your own expense. True friends won’t hold leaving against you.

True friends connect with you because you believe in the same things. Honesty, curiosity, humility, whatever they are, upholding those beliefs will often mean putting your interests above their own — and that’s what true friends do. You deserve true friends.

4. “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”

A woman who earns $500,000 per year will feel great in a neighborhood where everyone else makes $250,000, but she will be miserable in Dubai.

Worse, nowadays, the Dubai neighborhood will come right to her. All she has to do is open Instagram. But whether she feels better or worse, she’s deriving status from comparison, and that status affects her emotions.

Don’t let status affect your emotions. Whether you feel smug about doing better than others or ashamed about doing worse, those are both negative sources of energy. “Comparison is the death of joy,” Mark Twain said — but it’s also the birth of misery.

If you must compare, look at yesterday’s photographs of yourself. Look at how far you’ve come, what you can be proud of, and remember what you’ve learned along the way. But whenever you can, don’t compare at all.

5. “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.”

When your son punches a fellow student, it’s not his behavior that makes you angry. It’s the failure as a parent that stings. “What example did I set that he wanted to punch him in the first place?” That’s an ugly question to answer.

If you don’t want to bail your kids, your partner, your friends out of trouble, teach them how to become the kind of person that does not get into it. Be aware of the example you set every day.

Defend moral lines if you must, but as long as you can, assemble those around you on the same side of those lines by showing them what taking a stand actually looks like.

6. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”

We have a saying in Germany: “If everyone sweeps in front of their own doorstep, the streets will be clean.” It’s true. Unlike our streets, however, our personalities will always offer more reasons to keep sweeping.

You’re never done becoming, and there’ll always be things left to improve. Every morning, pick one of those things to work on. Focus on that.

Look inside, fight your own demons, and by 4 PM, you’ll find yourself smiling at your neighbor rather than shouting at them — because one hard battle every day is enough.

7. “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).”

When Voldemort returns in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore eventually tells Harry: “Soon, we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

You and I aren’t fighting dark magic, but every day, we choose between what is right and what is easy. You can cut someone off in traffic. You can sell a supplement you don’t believe in. There are plenty of opportunities to take convenient but immoral roads.

Or, you can do things the hard way — and make your life easier. Not because you’re carrying a light load, but because you strengthen your back every time you shoulder it, all while alleviating your conscience.

8. “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.”

It’s not hard to communicate clearly. It’s hard to summon the courage to keep doing it. Nodding along to a lie is easy, but maintaining the lie once it’s erected is not. See how the chain of effort is reversed?

Lying works today but gets harder with every tomorrow. The truth may feel uncomfortable now, but every day that it’s out will make your life a little lighter.

A building made of lies is a fragile construct. One tiny mistake, and the whole thing comes tumbling down. The truth is a solid foundation. It only grows inch by inch, but it’ll never crumble beneath your feet.

9. “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”

I’m not sure why Peterson is assuming. It’s a fact: Every person you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t.

No one better captured what to do about this than the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.”

10. “Be precise in your speech.”

There’s that famous scene in The Notebook where Ryan Gosling asks Rachel McAdams, over and over again: “What do you want?”

This is a tough question. Humans are complex creatures. But we appreciate whoever makes an honest effort to give us a straight-up answer.

This goes beyond your relationships. Your own words to yourself should also be clear. “I want to be rich” is a dream. “I want to own a house on the beach in ten years” is a plan.

Words matter. Think hard about the right words.

11. “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.”

When I was a kid, me and my friends used to race down a long hill with our scooters. One time, we skidded on wet foliage and fell. We got up, walked for a bit, and then we got back on our scooters.

Failure is an essential part of life. If children don’t have room to experience it on their own, they’ll be ill-equipped to handle it later when it really matters.

Why do 22-year-olds cry when they get rejected from McKinsey? Because their parents didn’t allow them to fall off their skateboard.

Life is not safe — or at least, always playing it safe will not lead to a good life. We can’t childproof our world, so how about we just let them be a part of it?

12. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”

If something makes you smile, take a second to remember it. Let the moment linger. Don’t rush past it so you can shuffle more papers.

Small moments are what life is made of. At the end of it all, these moments are what we’ll remember.

Maybe, you’re more of a dog person. That’s okay. You can also pet those. You can get ice cream if they have your favorite flavor. You can say “Thanks” to the sun for shining today.

However you choose to show it, don’t let moments pass by without noticing them. Moments are all we have.


If we only read books to extract knowledge, we can’t learn the most important lessons they have to teach us. Often, it’s a connection with the story at the most random point that shows us what we really need to see.

Maybe, we’ll relate to the author in how they made a decision, can spot a relative in an example, or realize we’re on a path we don’t want to pursue until the end.

Closing a book shouldn’t leave you feeling smug or being impressed. It should feel like getting up from a campfire, thanking a friend for their story, and then being on your way. Whether it’s Peterson’s or any other, the flames of those fires will guide you for years to come.

-Nik

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