I’m talking today with New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin. I’ve learned so much from Gretchen’s research on happiness from her book The Happiness Project, and I’ve studied her work on habits from the book Better Than Before. Gretchen’s latest book is called The 4 Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too).

I invited her on the show because the four tendencies are not just another personality type: they’re about how people tend to respond to and meet expectations. Do you work better with inner expectations? Outer expectations? Both? Or rebel against all of them? That’s what the 4 tendencies address.

When I first heard about the tendencies, I immediately saw the application to our work in the classroom, because it’s such a challenge to figure out how to get students to meet expectations. Tendencies might be the key if you have a child who’s not turning in work. For example, the way you’d try to reach a student who is a Questioner is very different from the way you’d support a student who is an Obliger.

Listen in as Gretchen and I talk about understanding students’ tendencies — as well as our own — so we can be more productive and accomplish the things that really matter.

gretchen rubin the 4 tendencies

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or read the condensed transcript below.

Let’s start off with a super quick review of what the 4 tendencies are, for anyone who’s not familiar with your research.

RUBIN: So the four tendencies are Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel. And what this tells you is how you respond to expectations. And we all face two kinds of expectations: Outer expectations, like a work deadline or a request from a friend, and then we also face inner expectations, our own desire to keep a New Year’s resolution, or our own desire to get back into practicing guitar.

So Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. They meet the work deadline, they keep the New Year’s resolution without much fuss. They want to know what other people expect from them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important.

Then there are Questioners. Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense. So they make everything an inner expectation. If it meets their standard, they will do it — no problem. If it fails their standard, they will push back, and they typically complain about anything arbitrary or inefficient or unjustified. They always want to know “why.”

Then there are Obligers. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. I got my first insight into this tendency when a friend said to me: “I don’t understand it. 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?” Well, now I understand. When she had a team and a coach expecting her to show up, she had no trouble going, but when she was just trying to go on her own, it’s a challenge.

And 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. They can do anything they want to do. They can do anything they choose to do, but if you ask or tell them to do something, they are very likely to resist.

So those are the four.

You know my audience is teachers — I’m going to make a guess that most teachers are Obligers. What do you think?

Well, the fact is Obliger is the biggest tendency, for both men and women across the board. So it would make sense just because that’s a very big tendency in the world. And I should say that most people can tell what they are just from that brief description. I have a quiz on it. If you go to my website, there’s a free quiz that you can take, and 1.3 million people have taken it. But a lot of people just know what they are from the description. But Obliger is the biggest, and Rebel is the smallest.

I’ve heard you make the interesting point in the past that Obligers and people pleasers are not the same thing, that sometimes people are not Obligers because they’re motivated to make sure that everyone likes them, but because they are rule followers. They’re motivated by not getting themselves in trouble.

That’s a very important point because sometimes when people think of Obligers, they sort of build up a whole mental picture of what an Obliger would look like. But the key thing to understand about Obligers is that they readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. They may say: Oh, I’m trying to put other people first, or I’m trying to please others at the expense of my own priorities, or Why can’t I do self-care? That might be an explanation for being an Obliger, but that is not the essence of being an Obliger. As you say, you could be a very curmudgeonly Obliger. You might not care about pleasing people at all — you just don’t want to get in trouble.

Sometimes people often express the same idea in different ways. So for instance, somebody might say:  Well, of course, I have no time to exercise. I’m a doctor. I give 110 percent to my patients. I spend all my time at the hospital, or I’m such a badass businessman. I spend all my time closing deals. I don’t have time to eat right. That’s Obliger talk because everything is about outer expectations and not meeting inner expectations. That’s still an Obliger. It’s not what everybody thinks an Obliger looks like, but that’s definitely the way an Obliger might describe themselves.

