I’ve always made it a point to listen to anyone who dispenses advice on how to live, whoever they are. Anything from ancient moral philosophy to clickbait headlines that read something like “Top ten habits of highly successful people”—all of it gets my attention. There’s always something to learn from this sort of thing. Just for fun, I’m going to take a stab at this ever-popular genre. I see Jordan Peterson has published a pair of books called 12 Rules for Life and a sequel, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. I haven’t read his books, but I did glance at their tables of contents. I see you can get the pair in paperback for around US$33. That’s almost a dollar and a half a rule. I’m going to go one better and give you 25 rules, and for free. A lot of the stuff of this kind that you read is just someone’s half-baked opinion. My own half-baked opinions are as good as theirs, so here are 25 of them.
1. Have a code. By this I mean a personal code. Bob Dylan once recounted in an interview a story from his days as a young singer-songwriter when an older and more established singer said to the young artist, “Remember, Bob: no fear, no envy, no meanness,” to which Mr. Dylan replied, “Hmm, right.” He was imparting a code that any young artist could make their own. I rather like Dylan’s code, although mine is a little different than his. The British royal family have their own code: never complain, never explain. Not bad. Their code has also served them well, as any code should. “Code” is an intriguing concept. It’s not something that would pass Immanuel Kant’s universalization test. It’s more like a personal morality, something that applies to you and maybe only you. Sometimes it will apply to a smallish number of other people. It should be short, pithy, and easy to remember but not easy to abide by.
2. Get a hobby. There’s a line in an old song by Don Henley: “Folks these days,” Henley said, “just don’t do nothin’ simply for the love of it.” That line has always stayed with me. What is a hobby but something you do simply for the love of it? Life is to be loved and enjoyed. Not everyone loves their job or enjoys the various things they do in the course of a day, but anyone can find something else that they can be passionate about and maybe take pride in, something they can be good at, even if the satisfaction it produces is theirs alone. It doesn’t need to please anyone else. A hobby is undertaken for no reason but the satisfaction of seeing something get done and done well. Maybe that hobby can exercise a different part of the brain than your career demands, develop some different skills. When you find an activity that you love, that isn’t mindless, and that someone else might also benefit from but that doesn’t produce the kind of utility that people tend to overvalue—especially money and reputation—my advice is to do what you love for no other reason than that you love it. It produces little or no payoff, it will probably cost you something, and it’s good for the soul. If you wait until you can afford the time, you’ll be waiting forever.
3. Make something with your hands. Last spring, when all the gyms in my city closed due to COVID-19 I had to get my exercise outside, so I decided to rebuild the old cedar rail fences that surround our very large front lawn. I had learned how to build fences as a kid on the farm, so it wasn’t much of a stretch, but it was very heavy labor. Those post holes needed to be at least 2.5 feet deep and I decided to use only traditional tools. When that was done I built a medieval-style wattle fence around my chicken corral. That took some learning. I had never built or even seen one of those before. There’s a deep satisfaction that comes with building something like this, some structure that’s going to be there for decades. The same goes for knitting and other forms of handwork, carpentry, carving, gardening, any number of things. Again there isn’t a lot of tangible utility here, but it’s good for the soul.
4. Live with at least one animal. At the moment I’m living with six, three in the house and three chickens in their coop. Those animals can make better friends than people, they’re a cheerful presence in any home, and they’re remarkably forgiving. They’ll keep you grounded and see you through some difficult times. If you give them what they need, they’ll give you far more than you’ll likely give them. One of the best things you can do for a child, if you have one, is to give them a pet.
5. Don’t be mean, usually. I recently watched an interview in which a woman mentioned that when she was a girl one of her teachers, a Catholic nun, told her that you should never strive to be nice. Don’t confuse being good with being nice. This reminded me of a few of my own school teachers who were also nuns and not necessarily the nicest of people, at least to us. My grade one teacher was a stern individual. I had the distinct impression that she didn’t like children. As vice-principal it was her job to dole out the corporal punishment to any kids who had acted up. The daily routine was for all the kids in the school to gather at the end of the day and in front of the assembly she would explain how these kids had misbehaved and then give them the strap. For my friends and me this little spectacle was the highlight of our day. I learned a lot from that nun, like how not to be rude and how to spell. Meanness in itself isn’t a virtue, but if you’re incapable of it in any and all circumstances, you’re going to end up a pushover. A little meanness in your virtue is the cream in your coffee. Black coffee is boring. To those who say that some force in the universe punishes people for bad behavior I say the universe sometimes likes to act through human intermediaries, and from time to time you, like my first grade teacher, may be called upon to be one of those intermediaries.
