It’s hard to wrap my head around the phenomenon that is Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology who has taken disaffected, mostly-white, mostly-male individuals by storm with his pseuo-intellectual psychobabble.
I’ve resisted writing about Peterson because I know how passionately his fans defend him. But after getting through the challenge that is his best-selling book, 12 Rules for Life, I just can’t help myself. Be warned, this is a lengthy review.
In my role overseeing one of the world’s largest repositories of psychology and mental health information here at Psych Central, I’ve come across an inordinate number of self-help books. We receive about a dozen psychological self-help books every week to review, many by well-credentialed and experienced psychologists and other experts in their field. I’ve read more than a hundred myself, so I am well-read when it comes to self-help.1
I read 12 Rules for Life with an open mind. I really wanted to like Peterson and believed him capable of writing a good self-help book. He seems like a person I could learn something from, and we hold similar beliefs in some areas.
But this is not a typical Psych Central book review. Rather, I took notes as I read each chapter because there were so many things the author said that were difficult to understand and fit into the overall chapter’s context. In short, I was looking forward to reading the book and writing a positive review. What I came away with instead were feelings of frustration and being cheated.
Peterson’s book is not like most other self-help books, that much is certain. It was not an easy or quick read and seems idiosyncratic and non-traditional. But perhaps Peterson’s approach is intentional, in keeping with his persona — a man who eludes labels as deftly as he eludes making a concise and definitive statement in the hundreds of lectures and interviews of him on YouTube.
That said, most of the advice contained in Peterson’s book is largely self-evident and harmless. Living your life by these 12 rules will likely help parts of your life.
The problem isn’t with the basic advice, cribbed from the hundreds of thousands of self-help books that have come before this one. The problem is with the underlying simplistic arguments and rationales for following this advice, which often rely on Bible-based dogma or shallow takeaways from Jung and philosophers.
This is a model for Peterson’s philosophy in a nutshell — conservative Judeo-Christian values wrapped in a tightly-wound outlook that puts order above all else. Much like a political candidate running for office, he’s the equivalent of a “law and order” philosopher.
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
The book begins with examples of lobsters and ants, personifying their behavior to draw parallels and justification for human social hierarchies, including the idea that capitalism some sort of pre-ordained “natural” order.
Folks who want to justify a certain type of human behavior have often turned to the animal kingdom for validation. Hitler, for example, readily compared Jews to vermin to justify his extermination of them during WWII. More benevolently, psychologist BF Skinner believed we could learn a lot about human behavior by studying the behavior of rats in laboratory experiments. While he did learn a lot about rat behavior, very few of his findings could be generalized to humans; most that could seemed to apply only to children, not adults.
However, animals are not humans, and animal orders or systems don’t really prove much of anything about human behavior. We didn’t evolve from lobsters or ants, so looking at what a different species does in its own habitat for survival and procreation tells us virtually nothing about our own complex evolution. It is a fundamentally flawed comparison.
Since Peterson is not a biologist, perhaps his logical fallacies are not surprising. But it does get the book off to a shaky start. Virtually nobody should use anthropomorphism and appeals to nature to categorize human psychology or behavior. Humans are more complex than that. The richness and diversity of human history reflect that complexity.
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
Peterson’s book is what we here would solidly classify as a Christian self-help book, because in virtually every chapter, the author relies heavily on the Bible for support of his arguments. If you don’t believe in a Christian God, you’re going to have a hard time swallowing some of his reasoning.
For instance, Chapter 2’s title, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping,” is good advice psychologists tell their clients all the time in psychotherapy sessions. But once you get through a bunch of exposition, you get to the heart of his argument:
As God himself claims (so goes the story), “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” According to this philosophy, you do not simply belong to yourself. You are not simply your own possession to torture and mistreat. […]
We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. […]
Heaven, after all, will not arrive on its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.
So “just do it” because “you are important” and because God commands you to? Simplistic advice like this may appeal to some folks, but for most, it feels paternalistic and preaching with little rational foundation.
Of course every individual is important — that is self-evident. But how do you fight back against self-defeating thoughts that tell us otherwise? Faith is fine if you believe in a religion, but increasingly fewer and fewer people do. So falling back on, “Well, you’re important because God says you are” is a circular argument that may work, but only if you believe in God.
His advice does little for the 23 percent of Americans who don’t affiliate with a religion and the nearly 10 percent of Americans who are agnostic or atheists (which is the fastest growing segment of the population).
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you
Chapter 3’s title may be good advice, but the chapter is mostly filled with a lengthy exposition of the author’s teenage life growing up in a rural area, biblical references, and examples of bad friends. It chides the reader into making good choices when picking friends — stay away from the ones who take up all our time and energy with their needs and drama.
