Gretchen Rubin (@gretchenrubin) is a Three-time #1 New York Times bestselling including “The Happiness Project” and most recently, the just released book “The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too).” She also hosts a podcast called “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.” Listen in as she and Mark talk about the four tendencies that she’s identified and how they affect our Unbeatable Mind. Learn how to use your own tendency to make it easier to motivate yourself.
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Hey folks, this is Mark Divine here with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it. I know you’re super-busy and there’s a lot of other things vying for your attention. So I take it very seriously and I won’t waste your time.
I’ve got a super-cool guest today. Gretchen Rubin. Before I introduce her formally, let me remind that it really helps if you go rate the podcast on iTunes. Also, we’re available now on Google Play and Stitcher, SoundCloud. Etc., etc.
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So, Gretchen… I’ve just met Gretchen and I’ve got her book. I’m super-excited to talk to her and to have her introduce her views and thoughts on development to you.
Gretchen is a New York Times bestseller. She sold over 3 million copies of her books “Better than Before,” and “The Happiness Project.” And “Happier at Home.” And she runs a super-popular podcast called “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.” She’s been listed as a top 50 in leadership and management experts by Inc. magazine. Named one of the 100 most influential people in health and fitness. She is definitely a mover and shaker and doing some really good work.
And the interesting thing about Gretchen is she started her career as an attorney. So we sort of have a kinship, because I started my career as a CPA, and then I became a Navy SEAL. So she was an attorney, and then she became a happiness expert and trainer. So that’s an interesting and unlikely combination there.
So, Gretchen, thank you so much for your time today. Super-appreciate. Thanks for being here. How are you doing?
Gretchen Rubin: Great! Thanks so much for having me. I’m happy to be talking to you.
Mark: Likewise, likewise. So I gave you a little background on our Unbeatable Mind folks, and we always like to kind of start and get to know the person behind all the hype, right? So give us a sense of your origin… your origin story… who you are, where you’re from. How did you get into law, and what was that like? Just kind of bring us up to date, so to speak.
Gretchen: Okay. Well, I’m from Kansas City, Missouri. So I spent my whole childhood there, in a kind of very happy childhood. I have a younger sister who’s 5 years younger–who’s my co-host on the “Happier” podcast that you mentioned. Whom I’m very close to.
And after that I went to college, and then–as you said–I went to law school.
And I had a great time in law. I was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Review–it’s called the Yale Law Journal–and I was actually clerking for justice Sandra Day O’Connor when I realized, “You know what? I really want to be a writer.”
I had gone as far as I wanted to go in law. And then I had an idea for a book that I wanted to write. And so I decided, “You know, well maybe I will try to switch to writing.”
So that’s when I switched to writing. And then, you know, as technology has progressed, tools like blogging and podcasting have really come into the reach of people who are not really very tech-savvy–like me–but just want to engage with readers and listeners on issues of interest. So I’ve gotten… I’ve grown from writing into podcasting and doing, you know, Facebook live videos and all this stuff that I would never have thought I would be doing. But now there’s so many ways to engage with audiences and I really enjoy doing all that.
Mark: No doubt. I can commiserate with you. They seem like they add something new every week that we have to do to engage. (laughing)
But so 2 things kind of come up for me there. One is, it seems a little unusual to me to be a lawyer and be having fun as a lawyer and clerking for someone as esteemed as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. And then just to say, “Well, I just want to write.”
What were the… was there a creative streak in you that ran through your childhood? And was there some unexpressed author in you early in your life? Or was this truly kind of transformation that kind of came upon you?
Gretchen: Well, you know, if I look back on my life, I certainly did everything a person would do to prepare herself to be a writer. First of all, I read all the time growing up. And I still read all the time. I take a lot of notes on what I read. Tremendous amount of notes, which is a very good exercise for someone writing.
I majored in English. Law School is certainly a training and certain kind of writing and I always wrote papers instead of taking exams. I’ve written 3 really horrible, bad novels that are safely locked away in a desk drawer.
So I’ve always done things that would show this kind of writerly inclination. But I really didn’t see a… I didn’t understand what kind of writer I wanted to be. Because I knew I didn’t want to be a novelist or a playwright or a poet. And I knew that I didn’t want to be a journalist. And I knew that I didn’t want to be an academic writer. You know, I didn’t want to write a PhD thesis.
So I didn’t really understand what kind of writer I wanted to be. And nowadays, something like creative non-fiction is really understood as a category. But at this time, it wasn’t really something that people talked about that much. So it took me a while to see how the kind of writing that I would want to do was the kind of writing that I could do for a living. I was like, “If I’m not a novelist and I’m not a journalist, what am I?” There’s a place for the kind of writing that I wanted to do.
