My Twelve Rules for Life

Russ Roberts
6 min readFeb 13, 2018

This list is inspired by Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and my recent EconTalk interview with him. Some of these rules show up in passing in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. These are my 12 rules today. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what to include and of course they are easier to list than to live by.

  1. Learn to enjoy saying “I don’t know”

If you enjoy saying it, you’ll say it more often. It’s not easy to enjoy — it’s definitely an acquired taste. When you’re young, it hurts to say it. As you get older, you can savor saying it. Work on enjoying it. Remember that honesty is better than posing as the expert that you’re not. Say it calmly with open eyes. Don’t look away. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Ignorance really is bliss when you’re self-aware enough to know your limitations.

2. Find something healthy to worship

David Foster Wallace says it well:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

And this movie version of another piece from that same speech is also worth watching:

But the most important thing to remember is not to worship yourself. Not as easy as it sounds.

3. Make Shabbat

I keep the Jewish sabbath, also known as shabbat. But the verb that describes the preparation for shabbat is “to make “— to create. It implies effort, a paradox given that the essence of shabbat is the cessation of effort. In turn, shabbat — a 25 hour respite from technology punctuated by prayer and lengthy meals with family and friends — has made our family what it is. Keeping and making shabbat is not easy so if it does not come naturally to your worldview, try keeping a little shabbat — have Friday night dinner with your family and try to keep that as a family rule. Or create some other window in your life without devices where family and friends can talk and laugh.

4. Eat dinner with your family as often as possible and always without devices.

My wife and I treat family dinner as a rule. We are always home for dinner unless we are out of town. And dinner is device-free.

5. Read Read Read

Videos and television and movies are great fun. But don’t spend too much time on them. Leave lots of time for getting smarter by reading. Read widely. Read some books more than once. Write in your books. Don’t finish every book you start. You might be able to read 2500 books in your lifetime. Maybe a few more than that. It’s still a very small number. Choose wisely.

6. Tithe (wisely) to help create community and care for others

In a way this is a variant on rule #2. Everyone worships — the one thing you don’t want to worship is yourself. Giving away money (and time) to organizations and communities that speak to what you care about keeps you humble and less self-centered. While I do not subscribe to every tenet of the effective altruism movement, they are on to something — spend your money so it’s effective.

7. Don’t take the job that pays the most money

“Whoever has the most toys, wins” is not one of my twelve rules for life. There are many things that are more important than accumulating material well-being, especially when you’re young and a little tougher. Take the job that uses your skills and that enhances those skills over the job that pays more. And take the job that makes you feel good about what you’re accomplishing for others over the one that doesn’t.

8. Give up a lot to be at a funeral

You can always find an excuse for not going. It’s in the middle of the day, you have a lot to do, the person is already gone, the family of the one who’s gone will understand, and most of all, how important is it really? Try to go anyway. Attending any funeral is a reminder of what’s important in life. Attending a funeral of someone who touched your life builds gratitude and is a kindness to those left behind.

9. If your child offers you a hand to hold, take it

The preciousness of childhood, the preciousness of this day, today, this moment when your child wants your hand for comfort can be hard to appreciate in the moment. You might be tired. Or just tired of holding your child’s hand. Take it anyway. As they get older, they assert their independence. That’s good. But in the meanwhile, hold their hand, take care of them with an open heart. And when they ask to hear Curious George for the nth time, read it again as if it were the first. As Gretchen Rubin, explains, the years are short.

This rule presumes you have a child. A friend of mine and his wife are trying to decide whether to have a child. My advice: you are blessed not be desperately poor. You have no way of imagining how having a child changes you. There are costs and benefits that you can read about but they will not capture the heartbreak or joy of parenting. The simple most important reason is that parenting is a unique human experience. I recommend it.

10. Know yourself

At the age of 61, I attended a silent meditation retreat. I learned a lot about myself — my weaknesses, my habits, my blessings. A silent retreat isn’t for everyone, but the introspection it encourages is a really good idea. Find a way to see yourself through the eyes of the world. Be grateful for what you have. Strive to improve. Understand the narratives you operate under that unconsciously push your buttons and drive some of your responses. All of this is easier if you are self-aware. So find a way to know yourself — reading, therapy, meditation, religion, all can help. You could almost certainly be more humble. Start there.

11. Hold your anger for a day

After receiving news of some military setback or failure, Abraham Lincoln would write a letter to the offending general and put it in a drawer for a day to see how he felt the next day. If memory serves, he never sent them. In the calm following a night’s sleep, Lincoln regretted what he had written. If something riles you up, wait a day before responding either in person or in an email. Usually, like Lincoln, you’ll think better of it. I would add that anger is a dangerous emotion unless you are in physical danger and you need the adrenaline to protect yourself. Anger is a form of loss of control. Sometimes, it just feels good. I get it. But it is rarely if ever helpful to others or to myself. Passion is a virtue, not anger. And if you get angry anyway, try to hold it for a day before responding.

12. Be kind — everyone is in a battle

We go through life judging others. I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons we sometimes judge ourselves harshly is to give ourselves an excuse for judging those around us harshly as well. Judging has many virtues. It helps us decide who to spend time with, who to work with, who to marry. But it also can be a seductive drug to make us feel important or special. Harsh judgments can be used to justify or excuse rudeness and can allow us to dismiss others as our inferiors. All judgments are incomplete. We never know the full story. So be kind. Cut those around you much slack. It is hard getting through life. Others look like they are skating effortlessly but they, like you and me struggle with all kinds of things that are concealed. So be kind. Don’t bear a grudge. Don’t keep score. Give people around you the benefit of the doubt. Wag more, bark less. You will be happier for it and the people around you will enjoy your company all the more.



Russ Roberts

I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.