Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life

The psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has an enjoyable writing style that weaves scientific data with allegories and anecdotes, wrote a book titled the Twelve Rules for Life. There are two arguments that he makes that I find particularly enjoyable.

The first is the “lobster stuff”, which the media has teased him about, but makes a fair point about the importance of posture and how our physical presentation transmits all of this data to other people that we may not even realize that we are doing and can often have even more influence than the words that come out of mouths.

Focusing on the humans’ evolutionary link with lobsters that was cut off approximately 350 million years ago, Dr. Peterson focuses on the nerve system similarities between lobsters and humans, and how the lobster equivalent of standing up straight signals confidence and territorial marking in the lobster kingdom.

The human analogy is that whether we slouch or stand up straight reveals whether we are confident or timid in a given situation. We can therefore rely on physical cues to self-assess our behavior: If we are slouching, why are we slouching? Stand up straight, and see your confidence improve as well.

The other technique from Dr. Peterson that I found useful was the notion that we should treat ourselves like someone we are assigned to be a “life coach” or “assistant” for. If you were assigned to be a caretaker for someone that you loved, what would you do? You’d clean up the physical spaces. You’d get some sunlight and exercise for the person under your care. You’d go to the grocery store and buy healthy foods. You’d facilitate social interactions, self-teaching, and opportunities for reflection on religious views.

And, of course, those are the types of behaviors that we could rely upon to improve our own selves. It is a clever fiction of pretending that you’re a third-party, objective caretaker with clear eyes when figuring out what should be done, as a way to break through the entrenched habits and narratives we carry around with us in our heads as we go through our day.

When people visit Warren Buffett’s office, they often provide the recital that he maintained a certificate of his completion in the Dale Carnegie public speaking program in his office. There is a reason why, over half a century later, that certificate endures. Identifying a good idea is raw, and is only persuasive when it is articulated in a precise manner with the right highlights, defenses, tone of voice, and even allegories chosen.

Right now, we live in a world where the “stories” behind what motivates us are often disfavored and ridiculed in the press. In Peterson’s case, his lobster allegory has received a fair amount of simplistic criticism by people writing, “So, we should stand up straight because it helps lobsters mark their territory better?” Of course, Peterson could have made his point by merely citing to a study that examines the correlation between posture and confidence, but very few people are conditioned to amend their behavior by scrupulously reading through academic journals and then instantly adopting its recommendations.  Dr. Peterson’s skill is that he can provide stories that vitalize data to aid in self-improvement.