Mark: Mm-hmm. And then… so that leads me into kind of the 2nd question is how did you decide to write about happiness? Were you talking about happiness all the time? Was it something that was always on your mind? Where did that come from? That’s really interesting.
Gretchen: Well, you know, “The Happiness Project” was the 4th book I wrote. And all the books I’ve written, though they might look very different from the outside, they’re all about human nature. That’s my subject. That’s what I’m interested in. And so I’m always looking at it in different ways. And I was just finishing up a biography of John F. Kennedy when… I was sitting on a crowded city bus and looking out in the pouring rain and I thought, “Well what do I want from life anyway? I want to be happy.”
And I realized at that moment I never thought about whether I was happy. And if I could be happier. And I thought, “I should have a happiness project!”
And so really… I was just going to do it for myself. That was how it occurred to me. So I went to the library, got this giant stack of books the next day. And started researching it. And it was just going to be for me.
And I often get very obsessed with sort of subjects. That happens to me all the time. It has my whole life.
But this was something that was so rich and so vast that pretty soon I thought, “Well, gosh. Maybe I should write a book about it.”
And, you know, ever since I’ve basically been writing in that vein. It’s such a vast subject. So it wasn’t really that I thought about happiness all the time. If anything I didn’t think about it nearly enough. And that was my realization. Was that I really did need to think about it.
Mark: Right. And so what did you learn? How did you distill that into kind of the “a-ha” moments for you? And what were the major lessons that you presented in that project… or that you uncovered in that project?
The Happiness Project
Gretchen: Well, in The Happiness Project,” what I did is I decided to take a year. Cause a year felt like enough time… Enough time that real change could occur, but not so much time that I couldn’t see past the horizon. And I decided for myself… and it would be different for everyone… what were the 12 areas that I wanted to work on–given my research–that I thought would give me the best boost in happiness. And so for each month had a separate theme. And each month had 2 to 5 concrete, manageable resolutions for things that I was going to do as part of my ordinary day. Not as part of a, you know, trip across the world. Or a 10 day silent meditation retreat. But just part of my ordinary routine, what were the things I could do that I thought would make me happier?
And so that was how I approached the Happiness Project. Was really, like, trying to be very concrete and very much within what you can do without spending a lot of extra time, energy or money. Just to try to find the low-hanging fruit. The little things you can do, that can really boost your… make you happier, healthier, more productive and more creative. So that’s what I did in The Happiness Project.”
Mark: And did you find that just choosing this–what you call low-hanging fruit–or changing some of the small things in life had a big impact for you?
Gretchen: Yes. It’s surprising how often very, very small changes can really have what would seem to be very disproportionate….
Like, one of the things we did… one of the few resolutions that we made as a family… Everything I did, I did myself. I didn’t involve other people. Because you can’t make other people do anything or change… which is one of the sad truths of happiness. But the `one thing we decided as a family that we were going to do was we were going to give warm “hellos” and “farewells.” Whenever somebody came into the apartment or left, we would really greet them. Really. Like put down the book or the device. Or look up from homework or whatever and really say hello. And really say goodbye. With a kiss and…
This was very simple, and yet it dramatically changed the atmosphere of my house. Because you really feel so much more… you feel that attentiveness and that tenderness that we all want from our home. And it didn’t take… it wasn’t hard to do. And it made a big difference.
And there’s a lot of things like that, I think, for most people.
Mark: That is pretty cool. I love that. I love that. Because you’re just dropping into your heart just for a moment, but then you’re training that as a habit.
What were some of the…? Without going through all 12, but were some of the major insights. Like I said, that was a good one that you just shared. But what were some of the other ones that had a real big impact on you? And you could say when looking back, those 2 or 3 were really powerful.
Gretchen: Well one of the things that I really learned… or I already knew it, and I think we all know it–and it really is true, is that you really have to think about your body. And when I started the project, I started with energy… cause I figured if I had more energy everything would be easier. and that is very true. Because a lot of times there’s things that you know perfectly well would make you happier, but you’re just too exhausted or overwhelmed to deal with it.
You’re like, “Yes, it’d be great to have a Super-Bowl party, but who can be bothered to organize it?” It just seems like too much work.
But if you have more energy then things like that that will have a happiness pay-off become easier. So things like making sure that I got enough sleep… I’m a sleep zealot, but I was sort of kidding myself about how much sleep I actually got. So now I’m much more careful to make sure I actually get to sleep on time.
