By Vijitha Yapa

Moses went up the mountain and was away for a while. He left behind the children of Israel who had been slaving for Egypt’s pharaohs for over 400 years and had been 40 years in the desert to purify them of slavishness. During his absence, the freed slaves soon began their revelry and danced around a golden calf idol.

A furious Moses descended from the mountain and declared that he had good and bad news, which do the people want to hear first?

The hedonists replied: “The good news.”

“I talked Him down from 15 commandments to 10,” crowed Moses.

“Hallelujah!” cried the crowd and asked: “The bad?”

“Adultery is still in,” the great lawmaker sighed.

This is one example of ‘ancient wisdom,’ says Dr. Norman Doidge (author of The Brain That Changes Itself), as he introduces readers to the writings of Jordan Peterson. The book is replete with similar apocryphal stories, making it a pleasant experience in understanding the ‘12 rules for life’ as proclaimed by Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

Doidge claims that Peterson showed his students how evolution helps explain the profound psychology and wisdom of many ancient stories ranging from Gilgamesh and the life of the Buddha, to Egyptian mythology and the Bible.

Peterson’s first chapter is fascinating as he discusses the lives of lobsters, which mark their territory and resent any intrusions. They will fight for their rights with antennas whipping wildly and claws folded downward, and their secretion of serotonin mirroring human behaviour.

As standards slide and discipline disappears, it’s easy to point fingers at others. People who have worked together for years fall out because they say they haven’t been given the recognition or positions they deserve by those in power.

Peterson thinks that a practical cure lies in curing the individual and remedies must begin with oneself – as people are advised that they must be the change they wish to see in others, the author asks readers to begin by cleaning their own room first. If a person cannot start by keeping the immediate environs he lives in neat and tidy, how can he dictate what others should do? If this is the first step, then he can be better today than he was yesterday.

It was Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) who noted that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the population. Investigations in other countries found that the same unequal distribution of income and wealth exists in their territories too. Today, this is known as the Pareto Principle, which posits that roughly 20 percent of invested input is responsible for 80 percent of results obtained or 20 percent of causes result in 80 percent of effects.

In the late 1940s, business guru Joseph M. Juran spoke about the ‘vital few and trivial many.’ What proportions prevail in Sri Lanka is not known but social responsibility began with deeper thoughts on ideas like this. The problem though is that business houses use social responsibility to make a name for themselves through friendly media. But at least that’s a start. After all, small changes can have disproportionately large results – the butterfly effect.

Peterson emphasises that it is important to treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. Also, to choose one’s friends wisely.

Life may be a tragedy but instead of cursing it, he wants readers to transform it into something meaningful. If we know something is wrong, he urges us to stop doing it – the choices are in front of you; taking the first step is key. Pursue what is meaningful, not what’s expedient.

To him, the noble life is like an instinct – a vision of what one can be. Before accusing others, turning the searchlight inward to examine secret resentments and personal failings is helpful. He wants people to tell the truth – or at least not lie.

An important secret is to be a good listener, says Peterson. I am thus reminded of two great journalists.

Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of the Mahatma, writing in his weekly journal Himmat mentioned a meeting he once had with a cabinet minister. Even before he could finish saying “tell me,” a torrent of words had poured out. Peterson rightly asks how many of us are willing to listen.

The late editor of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge was willing to listen and he was assassinated by those who objected to him writing about what he had heard.

Peterson’s book has many home truths. His 12 rules for life are worth reading and implementing as they’re extremely practical. No wonder that the book is on Amazon’s bestseller list for nonfiction.