We all want friends who support us rather than tear us down. But this is easier said than done. This chapter doesn’t touch on how difficult it is to make friends as an adult, much less how hard it is to be picky about the friends you do find. It doesn’t talk at all about how social media is impacting (mostly for worse) our modern friendships, nor does it discuss strategies and techniques for gracefully ending a friendship that’s no longer working for you.
In short, it utterly fails as a self-help chapter.
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
This is one of Peterson’s more coherent chapters, beginning with some good arguments about comparison and the fact that success and failure are not the only outcomes. In fact, if Peterson would only apply his words to his beliefs on chaos and order, he’d find some valuable insight:
You are either a success, a comprehensive, over-all good thing, or its opposite, a failure, a comprehensive, singular, irredeemably bad thing. The words imply no alternative and no middle ground. However, in a world as complex as ours, such generalizations (really, such failure to differentiate) are a sign of naive, unsophisticated or even malevolent analysis. There are vital degrees and gradations of value obliterated by this binary system [ed. – in fact, by ANY binary or tertiary system], and the consequences are not good.
In this chapter, Peterson finally begins to talk about the importance of self-talk and how it can negatively impact our expectations and behaviors. He talks about the importance of focus and the limits of our attentional capabilities.
But the chapter also offers some useless advice: “Dare, instead, to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life.”
Peterson does not specify how being dangerous, articulate, or truthful will keep people from comparing themselves with others, and his advice does nothing to help introverts who might find danger completely unappealing.
If you like the Bible, well, Peterson again relies on it to encourage you to “sacrifice whatever it is that must be sacrificed so that you can pursue the highest good,” devoting more than a half page to a passage from the Book of Luke.
Rules 5 – 8
Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Strangely, there’s a chapter about parenting in the middle of a self-help book focused on helping individuals. I guess some of the people reading the book might be parents, but Peterson’s main demographic is young, disaffected white males and most do not have children. I don’t know what to make of this chapter, other than perhaps that Peterson had a very strong desire to give parenting advice but didn’t have enough advice to fill up an entire parenting book.
The parenting advice he gives is nothing special (and too often, overly simplistic) — right up until he suggests that corporal punishment is okay.
I have a passionate dislike for academics who clothe themselves in research and data to support their points and then make a point that is completely contrary to the data and research. You don’t find any footnotes in this part of the chapter because there is no research that supports physically hurting your child. It is never good for the child’s development. But Peterson says it’s okay and that you need to do it, so there you go. If the Bible passages throughout the book weren’t enough to turn you off, this certainly should be.
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
Rule 6’s chapter starts out in a bizarre manner, with a review of some horrible tragedies committed by mass murderers. Peterson then suggests mass murderers share a common thread (other than being mostly young, disaffected white males) — that the entire world is “insufficient and evil” and therefore it’s alright to commit indiscriminate murder. The antidote to falling down the mass murderer rabbit hole? Apparently to “clean up your life.” (This advice that your own house needs to be in order before you are “allowed” to criticize others can be traced back, not surprisingly, to the Book of John.)
Also filled with Biblical references (which were thankfully absent from Chapter 5), this chapter offers a wealth of stories and historical references, but very little information on how putting your house in “perfect” order (what about “good enough” order?) somehow now gives you license to criticize the world. This is the worst of Peterson’s purposeless preaching:
So, simply stop, when you apprehend, however dimly, that you should stop. Stop acting in that particular, despicable manner. Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak of with honour.
How is one supposed to just stop doing these things? If it were as simple as having a conscious thought, there’d be little need of psychotherapists like Peterson. Peterson is silent on how you get yourself to stop these things. And indeed, in watching many of Peterson’s videos and seeing the comments by his fans, it appears none of them are much taking this advice to heart.
This is also the chapter that apparently inspires Peterson’s advice to “clean your room.” Namely, in an interview with Joe Rogan, he said:
Well, my sense is that if you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward. Because you build your competence that way. It’s like, I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organized.
The psychology behind this advice is simple. If you can organize one small part of your life to give yourself a psychological “win,” it will help you create a series of wins, one on top of the other, in your life. This is sometimes how people can get out of a rut, or even a mild depression. Psychologists have been using this type of habit-building reinforcement exercise in their own practices for decades, so Peterson’s advice isn’t especially novel.
The challenge is that “cleaning your room” may be an overwhelming task in the first place. A good psychologist will help you break it down into even smaller tasks, such as doing your laundry, getting rid of clothes you no longer wear, organizing your bills and desk, etc. And of course, once you’ve cleaned your room, the next task you set for yourself may not be so easily conquered.