6. Avoid hypocrites. This has always been a pet peeve of mine: people who preach one thing and act in some other way. You might think the above-mentioned nun was a hypocrite. I didn’t like her, but she wasn’t a hypocrite. Every school day ended with the strap ritual and every mass ended with all the congregants turning to their neighbor, shaking their hand and saying “Peace be with you.” That might look like a contradiction, but we made it work. The hypocrisy I have in mind isn’t that but the person who presents him- or herself in public one way and then goes home and turns into the opposite. It’s best to strive for consistency between your various social roles, to have some constancy about yourself and to reconcile your various aspects into some non-contradictory human being. Best to eliminate hypocrites from your life. You can’t trust them.
7. Imagine your kids being the age that you are now. If you’re a parent, those kids you’re raising will someday be adults. I often imagine what kind of person my ten-year-old daughter will be when she’s my age. I wonder what her beliefs and values will be, what she’ll do for a living, what she’ll say about her upbringing, how she’ll raise her own kids if she has them. Kids are not little adults, but it’s good to imagine what kind of adults they’re on their way to becoming. Are they going to do some good in the world? They’re going to imitate you in some way, so what kind of example are you setting? Perfection isn’t the standard, but there will come a time when you’ll have to speak to them as peers.
8. Think about how—also whether—you’re going to be remembered. One thing is certain: you’re not going to be remembered by the people you care about in quite the way you would choose. They’ll probably remember some little things that you haven’t thought much about, some saying or joke that you tell, some odd habit. I’ll never forget a late relative of my wife, a woman who lived to be 93 and who insisted on calling crackers biscuits and cookies sweet biscuits. I remember having lunch in her kitchen many times and as she’d move the cookie tin toward me she’d say, “Sweet biscuit”? I must have asked her at the time why she didn’t just call it a cookie like everybody else, but if I did I don’t remember her answer. I guess if you live to be 93, you can do and say whatever you want. To this day when I offer my daughter a cookie I call it a sweet biscuit, and she does the same with our dog. This woman probably wanted to be remembered for something that had more gravitas than that, but we do remember these things and often not the big things we want to be remembered for. Then there are those who are forgotten completely, sometimes even before they die. You don’t want to be one of them, but if you live the wrong way, there’s a fair chance you will be.
9. Wear hats. A brochure from my daughter’s school says “Friends don’t let friends look anything less than awesome.” It goes on to detail the school uniform which interestingly doesn’t include hats. I’m an advocate of hats, maybe not for kids but adults should wear hats a good part of the time. In old movies we always see people wearing hats of one kind or another, indoors as well as outdoors. Indoors seems excessive to me, but when you’re outside everyone looks better in a hat and it also expresses something about your personality. It’s an opportunity for a bit of self-expression, it completes an outfit, and it looks great. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on hats, but everyone should have at least one signature hat that is appropriate to the season and that communicates something other than what team you follow. Don’t disappear into the mass. Wear a hat.
10. Listen to albums, not just singles. Albums appear to be going out of style, but as someone who grew up in the 70s listening to a lot of music, this meant listening not only to hits on the radio but whole albums. This was an experience that lasted 40 or 50 minutes, twice that in the case of a double album, and it was far more meaningful than listening to one song. An album is like a novel; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end and contains a much larger musical narrative than what can be compressed into four minutes. There is variety, a mélange of sound, tempo, and emotion as one song leads into another with a kind of organic progression. As good as the singles are, my favorites are always the so-called album tracks, songs that are never heard on the radio but that always seem to me deeper and more personal, something I had discovered for myself by listening intently for some period of time rather than something that had been served up to me by some commercial entity. In listening to a band with more than one lead singer like the Eagles or Supertramp I always loved the suspense between songs, as I’d wonder who was going to sing the next one, whether it would be fast or slow, happy or sad, whatever it was. It added to the experience. Some of a band’s best songs are those album tracks. Listen to the Eagles’ most recent album Long Road Out of Eden, a double album that contains a lot of their best work, songs like “Waiting in the Weeds,” “No More Cloudy Days,” and the title track, all of which are as good or better than any of their hits and which you’ll never hear on the radio. One of my other favorite bands is the Cranberries. You probably know their early hits, but for me their best music is again the album tracks, especially on their later work, songs like “Schizophrenic Playboys,” “The Glory,” and “Lunatic” on the last solo album by the late great Dolores O’Riordan.
11. Don’t get your opinions from celebrities, with the exception of some musicians. Just because someone can act in a movie or play a game for a living doesn’t mean they have better judgment than you do. Many of them are given to expressing opinions about things, but when the lives they lead are utterly disconnected from what you’re going through, you don’t have much to learn from them. Many of them probably have less education than you do as well. I put musicians and other artists in a different category. Some of my own opinions I did borrow from my favorite musicians, not because I idolize them but because they make sense. Many examples come to mind, but I’ll mention just two. Joe Walsh of the above-mentioned Eagles has a line on his latest solo album that goes “If you just act like you know what you’re doing, everybody thinks that you do.” That’s true. The next one is its own rule. This one comes from the late great Neil Peart of Rush.
