My 12 Rules to Live By

Anybody worth learning from has plenty they stand for.

I love hearing the rules of thumb, the standards, the conventional wisdom and the accrued learnings of these people. Similarly I try to capture tightly-phrased aphorisms and holding myself accountable with plenty of direct and specific lists and resolutions.

So of course I was a sucker for the concept of ‘12 Rules for Life.’ It’s a book published early this year by Jordan Peterson that spiraled from popular to, fitting for today’s era, being engulfed in a strangely hyper-gendered debate. The book’s over-simplified approach of ordering one’s life with structure did gain positive feedback, including a podcast episode from Malcolm Gladwell. But because Peterson is aflame in lots of identity politics, I walked away from the the book less interested in adding to that debate than with something else.

I spent the last several months taking notes of the many universal truths I held myself to, and recommended for others. It became a fun game for parties among friends and family: what are your 12 Rules to Live By?

Let me share.

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The Americas were more populated than Europe at the time of first contact

The Americas were home to some of the world’s most complex and established civilizations in the world at the time of European contact.

As many as 100 million people may have lived in the Americas in 1491, far more than Europe. In the next century, an estimated 80 million of them died, largely because of diseases humans didn’t understand yet.

Though those estimates are still actively contested, a growing number of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians defend the concept that perhaps as many as one in five people on the planet died. It would have been the largest epidemic in human history.

That massive change in understanding pre-Columbian was chronicled in the celebrated 2006 book 1491, by Charles C. Mann, who had written on the issue for the Atlantic. It made a stir then, and I finally got to picking through it, regularly reading news articles on the topic.

I shared my notes below.

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What we know from 150,000 years of human language

There was likely once a single language, first developed 150,000 years ago. That grew to as many as 100,000 languages, before we developed farming. Today there are 6,000 and by 2100, that might be back to as few as 500.

Along the way, languages have emerged, influenced each other and continue to change.

That comes from the 2003 book “Power of Babel,” the third consecutive book I read by linguist John McWhorter, which I finished early this summer. In the last six months, I’ve become quite a big fan of his — having read his 2016 book on language evolution and his 2009 book on the lesser-known stories of the English language history, I seem to be working through his language books in reverse chronological order. (Read the Guardian’s review of this book here.)

The title of the book is, of course, a reference to the biblical story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel. Following the Great Flood, humans speaking a single language plan to build a tower that can reach heaven. God destroys it, sets humans into an array of languages and spreads them across the world to keep them from conspiring to do something like that ever again.

Find my notes from the book below.

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01:10: Hip Hop Icon T.I.

Who better to explore one of popular writing’s most contested modern debates than an icon who has worked on both sides of that debate? That’s why today’s episode of The Writing Process Podcast, the final of this first season, is with T.I.

Conventional wisdom tells that the process of developing rap lyrics was polarized by the genre’s most prolific star: Jay-Z maintained he would develop lyrics in his mind, influencing Biggie’s habit of not writing lyrics either. That transformed a generation of rap stars into memory-led lyricists.

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01:09: Daily Show Correspondent Dulcé Sloan

One of the highest profile jobs for young comics is a correspondent role on The Daily Show, the acclaimed satire-news anchor. Today’s guest has just that.

Atlanta-bred comedian has appeared on Conan and in 2017 was highlighted by Rolling Stone as among 10 comedians to watch. Last fall, she joined the cast of the Comedy Central staple.

In this episode of The Writing Process, hear her talk about when she chooses to write a joke on stage and when she crafts it on paper.

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01:08: Singer-Songwriter John Elliott

Inside tiny edits, there are big secrets.

One of my favorite contemporary musicians is singer-songwriter John Elliott. For the eighth episode of this first season of The Writing Process Podcast, I spoke to the Minnesota-native and San Francisco-based independent artist.

In this episode, I unpack two of powerful writing ideas he exemplifies: leaving space for the reader to co-create and editing to get “more true.”

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01:07: Poet Danez Smith

For as subjective as poetry can be, there is little ambiguity is being named a finalist for a National Book Award in poetry.

That’s what Danez Smith earned with the 2017 poetry collection Don’t Call Us Dead. Hear from Danez in today’s episode of my Writing Process Podcast.

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