As individuals, we can each effect sustainable change in our families, communities and organisations. Although there is no clear-cut and quick solution, we can each follow what Jordan Peterson once highlighted as the 12 rules of life, to help improve ourselves and our society. In this message written by Steve to his children, Steve provides his own perspective on Peterson’s rules to guide future generations.
A Dads interpretation of the ‘12 Rules for Life’ by Jordan Peterson
(As explained to his teenage children)
Let me start with being precise in my speech (Rule 10).
I use the word ‘Dad’ with great pride because of a Father’s Day card you gave me once Hann, from the Nanaga Farm store in the Eastern Cape. In it was written:
“Anyone can be a Father, but it takes someone special to be a Dad.”
Such a sentiment sparks great joy, and not even the celebrity declutterer, Marie Kondo would throw such a thing away. Trite and pithy it may be, but true and profound it most certainly is.
I never really liked the title with the word ‘Rules’, and funnily enough, it turns out that neither did the author initially. However due to the overwhelmingly positive feedback Peterson was receiving from his lectures and his YouTube clips on the importance of structure, he went with the idea of ‘rules’.
He makes the point that we all need some kind of rules in our lives – they help with where we can play to our best selves, provide us with some kind of clarity about the playing field we’re on, and give us feedback on the state of the game. Imagine you in a water polo game Hann with no rules – though at times what happens under water seems to have no moral boundaries, and a rugby game Jon, would turn into a barbaric bloodbath as opposed to the gentlemanly one it is today!
It is a strange paradox, that although we don’t generally like rules imposed on us, we can quickly fall apart without them.
The book is exceptionally well researched, and for my liking, mostly extremely well written. Although this is not a book review, at times I think there is a bit too much over the top academia, but then I guess that helps to justify its place as a Number One International best seller. Perhaps as both a practicing and lecturing psychologist, Peterson felt the need to show off a bit – and why not?
If you are that clever and have put in the work, why keep it all to yourself?
So, here is my explanation to you as your Dad, of the ‘12 Rules of Life’. It may save you from reading the whole book – I am learning of your generations need for more instant gratification.
1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
After reading this first chapter, I thought that my Mother, your Gigi, could have written this book!
“Don’t slump.” She used to say.
I guess by definition, when you slump over with a poor posture, you are not standing up for yourself. Or your beliefs. Or others. When we stand tall in the face of adversity we are noticed, and when we notice ourselves, we may build more confidence. With more confidence, good things come, and when good things come there are more healthy hormones called neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin which flood through our bodies.
With these feel good ‘drugs’ or ‘happy hormones, we do feel better – sometimes even about the average things in life, and we loop quite beautifully into a positive spiral. I have watched you both tackle many things in your life, including big lock forwards and knee surgery, and it always seems that you have greater success when your energy is high. I have always said that you still need some positive spark in a one thousand rand battery to drive a million rands worth of motor car!
2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
Long before I read this chapter, I remember hearing – from my Mom again:
“If you really want to help yourself, help someone else.”
It amazes me how often we might be truly compassionate to someone in a tough space, yet we will be eternally hard on ourselves. When someone close to us is sick or sad, we show sympathy or even empathy and we make them tea, or we encourage them to take it easy. When I feel sick or sad I see myself as weak or that I should just press on and build a bridge and get over it. If someone stutters through a presentation, my heart is full of admiration in their trying and yet, if I miss a word or pause in the search for the perfect quote, I berate myself internally as being foolish and underprepared. When someone shanks a routine chip or three putts from twelve feet, I say ‘Bad luck’ or ‘no worries’ or ‘next time’. What I say to myself under the exact same circumstances could not and should not ever be put into the public domain. I would call myself the cruelest and most profane names which I wish you never hear! Whilst I move quickly to ease the suffering of others, I often see myself as totally undeserving of…well, of anything really. I might value others at yet at the same time give myself zero credit.
If I could show myself just a fraction of the love I have for you both, and if I could celebrate some of my achievements with a modicum of the same pride I have in yours, then I will have made much progress along Rule Two.
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
This version, I think I first heard as an African proverb.
“If you want to go fast, go alone
If you want to go far, go together.”
Meg Wheatley – the very same one who stayed with us in the winter, and with whom you connected so beautifully Hann, is unequivocal in her thoughts on relationships. She goes as far as to say;
“Relationships are all there is.”
