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Why Some People Are Built to Accomplish More

Why do we do certain things, and not others? It’s a question that has long-intrigued Gretchen Rubin, a former lawyer, and bestselling author of Better Than Before and The Happiness Project. After dedicating more than a decade to researching human nature and documenting patterns, Rubin came to a profound realization: The key to understanding our actions is how we respond to expectations, of which there are two kinds, outer (i.e. work deadlines, friend requests) and inner (i.e. learning a new language or following through on a resolution). This spawned her personality framework, The Four Tendencies, which categorizes people into four distinct groups according to how we respond to expectations. 

It’s also the basis of her (aptly named) latest book, The Four Tendencies, in which she explores each personality type, shedding light on why certain things are easier for some to accomplish, and harder for others–and how we can both better understand ourselves and those around us. It’s as much a fascinating look at human nature as it is a razor-sharp, witty guide to figuring out how we can work around our inherent tendencies to live our best lives. Below, she gives some tools, whether we want to learn how to play guitar, be more accountable at work, or simply better understand our partners.

A Q&A with Gretchen Rubin

Q

You begin your book with the idea that we all face two types of expectations–outer and inner–and how we respond to them clarifies striking behavioral patterns. Can you explain this?

A

Outer expectations are the expectations that come to us from other people, such as a work deadline or a request from a friend. It’s something that is coming from outside of ourselves. Inner expectations are the expectations that we place on ourselves: We want to keep a New Year’s resolution; we want to write a novel in our free time; we want to get back into practicing guitar. So, depending on the combination of whether you meet an outer or an inner expectation, or resist an outer or inner expectation, you fall into one of the four categories.

Q

What are the four tendencies, and how do we identify ours?

A

The four tendencies are: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels.

  • Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. They meet the work deadline and they keep the New Year’s resolutions. They want to know what others expect from them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important.

  • Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do something only if they think it makes sense—so, they make everything an inner expectation. If it meets their inner standards, great. If not, they’ll resist it. Questioners tend to dislike anything arbitrary, inefficient, unjustified. They always want to know: Why should I do this?

  • Obligers readily meet outer expectations but they struggle to meet inner expectations. They meet the work deadline, but they struggle to meet their New Year’s resolution. I got my insight into this tendency when a friend of mine said, “I don’t understand it: When I was on the high school track team I never missed practice, so why can’t I go running now?” The reason is clear: When she had a team and a coach–an outer expectation–she had no trouble showing up, but trying to go running on her own to fulfill her inner expectation, she struggled.

  • Rebels defy all outer and inner expectations. They want to do what they want to do in their own way, in their own time. If you ask or tell them to do something, they are likely to resist. They typically don’t even like to tell themselves what to do. For instance, they likely wouldn’t sign up for a 10 a.m. yoga class on Saturday because they don’t know what they’ll want to do on Saturday–and the idea of somebody expecting them to show up someplace will likely annoy them.

Q

You created a quiz that helps us discover our tendencies, but how do we identify another’s tendency without having them take the quiz?

A

There are certain questions you can ask. These questions will not necessarily lead to an answer that’s going to be dispositive, but it’s the way a person answers, and the kinds of thinking these questions invoke, that can signal what tendency someone is.

One question is: “How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions?” (To be clear—it’s not, “Do you make resolutions?” but rather, “How do you feel about them?”)

Upholders will typically say they like making New Year’s resolutions and they have good success with them. Questioners will likely say that they’d make a resolution if it makes sense for them, but they wouldn’t wait for January 1 because that’s an arbitrary date. (The use of word “arbitrary” is a big flashing signal that you’re dealing with a questioner.) Obligers will likely say that they don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore because they’ve let themselves down in the past. Rebels typically don’t want to chain themselves to New Year’s resolutions.

Another question is: “Let’s say we’re sitting in the back room of an empty coffee shop where there’s a big sign that reads ‘no cell phones’ and I pull out my cell phone–how would you feel?”

Upholders would typically say they feel very uncomfortable. Questioners would ask the justification of the rule. Obligers would ask if you’re bothering anybody or if the server is going to get you in trouble. Rebels would say, “Absolutely, pull out your cell phone! I’ll pull out mine and take a picture of you under the sign!”

But again, it’s not that there’s one answer–you have to listen to the way people think.

“The tendencies allow you to show more compassion and understanding for other people because you can see that something may come easily for you, but it’s a struggle for others.”

Q

How does understanding our tendencies and others’ tendencies help us navigate our lives and relationships?

A

It gives you a vocabulary to describe the way people respond to the world. It also allows you to understand and manage yourself better. If something is frustrating you about yourself, you can work to make adjustments. If you’re an Obliger, you can see you need more outer accountability. Or if you’re a Rebel and you struggle with to-do lists—which often don’t work for rebels—you may have to put a rebel spin on it to make it work for you. There are answers, there are solutions.

The tendencies also allow you to show more compassion and understanding for other people because you can see that something may come easily for you, but it’s a struggle for others. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy or have no willpower–or that I’m right and you’re wrong. It means that we need different circumstances to thrive. So, it’s a matter of creating those circumstances that will work for us.

