12 Rules for Life as Jordan Peterson

A few years back, Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor of psychology, shot from little-known academic to international celebrity intellectual, based largely on his strong remarks against politically correct language laws on an Ontario public television program. Watching Peterson’s rise to prominence, I recognized in his trajectory many of the same crossroads choices I had been dealing with myself as a writer, albeit on a much smaller scale. Because I had thought through, on my own microscopic level, many of the same decisions and temptations he was now facing, and because I could easily project based on my own inner life how much greater those temptations would be for someone rising so much “higher” (in popular terms) and faster, as Peterson was, I felt quite uncomfortably certain that I could predict his fate. Sadly, I was exactly right.

In short, and without pretending to have any inside knowledge or special interest in his story, let us just say that Peterson has suffered a fairly complete meltdown, emotionally and professionally. In the process, he has undermined many of his own worthy insights by seeming not to have followed a word of his own psychological or practical advice. That is, he has revealed himself as something of a hypocrite, and certainly none of the things he was selling himself as.

I saw this coming because I could see that during the brief span of his truly meteoric ascent, in every instance in which he ought to have chosen to pull back, to withdraw, to demur, to exhibit a bit of the self-awareness and life wisdom he was pitching to his enormous audience, and to refocus on his proper priorities and genuine interests, he seemed to make the wrong choice. He was obsessed with his fame, with the size of his “following,” with being the absolute Number One Authority on every topic on which he chose to speak. He would talk about himself and his personal life in interviews in a manner that suggested he perceived himself as a household name and an unparalleled man, and therefore assumed every interviewer would know him and admire him as such from the get-go. He was leaping at every opportunity to expand his audience and popularity, at the expense of whatever there was of genuine intellectual value in his earlier writing and teaching. (He was a very impressive classroom lecturer in his U. of T. days, before he chose to become celebrity thinker to the universe.) Put simply, Peterson was living in a bubble. Bubbles always burst. His did.

Enough said. My purpose here is not to run down Jordan Peterson. He has done plenty of that for himself, and in the most publicly humbling way. Rather, my intention is to prescribe a little of the kind of medicine he has made himself famous for of late, namely simple advice of the “self-help” sort, with a twist of intellectual acuity thrown in to offset the excess sweetness. In this case, however, my advice is aimed at Peterson himself — as well as at anyone, in any arena, who is similarly tempted to lose sight of the true and proper context of his own life and work, in favor of the ego’s dirty tricks and clever illusions.

12 Rules for Life as Jordan Peterson

Rule 1: Judge the people near you by the same standard you use for everyone else. Don’t assume, in other words, that the people in whom you have a vested emotional interest are superior humans, better than those people you do not know. That assumption merely reveals how unobjectively and uncritically you view yourself.

Rule 2: Don’t measure quality quantitatively. If you were hoping to enjoy a dinner cooked by the world’s greatest chef, would you look for a large sign saying, “Over 6 billion served”? Then why would you imagine the most insightful and serious thinker is the one with the most YouTube subscribers, book sales, or Twitter followers?

Rule 3: Keep your ego out of it. No one is perfect in this regard, but the more you are thinking about how significant and influential you are, the less significant and influential you will be in the long run. The ego tends to cling to the wide surface, where it can be seen and admired, whereas real thinking reaches for the depths, which are usually hidden.

Rule 4: Don’t exempt yourself. It is undeniable that different people have different capacities and different problems, and therefore require, and are capable of absorbing, different kinds or levels of advice or mentoring. But if you systematically restrict your thinking and teaching to a human world understood as “Everyone except me,” or “Everyone below me,” then your thinking has become nothing but an elaborate rationalization for your own irrational predilections. Furthermore, any theorist or teacher who implicitly exempts himself entirely from his theory or teaching is essentially attempting to build a theory of human life without a highest standard, which guarantees the theory will lack coherence.

Rule 5: Keep money out of it. To the extent that your intellectual or leadership goals become entangled with monetary considerations, you will naturally tend to drift in your thinking and mentoring into directions that seem more financially lucrative. Money is one of the most powerfully distorting vested interests, if you let it become one.

Rule 6: Don’t judge people according to how much they like you. As I wrote recently in another context, the best way to overcome the presumptuous feeling that everyone who disagrees with you must be stupid is to remind yourself that most of the people who agree with you are also stupid.

Rule 7: Remember that Socrates did not write. He was neither a popularizer nor a man seeking “permanence.” He neither traveled widely nor cared to. He was talking to individuals in his city, challenging them, annoying them about their life choices. And yet now, more than 2,400 years after his death, he is rightly regarded as the archetype of the teacher and philosopher, the closest thing to a pure seeker of wisdom.

Rule 8: Pontificating is not teaching. One who preaches is placing himself above his listeners. If he is preaching on behalf of God, he can at least claim that the superior position he represents is not his own. If he is preaching ideas and practical wisdom, then he is treating himself as a god. The psychological risks and delusions of adopting such a position are self-evident. Teaching is talking to people, eliciting their thoughts, helping them correct errors — not entertaining a dark room from the spotlight.

Rule 9: Distinguish trends from truths. It is a special illness of the social science age that we aggrandize the present by taking all its particularities as expressions of universal truths — as though every Disney cartoon were as rich in symbolism and archetypal significance as Antigone or King Lear. The fact that any two things may be similar in some regards does not mean that they are similar in essential regards. Likewise, the fact that people these days prioritize X or Y should not be taken at face value to suggest that all people in all times have prioritized things in the same way, for the same reasons — or that the best people prioritize these things, or should.

Rule 10: Don’t judge movements or groups by how much affinity they seem to express for your ideas. (See number 6, above.) To allow yourself to become identified or affiliated with any group espousing a platform or political position will skew your thinking, as you naturally tend to appease them, or at least to avoid offending them, often precisely in areas where they most need to be “offended,” and where being a true mentor would necessitate being a gadfly rather than a flatterer. (See number 7, above.)

Rule 11: Never confuse self-absorbed insouciance, myopic braggadocio, or an instinct for aggressive self-promotion — whether in global leaders, in your own children, or in yourself — with intelligence. The greatest thinkers lacked all of these characteristics. That is not a coincidence.

Rule 12: Do not need fans or admirers. That need — not the existence of people who admire you, but your dependence on their existence — reveals uncertainty and insecurity, fear of being “out there alone.” To the extent that you need them, you lower yourself, by becoming a slave to their desires and expectations — which you will conveniently confuse with your own desires and expectations. Recommended reading: Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant.”

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