Monday, March 26, 2018

How many rules for life can you remember?

A few hours after I had finished reading Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos” I thought it might be interesting to see how many of his rules I could remember.
I remembered: stand up straight; use your past performance as a benchmark for comparison rather than other people; have meaningful objectives; don’t let your children do anything that makes you dislike them; be a good listener; be precise in your speech; tell the truth; and the one about setting your house in “perfect” order before you criticize the world. That is 8 out of 12. The rules are paraphrased as I remembered them rather than quoted directly.

I would not have much trouble explaining in terms of my own experiences why I remembered some of those rules. For example, the lessons that I had about 20 years ago in the Alexander technique left me with some knowledge of the links between posture, attitude and intention, as well as scepticism about the utility of the injunction to “stand up straight”. I remembered the rule about setting your house in perfect order before you criticize the world because I doubt whether anyone ever has their house in “perfect order”. I certainly have no intention of refraining from criticism of the views of “the radical left” until I get my house in “perfect” order.

The four rules that didn’t come readily to mind were: “treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”; “make friends with people who want the best for you”; “do not bother children when they are skateboarding”; and “pet a cat when you encounter one in the street”. The meaning of the last couple of rules is not self-evident. The one about skateboarding is mainly about encouraging boys to acquire manly virtues. The one about petting a cat seems to be about taking advantage of opportunities to notice that we live in a wonderful world, despite the suffering that is attendant upon existence. That is just my interpretation. As Nathan Robinson has noted, Jordan Peterson does not always abide by his own rule to “be precise in your speech”.

My purpose in revealing how many, or how few, of the 12 rules for life I remembered is to open discussion about the accessibility of the rules Dr Peterson has offered, rather than to confess the imperfections of my memory. A month, or so, after reading Peterson’s book a few cult followers will remember all his rules, but I doubt whether many other readers will remember more than 1 or 2 of them. That is because Jordan Peterson’s selection of rules seems arbitrary, and he has failed to organise them in a systematic way that might make them easily accessible.

The best way I can illustrate the arbitrary nature of Dr Peterson’s rules is by referring to the 12 rules for life that Russ Roberts developed for himself after interviewing Jordan Peterson. Although Roberts acknowledges that his list of 12 rules for life was inspired by Peterson - and there is a lot of overlap between the sentiments covered in both lists - they look quite different. There are also differences in emphasis. For example, the first rule on Roberts’ list, learn to enjoy saying “I don’t know”, might be implied by Peterson’s rules about telling the truth and listening, but in my view, he doesn’t give this rule as much prominence as it deserves. If other people can develop a different set of rules for life, it is reasonable to ask what would make Peterson’s list superior to one that might be drawn up during a brain storming session by any randomly selected group of people.  

Dr Peterson’s list of rules would be more memorable if they were related in an obvious way to a central organising principle. His book has underlying themes, but those themes are not evident in his list of rules. Perhaps someone could develop a mnemonic to help people remember the items on his list, but that would trivialize the whole exercise.

As I read through the 12 rules, the rule “pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” strikes me as being of central importance. Dr Peterson’s offers several definitions of meaning, all poetic rather than precise.  The definition that seems to come closest to the central theme of his book is this one:

Meaning is the ultimate balance between, on the one hand, the chaos of transformation and possibility and on the other, the discipline of pristine order, whose purpose is to produce out of the attendant chaos a new order that will be even more immaculate, and capable of bringing forth a still more balanced and productive chaos and order. Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that” (p 201). 

That passage brings to mind an attempt I made a few years ago to understand the meaning of Dao. We can feel that we have some understanding of Dao, but it is difficult to be precise in our speech about it. My limited understanding left me feeling that it is wise to proceed with minimal rules, waiting to observe how things develop, and redirecting with minimal effort the things that are subject to our influence. I’m not sure that Jordan Peterson would agree.

If I push myself to be precise, what I would mean by pursuing what is meaningful, is pursuing what is important to you in the various domains of life.

In the personal domain we seek to understand what we know and what we don’t know, where we have been, where we are now, what we value, and what values we want to be expressed by the persons we are becoming. Our values determine our intentions, our attitudes and our posture. We want to improve, so we focus on our intentions in what we do, rather than our expectations of how we will perform based on how we have performed in the past. We measure our performance by comparison with our own past, rather than the performance of other people. We treat ourselves like persons we are responsible for coaching. We seek friends who want the best for us, providing encouragement and taking us to task as appropriate.

As regards interpersonal relations, we seek to place particular importance on authenticity and trustworthiness. We listen to what others have to say because they may know something that we don’t.  We seek to be precise and forthright in communication. We encourage our loved ones to behave in ways that will enable them to be widely liked and respected.

We approach the world with humility. We don’t seek to govern the lives of other people because we know the shortcomings in our governance of our own lives. We avoid the temptation to be over-protective of young people because they have to learn from experience how to take responsibility for their own lives.

So, that probably covers more than enough rules for life. If you can only remember one rule, the most important rule is to remember to do what is important.  That rule in particularly useful to remember when you find yourself falling into the trap of trying to avoid negative thoughts and feelings. Doing expedient things to make yourself feel better is likely to end up making your life more chaotic.

I would like to end this somewhat critical post by acknowledging that there is much that I like about Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”. In fact, my main point is that it is unfortunate that the author has not found a way to make the messages of the book more memorable.


Leah said...

I thought the rules were arbitrary too. I skipped the ones that didn't interest me.

Winton Bates said...

I’m glad you share my view.