It’s very hard to fight the impulse to assume that people see the world the way you do. People are really different from each other. So, when you have a word for it, and you see how they’re responding differently, all of a sudden you don’t have to take it personally. For instance, if a Questioner is asking you question after question after question—you don’t have to feel defensive, or like he or she is undermining your authority. It’s just who they are. I think this can take away a lot of conflict and help people get where they’re going faster.

Q

How much does our tendency play a role in choosing a career, a partner, or even our friends?

A

One of the things about the tendencies is that they only describe a narrow aspect of personalities. For instance, you could line up fifty Upholders and depending on how intellectual they each were, how considerate of other people’s feelings there were, or how extroverted or introverted they were, they would all be different from each other except for one thing: how they meet expectations. So, when you are talking about people pairing up, obviously so many factors go into this. It’s not like all Xs should be with all Ys, or all of this tendency should have this type of job. With that said, there are striking patterns.

For instance, if there is a Rebel and she or he is paired up, either at work or in a romantic relationship, it’s often with an Obliger. That is a dominant pattern.

One of the pairings that tends to be the most difficult is Upholder and Rebel. This is not to say I haven’t heard of Upholders and Rebels working together or being married, but this pairing tends to have the most conflict because they are the most extreme personality types—and they’re opposite of each other. If you take one person who thrives on meeting expectations and typically loves schedules and routines and to-do lists, and the other who loves to be spontaneous and hates to-do lists, this can be hard to make work. So, an upholder parent and a rebel child, or an upholder child and a rebel parent, can be tough.

But no matter the pairing, knowing your tendencies allows you—and others—to anticipate problems.

Q

Is it possible for someone to rebel against their tendency, perhaps to please themselves or others, or are we hardwired?

A

I do think we’re hardwired and that this is part of our inborn nature. But, with time, experience, and wisdom, we can learn to harness the strengths of our tendency and offset its weaknesses and limitations so that we can better get where we’re going. For instance, many Obligers have built their lives so they have outer accountability for their inner expectations. For instance, if an Obliger wants to play music, she or he could join a band. Or if you want to read more, you could join a book club. So, to me, it’s about doing the simple thing to build the life you want. Don’t try to change your inborn nature—just work with it.

Q

One of the most well-known instruments for understanding how different personality profiles respond to external expectations is the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator. Does this method, or any others, inspire your work?

A

While I love personality frameworks and feel they all have their own nuances and illuminate a different way of looking at human nature, I did not use them to create the four tendencies. This one came out of trying to understand why people could or could not change habits. I was writing my book Better Than Before, and I was wondering how you explain the difference in habit formation. I was observing all these patterns around me, as well as in books and on TV, such as why this child is having such trouble finishing his homework, or why this person is always arguing with her boss, and I realized these were more than habits–these were life tendencies.

“It’s very hard to fight the impulse to assume that people see the world the way you do. People are really different from each other.”

Q

What is your biggest obstacle in teaching people about The Four Tendencies?

A

The most common problem is with Questioners because they question the framework. What’s interesting to me is that Questioners feel like they’re a mix of everything. For instance, I was speaking to a high school student and he said to me, “Sometimes I’m a Rebel and sometimes I’m an Upholder.” He gave me the example that if it’s a teacher he respects, he’ll do what she or he says, so he’s an Upholder. But then if it’s a teacher he doesn’t respect, he won’t and therefore he’s a Rebel. And I said, “No, you are 100 percent a Questioner because the first thing you’re doing is asking—why should I listen to you? I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with Questioners about the framework.

Another interesting thing is how often Rebels think they are Upholders—but Rebels can do anything they want to do. So, if you have an ambitious, highly considerate Rebel, they can look like an Upholder. But if you scratch the surface and look deeper, you can really see this is a Rebel.

Q

It seems that Obligers face some of the greatest challenges because they don’t say “no” enough, which can lead to feeling exploited, overworked, and even “Obliger-rebellion”–when an Obliger experiences burnout and uncharacteristically starts saying “no” to everything. How can an Obliger avoid this?

A

I think Obliger-rebellion is mysterious for many Obligers. They never had a word for this building feeling of being exploited, and they didn’t know other people experienced it. For many Obligers, the experience feels explosive, like a balloon bursting under pressure and yet you’re not really signaling to the outside world that this is happening. Obligers may not know they’re about to burst–and when they do, people may not be helpful or sympathetic.

So, I think for a lot of Obligers, it helps, for starters, to just realize that this is something that happens. And if you let it get to full Obliger-rebellion, then, as far as I can tell, it has to work itself out; it has to wear out. When Obligers start to recognize this building feeling, though, they can do things to relieve the pressure. For instance, you can say, “If I say yes to this, I have to say no to something else.” Or you could think about your future self, like: “Right now I want to say yes, but the future me is going to be annoyed–so, I have to say no now.” You can also take some time, or ask someone for their opinion. There’s a lot of things you can do once you know that it’s happening.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of numerous books, including bestsellers The Happiness Project, Better Than Before, and her most recent, The Four Tendencies. Widely recognized as an influential observer of happiness and human nature, she is also the host the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. For more of Rubin’s work, head over to her website, www.gretchenrubin.org.

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