The 12 Rules for Life and the Evolution Gap

Jul 9, 2023

In 2018, Canadian Psychologist and Professor Jordan Peterson captivated readers worldwide with his book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” Offering a blend of psychological insight, cultural commentary, and personal anecdote, Peterson’s 12 rules serve as a guide to navigating the complexities of life. In this series, I have examined each of the 12 rules through the lens of The Evolution Gap – a chasm I propose that has opened up between our very slow pace of genetic evolution and our accelerating capacity for innovation.

To look at each of the rules from this perspective, let’s first explore each rule in a bit more detail:

Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back – Peterson begins with a rule drawn from the animal kingdom, particularly lobsters. The rule signifies the importance of presenting oneself confidently, which influences how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. The premise is that displaying physical confidence has psychological benefits, promoting self-esteem and positivity. Peterson uses the example of lobsters to illustrate how hierarchy and status exist in nature, and how standing tall can elevate an individual’s status and impact their success.

Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping – Peterson notes a paradox in human behavior: we often take better care of those we’re responsible for than ourselves. Drawing on biblical stories and his own clinical experience, Peterson suggests that humans may struggle with a sense of unworthiness. He insists on the importance of self-care and self-respect, advocating for individuals to treat themselves with the same kindness and responsibility as they would treat others.

Make Friends With People Who Want The Best For You – Peterson argues that individuals should surround themselves with positive, supportive people who genuinely wish for their success. Drawing from his own experience growing up in a small town in Canada, he shares narratives of friends who made life-altering choices that impacted everyone around them. This rule is about constructing a network that challenges you to be better rather than one that holds you back.

Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today – Peterson addresses the negative impacts of comparing ourselves to others, a behavior amplified by today’s social media culture. He stresses the importance of personal growth and self-improvement, suggesting that we should be our own benchmarks. Peterson cites the story of Cain and Abel to illustrate the destructive effects of jealousy and resentment.

Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them – This rule delves into parenting. Peterson believes parents should set clear rules and expectations to prevent their children from developing unfavorable behaviors. He argues that balancing discipline and freedom helps children become responsible, likable adults. Using examples from his parenting experiences, Peterson contends that this approach nurtures a positive, respectful parent-child relationship.

Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World – Peterson encourages individuals to take personal responsibility and fix their own problems before attempting to solve broader societal issues. This rule focuses on the importance of setting your life straight – metaphorically and literally – before casting stones at the world’s chaos. He refers to the biblical story of the adulteress where Jesus says, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient) – Peterson suggests that we often choose what is convenient or immediately rewarding rather than what is genuinely meaningful and valuable in the long term. He recommends embracing responsibility and seeking long-term fulfillment, drawing heavily from the biblical narratives of Adam and Eve and the story of Christ’s temptation.

Tell the Truth—or, at least, Don’t Lie – Peterson emphasizes the power of truth-telling and the corrosive effect of lies. He argues that lies warp our perception of reality and lead to a life that’s out of sync with the world. Using examples from his clinical practice, Peterson demonstrates how deceit can have far-reaching consequences.

Assume That the Person You Are Listening To Might Know Something You Don’t – This rule encourages active listening and open-mindedness. Peterson argues that to have productive and enlightening conversations, we need to assume that we can learn something from everyone we meet. He uses the story of the Soviet prison-camp guard from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to demonstrate this principle.

Be Precise in Your Speech – Peterson advocates for the importance of clear, precise communication. He asserts that vague language leads to misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict, and it can obscure the reality of situations. He cites the story of a couple’s dispute over a poorly defined issue as an example of this rule.

Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding – Peterson defends the need for adventurous play and risk-taking in child development, arguing that overcoming obstacles and dangers is essential for growth. Using the example of boys skateboarding, Peterson argues against overprotectiveness, which can hinder children’s exploration and learning.

Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street – In his final rule, Peterson advocates for the appreciation of life’s simple joys amidst hardship and suffering. He shares personal anecdotes about his daughter’s struggle with a chronic illness and the moments of joy they found in their encounters with a neighborhood cat.

In this 12-part essay series, we will delve deeper into each of these rules and look at them through the lens of my forthcoming book, The Evolution Gap – A Survival Handbook for Modern Civilization.

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