He’s the darling of Ted Talks and the academic with cred. Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto professor and cultural philosopher, has condensed his immense learning about life into twelve maxims in his 2018 Random House book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. If you’d like to skip all of the theory, research, and case studies, I have further condensed his twelve chapters into twelve admonitions with definitions. At the end, I have added four of my own.
- Stand tall. Be homo erectus, not homo slumpus. With head up, shoulders back, and chest out, you get more oxygen to your brain with accompanying improvement in mood and effectiveness.
- Reverse golden rule. Do unto yourself what you do in caring for others. Research shows that we tend to be more diligent in nurturing others—take your medicine, do your homework, eat your greens, and so forth—than we are in nurturing ourselves.
- Prefer supportive friends. Don’t spend time with people who constrain your attainment of goals and performance of roles.
- Self as yardstick. Don’t compare yourself to others—rather, upon mastery of something, set higher performance goals for yourself. Resting on your laurels risks boredom. And, long term, dementia.
- Establish discipline. Be a parent with those for whom you are responsible. Have rules (but not too many) and consequences (that are more helpful than harmful).
- Be a positive force. Corollary of #2—look at yourself and fix before blaming others. Be a force, a model, for beauty, truth, and goodness. Clean up your act—change yourself rather than cursing fate.
- Prefer process. Don’t go for short-term rewards—delay gratification. It is the search that will make you free, not the destination.
- Tell the truth. Be open to new evidence—truth is a process. In the spirit of continual improvement, we will never know it all. Only lie, as Swedish-American philosopher Sissela Bok stipulates in Lying, when stakeholders in your decision to lie would approve, as in Miep Gies lying to Nazis about the Frank family hidden in her home.
- Listen. Corollary of #7 and #8. Assume everyone knows something you don’t. Asking open-ended questions is a form of listening. As James Redfield suggests in The Celestine Prophecy—there are no coincidences, only opportunities for learning. I recall striking up a conversation with a stranger in Queenstown, New Zealand, while awaiting a bus to the fjords. Turns out she was the barber of the son of my mother’s best friend—an apple grower in West Virginia. She gave me his name and number, and I called him, age 90, upon my return to Charlotte. No coincidences?!
- Strive for accuracy. Corollary of #8. The goal of critical thinking is to describe the world as accurately as possible. Why? So that our plans, decisions, and problem-solving may be based on the best possible information. Say what you mean while striving for accuracy in your speech and writing.
- Let strivers strive. Celebrate risk-taking and unrelenting pursuit of goals and competencies—don’t make them play it safe. This goes for family, friends, and co-workers.
- Illegitimi non carborundum. Corollary of #9. In the midst of bleakness, despair, failure, and hard times, grab what good stuff is available—Peterson calls it “Pet a cat when you see it on the street”—or, stop and smell the magnolias, hold a baby, enjoy a joke, savor a chocolate…
Based on my own research as presented in The Owner’s Manual for Happiness (2013), I would add three more guidelines for keeping engaged in life.
- Say no. Corollary of #4. Know-it-alls are tiresome. William James encourages us to focus on fewer areas of expertise rather than more. I remembered this injunction when leaving Singapore’s National Orchid Garden. The gift shop had an enticing starter kit for orchiding. I was so close to buying it, until I realized the other things in my life that would have to move aside were I to spend time on orchids. That made it easier to say “No.”
- Play to your strengths. Set goals based on your salient personality traits, mental abilities, values, experiences, and physical strengths—not on your weaknesses. For example, I set goals based on my high value for Learning, not on my low value for Power—I would write another book, rather than run for political office.
- Take inventory periodically. Corollary of #14. Are you leaving out a strength you’d like to express? You may need to de-emphasize or discontinue a strength so to do. If I want more time to read, I may need to spend less time trying to learn calculus. If I want to have more money for books, I may need to spend less on eating out.
- Be of service to others. Regardless of our temperament, it feels good to act unselfishly on others’ behalf, whether raking an elderly neighbor’s leaves or serving as a teacher’s aide in a school.