But then Peterson suggests this one behavioral act will have the power to completely transform your life:
Watch what happens over the days and weeks. When you are at work you will begin to say what you really think. You will start to tell your wife, or your husband, or your children, or your parents, what you really want and need. When you know that you have left something undone, you will act to correct the omission. Your head will start to clear up, as you stop filling it with lies. Your experience will improve, as you stop distorting it with inauthentic actions. […]
Perhaps you will discover that your now less-corrupted soul, much stronger than it might otherwise have been, is now able to bear those remaining, necessary, minimal, inescapable tragedies. Perhaps you will even learn to encounter them so that they stay tragic — merely tragic — instead of degenerating into outright hellishness. Maybe your anxiety, and hopelessness, and resentment, and anger — however murderous, initially — will receded. Perhaps your uncorrupted soul will then see its existence as a genuine good, as something to celebrate, even in the face of your own vulnerability.
You can see how the language moves from traditional self-help advice into a sort of sermon for a cure-all. That’s the transition that happens in nearly every chapter that loses me, the researcher, because of course it doesn’t naturally follow that if you start organizing your room, suddenly the rest of your life will clear up and become better.
Self-change is a gradual process over months or years. Yes, a clean room or house may be the jump start your need to improve yourself. Peterson claims thousands of people have said this has been a life-transforming experience for them, which I don’t doubt. But if you can’t even clean your own room, what do you do then? Peterson doesn’t address that.
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Once again we learn that, “Life is suffering. That’s clear.”
Peterson then continues with a lengthy verse from Genesis, followed by another from the Book of Wisdom. This is one of the longest chapters in the book (about 40 pages, according to my count, out of a 370-page book), relying heavily on Bible stories and discussions of “good” and “evil” (there’s that black-and-white thinking again!).
From the chapter’s title onward, Peterson makes an arbitrary and false distinction between meaningfulness and expediency. They are not mutually exclusive, although Peterson suggests expedience is “avoiding responsibility. It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong. It’s wrong because mere expedience, multiplied by many repetitions, produces the character of a demon.”
Huh? You lost me there, big time. I don’t come across many self-help books that suggest by not following the person’s advice, you’ll turn into a demon. So that’s a first.
Expediency can be valuable at times, and it’s ridiculous to suggest it is always the wrong or “evil” path. Mindful eating, for instance, suggests we should savor every bite in every moment of partaking sustenance. But sometimes, we just need to eat something. And that’s perfectly okay — it’s not turning us into mindless eating machines, even when we do it more than once.
That’s just one example. I could rattle off a dozen more examples of why we must sometimes choose expediency and why it’s a perfectly acceptable and appropriate choice for the situation. It certainly doesn’t make a person evil.
So, readers will have to figure out for themselves whether this chapter provides the justification and context necessary to pursue only what is meaningful.
Rule 8: Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie
Again, Peterson says that “life is suffering” (see a theme here?), and therefore we should “tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.” In a whole chapter on the benefits of only telling the truth, I found it odd there was nary a mention about the social benefits of “white lies,” which act as a social (and often necessary) lubricant in certain situations. It’s unfathomable that Peterson lives his life telling no white lies, ever.
And so, Peterson’s black-and-white thinking continues. All lies are bad, he says. All lies start little and get bigger:
First, a little lie; then, several little lies to prop it up. After that, distorted thinking to avoid the shame that those lies produce, then a few more lies to cover up the consequences of the distorted thinking. Then, most terribly, the transformation of those now necessary lies through practice into automated, specialized, structural, neurologically instantiated “unconscious” belief and action.
Peterson is not a cognitive researcher or neuroscientist, and what he’s said about the brain makes me wonder about his basic understanding of human neurological structures. But he believes lies will automatically leads people down an inevitable road where it actually changes their brain structures over time — which is not true. Put into context, all behaviors done over time change neural pathways — it’s how, based upon our rudimentary understanding, the brain works.
I like to tell the truth and not to lie, but how do I do that, exactly? This chapter, like so many in this book, is long on exposition and short on techniques to become truthful. It seems in Peterson’s world, you “just do it” by making conscious, mindful choices. All the time.
This isn’t only unrealistic, research demonstrates we don’t have the capacity to operate in this manner most of the time. Humans can’t consciously think about every word or behavior they engage in throughout every waking moment of their day. We don’t have the attentional capacity to do that.
This is where a good self-help book excels — by providing the techniques to put the good, common sense advice into action. Peterson’s book too often lacks these techniques.
Rules 9 – 12
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Rule 9 features a well-written chapter that seems better organized and more focused than many of the book’s chapters.