At every level. Corporate, National, community, family, even cellular. We are nothing without relationships.
Wanting the best for you isn’t always about being nice. Giving you both ice cream or a BGR burger every day might be very nice, but it isn’t necessarily the best thing for you! Curfews and restricted cell phone usage aren’t always nice, but they come from a place of deep love as we want the best for you. So, find your tribe, and within that tribe there will be critics, but make friends with them. And if you’re not sure who they are yet, look for the ones who will celebrate your achievements more than you do, or the people who when they ask you how you are, will at least listen to your response!
4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
At the root of this lies the age old wisdom of Socrates, or the Oracle of Delphi, whichever one Google takes you to first,
And it was Polonius’s advice to his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
“This above all: To thine own self be true,
and it must follow, as the night, the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man.”
I have always despised comparison. It’s outcome invariably results in an overall loss, and maybe this is why I avoid and shy away from social media platforms like Facebook. Known in our house as ‘Façade book’.
No one ever posts the inevitable bad hair day – though when you look at some of the hairstyles posted it looks to me like an awful day. As you will rightly point out, this sentiment comes from someone with no hair, so take that from whence it comes.
These platforms which have changed the world are often a glorification of my perfect life of incomparable love. If you love someone so much, tell them to their face, not to their Facebook page. Everyone’s meal seems better, and every holiday looks more exotic and each wedding is the most romantic one. Ever. And yet, as much as I dislike these platforms, perhaps my non-participation in them is as a result of a fear of comparison and competition in that I might in some strange way lose and therefor carry the tag of inferiority. I still find myself comparing my abilities, or lack of them to others, and it is distinctly draining. I may never write like a Robin Sharma, or motivate like a Mark Banks, and sometimes the voice in my head is so deafening that I don’t even try!
This takes me all the way back – nearly sixteen years and a few thousand pages ago to one of the very first quotes I entered into Journal Number One of our family recollections.
“To be nobody but myself – in a world which is doing its best,
night and day,
to make me somebody else –
means to fight the greatest battle there ever was, or ever will be.” e.e.cummings
‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
So, let me stop my quotations for now, and just say that I hope you live your own lives in significance as opposed to the success of someone else’s.
5. Do not let your children do anything which makes you dislike them.
When you were both very little, and still at The Parks Pre-primary school, Mom and I used to go to talks by a child psychologist called Derek Jackson. I remember him so clearly, saying to parents who came to him worried that their child had fallen into bad company:
“Your child didn’t fall into bad company, he IS bad company.”
You want to behave so that others will welcome having you around, and if parents allow things which make them dislike their own children, they become the very bad company they are trying to avoid in others.
And others care way less about your children than you do.
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
Humility. Lack of Judgement. Not much more to say except a Hindi teaching:
“There are hundreds of paths up the mountain,
all leading in the same direction,
so it doesn’t matter which path you take.
The only one wasting time is the one
Who runs around and around the mountain.
Telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.”
As much as possible stay within your circle of influence. When you feed that, it will grow, and that is the only way you will change your world.
7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
There is a sentence in this chapter which reads:
“It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying where you are.” Jordan Peterson
That, in many ways, is an immense sentence, and it could cover anything from giving up sweets to become thinner, or giving up a lucrative career to become fulfilled in the spiritual realm. I think it also speaks about patience and delayed gratification. The world seems intent on the urgent and the now. Not so much living in the now, which is all good, but rather demanding in the NOW.
There was a jibe at the millennials generation doing the rounds:
CHILD: “I want a sweet.”
MOM: “What’s the magic word?”
What is truly meaningful for me, where I am guided by love and speaking my Truth, is where I reside close to the concept of IKIGAI – a Japanese concept meaning ‘Reason for Being.’
Imagine four circles which all intersect. They have four different questions which define what you write down in each one.
- What do you love?
- What are you good at?
- Can you earn a living from it?
- Does the world need it?
It may not be one single thing which lives at the center of this model – there could be a number of things?
But if there isn’t something in each of these circles, then perhaps there is a gap to be explored?
I am still learning from my friend and colleague Lindsay, that when we find meaning and purpose, our blood streams are fertilized and nourished by more of these happy hormones. It is all in the science.