A major habit that I changed that I talk about in “Better Than Before” which is my book specifically about a change which is that I gave up basically carbs. So I don’t eat sugar, or flour, or rice, or pasta. Or starchy vegetables. Or really, even fruit. And I love that. I love… because I have a real sweet tooth. And so being free from sugar has been great. So that was one thing that I did that was terrific.
I think there’s so many things. And it’s important to note, these are the things… I talk about the things that work for me. And part of the fun of doing your own happiness project, is you have to think about what would be true for you? Because everyone is different.
So, for me, music isn’t that important. I’m just not a very music-centric person. But somebody… they might have a whole month that’s about music. “I wanna get back into the practice of regular practice. I wanna go to live concerts. I wanna listen to new music. I wanna get together with people once every 2 weeks and play music together.”
It could be a whole thing that might dramatically improve their happiness. But for me, it’s like, “meh.” I don’t really care that much about music. You know.
Mark: right. So was your process to choose one thing a month, and that’s why you have 12 of them? And then just focus on that one thing?
Gretchen: One theme a month.
Mark: One theme. Got it.
And let’s say you’re in month 4… Are you just focusing on that one theme? or are you focusing on that theme, plus the theme from month 1, 2 and 3?
Gretchen: It’s rolling forward. Everything… it’s cumulative. It’s a cumulative project.
Well, it’s funny because…
Mark: My Navy SEAL mind is trying to break this down. You know? Into its parts.
Gretchen: Well, ever since The Happiness Project came out–and then I did “Happier at Home” which is like a kind of a specialized happiness project–people would say to me, but how did you get yourself to do these things? And I said, “Well, I knew they would make me happier, so i did them.”
And then people would be like, “But how did you get yourself to do them?”
And this was a big mystery to me. I was like, “I don’t know. what’s so hard about that?”
That’s why I wrote “The Four Tendencies,” because now I understand why. As my learning about human nature progressed, I understood why it was so easy for me to do these things that made me happier. It wasn’t really that hard to follow through. For most people that would be a bigger challenge and so that’s what led me to… that was one of the big patterns that I noticed that led me to my book “The Four Tendencies.” Which is about the personality framework that I created.
Mark: Right. Yeah, I wanna get into that in a little bit, but before let’s talk about the difference between overcoming a bad habit and creating a new habit. What was your experience around that?
Gretchen: Right, well in “Better Than Before” I talk about the 21 strategies that we can use to make or break a habit. And the thing about a habit is it’s really not that important whether it’s making a habit or breaking a habit. Because really almost every habit can be conceived of in the flipside. So are you eating more healthfully? Or are you giving up junk food?
And there’s research suggesting that some people do better when they think of it as the positive, and some people do better when they think of it as like offsetting a negative. So it’s whatever works for you. It’s whatever appeals to you.
So there’s 21 strategies that people use whether they’re making or breaking their habits. As I said, it doesn’t really matter how you characterize it. Except that you should pick the way that appeals to you. But the thing is… people say, “Oh, 21, it’s so many. It’s too many. I can’t deal with it.’
But some of these strategies work very well for some people, and don’t work at all for other people. Some are available to us at some times of our lives, but not at other times of our lives. So really, the key thing is what kind of person are you? What helps you to succeed? There is no one right way. There is no one best way to succeed. It’s only what works for you.
It’s like, “Get up early and exercise.” Well, that’s a good idea if you’re a morning person, but night people… and this is actually a thing. It’s largely genetically determined, and also a function of age. Night people are at their most productive and creative and energetic later in the day. The idea that they’re going to get up at 6 AM and go for a run is not realistic. They’re just not going to stick to it.
But they could go for a run at 4, which I could not do, as a hardcore morning person. But there’s no right way or wrong way. It’s just what works for you. If you do better running at 4, then figure out a way to make that part of your day. Don’t tell yourself that you should run at 6 AM, or that’s the best way to exercise. It’s just whatever works for you. That’s what was really what I learned about habits.
Forming New Habits
Mark: What are the most common reasons people fail at implementing a new habit or a new strategy?
Gretchen: Cause they don’t set it up in the right way for them. They think, “Well, this is the right way to do it. Or this is how Steve Jobs did it. Or I read ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,’ and so I’m going to do it that way.”
And they don’t take into account what works for them. Because one difference that you see is simplicity lovers and abundance lovers. So simplicity lovers are people like me. We like bare surfaces, clean shelves, walls without much on them. Not much noise. Not much going on. And we feel like that’s what stimulates or creativity and productivity.
Abundance lovers like buzz and profusion. A lot of stuff on the walls. A lot of things happening. Collections. Abundance.
And the problem is when somebody says, “Well my way’s the right way.” “You know, a cluttered desk means a cluttered mind.” Well, maybe that’s true for you. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right way for somebody else to succeed.