After telling a few stories to illustrate the value of listening, he gets down to describing in greater depth the value of active listening (what he refers to as the “Rogerian method”). These few pages have good, valuable advice and information in them.
The rest of the chapter largely keeps on topic, distinguishing between “genuine conversations” — where both people are engaged in active listening — and most of the conversations people have nowadays (often mediated or interrupted by technology).
I found this chapter one of the easiest to read, with the most self-help advice, techniques, and examples to help you put his rule into practice in your own life.
Funny enough, though, I have yet to see any interview or discussion with Peterson where he exhibits the behavior this chapter encourages. Instead, he always appears to assume he’s there to teach whoever he’s talking to everything he knows, and rarely says, “That sounds interesting, tell me more about that subject.” But see the very last paragraph of this review for an explanation as to why Peterson’s own rules don’t apply to him.
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
Unlike the last chapter, which was concrete and helpful, I found this chapter obtuse and overly intellectual. “Everything is intricate beyond imagining,” Peterson says. “Everything is affected by everything else. We perceive a very narrow slice of a causally inter-connected matrix, although we strive with all our might to avoid being confronted by knowledge of that narrowness.” Huh? “Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission.” Um, okay.
Be careful with what you tell yourself and others about what you have done, what you are doing, and where you are going. Search for the correct words. Organize those words into the correct sentences, and those sentences into the correct paragraphs. […]
Don’t hide baby monsters under the carpet. They will flourish. They will grow large in the dark. Then, when you least expect it, they will jump out and devour you.
And so on… I think the crux of his rule is that imprecise speech, like the sloppiness of your room or telling lies, reflects a sloppiness of mind, a slipping of your life into the evil of chaos (even though chaos is a part of the natural order of the world). The language used, however, is untethered — it switches between metaphors and allegories from page to page. We go from Bill Bixbee and his dragon, to Noah’s flood, to Hell, to Bethlehem, the Word, and then finally, the Monster. If you find your head spinning trying to keep everything straight, I’m certain you wouldn’t be the first reader to do so.
There is also no mention of how people actually do most of their communicating nowadays. Most people communicate through texts, chat, photos, expression of emotion through emojis, and quick Facetime sessions. None of this is covered in a chapter about being more “precise” in how you communicate. This seems oddly out of place with a person who relies on YouTube and podcasts to communicate his message.
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
This chapter is a lengthy treatise defending patriarchy (and hierarchies in general) and the benefits of men in society. It is a society, Peterson reminds us in a tactful rewriting of history, that was created by both men and women (blissfully ignoring the power differential between the two genders throughout most of human history).
Peterson begins with a brief discussion of skateboarders and then delves into the story of his friend, Chris, who died by suicide. Peterson writes:
Maybe I picked up some change in scent that night, when death hung in the air. Chris had a very bitter odour. He showered frequently, but the towels and the sheets picked up the smell. It was impossible to get them clean. It was the product of a psyche and a body that did not operate harmoniously. A social worker I knew, who also knew Chris, told me of her familiarity with that odour. Everyone at her workplace knew of it, although they only discussed it in hushed tones. They called it the smell of the unemployable.
I only put this quote here to demonstrate how tangential and stigmatizing to people with mental illness Peterson can be. His friend was clearly struggling in life, and while Peterson did try to help him, he still suggests that people with mental illness have a “smell” about them. What this has to do with skateboarding children is beyond me.
If you want to go down the rabbit hole of a person who misunderstands Jung and rambles on about Hansel and Gretel, the Terrible Mother symbol, and throws in a dash of Mao, this is the chapter for you. What it’s doing in a self-help book is not clear, as it offers no discernible advice or techniques for the average reader — especially if that person happens to be a woman.
At the end of the chapter, as he so often does, he eventually does come around to his point: Men have to toughen up because women don’t want “baby boys.” “Softness and harmlessness” have become the “only consciously acceptable virtues” whereas “hardness and dominance” (these are virtues?) are no longer as valued.
So these latter “virtues” become a part of men’s “unconscious fascination” and make men want to become more fascist and then vote for fascists. Skateboarding helps men toughen up on their own, reducing their inherent fascist tendencies. Got it? Such nonsense.
Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Finally, we get to, “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street,” with the sub-heading, “Dogs are ok, too.”
Peterson’s assertion, “The idea that life is suffering is a tenet, in one form or another, of every major religious doctrine, as we have already discussed,” does not belong in a typical self-help book. But it’s a common theme in Peterson’s book — life is suffering, dammit, so get used to it.
