12 RULES FOR LIFE
Rules? More rules? Really? Isn’t life complicated enough, restricting enough,
without abstract rules that don’t take our unique, individual situations into
account? And given that our brains are plastic, and all develop differently based
on our life experiences, why even expect that a few rules might be helpful to us
People don’t clamour for rules, even in the Bible … as when Moses comes
down the mountain, after a long absence, bearing the tablets inscribed with ten
commandments, and finds the Children of Israel in revelry. They’d been
Pharaoh’s slaves and subject to his tyrannical regulations for four hundred years,
and after that Moses subjected them to the harsh desert wilderness for another
forty years, to purify them of their slavishness. Now, free at last, they are
unbridled, and have lost all control as they dance wildly around an idol, a golden
calf, displaying all manner of corporeal corruption.
“I’ve got some good news … and I’ve got some bad news,” the lawgiver yells
to them. “Which do you want first?”
“The good news!” the hedonists reply.
“I got Him from fifteen commandments down to ten!”
“Hallelujah!” cries the unruly crowd. “And the bad?”
“Adultery is still in.”
So rules there will be—but, please, not too many. We are ambivalent about
rules, even when we know they are good for us. If we are spirited souls, if we
have character, rules seem restrictive, an affront to our sense of agency and our
pride in working out our own lives. Why should we be judged according to
And judged we are. After all, God didn’t give Moses “The Ten Suggestions,”
he gave Commandments; and if I’m a free agent, my first reaction to a command
might just be that nobody, not even God, tells me what to do, even if it’s good
for me. But the story of the golden calf also reminds us that without rules we
quickly become slaves to our passions—and there’s nothing freeing about that.
And the story suggests something more: unchaperoned, and left to our own
untutored judgment, we are quick to aim low and worship qualities that are
beneath us—in this case, an artificial animal that brings out our own animal
instincts in a completely unregulated way. The old Hebrew story makes it clear
how the ancients felt about our prospects for civilized behaviour in the absence
of rules that seek to elevate our gaze and raise our standards.
One neat thing about the Bible story is that it doesn’t simply list its rules, as
lawyers or legislators or administrators might; it embeds them in a dramatic tale
that illustrates why we need them, thereby making them easier to understand.
Similarly, in this book Professor Peterson doesn’t just propose his twelve rules,
he tells stories, too, bringing to bear his knowledge of many fields as he
illustrates and explains why the best rules do not ultimately restrict us but
instead facilitate our goals and make for fuller, freer lives.
The first time I met Jordan Peterson was on September 12, 2004, at the home of
two mutual friends, TV producer Wodek Szemberg and medical internist Estera
Bekier. It was Wodek’s birthday party. Wodek and Estera are Polish émigrés who
grew up within the Soviet empire, where it was understood that many topics
were off limits, and that casually questioning certain social arrangements and
philosophical ideas (not to mention the regime itself) could mean big trouble.
But now, host and hostess luxuriated in easygoing, honest talk, by having
elegant parties devoted to the pleasure of saying what you really thought and
hearing others do the same, in an uninhibited give-and-take. Here, the rule was
“Speak your mind.” If the conversation turned to politics, people of different
political persuasions spoke to each other—indeed, looked forward to it—in a
manner that is increasingly rare. Sometimes Wodek’s own opinions, or truths,
exploded out of him, as did his laugh. Then he’d hug whoever had made him
laugh or provoked him to speak his mind with greater intensity than even he
might have intended. This was the best part of the parties, and this frankness,
and his warm embraces, made it worth provoking him. Meanwhile, Estera’s
voice lilted across the room on a very precise path towards its intended listener.
Truth explosions didn’t make the atmosphere any less easygoing for the
company—they made for more truth explosions!—liberating us, and more
laughs, and making the whole evening more pleasant, because with de-
repressing Eastern Europeans like the Szemberg-Bekiers, you always knew with
what and with whom you were dealing, and that frankness was enlivening.
Honoré de Balzac, the novelist, once described the balls and parties in his native
France, observing that what appeared to be a single party was always really two.
In the first hours, the gathering was suffused with bored people posing and
posturing, and attendees who came to meet perhaps one special person who
would confirm them in their beauty and status. Then, only in the very late hours,