And so, I think when people are frustrated it’s often because they’re telling themselves they should be able to do it some way. Or someone else is telling them that they should be able to do it someway. And it’s not the right way for them.
So a lot of times, I’m saying it’s not that you lack willpower. That you don’t have any self-control. It’s just that you haven’t set the situation up for you to succeed. And if you change the way things are set up, you probably have a much better chance for success.
Mark: Yeah. I imagine that setup also has to do with how you define success and whether that’s an intrinsic motivation or some sort of external thing, you know what I mean? You could set up weight loss as “I’m going to work on my fueling or my dieting or how I eat so that I feel and look better. And show up with more energy.” And they have some way of measuring that.
Or, you know, you can actually say, “I wanna lose 40 pounds.” which is more of an external motivator. And some people are motivated by one or the other I imagine, but what did you find in that? were you mostly intrinsically motivated with the habits, or did you have some that were external?
Gretchen: Well, that sort of gets into the 4 tendencies. I don’t really talk about it as motivation, but more expectation, so that gets into sort of an area where I have sort of a slightly different way of looking at it.
The thing about losing 40 pounds… one side note I would make about like the idea of “I’m going to lose 40 pounds” is that in the area of habit formation, a very dangerous thing to do is to set up a goal. Cause setting up a goal is great way to hit a goal. It’s not a great way to build a habit. Because if you say, “I’m going to have a 30 day yoga challenge,” or “I’m going to give up sugar for Lent,’ or “I’m going to train for the marathon.” what happens is you do a great job running towards that finish-line… but what happens at a finish-line? You’re finished! And then people feel like, “Oh, I’m going to go back to normal. I’ve lost my 40 pounds, I reached my goal weight. Now I can go back to eating normally.” So, what happens when you eat normally? You go right back. You gain all the weight back, right, cause that’s how you were eating before.
So really with habits you have to think not about hitting a goal, but about passing milestone. Because running the marathon, or losing 40 pounds… those are thrilling milestones, but they are only a few of many milestones that you will pass in a lifetime of exercise, or a lifetime of healthy eating.
And so these goals can actually get in people’s way. People think that they’re helpful, but they’re actually kind of a hurdle.
Mark: Yeah, I guess the way I would look at that is if you’re focused on the destination or the journey. You know, you can develop a habit and have certain goals… but I like the term “milestone’…but you have certain goals or milestones that are going to mark your progress and to be achievement oriented. But they’re complementary to the development of the habit. Or they’re ways to demonstrate and to lock-in, I should say, some gains from what you’re developing with that.
Mark: That’s pretty cool.
Before we turn our attention to the four tendencies, which I think are fascinating… let’s talk about money and time. Because I think money and time in our… at least our Western society are real impediments in certain ways to… Or at least concepts of money and concepts of how time is meant to be used are impediments to happiness. What are your thoughts on that?
Gretchen: Well, I mean, I think they’re elements of life to be very carefully considered. Because you’re right, they can get in your way. The thing about money… money’s kind of like health in that we’re much more aware of its drag on our happiness than we are in its lift on our happiness.
So if you don’t have your health or if you don’t have enough money to meet your needs, you’re very aware of it, and it’s a drag on your happiness.
If you have enough–if you have your health, it’s hard to maintain a sense of gratitude for it which is why I think there are a lot of people trying to remind themselves to be grateful for the things that they have because it’s easy to take that for granted and not realize how full of thankfulness you should be for the fact you don’t have to worry abpo8t these things.
Time is interesting because everybody has time. You can’t waste it, you can’t spend it, you can’t accelerate through it. It just… it is what it is.
And I think… you know, in talking to people about happiness, it’s certainly something that comes up over and over again is people wanting to deepen their sense of time. Make their sense of time more rich and more valuable. And use their time wisely. Which is things like, “I wanna get off Facebook, so that I have more time to read novels.” And so they want to build habits that are going to help them do that. Because they recognize that certain kinds of time are more valuable than other kinds of time.
So why don’t you spend your time in the most valuable way? Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that. And once you identify them, then you can start figuring out ways to solve for that. It’s a big, big theme in “Better Than Before.” Yeah.
Mark: Yeah. I think that’s important. And I was thinking as you were saying that that a simple practice like you described of just greeting someone with total presence can kind of shift time, and shift your perspective on it. And create a moment that is… feels like a lifetime, you know what I mean? And then you have that forever.
As opposed to being… continuing to be distracted and when you’re distracted… when you’re constantly distracted, time seems to just zip on by. But by creating those moments of connection, all of a sudden time will seem to stop and you can have a joyous moment that can feel like forever.
