I STARTED TEACHING WHEN I WAS 16, IN MY FOURTH YEAR OF SECONDARY SCHOOL. I had gotten the third position in my Additional Mathematics (Calculus) class with the second distinction grade after failing at it for more than a year. I began to ask my juniors if any of them needed help and started offering my teaching services. I thought, “Who else better to teach others than someone who rose up from failure?“
15 years later, I’m a study skills coach. I had moved on from the traditional role of teacher and consecutively a tutor. Through this journey towards self-development, I chanced upon Dr Jordan Peterson’s (henceforth referred to as “JP”) 12 Rules For Life. After reading it casually, I realised I had yet to completely and thoroughly grasp his ideas or at least attempt to understand his flow of thoughts. I found them very beneficial and so I thought, “What better way to make the rules an organic part of me than studying, reflecting and then applying them in my life?“
Just like how I rose up from failure.
So this is my journey to becoming slightly better than yesterday.
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
JP organises his chapters in smaller sections. What I will attempt to do is to first capture the essence of each section and then attempt to describe his flow through these sections.
Section 1: LOBSTERS – AND TERRITORY
JP begins to talk about lobsters and reminds us that we should pay attention to them since the mapping of their nervous systems has been accurately done by scientists. Because of this, we are now able to “understand the structure and function of the brain and behaviour of more complex animals, including human beings.” He then describes their innate pursuit of the aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food, shelter and a mate. He ends the section by describing how other animals too, like songbirds, are in the same predicament: to pursue these needs given finite resources.
My Thoughts: Initially, I could not figure out the importance of this section. But as I read on, this became the zoomed out image of a map that I had overlooked and underappreciated. He later explains in depth why it is crucial to pay attention and seriously consider the implications of the mapping of the lobster’s nervous system. I later realised that we need to apply the lens of looking at the behaviour of these animals and use it to look at human beings. What I found was that there was a crucial common factor and to brush it aside would be a naive and foolish decision.
Section 2: Birds – and Territory
JP begins by sharing a story about the relationship he had with wrens. He thought they were “small, and they’re cute, but they’re merciless”. They would protect their nests, their territory, to their deaths. They do this to increase their likelihood of attracting higher quality mates and consequently, the survival of their species. Wrens who are at the top of this hierarchy of dominance have access to more resources and survival. They would then have a higher chance of surviving diseases and outbreaks. He ends the section by explaining that physical altercations between birds are unavoidable but also pose risk for the victor from an opportunistic third party.
My Thoughts: This second section seems to prepare the reader for the acceptance of the idea itself: that so long there is a finite resource, competition for dominance will be unavoidable. Therefore, a hierarchy is the biological programming default that ensures the survival of a species. Towards the end, he weaves the initial idea of the natural establishment of a dominance hierarchy with the idea that it must naturally come with dispute and conflict.
Section 3: Conflict – and Territory
JP talks about different animals that have behaviours to manage conflict between themselves and that is found in any population of living things. He then describes the three levels of resolving dispute: Boxing and Chemical Dance, Advance and Retreat Dance, and Genuine Combat. JP then describes how losses from level 3 disputes can result in drastic changes in the lobster’s brain. This painful transformation requires “complete dissolution and regrowth”, something that JP says human who have faced serious defeats may be able to empathise with.
My Thoughts: At first, this section seemed like a stretch. I mean, why would JP go all the way to describe conflict management and dispute resolution of animals? I later realised that he is setting up the next layer of the map: the experience animals go through up and down the dominance hierarchy. We, humans, do this too, don’t we? Within our own organisations, we negotiate salaries with our bosses and compete with peers for positions of dominance, responsibility, power and status. For those who own businesses, the battle is fought in politics, advertising and market shares.
Section 4: The Neurochemistry of Defeat and Victory
The key content of this section refers to the relationship between the hormones serotonin and octopamine the effects of winning and losing. The winner will develop more serotonin/low octopamine while the loser more octopamine/low serotonin. The two hormones regulate a reflex called the tail-flick reflex, similar to a fight-or-flight response in humans.
My Thoughts: The concluding summary of this section is simple: these hormones most probably affect human beings in general. And I have suspicions that the effects are far more subtle and influential than we think.
Section 5: The Principle of Uneven Distribution
This section describes how an uneven distribution is natural. A victorious lobster is more likely to win again, while a defeated lobster is more likely to lose again. This phenomenon has been discovered by various economists and has been known by various names. These include Price’s Law after Derek J. De Solla Price in 1963, Pareto Principle after Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), and Matthew Principle (Matthew 25: 29) derived from the Bible: “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.”
My Thoughts: This section is probably my favourite of all sections. Initially, it might sound like a cruel joke. But it must be true if data has been collected and analyzed, and a meta has been observed. While, initially, I felt some restriction within myself, I eventually accepted the idea because of the things I myself have observed. Members of the Malay community in Singapore who are business owners seem to portray more and more success the bigger they grow. It probably has something to do with taking calculated risks and finishing as the victor, increasing their serotonin levels and subsequently, presenting themselves with more opportunities.
Section 6: All the Girls
While the previous sections may have addressed the male lobsters (it’s a masculine lobster’s world!), this section shares the hierarchy of dominance and resources from the perspective of the female lobster’s. Male lobsters at the top of the hierarchy would have the highest sexual market value, attracting the top female mates. The last paragraph, it seems to me, binds all the previous sections together, emphasizing that dominance hierarchies have been an ancient common factor “to which all complex life has adapted.” Seeing that lobsters have existed for more than 350 million years, the neural network then already had the ability to create a working hierarchy in a society.
My Thoughts: Survival, territory, finite resources, conflict resolution, dispute management across a dominance hierarchy, serotonin, uneven distribution and females: all words to describe the underlying workings of a society based on a neural network that has existed since more than 350 million years ago. Go ahead. Mock the lobster.
End of Part 1
I hope you’ve found my reflections useful. Could you relate to some of my thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with some of them?
Do let me know in the comments below. I look forward to discussing them with you. 🙂