12. Remember your 16-year-old self. Mr. Peart elaborated as follows: “I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.” For some reason I’ve always remembered well my 16-year-old self. One often dreams big at that stage of life, before the world comes in and cuts those dreams down to size. I was a teenage dreamer. I wanted to become a philosopher, write books, and look like a very cool Cat Stevens on the back cover of his album Catch Bull at Four, pictured here. Notice he was wearing a hat. I’ve made some progress on the first two, not sure about the third. Stuff happens in life, and those dreams tend to be modified as we go along. Still, I think we owe an explanation of who we’ve become to that teenager with their aspirations. Remember the people you didn’t want to be like, the jobs you didn’t want to have, the compromises you didn’t want to make. Compromise in some sense may be a part of life, but selling out isn’t. Dreaming is, so remember who you are and also who you were.
13. Don’t make the same mistake twice. I’m not saying don’t make mistakes. Do make mistakes—that’s how we learn, from trial and error. If we eliminate the error, we eliminate the learning, and life is all about learning. My theory is that we’re all given a mistake allowance, so go ahead and spend it, but don’t overdraw on that account. Also, learn from other people’s mistakes. This is a rare art, and if you learn it you can spend your allowance on other things.
14. Don’t think that politicizing everything makes you look virtuous. It makes you look self-righteous and it’s off-putting. Avoid people who do that.
15. Don’t die in debt. Making your kids pay your bills is selfish. The same applies to generations.
16. Visit every section of a bookstore. It’s good to have a broad curiosity, and to be able to walk into any section of a good bookstore and find something that interests you, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. You can’t have a narrow mind and be wise at the same time.
17. Learn to play an instrument. I only attempted this recently. Last Father’s Day my wife and daughter gave me a beautiful bass guitar and an amp. I had been thinking about buying one for a while but was reluctant to take the plunge. I practice a little every day, and whenever I hear a song with a bass line I like, I try to figure out how it’s played and try to play it. It’s difficult but rewarding in some intangible way. Even if it doesn’t sound great, it trains you to exercise a different part of your brain and also to get your brain on the same wavelength as your hands. It might make you a little more interesting.
18. Know some history. Don’t imagine that just because our ancestors didn’t have smartphones they were any less knowledgeable than we are or that they don’t have anything to teach us. The past is a teacher—your personal past but also our collective past. We can learn from both their achievements and their mistakes. Don’t cancel them because they made mistakes; what are your descendants going to say about you? Do you really want to be judged by their standards? If you want to understand human nature in particular, there’s no better teacher than the record of what human beings have done, in any period or culture that you’re interested in. These days I read more history than philosophy. It’s addictive and it shines a light on the present that’s not to be had in any other way.
19. Get up early in the morning. This is one of those habits that very successful people often have. Four a.m. is a very nice time of the day. I do my best work then, when the house is quiet and the coffee pot is full. Life isn’t a race, but if it were, it would be won by the people who get up before the sun does.
20. Exercise religiously. Any form of exercise, they’re all good. The best form of exercise is the one that you like and will actually do. You’ll live longer, look better, and maintain your physical and mental health. It’s pretty hard to be depressed when your heart is pounding and your muscles are screaming.
21. Stop blaming people for your life. This applies to anyone who’s an adult. You didn’t set the stage, but you’ve also been on that stage for a while now.
22. Protest by proposing. Don’t protest something unless you have a better idea. Cicero said much the same: “I criticize by creation,” he said, “not by finding fault.” What Albert Camus called rebellion is a stance of defiance in the face of the absurd, not as an end in itself but as a prelude to some original creation. Only under this condition does it have any positive meaning. When you’re not proposing a solution, your protest is an act of empty negation. Protest for protest’s sake is meaningless, so before you go out carrying signs and tearing down statues know what you’re in favor of, have a solution that’s not impossibly vague or impossible to justify.
23. Cultivate humility. Not too much, but some, especially intellectual humility. This kind of humility has always been the beginning of wisdom. People who lack it are unteachable because in their minds they already know it all. It is characteristic of people who know a great deal to be fully aware of how much they don’t know. Don’t imagine that the know-it-all actually knows it all; they’re intellectual bigots.
24. Don’t marry more than twice. I think that one’s self-explanatory.
25. Buy a burial plot early. They’re not that expensive and visiting it from time to time reminds you of your existential condition. You’re going to spend a lot of time there someday, so plan ahead and make sure you choose some nice real estate.
There you have it, 25 rules to live by. It takes a lifetime to learn how to live, and wisdom is only ever sought, not possessed. But if nothing else I just saved you $33.
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