And that happiness kind of like pops it’s head up in those moments, doesn’t it? When we’re present. That’s interesting.
The Four Tendencies
So let’s shift focus a little bit to the 4 tendencies. Now this is a book that you’ve just recently finished. It’s not on the market yet, am I right? When’s it due out?
Gretchen: September 12th.
Mark: September 12th. Right around the corner. We’ll help you get a bump here by talking about it and promoting it.
So this is about… when I first read this, it’s like, “Oh yeah. Personality profiles. Blah, blah, blah. Myers-Briggs.”
But then I opened it and I’m like, “I don’t recognize any of these.” Did you kind of create this model of “The Upholder,” “The Questioner,” “The Rebel” and “The Obliger”? Or are you drawing on some research?
Gretchen: I created… I don’t know whether to say that I created it or I discovered it, because it does seem like laws of nature. So I almost feel like I’m more like a scientist with a microscope, than somebody who made it up. But essentially, I made it up, yeah. I was the one who first identified this pattern, this large pattern within human nature.
Mark: Got it.
Okay, so can you walk us through it in a Keep it Simple fashion?
Mark: All right. Go for it.
So the 4 tendencies–as you said– it’s Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, Rebel. And this has to do with how you respond to expectations. And so all of us face 2 kinds of expectations. Outer expectations, like a work deadline or a request from a friend.
And then inner expectations. Which is like you’re own desire to meet a New Year’s resolution. Your own desire to get back into running.
So Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. They meet the work deadline. They meet the New Year’s resolution without much fuss. They want to know what’s expected of them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important.
Then Questioners. Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do something if it meets their standard. They turn everything into an inner expectation. If they think it’s justified, they will meet that expectation. If they feel like it’s arbitrary or inefficient or irrational, they will resist it.
Gretchen: Then Obligers. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. And I got my first insight into this tendency when a friend said to me, “I know I would be happier if I exercised. And when I was in High School, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice. So why can’t I go running now?”
And now I know, she’s an Obliger. When she had a team and a coach waiting for her, she had no trouble showing up. When she was just trying to go running on her own, it was a struggle.
Then finally, Rebels. Rebels resist all expectations. Outer and inner alike. 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’re very likely to resist. And typically they don’t even like to tell themselves what to do.
And so most people can tell what they are and the people around them are just from this brief description. But there is a quiz online at happiercast.com/quiz. And like, 800,000 people or something have taken this quiz. So you can take the quiz if you like to have an answer spit out at you, but like I say. A lot of people can just tell what they are from the description.
Cause these are blatant, you know? They’re pretty obvious for a lot of people.
Mark: Mm-hmm. And which one are you, again? You’re the Upholder, or…?
Gretchen: I’m an Upholder. And what’s interesting about the tendencies is they’re not equally distributed. So the biggest tendency… for both men and women, the biggest tendency is Obliger. They are the rock of the world, they’re the ones that… You either are an Obliger or you have many Obligers in your life.
The next Questioners. Questioners are also a very large tendency.
The smallest tendency is Rebel. It’s a conspicuous tendency, but it’s small. My tendency, the Upholder tendency, only slightly bigger. Those are the 2 kind of extreme personality types. They’re small. Most people are Questioners or Obligers.
Now I’m an Upholder. What are you? Do you know what you are?
Mark: Well, I think I’m an Upholder as well. I don’t resist outer expectations. Although I might challenge them at times. Especially with my upbringing I was always quick to meet the expectations of my parents and society and I was Navy SEAL for 20 years. (laughing) So had to meet expectations.
Gretchen: I wonder if you’re an Obliger. The mission of your podcast made me think that maybe you’re an Obliger. How do you feel about inner expectations? Things that nobody else cares about?
Because you’re right, Upholders and Obligers both readily meet outer expectations. So in that way, Obligers and Upholders are alike. The question is what about that inner expectation that nobody cares about and maybe people are inconvenienced by.
Mark: Yeah. Now help me understand what it would be like to resist an inner expectation while meeting an outer expectation.
Gretchen: Like, it’s easy for me to meet a deadline at work, but it’s hard for me to work on a novel in my free time. Or yeah, it’s easy for me to go to the gym when I’m working with a trainer, or I’m taking a class, or I’m meeting a friend. Or I’m gonna do a 5k to raise money for charity.
But when I’m just left to go on my own, it’s a struggle. Or for me to get motivated to do something I have to think how it’s going to help other people or why other people care. Are going to be effected? Or even notice?
But when I’m just trying to do something for myself, it maybe doesn’t get done.
