Twelve Rules

Phil Dawson

JORDAN PETERSON, a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, has thundered onto the cultural scene, thanks in large part to his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I began reading with healthy skepticism, but quickly became a fan.

Not that the doctor and I agree on all points. But the book immediately confronted my intellectual laziness in a careful but unavoidable way. On second reading, I began to think about alternate applications for his advice. With great literary license, the following contains some thoughts in that regard. All quotes are from 12 Rules for Life.

Rule 1: Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.

Peterson begins his rules with lobsters, dominance hierarchies and serotonin, which he makes far more interesting and relevant than you might suspect. “Circumstances change, and so can you. Positive feedback loops, adding effect to effect, can spiral counterproductively in a negative direction, but can also work to get you ahead.” In your financial life, this is where you stare down your financial condition, own it and take responsibility for improvement.

Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

Peterson points out how people fail to do things that are good for them. “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself.” What advice would you give to someone in your financial condition? Are you following that advice yourself?

Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you.

Peterson explains how the environment you select for yourself has a direct influence on your quality of life. You know those people who encourage your financial intemperance? They’re not your friends; they are just making you poor. “The same thing happens when well-meaning counselors place a delinquent teen among comparatively civilized peers. The delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up.” Get rid of the losers. Find friends who want you to do truly well and who will carefully correct you when you need it.

Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

Peterson introduces your internal critic and the way it works, and then offers this observation: “Finally, you might come to realize that the specifics of the many games you are playing are so unique to you, so individual, that comparison to others is simply inappropriate. Perhaps you are overvaluing what you don’t have and undervaluing what you do. There’s some real utility in gratitude.” Don’t be resentful of what you see around you. Just keep pedaling.

Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

That includes the use of money. “Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world—merciful proxies, caring proxies—but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. That will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard, and security.” The world is a harsh place to learn the basics of money.  Start early.

Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

There is much to despair about. The government and culture have gone to seed, the U.S. is $21.5 trillion in debt and many financial crimes go unpunished. You can’t fix it all. Instead, advises Peterson, “Consider your circumstances. Start small. Have you taken advantage of the opportunities offered to you?”

He continues: “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility…. Perhaps you will see that if all people did this, in their own lives, the world might stop being an evil place.” Clean up your own financial act. Get honest and straight with yourself. Then call your Congressman.

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).

Peterson speaks gravely about delayed gratification, sacrifice and meaning. He states forthrightly that happiness is an unworthy objective. “Expedience is following blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified…. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.” For what purpose are you seeking to succeed financially? What would your success even look like? Who, besides you, will care if you succeed or fail?

Rule 8: Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.

Peterson uses history to demonstrate the horrible potential of deceit. “Lies corrupt the world. Worse, that is their intent…. Truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best use of the future’s possibilities. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness.” It is only through devotion to truth that you can respond properly to anything, financial or otherwise.

Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something that you don’t.

As a regular reader of others’ writing, you are living this rule. “So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.” That, to me, is what this website is all about.

Rule 10: Be precise in your speech.

Peterson encourages intellectual rigor with regard to ordering your thoughts and ideas. “If you identify things, with careful attention and language, you bring them forward as viable, obedient objects…. You make them specific and useful, and reduce their complexity.” And then, “You must determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction. Random wandering will not move you forward.” Why, precisely, is your financial plan ordered as it is?

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.

Peterson writes deeply about culture and the historical dangers of self-appointed judges trying to control others. “People… don’t seek to minimize risk. They seek to optimize it.  We’re hard-wired… to enjoy risk (some of us more than others)…. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes its appearance, as it inevitably will.” Failing forward can be an indispensable element of growth.

Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Peterson shares the heartbreaking story of his daughter Mikhaila’s orthopedic condition and treatment. “People are very tough. People can survive through much pain and loss. But to persevere they must see the good in Being. If they lose that, they are truly lost…. 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 make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it.” Money, sometimes, is only money.

When not paddling, biking or shooting, Phil Dawson provides technical services for a global auto manufacturer. He, his sweetheart Donna and their four extraordinary daughters live in and around Jarrettsville, Maryland. His previous articles include Got to BelieveNo Exit and A Most Morbid Game. You can contact Phil via LinkedIn.

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