Thanks to the success of 12 Rules for Life, the much chattered about new book by controversy-stirring University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson, life rules are having a bit of a moment. Inspired by Peterson, thinkers of all types are sharing their own handy lists of rules with more or less seriousness.
But one intellectual who is clearly taking the idea of life rules seriously is writer and consultant Venkatesh Rao, who recently used his blog Ribbonfarm to propose a novel approach to life rules — rather than adopting anyone else’s blueprint for living, you should make your own, he argues.
In a long, brilliant, but incredibly wonky post (if acronyms, programming jargon, and liberal use of words like ‘systematicity’ turn you off, it probably isn’t for you), Rao offers nothing less than a generalized theory of Life Rule Sets (shortened, inevitably, to LRS) from historic greats like The 10 Commandments to modern-day versions such as Peterson’s, before get around to offering “a DIY template for making your own set of life rules.”
“In the short term, other people’s rules can get you through a rough patch. In the medium term, you have to at least adapt them to your own life. But in the long term, only making your own rules works,” Rao insists.
How to boil life’s hardest questions down to just 12 rules
Rao claims his approach is “color-by-numbers easy to use,” but that might be a little optimistic. Rather than giving the reader easy to understand (if still hard to implement) guidelines, Rao suggests that the problems that occupy our minds can be boiled down to just a dozen central life questions or domains of worry.
The underlying idea is simple enough to understand, but actually dreaming up quality rules for each is inevitably hard. These are, after all, life’s trickiest situations. So what are they? Here’s Rao’s template for DIY life rule creation:
A rule about breaking relationships. For example, Rao’s own rule here is, “Flip early, flip hard.”
A rule about committing to lifelong relationships. His rule for this one is, “Choose death-do-us-part consciously.”
A rule about compromises in work/effort: Rao also calls this “your sell-out rule.”
A rule about making and creating things. This is “your artisan/ how-to-be-a-precious-snowflake rule,” explains Rao, linking to another post that offers a deep dive into the concept. Basically, this one seems to be about how much you should coddle and protect your magical but narcissistic inner child, and how much you should tell the brat to get over herself.
A rule about your relationship to history. This rule should help you “define your relationship to history, and the future, and how you fit into it, including your relationship to mortality and legacy.”
A rule about your relationship to wealth and status. Use this one “to define your basic relationship to a public life,” intructs Rao, even if your “public life” is only within a small group. “For instance, within my little pond here at ribbonfarm, I’m ‘that guy who wrote The Gervais Principle and has been going downhill ever since,’ and I have to decide what to feel about that,” he continues. “Maybe I hate being in that pigeonhole. Maybe I enjoy it. Maybe I have put it behind me. Maybe I’m trapped by it. Maybe I’ll top it. Whatever it is, I have to have a rule about how I relate to things of that sort.”
A rule about your deepest grow-together relationships. “Rules 7-8 are about navigating… crises involving your most private, intimate personal life. The two most useful rules to have for such transitions are a rule about your deepest relationships (7, generally spouse and children) and a rule about relating to your body (8),” Rao claims.
A rule about your physical body. See above.
A rule about how you science. This is one of the more baffling rules Rao calls for. He points the confused to this blog post for clarification, promising to write more on the topic later. Which is good because, to be honest, I am still confused.
A rule about what your life is a measure of. This one also sounds baffling at first, but Rao helpfully offers Steve Jobs as an example. Jobs’ “life became the measure of exploring the frontiers of computing. It is a unit of meaning other lives can be measured against until (and if) they acquire their own character as a measure.” Rao asks: “What will others use your life to measure, value, and gauge?”
A rule about how you appear in public. These next two rules, “are two sides of the same coin. One governs the decision to go public, the other defines the nature of the act of appearing in public,” explains Rao.
A rule about irreversible public action. This last one governs, “that moment before you step on stage. That moment before you hit ‘publish’ or ‘send.’ That moment before you decide whether to say something you cannot unsay.”
DIY life rules for beginners
If thinking up rules for each of these areas of life sounds like a head-spinning challenge to you, take a breathe. Rao clarifies that for “beginners” — i.e. those folks who are generally under 30 and still figuring out their lives — the first four rules are enough.
Once you reach some level of success, you need to decide how to relate to and build upon it. At that stage, move on to the “intermediate” level, which includes rules five and six. The final half dozen rules are only for those who have reached an “advanced” stage in life where they’ve got the basics down but still face crises about the larger meaning and purpose of things.
Breaking down rules by life stage makes things markedly easier, but it still doesn’t make designing you own rules easy. But it’s not meant to be. Taming your runaway mind and figuring out your own values and approach to life are among the fundamental challenges of being human. In some sense, this is what makes us human. But spending the time to do this work for yourself rather than outsourcing it to others has advantages.
“Here’s my 30-day money-back guarantee: if you make rules by this template, you’ll always have a lighthouse rule to navigate by no matter where your mind wanders,” Rao jokingly promises. Give it a try and see if he’s right.