Mark: This is really awesome. So I would say that I have aspects of both. There’s a shadow aspect of me that is very co-dependent from my upbringing and that plants me firmly in the Obliger category. But as I’ve grown and evolved and kind of overcome some of those mental patterns or emotional patterns, I’ve become much more of an Upholder.
So I’m kind of in that space where they overlap.
And that’s probably a good question. Do we have aspects of all these in us? Or can we? Or some of them?
Gretchen: Well, people can kind of tip one way or the other. You can… because each of the tendencies has something in common with 2 other tendencies. So as an Obliger… Obligers and Upholders have something in common in that they both readily meet outer expectations. But Obligers also share something with Rebels, and they both resist inner expectations.
And I have to say, just listening to your description of your podcast, I thought, “That sounds like an Obliger perspective on the world.”Just the way that you framed it. To me, I was like, “That sounds like the way an Obliger would think about it.”
And that’s the largest tendency. And so obviously that’s going to resonate with a lot of people. Because that’s the one that most people feel like.
But absolutely, some Obligers tip to Upholder, and Upholders tip to Obliger. And so there are these… this sort of… People do kind of take from the other. They will take kind of a flavor of the other.
So I’m an Upholder who tips to Questioner. But some Upholders tip to Obliger. So just kind of flavors the way that it comes out.
Mark: Right. And these 4 tendencies aren’t good or bad. They just are. They’re personality types of profiles. Like a Myers-Briggs profile.
Gretchen: Oh, 100%. Each tendency has great strengths and great weaknesses. Each of includes people who are hugely successful and also big losers. So when you look at who’s… people will sometimes say, “Well, who’s the happiest? Who’s the most successful? Who’s the healthiest? Who’s the most productive?”
And it really isn’t a particular tendency. It’s that within a tendency a person has figured out how to harness the strengths of that tendency, and how to offset the limitations or weaknesses of the tendency.
So about yourself, you said that over time… It sounds like you think, “With time and experience and wisdom, I’ve learned how to get the best out of myself. And how to get myself to meet my own aims for myself.”
Well, that’s partly… whatever your tendency… is seeing, “Well, what doesn’t work for me? How can I set things up so that I am going to be able to meet my own aims for myself?”
It doesn’t have to do with your tendency. It’s about working with your tendency. Understanding yourself so you can figure that out better.
Mark: So what you’re saying is that if I’m an Obliger, I’m stuck as an Obliger. (laughing)
Gretchen: Don’t know if you’re stuck as an Obliger, but I do think it’s an inborn part of your personality. I don’t think… You’re not one at 20 and one at 40. You’re not one at work and one at home. I don’t think. In my experience these are pretty hard-wired aspects of personality. And that people do have a core tendency. That it’s like…
Not like… it’s your instinctual reaction to an expectation. So I’m an Upholder, so if I’m asked to do something, my instinct is to be like, “I’m going to do that if I can.” My husband is a Questioner, and so his instinct is to say, “Why should I?”
Now I’ve learned a lot from my husband and a lot of times even though my instinct is to meet an expectation, I’ll be like, “Wait a minute. Let me take a pause and think why should I do that.” I’ve learned from him to imitate him. I still have that instinct, but I’ve learned to insert that pause and to take that moment to decide, “Is this a good use of my time and my energy? Or do I need to think about this a little bit longer.”
But I still have that snap, “Yes. I can do this. Yes. I will meet that expectation.”
Mark: That’s interesting.
Practical Application of Tendencies
Mark: So how do we use these? I mean, it’s definitely interesting, and I’m thinking, “Ah, well. I can learn a lot.” But what’s the practical application for us?
Gretchen: Well part of it is that when you understand the tendencies, you can understand how to manage yourself better. And you can also manage your relationships with other people better and help them to achieve their aims better too. Cause I think it’s natural for all of us to just assume, “well, people see the world the way I do.” You don’t even consciously think that you’re seeing the world in a particular way. You just think you’re seeing the world.
And when you understand how people could have different reactions, you have greater insight into their… into the way that they behave.
So take Questioners, for example. Questioners can sometimes drain and overwhelm others with their constant questioning. And they can sometimes be perceived as being undermining or not team players. Or disrespectful. Say like a Questioner child who’s asking a lot of questions of a teacher. And people take that amiss. The Questioner doesn’t mean to be insubordinate or disrespectful. They just really want to have robust explanations if they’re going to meet an expectation.
So when you understand about a questioner, you’re like, “Well, they kind of drive me crazy with their questions, but it’s a Questioner. So I understand where this is coming from. I don’t have to take this personally. We can just figure out how to get this person the information they need.