8. Tell the truth – or, at least don’t lie
On our Lead with Humanity experiences – a massive source of meaning for me – we often say that in this VUCA world we live in, there exists a great Leadership question:
“What do I do, when I don’t know what to do?”
VUCA is an abbreviation for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It was coined as a military phrase in the move from the Cold War to a totally different set of parameters facing multilateral warfare.
It is difficult to find a right answer to that question, but perhaps a good beginning point in the search for more certainty is to explore some of the lies we tell ourselves.
How ironic! I was about to tell you that the following quote came from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where as it turns out, it originated from Walter Scott in his poem ‘Marmion’.
I would not have been telling the Truth!
“Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive.”
On just one lie, a whole family can fall apart. Sadly, I know this is true, and because one lie so often leads to another, we start to spin new stories. Much like the spider’s web, we get tangled up in the turmoil of our own untruths, and drowned in deceit and dishonesty.
Peterson writes about resilience here, and he left me thinking of a memorable formula for this rare and under practiced characteristic:
LOVE + ENCOURAGEMENT + CHARACTER = RESILIENCE
I also loved this image:
“If you don’t believe in brick walls, you will still be injured when you run headlong into one.”
“Telling the truth seems obvious – but knowing what your truth is? Therein lies the journey!!”
9. Assume that the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t.
Habit 5 from Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of highly effective people’ states:
“Seek first to understand before being understood.”
We often make use of a picture of two horses walking towards each other on a narrow bridle path in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. They stop automatically because they know their riders will want to chat! That don’t need to be reined in as it is a learned behavior. The question then becomes, well, why do the riders want to stop?
Of course, the riders have massive access to the information and the journey they have travelled, but they have no information yet of the journey yet to unfold. What an opportunity then to learn from the person who has had first hand access to the path just travelled. They could tell you where to find a warm bed or a cold beer, a friendly village of celebration or one best avoided with its tensions around poor service delivery.
I have always said that everyone has a story and in every story there is something to learn. Too often wisdom lies dormant and undiscovered under the drapes of stereotype, and any new learning remains undisturbed by the presence of a preconceived assumption. We assume someone can’t teach us anything.
Peterson is advising us to rather make the assumption that they can.
If this new assumption turns out to be wrong – well, then that is far less painful with this approach!
10. Be precise in your speech.
In this chapter, Peterson makes reference to a children’s story by Jack Kent called: ‘There’s no such thing as a dragon.’
Billy Bixbee sees a dragon on his bed. It is friendly and small like a house cat. His Mother tells him this is rubbish.
‘There is no such thing as a dragon.’
The Dragon grows, devours everything from Billy’s pancakes to his house, and only when the truth of the Dragon’s existence is acknowledged, does the dragon begin to shrink back down to the friendly kitten sized reminder.
Issues, and particularly in relationships, are like dragons. If we don’t at first acknowledge them, they grow so big that they take your house away. Divorce does this, and so does financial management gone wrong. People go into debt when the dragon is ignored, and we would do well to remember great clarity in our speech as to the potential evils of teenage drinking. There will no doubt be times when as your parents we bear witness to these things – not only with your both, but also with your friends. If we deny it exists, keep our heads in the sand and say that it isn’t our problem, then perhaps we allow the dragon to grow and to fester into something so big and scary that it poses a real risk to our health and safety. Perhaps sometimes we think that being precise in our speech, being direct and forthright in a search for clarity may mean we sacrifice kindness?
But maybe not at all. Acknowledging the dragon might be the very kindest thing we can do. After all, it may be all we need to keep the issue small and friendly like a house cat, purring in our presence, and gently reminding us of the potential chaos if we leave important issues ignored.
I can tell you for free, that when walking with a great tracker in the bush, I’d like to be gently made aware of the Lions presence before stumbling into it in a dazed denial!
“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
It is not like me to be overly direct, and I usually shy away from confrontation and competition in most of its forms. Hell, sometimes I don’t even go to a poker night with good friends because I fear the negative competitive possibilities. That is one of my own inner demons which needs some personal acknowledgement.
When I am confrontational, it is most often because the dragon has grown – sometimes over months or even years, because I have failed to acknowledge it earlier and keep it in check and in my sights. It is easy to tame a small house cat, not so a fully grown male Lion, and when male lions are fully grown they will defend their territory – often to the death. I have defended the territory of my own viewpoint before. It resulted in the death of a previously great relationship. I guess Peterson would say I broke rule No 10.
