This post is a tribute and a thank you to author Gretchen Rubin, who has shared some great insights in her most recent book, The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better. A year ago I read Better Than Before: What I Learned about Making and Breaking Habits – To Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less and Generally Build a Happier Life.
At that time I was attempting a couple major habit changes: giving up alcohol, quitting sugar and attempting to sleep more. All of these changes have indeed made me a happier and more balanced person. I was in a parallel discovery process, and I appreciated her way of breaking down different ways we can manage habit change, starting with self-knowledge. In Better Than Before she introduced the concept of the Four Tendencies, which relate to how people respond to outer expectations (work, family, etc) and inner expectations (personal goals, resolutions, etc).
In summary, Upholders meet outer and inner expectations. Obligers meet outer expectations but resist inner expectations. Questioners resist outer expectations but meet inner expectations. Rebels resist both outer expectations and inner expectations. The best part of her work really is in her empathy with Obligers, in my opinion. Rubin, an Upholder, hosts the Happier podcast which I review on my audio philes page of favorite podcasts. Personally I preferred the earlier days of the podcast when there were less advertisers per episode, but I recommend it if you need an alternative to listening to news on your way to work. Gretchen Rubin and her sister Elizabeth Craft (an Obliger) have a great dynamic and are “real” people despite the fact that Liz Craft is a Hollywood writer. Liz co-hosts new podcast called Happier in Hollywood which is also kind of a fun listen, but I digress.
As a Questioner, of course I questioned the validity of the Four Tendencies framework (as Gretchen predicted I would) but I also think it is very useful. Questioners are data-driven, interested in creating systems that are efficient and effective, comfortable bucking the system when it is warranted and unwilling to accept authority without justification. Possible weaknesses include analysis paralysis (which I know all too well), impatience with what we may perceive as others’ complacency, and inability to accept closure on matters others consider settled if questions remain unanswered (summarized from page 83). All of these things explain why certain workplaces and lines of work have appealed to me, particularly as a clinical researcher.
I have had bosses that understand my need for a rationale for our activities, or for starting new projects, and others that have not. We questioners thrive in environments that emphasize research, so in that way I am well-positioned. We dislike arbitrary rules or dates like January 1st for starting new things. We may have some trouble delegating decision making, because we may suspect others do not have sufficient basis for action (unless they are questioners, and then we believe they have done the research).
Obligers (41% in the population of a nationally representative sample) are the rocks of the world. They “show up, they answer the midnight call from the client, they meet their deadlines, fulfill their responsibilities, they volunteer, they help out… Because of their sense of obligation to others, they make great leaders, team members, friends, family members.” The downside to their tendency of needing external accountability is that sometimes they have difficulty setting boundaries when others expect more than is reasonable for them. They can be exploited, and Rubin explains that they often are. This can lead to a phenomenon called “Obliger Rebellion” in which they simply refuse to meet some expectation, often dramatically and without warning.
Rubin explains that this is actually a protective mechanism and a safety valve that relieves excess pressure. Before learning about this framework, I have to admit that I was probably unsympathetic to Obligers – shouldn’t one be able to prioritize their own needs and desires over others’ needs? The book covers some very useful advice for health care providers, spouses and children that I will not cover here, since Rubin has written a whole section on the topic, but are very well worth reading.
I will not cover the Upholder and the Rebel tendencies in this post. But if you are interested in what your tendency might be, check out the online quiz which takes less than 5 minutes and can help you access some insights about your own tendency. It always pays to know ourselves better, and I am grateful to Gretchen Rubin for giving us another framework to do just that.