Similarly, with Obligers. The key thing–and this is the most important thing in the whole book–is if an Obligers is having trouble meeting an inner expectation. Which, by definition, they are, because that is the definition of an Obliger. The solution… the answer is so simple, and that is to give yourself outer accountability for whatever that inner expectation is. If you want to read more, join a book group. If you wanna exercise more, exercise with a friend or work with a trainer. Or sign up for a class where you’re going to get paid.
If you want to have a side-hustle, create a customer or client or student–even if they’re not paying you–somebody who’s expecting you to deliver for them. And that accountability is going to allow you to follow through for yourself.
Mark: I see. That makes a lot of sense. So set up the structure that… it’s going to hold you accountable. Or that you’re going to go out and meet someone else’s expectation cause you don’t want to let them down. Or let yourself down.
Gretchen: A lot of times, when I think… when people don’t understand the tendencies they can kind of misdiagnose what the problem is.
So to talk about Obligers. Obligers will often say, “Well, I never take time for myself.” Or, “I can’t put myself first.” Or, “I would never say ‘no’ to a client or customer or a patient.” Or, “I have low self-esteem.” Or, “I’m a people pleaser.” They have a lot of things that they… a lot of ways that they dress it up, or the way they characterize it. And I’m like, “You don’t have to… Don’t get into any of that.” It’s only about accountability.
And once you see that all you need to do is plug in the outer accountability, then all that other stuff will just go away.
But it’s important to understand this because sometime Obligers fall into the mistaken belief that, “Well, I always are meeting the needs of others, and other people’s priorities, but I never have time for myself. Therefore, if I quit my demanding job then I will have time for myself. Or if I retire early…” I hear this a lot of times from people who retire. “If I retire early then I will have time to meet my inner expectations cause I won’t have those outer expectations.”
That doesn’t happen. The mere disappearance of outer expectations does not allow an Obliger to meet inner expectations unless outer accountability is put into place. That’s just the way it is. That is just the way that it works.
This is easy to fix. Once you realize what the solution is. The solution is not to quit your job. The solution is to create outer accountability for whatever it is that you want to get done. That’s what’s going to work.
Mark: Mm-hmm. Interesting.
So what you’re saying to me is… if an Obliger wanted to develop a new habit, then just some intrinsic motivation around that habit is probably not going to work. If it’s something that she or he is going to resist. So they’re going to need a friend or someone to hold them accountable.
Gretchen: Yes. They need some form of accountability. Now some Obligers can do fancy things… not all Obligers, but some can be accountable to their future self. This works for surprisingly high number of Obligers. Now Gretchen doesn’t want to exercise, but Future Gretchen is going to be really disappointed and full of regret if Now Gretchen doesn’t exercise. So I need to do it for Future Gretchen.
That doesn’t work for all Obligers, but sometimes you can do things like that. And Obligers come up with the most resourceful and imaginative… hilarious systems of accountability. Really, that’s one of my favorite parts of the book was just cataloging what they did. But you’re exactly right. Thinking about your inner motivation does not work. For…
It works great for Rebels. And it can really work well for Questioners and Upholders too. It doesn’t work very successfully for Obligers.
Mark: So how is the Rebel motivated? If they resist outer expectation, and they resist inner expectation, how do you motivate them? Or how do they motivate themselves?
Gretchen: That’s a very interesting question, because Rebels are kind of different from the other 3. I would say they’re the most distinct and they have to be… You really need to know if you are a Rebel or you’re dealing with a Rebel because you really want to have that in mind in the way that you deal with them.
So there’s two things to think about if you’re trying to help a Rebel change, or you’re a Rebel who’s trying to work on yourself.
Rebels always want to act from freedom and choice. They want to express their identity in what they do. So you can always appeal to someone’s idea of their identity. You want to do this because you want to be… this is the kind of parent you want to be. Yeah, it drives you crazy to have to show up for car pool every day at the same time, but you’re going to do this because you’re a responsible, considerate parent who’s going to be there for your child. That’s who you want to be. So you can do it, because that’s who you want to be.
So an appeal to identity. Oh, you’re a young, vigorous person. Of course you’re going to go out for a run and you’re going to push yourself. Because you’re that kind of person. Like, you’re whole life, you’ve been so outdoorsy and you’ve been so vigorous… You’re not some couch potato who can’t run 5 miles at a time. No! This is who you are. You’re going to be able to do this.
Or you can do information, consequences, choice. This is when you give the information to the Rebel, so that they have the information that they need. You tell them the consequences of their action or their inaction. And then you allow them to choose. You don’t nag them. You don’t remind them. You just allow them to choose. And, very importantly, you allow the negative consequences to fall on that Rebel, if there are negative consequences… You don’t save them. You don’t rescue them. You don’t protect them from negative consequences.
