After a harrowing time I decided to purchase and read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I intend to point out key concepts, relate them to other readings, and to my own experiences. What stood out for me in Chapter 1, Stand up Straight with your Shoulders Back, were status & position, feedback loops, and the importance of routine.
Status & Position
The first chapter is a springboard into Jordan Peterson’s fascination with lobsters. He points out the hierarchy that male lobsters live within and how, after winning battles with other lobsters, rises in their serotonin positively affect their posture and willingness to fight again. These fights allocate the best resources — food, shelter, and mates — to the victor. On the other hand, defeated lobsters are scrunched up, skulking things with easily startled reflexes.
Comparatively, I have a friend who exhibits these physical cues: he’s hunched over, jumpy, and looks defeated. These attributes reflect his status as an individual: he doesn’t have a steady job, he’s never lived on his own, he’s never dated, and doesn’t have much direction. In comparison with an alpha male he’s the archetypal wimp who couldn’t compete in the realm of sexual selection. In regards to relationships and courting, females “identify the top guy quickly, and become irresistibly attracted to him” (Peterson 9). A guy who has his shit together is much more desirable than one that does not. Things like self-confidence, a steady career, and materialistic goods are markers for a suitable mate. Therefore one should attain stability in one’s life before attempting a relationship; it will improve the probability of its success.
Peterson explains that lower hierarchical status is correlated with high stress impulsivity, anxiety, and the propensity to be physically and mentally broken. Compare this with the high status individual who needn’t worry about whether they can pay the bills, eat well, or find child care.
Also like lobsters:
after a defeat in a relationship, education, or career, we dissolve; we lose confidence, our brain crumbles, and we have to adjust to our new, lowly position. We question our competence, or our strategy, in the ring in which we have been defeated; we begin to doubt if we aren’t careful to learn from our mistakes (Peterson 7).
For me, this meant a defeat in my 2 year relationship where I fell into the categories of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.
At first, I experienced the feelings of denial and bargaining. After being told by my girlfriend that she wanted to move out I didn’t take her seriously, and I went into reaction mode thinking that getting some extra income would fix the situation. However, when I received the big paycheck that would solve our financial crisis that Friday, she told me she had found a place and would be moving out soon. She had made up her mind. She had left within that weekend. It didn’t matter that I was able to procure additional income; the reasons for her departure were deeper than that. She had told me that we we’re breaking up for financial reason but also because she started to resent me. What for? She didn’t say, but I have gathered that it was because of my behavior. Although months had passed, I thought that if I change my behavior she might come back.
Depression began to set in. I lamented the fact that my girlfriend had decided to leave me. I had thought that I had nothing worth living for, that I was unattractive, and a failure. I wallowed in self-pity. If there is any advice I could give it would be not to hate yourself, but to change the things you don’t like about yourself.
I began to ask myself, “What have I been doing wrong? What can I change about myself?” This was a wake-up call to self discovery. I began to think of all my faults: I was a lazy, pessimistic, low-income, out of shape, video gaming procrastinator. I would take naps throughout the day or just relax in bed. Anytime something bad had happened, I would blame the world instead of myself. We had been living in a little studio apartment in a rundown part of town, her car would breakdown, I couldn’t pay the bills, or go out as much as I would have liked; in essence, I wasn’t the provider I wanted to be. I had stopped going to the gym; wasting money eating out, ordering pizza, and getting ice cream from the corner store. Finally, instead of studying or doing my homework like I should have been, I would distract myself by playing video games.
Realizing this, my depression shifted to anger. I was angry at myself for falling into this mode of being. I was angry that my ex girlfriend would give up on me, that I had been thought of as not worthy. I knew I had potential and could be better if given a chance. My anger turned into motivation to prove her wrong, to do better for myself.
I realized that I was like Peterson’s analysis of Peter Pan; a pathetic grown man living in a fantasy world who was not willing to grow up. I had shirked responsibility. I had been dependent upon financial aid. I was complacent and satisfied with mediocrity. I would fold at any stressor that would manifest itself. I had thought that ultimate happiness came from having an intimate relationship. If I can’t take care of myself how would I be able to take care of another? I was entirely dependent upon others…
Ultimately, this whole experience has been a gift since it’s forcing me to become more Self Reliant, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it, and to set higher goals and conditions of living for myself. I’ve embraced Nietzsche’s concept of Self Overcoming, the idea that facing failures and obstacles in one’s life makes one a better person.
Secondly, Peterson points to the power of feedback loops to affect our lives. Like a microphone amplifying the output from a speaker indefinitely, a feedback loop runs itself like a row of dominoes being knocked over. Feedback loops can be quite powerful if positively reinforced and detrimental if they are out of control; leading to such things as anxiety, alcoholism, and depression.
This has never been more true than in my experience of attending university. After I received a dismal grade in a physics class, I hadn’t worked as hard as I could have, I began not going to that class at all. I missed lecture, didn’t do the homework, forfeited exam/essay grades, picked up drinking, was arrested for an alcohol related offense, my grades fell further, the university academically disqualified me, and I became depressed. This short anecdote is telling of how easy it is for life to go spiraling downward. The same could be said about my depression; the more I sat about and pitied myself, the worst it became. It wasn’t until I busied myself so much that I didn’t have time to worry that I started to feel better. In order to be readmitted to the four year university I attended a community college where I found a job tutoring Math and English as well as receiving recognition for obtaining a 4.0 grade point average.
At this point, Peterson introduces the Pareto Distribution, or Price’s Law (Peterson 8), which describes the world we live in as a winner takes all world.
He relates how the most popular music is produced by a handful of musicians, that most academic papers are written by just a few groups, how only a few authors write bestselling books, and that the richest 1% have more money than the bottom 50%. To quote the Bible “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken” (Matthew 25:29).
Peterson also points out the importance of routine and habits:
In response to the videos above, I looked into the effects of sleep and diet upon our mood; I will end up making a shorter post just on these findings since I have more reading to do…
To end I’d like to include the last paragraphs of the chapter:
To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willing undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).
To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the flood, guiding your people through the desert after they have escaped tyranny, making your way away from comfortable home and country, and speaking the prophetic word to those who ignore the widows and children. It means shouldering the cross that marks the X, The place where you and Being intersect so terribly. It means casting dead, rigid and too tyrannical order back into the chaos in which it was generated; it means withstanding the ensuing uncertainty, and establishing, in consequence, a better, more meaningful and more productive order.
So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them — at least the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.
People, including yourself, will start to assume that you are competent and able (or at least they will not immediately conclude the reverse). Emboldened by the positive responses you are now receiving, you will begin to be less anxious. You will then find it easier to pay attention to the subtle social clues that people exchange when they are communicating. Your conversations will flow better, with fewer awkward pauses. This will make you more likely to meet people, interact with them, and impress them. Doing so will not only genuinely increase the probability that good things will happen to you — it will also make those good things feel better when they do happen.
Thus strengthened and emboldened, you may choose to embrace Being, and work for its furtherance and improvement. Thus strengthened, you may be able to stand, even during the illness of a loved one, even during the death of a parent, and allow others to find strength alongside you when they would otherwise be overwhelmed with despair. Thus emboldened, you will embark on the voyage of your life, let your light shine, so to speak, on the heavenly hill, and pursue your rightful destiny. Then the meaning of your life may be sufficient to keep the corrupting influence of mortal despair at bay.
Then you may be able to accept the terrible burden of the World, and find joy.
Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.
Peterson, Jordan B. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Random House, 2018.