He illustrates this with stories about health problems in others and his own daughter (in his daughter’s case, devastating and heart-breaking health problems), then delves into Superman, Mao (yet again), and finally, 18 pages into the chapter, on the second-to-last page, we learn why you should pet a cat on the street:
If you pay careful attention, even on a bad day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with small opportunities of just that sort. […] And maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it.
Stop and smell the roses. Got it.
Like Peterson and his odd chapter on parenting, I also have a few odd tidbits that don’t have as much to do with this book as they do with Peterson himself. Since I have little intention in writing about Peterson again, I thought this might be a good place to add them.
Why Are Schools Taking Away Our Snowballs?
Just to provide a concrete example of Peterson’s sloppy thinking (there is so much video of Peterson, there are literally dozens of examples one could cite), I came across one clip of particular interest. In this video, Peterson suggests arbitrary societal rules are partly to blame for keeping masculinity down:
“Increasingly among my students, I see young men who don’t know how to be good men. My son wasn’t allowed to throw a snowball, for example, in elementary school. It was against the rules for him to even pick up snow from the ground. It is in that manner that decent boys are made to feel guilty about their masculine impulses. So they withdraw, confused.”
Nevermind that 44 years ago, at my elementary school, we had a similar rule. And there’s a very good reason for such a rule — snowballs can hurt other children (especially if made with ice or a stone). Schools aren’t in the business of allowing children to physically harm other children, whatever gender they are. That has very little to do with masculinity and everything to do with common sense.
Women Should Stay at Home and Have Children
On the Joe Rogan Experience podcast at the 2:14 mark, Peterson elucidates his views on why women should focus more on having a family and less on having a career:
Because men need a purpose. I think women have a purpose. Only now they have two purposes, if they’re going to have a family. That’s a major purpose man. Like, just giving birth, that’s no joke. And then you’re devoted to something for like 20 years. You’ve got your adventure right there. […]
How many important things are there in life? Well, one of them’s family. […] It’s a huge part of life. You have a mother and a father, you have children, it places you in the world. […] Look, there’s a reason societies worship the Virgin Mother and the child. It’s because they’re societies that don’t die. […] It’s still a sacred thing. […]
You miss it, you miss that, if you’re a female you miss that at your peril. That doesn’t mean there aren’t women who shouldn’t miss it. Because maybe they have another purpose that transcends that. But that’s rare. It’s very, very rare.
And I would caution any women listening, if they’re young, not to be deluded into the idea that their career will be of such high quality that it self-evidently trumps having a family. You’d have to have a helluva career before that’s the case. […]
So men need meaning and the only sure way they can do that, according to Peterson, is through their career. Women, on the other hand, have their meaning built into their biology by having children.
Peterson is saying that careers should be secondary for all but “exceptional” women. He is advocating that the main purpose and value in a woman’s life on this planet is to have children; most women’s career aspirations appear to be of little value to Peterson and his way of thinking.
So, unless you are extraordinary, which Peterson makes clear the vast majority of women are not, you should relegate yourself to a life of giving birth and raising a family. Your desire or need to change the world or feel fulfilled through work and your career? Unimportant. Men have that covered.
I have no doubt that Peterson has helped thousands of people with his advice. However, when compared to traditional self-help books and tried-and-true psychological advice based on solid research, Peterson clearly comes up short.
His idiosyncratic approach to this genre is too often out-of-step with psychological research and scientific data. I expect a psychologist’s book to be largely only based upon the scientific data, so it’s an eye-opening experience to come across something like this.
As a self-help book, then, this effort fails and cannot be recommended. It’s all over the place in tone, focus, and consistency. Chapters include rambling philosophical tangents that have little or nothing to do with the “rule” he’s trying to explain. His grasp of many basic concepts in neurology, and arguably, philosophy, is not always evident. He draws from things that are expedient to his point, sometimes ignoring the actual research and scientific data in doing so.
There’s little doubt that this best seller will not be impacted in any way by the negative reviews it garners. Peterson’s fans will not only continue buying his books, but will be standing in line for 12 More Rules for Life, which I’m certain will be out within another year or two. I don’t expect it to be any better, as Peterson does not seem like someone who takes criticism well (based upon his reactions to criticism on Twitter). Many of his followers are little better, comparing critics’ credentials (ad hominem attack anyone?) as though only a select few people have the right to criticize their guru.
I’ll just end with this quote from Peterson from that same Joe Rogan interview: “You can’t make rules for the exceptional. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.” Just so you know, if you feel like you need the rules in this book, well, by Peterson’s definition, that probably means you’re not exceptional. And this readily explains why the exceptional Peterson himself doesn’t need or follow his own rules.
- A few years ago, I also co-wrote a book entitled, Self-Help That Works. [↩]