Cause if not, they’re not going to change. They’re not going to learn anything from that, cause this is working great. Like, everything worked out fine for the Rebel.
So the way this might work in practice is let’s say you’re at work and you’re working with a Rebel. And instead of saying to the Rebel, “Oh, you have to do this. You have to meet this timeline. You have to meet this budget. Or else…” You’d say to a Rebel, “Hey, we got an opportunity to work with a new client. Sounds like an interesting project. This is the budget. This is the timeline. If we do a great job on a project like this, this could mean more projects like this. More great projects like this for all of us. More money. More opportunity. Does this feel like something that you want to tackle?”
Information-consequences-choice. Then the Rebel can say, “yes, I wanna do it.” Or “No, I don’t want to do it.” And the fact is Rebels can do anything they want to do, anything they choose to do. But they’re not going to do something because you tell them they have to. Or because they’re supposed to.
They have to want to do something. They have to decide for their own reasons to do something. That’s what works for the Rebel.
Mark: Interesting. Yeah, I think my son is a Rebel. I’m sitting there listening, and yeah, my kid’s a Rebel. And so he hoping he grows out of it. I’m kinda stuck with this idea that…
Gretchen: No, he won’t… No.
It’s funny, I got an email from somebody who said, “I don’t like reading about your tendencies because you suggest that people don’t change. My husband’s a Rebel, and don’t you think at some point somebody just grows up and realizes they can’t live that way?”
And I’m like, “I hate to break it to you, but you’re married to this guy. Like, no. I don’t think he’s going to change. And the fact is, you can live that way, and he does live that way. So, that’s it, you know?
And there’s many, many strengths to the Rebel tendency.
Mark: Yeah, for sure. I get that. You’re kind of driving a stake through one of my primary tenets is that you can… I believe that you can change aspects of your personality. Because they’re all patterns based upon your upbringing. And so when you get clear about what that is, and begin to examine those patterns… It takes great self-awareness to change those patterns and to shift, but I’ve personally seen transformations. But, you know, I guess the jury will be out on that, hunh? I’ll have to sit with “The Tendencies” and see…
Gretchen: Yes. You’ll have to report back to me and tell me what you think. Whether you think that…
Mark: (laughing) Obviously, I’ll be watching my 18 year-old son to see if he grows out of this.
Gretchen: (laughing) Yeah.
Mark: That is awesome.
The Future for Gretchen
So what’s next for you? What’s your vision for the future? How are you going to continue to serve in this vein? Are you moving… do you do coaching by the way?
Gretchen: No, I’m a writer.
Mark: You just write.
Gretchen: I… you know, I’ve got a lot of things that… One of my favorite things about myself is I get obsessed with things. So I’ve got several obsessions going right now. (laughing) I haven’t decided which one is going to be big enough to be the next book. Often around this time in a book, I will sort of get hit by a lightning bolt of like… just shaken with the desire to write a book about something. And so, I’m just sort of like, trying to stay open to a lot of different ideas. And follow-up a lot of… I’m reading a lot of weird stuff. Books that no one’s ever heard of. That haven’t been checked out of the library in 15 years. And sort of waiting to see where this will take me.
I know it’s going to be about human nature, because that’s really what always interests me. But that’s a very big subject. So there’s a lot of avenues to go down that are so fascinating. So, yeah. I’m figuring that out right now.
Mark: Awesome. In the meantime, you’ve got the launch of your book. I’m sure you’ll have some PR and a whole bunch of stuff to do. So you’re not going to be wanting for things to do. Good luck with that.
“The Four Tendencies.” Again, that comes out September… I think… you said 12th?
Gretchen: September 12th. You’re right.
Mark: Awesome. Good luck with the book launch. It sounds fascinating. I’m gonna read it. I would have read it before the podcast, but I didn’t even know it was showing up. It was so cool that it just showed up in my mailbox today…
Gretchen: I know! Serendipity.
Yes, well now you’ll have to… I wonder if you are indeed an Obliger. When you do it, you’ll be able to see by that.
Mark: I’ll be able to self-assess.
Gretchen: If you’re an Upholder or an Obliger.
Mark: Yeah. Get back to you on that.
Gretchen: And whether your son’s a Rebel.
Thanks so much. So fun to talk to you.
Mark: Yeah, I really appreciate it, and hopefully we’ll meet you some time in the future in person.
Mark: All right. Hooyah.
All right, everybody. That was it. Gretchen Rubin. Check out her website,
And also you can check out her blog at Happier with Gretchen Rubin. And Thanks again, as usual, for your time. Super-appreciate it.
As usual, stay focused. Do your daily training and develop that Unbeatable Mind.
Talk to you soon.