The First Rule

This week I'm re-reading 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson in an attempt to better understand some of the linguistically dense essays that follow the presentation of each rule. Regardless of what anyone might think of Dr. Peterson's opinions on life and lobsters, he has clearly had a profound impact on a lot of people around the world. While the words and analogies he uses to express ideas can be overcomplicated at times, the underlying message that he conveys is one to be applauded: take responsibility for yourself and you will stand a fighting chance at having a more meaningful life.

Some people feel this list of a dozen rules are common sense, but there are a lot of people who don't learn these things until they're well into their adult years. This has certainly been the case in my lifetime, as the guardians and role models I grew up around may have tried to teach me these lessons only to have the words fall on deaf ears. While I doubt I'll have my own stories to share for each of the rules outlined in the book, there are more than a few incidents that resulted in me learning these edicts the hard way.

Rule #1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back

Rule Number One

Up until the age of 18 I was a veritable ball of energy. Like many young men, I was ambitious, optimistic, and incredibly naive. Plans for the future had been written down when I was sixteen and where already two years in progress. By 25 I would earn my first million dollars online. By 30 I would have a growing software company headquartered in Toronto on Bay Street. By 40 I would retire and tour the world. All I needed to do first was attend school, make connections, create new digital tools, and share that software with the world.

Then "something involving a priest" happened and I removed myself from public view as much as possible. For almost seven years I would distance myself from people, choosing to be alone in my apartment when not at work, so that I could do the things I enjoyed without anyone using their knowledge of my passions to take advantage of my stupidity. I would be an active participant on IRC. I would be an active contributor to various open source projects. I would play video games, build computers, and write software for Palm handhelds. I would move almost 5,000km west to Vancouver where I could make a fresh start without anyone knowing anything about my past. But I would never ever let a person get too close and make me the fool ever again.

Despite the solitude and drastic change of address, self-confidence eluded me. No matter what I tried, it just wouldn't appear for more than an hour or two before giving way to what I considered at the time to be a years-long depression1. I slouched a lot during this time. When walking outside, I'd keep my gaze to the ground and avoid eye contact as much as possible. I could go days without ever saying a word to someone despite working 8-hour shifts in a warehouse, riding public transit, buying groceries, paying bills, and doing all the other tasks that are associated with being a member of society.

Around 2005 this started to change. A young woman had taken an interest in me online and we were getting along. She lived in the next city over from me, so we arranged to go out to see a movie together. Over the next couple of months we would spend time together doing various things. I think she was looking for a relationship and I was looking for a friend. We kept things platonic, which worked well. Later that same year I met someone special. Someone who would tell me point blank when she didn't like something, but she would also play those games that (some) women seem to enjoy when someone was clearly interested in them. She said something about "weak men" and insinuated that I should show more confidence when around people. Using her knowledge of my passions, she took advantage of my stupidity. I started to project confidence I didn't feel by standing straight. I wouldn't slouch when seated. When using the computer, I would ditch the chair altogether and stand while typing or gaming or having a nice video chat with this young woman. Eye contact became much easier to handle. People at work noticed the change and commented on it, which only helped build the artificial confidence into something a little more real. Soon after, I would ask this woman out for a date and she would say "yes".

A relationship was born — my first — and my confidence grew.

Lots of great things happened in short succession afterward. At the day job some managers had noticed that I'd written an application for my Palm PDA to help me manage the warehouse floor. When I was on duty, machines never stopped while waiting for paper or ink. Resources were always in place half an hour before they were needed, and waste was removed within 5 minutes of being set aside. They offered me a full-time position in the office with a nice raise, and I accepted the offer.

Around this time I also started calling family back home more often. Up until this point I had tried to keep a low profile, calling only for Christmas and birthdays, so that I wouldn't be asked any questions about the past. But now that I had better things to talk about, it seemed the right time to rekindle family ties and catch up on what everyone else was doing with their life. It seemed just about every siblings had started families in the few years since I left.

This is also when something truly different started to happen: I would invite people over to my home. My island of solitude. First it was just friends, but then acquaintances would also be invited over to join in a round of Risk2 on "game night".

In the span of a few months in 2005, I'd gone from being in a self-inflicted purgatory to being … well … human. Was this only because I started to walk with my back straight and shoulders back? No. But this was the start, and it's a trait that I have maintained ever since. Slouching interferes with breathing and digestion, which makes a person naturally feel down. Always staring at the ground and avoiding eye contact makes a person feel unimportant, disconnected, and down. Standing with your head up, looking straight ahead is a great way to ensure proper breathing and awareness of one's surroundings. Even when nervous, a person will appear more confident if they stand tall and look alert. Sometimes appearances can encourage the development a person wants.

Dress for the Job You Want

Unfortunately the relationship didn't last more than seven months3. We went our separate ways and, six months later, I met Reiko. Now there's all this.

Confidence is a key element to navigating the world. Despite all of the modern conveniences and relative safety that so many of us take for granted, life is hard. It's not easy to get up and battle the same problems day after day at work. It's not easy to stay on top of all the bills when it seems that costs keep increasing while salaries remain the same. It's not easy keeping your back straight and shoulders back when a family member is terribly sick or hurt. But we have to take care of ourselves before we can properly take care of others. We can't shy away from responsibility. We must do what we must do, which is a lot easier when we can show the world that we can stand tall and face reality with our eyes forward.

Maybe this long piece has little to do with the first rule, but this is how I learned the importance of this truth based on experiences in my life. I'm not sure I could have learned it better any other way given how frustratingly arrogant I was as a teen.

  1. In retrospect, it wasn't a constant depression but instead self-loathing mixed with self-pity. A dreadful and not-at-all useful combination.

  2. the board game, not on the computer.

  3. This was all documented on the blog before this one … back when I was using Windows Live Spaces to overshare with the world.