In this world of VUCA, the way through with a different VUCA is that the “C” could stand for CLARITY. We need more of that in this cloudy and confusing world, and it starts with us being more precise in our speech.
11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
Many years ago, I attended a fascinating workshop on Golf. It was run by an Eastern meditation Guru and a retired golf Professional. For the first forty five minutes, all we did was breathe and stretch. We then hit some balls on the driving range during the next session with absolutely no interruption from the golf Pro. Not a single tip or instruction was given, only encouraging words from the Guru who, it was patently clear had never swung a golf club – especially in anger!
We gathered in a circle to share our thoughts, ‘enjoyed’ a vegan salad, and then went out in teams of four for the afternoon. In just under four hours of golf, we had completed just six holes – yet I remember each of those shots and the lessons behind them with the utmost clarity. Goal setting, planning, team work and many other themes came out during the experience, but perhaps the one that sticks with me still is a phrase:
“Let him be with his shot.”
As a team in a scramble format, playing against only ourselves and the internal goal we had set for our own standards, I was always quick to try and keep the energy up with positive affirmations. I would say the things I mentioned earlier in this letter to you like “Unlucky” or “Don’t worry” or “Next time”, and during the post hole debrief, I received some valuable feedback that perhaps I was too quick in my response. When someone hit a bad shot, sometimes they needed to be left with their own thoughts rather than have someone else superficially try and smooth them over.
This is what this chapter reminded me. To sometimes give up control even in the face of danger or perceived danger like skateboarding. To allow the process to unfold, and in so doing, find blossom in the unearthed lessons. To let things BE a bit, and not as Jordan P writes:
“Be a self-appointed judge of the Human Race.”
To interrupt on a constant basis, the life journey you are living may indeed not always have the intended consequences I wish for, and I continue to try and walk the fine line between providing guidance and letting you be with your own shots!
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you
You know it’s not your path.
Your own path you make with every step you take.
That’s why it’s YOUR path.”
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on a street.
Peterson makes use here of an old Jewish question from the Torah:
“Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. What does such a being lack?” (Look those up on Google if you are unsure of their meaning – that’s part of your path!)
Because without limitation there is nothing to look forward to.
Perhaps it serves as a justification for my frugality, but I do wonder what happens when people get everything so early in life. In our circles it is not uncommon that by the age of eighteen, a lot of teenagers have travelled to multiple continents and have more possessions than they know what to do with. There is no space between the prawn starters and the halva ice cream other than to check how many likes they’ve had on social media. Sometimes two main courses at an expensive restaurant are ordered because precious was just sooooo hungry!
It’s a concept for some as foreign as courtesy and as alien as an honest politician. Enjoy your main course by all means, but then you order bread – as much as you like to fill the gaps left by instant gratification and the spaces of entitled satisfaction.
I’m not sure if this is what the author was really saying, maybe you might rightfully remind me to get to the point Dad, but what I read here was to be more present in the moment. To not just think about something, but to truly notice that thing. To notice a way through rather than over think the problem. To notice the light on the fairway and the early morning silver of dew, and not to dwell on the mechanics of the ‘omni-efficient’ mechanics of the golf swing.
It comes back to the appreciation of Kairos moments in the minutia of life. Those moments where the hands of the clock stand still and they carve a memory in the mind which may last forever. The belly laugh from an irreverent meme on a WhatsApp post or a walk around the block to please a pair of over excited Jack Russels.
The warm greeting of someone who notices you or a note of thanks you receive from someone who took the time. While they might have taken the time to write it, it is really in what they gave that matters.
Peterson ends his book with a great question.
“What shall I do with my new found pen of light?”
For me, a part of that lies in my writing. I have stories, essays, reflections, poems and thousands of pages of journals. Mostly however, they sit on my laptop and in the pages of these family books, and that seems a waste. I would like to send them out. To whom and quite how are the questions which hold me back in the hooks and spikes of my own Zizyphus branch with its twists and turns, but that is my journey.
What you will both do with your ‘pens of light’ is of far more interest to me. I don’t know where they will lead you, but I do know that wherever that may be, I will be following – hopefully from an appropriate distance.
And I will be following with an impossibly full heart.
All my love, always,