I took about a month to finish Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link), in part because I wanted to slow down and try some of the advice in my life.
12 Rules for Life is an interesting book. Equal parts philosophy, psychology, and self-help book, it covers a broad range of topics, with Peterson drawing from life experiences, religion, and history to build a strong case for his points and provide what seems on its surface to be very good advice for people.
This is where Peterson’s background as a clinical psychologist comes in handy. 12 Rules for Life is billed as an “antidote to chaos”, and that is what its primary focus is. It’s not great at helping you be more successful if you’re disciplined and self-reliant already. As someone who always struggled with grasping the world, however, I found it very helpful.
Since I started reading this book, I lost 12 pounds, went from writing five hundred words a day to three thousand words a day, started waking up earlier in the morning consistently, and have been much happier.
Some of that is attributable to the fact that I was already willing to make changes, and many of the things I was doing were obviously bad ideas.
But there is something to be said for the lessons Peterson teaches. They are complicated, sometimes a little indirect, and mired in allegory. This makes them more valuable, if anything. Peterson doesn’t use a magic formula, he uses principles of right action. This book provides general ideas and positions that can serve as a great tool to understanding how people think and why things go wrong.
Not everyone will agree with it. There is a chapter in the book where Peterson reflects on the fact that he has opportunities with clients where he could tell them one thing or another and their minds would make it to be total truth either way.
Perhaps that is what Peterson has done here: perhaps most systems like this are sufficient to improve lives if brought diligently into practice.
Or perhaps there is something to Peterson’s words. His indictment of meaninglessness and his calls to purpose echo soundly throughout the book. There have been those who say that Peterson’s calls for people to get themselves organized and his oft-mystical language is a cover for something sinister.
But I don’t think they’ve ever really listened to him.
Approaching Peterson a skeptic, I was not sure that reading a book would have the power to change anything in my life. The first few chapters were met with nods, hesitancy, and the concession of points that sounded good. I wasn’t hostile to him, and I found many of his points quite clever.
But when Peterson delved deeper into the archetypes and depth psychology I became suspicious. I had a moderate distrust of the Jungian method; I use it to teach literature, but I did not believe in using archetypes to assess personality.
Peterson’s point is that we are all part of something great and interconnected. Because it is so massive, we need to be working to make sense of it. It won’t happen automatically, and if we go for an easy explanation we may find ourselves walking dark, treacherous paths of misanthropy and rejection.
We are complicated pieces in an even more complicated puzzle. Peterson’s approach is one of self improvement. When we take steps to sort ourselves out, we also need to enter a symbiotic process of bringing order to our world.
The purpose of this is not to achieve some sort of superiority. It is to achieve survival. The world will change, and we will be forced to adapt.
Peterson states that “life is tragic.” His point is that people need to be ready to deal with adversity. Anyone can handle good times, because that’s what we are able to rest and relax during. The true test of a person comes when they lose a loved one or a job or their health. They need to make a decision: what will they do in response.
Peterson uses haunting examples to illustrate what happens when this goes wrong. Using everything from Dostoevsky to the Soviet Union (and countless other insights from modern and historical figures), he creates case studies of what happens when things go wrong and people turn to dysfunction rather than improving their situation.
His 12 Rules serve as a guide on how to go from that point of failure to a point of redemption, offering a series of suggestions and guidelines to take a life that is becoming corrupted by hatred of the world and everything in it and turn it into a vessel for growth and self-improvement.
Is it a perfect guide to living life? No.
Is it helpful? Does it give insight to great truths? Yes.