For me, I’m a Questioner, so I don’t do anything that is the way it’s always been done. In fact, if it’s always been done that way, then the first thing I want to know is why. So that’s what makes it really easy for me to do the work that I do in creating productivity resources for teachers and the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, because I’ve always questioned everything about the way we do school, everything about the way we do life, and I’m always looking for these more streamlined and more meaningful, more impactful ways to do things.

But one of the things that I notice about teachers who are in the club is that my fellow Questioners tend to get results right away. So they show up, and they’re like, “Yeah, let’s figure out what’s not working and why and let’s start doing things in a way that makes more sense.” But sometimes it’s a little more challenging for Obligers and Upholders to jump in there because they have this different way of approaching the external expectations that are placed on them by their principals and by their school districts.

What do people with each of the different tendencies need to keep in mind when it comes to streamlining their lives and creating better habits?

The most important thing, and one of the most important reasons, is because Obliger is just the biggest tendency. So you either are an Obliger or you have many Obligers in your life. If there’s an inner expectation that an Obliger wants to meet, they must have outer accountability.

Oftentimes, Questioners are very puzzled and frustrated by Obligers because they’re like: Just get clear on your priorities, think it through, understand why you’re doing things the way you do, and action will follow from that. That’s not the experience of Obligers. Obligers need outer accountability so you might present it like: If you use this system, you are going to have more free time available to answer the questions of your students. You’re going to be more available to them. You’re going to be able to do higher-level work. Or, You’re going to be a role model for other teachers in your system, or you’re going to model a certain kind of behavior for your students.

If they see you following this sensible practice, then they are going to copy you because as the teacher, you need to be the role model that others follow, or maybe your future self follows. Angela right now doesn’t want to do this, but Future Angela is going to be really annoyed if Now Angela doesn’t do it this way and ends up wasting a lot of valuable time.

So you want to think about how to present messages with this idea of outer accountability because that is what is going to resonate with Obligers. And oftentimes, Questioners are like: Why are you doing this? It doesn’t make any sense. The fact that somebody’s telling you to do it, like, who cares? But to an Obliger, that’s really powerful. I think you’re wise to think about how you present different messages to different people because the same message doesn’t resonate across the tendencies.

The other thing that I think about when I read through your work and also when I was reading Better Than Before — which is your book about habit creation — is thinking about how this impacts students. I would think it would be really challenging for an Upholder and an Obliger teacher to understand why a Questioner student or a Rebel student doesn’t want to meet classroom expectations.

Yes. You put your finger on it. It’s a huge thing, especially because Upholders are like: What’s everybody’s problem? Like, get with the program. I’m the teacher — just get it done. What is the fuss here? In a classroom or workplace situation, Obligers often get the accountability they need, and so they don’t have issues in comparison to other tendencies like the Questioners and the Rebels.

I have to say, I’ve heard from so many Questioners these very poignant stories about how they had really difficult times in school because no one bothered to explain to them. By explaining, I mean about 10 minutes. I’m not talking about an eight-hour thing. I’m talking, just briefly: Why is it that we’re asking you to memorize the multiplication tables, even though you can look it up on your phone faster and more accurately? Why are we asking you to learn about ancient Mesopotamia, even though it’s never going to come up in everyday life? Why do you have to learn how to do cursive when you’re going to be working on your laptop all the time?

And over and over Questioners will say: I refuse to do it, or I would refuse to write the book report because it would be a stupid waste of my time, but I would study for the test because I understand that I was learning. If you take the time with a Questioner child who’s resisting, and you’re like: Let me explain to you that even though you might think this book report is stupid (because you know that I know that you read the book), let me explain why this is valuable and why I think this is important to you. Then they can get with the program. They just don’t like that feeling of having their time wasted.

And then with Rebels, they just don’t like being told what to do. The more that you can present to them like: This is what you want. This is what you like to do, this is a challenge that you want to meet, or give them options like, you could do it this way or this way. That is going to help a Rebel child get with the program.

To a teacher, both of those children might look the same because they’re both resisting an outer expectation. But it’s very different, it’s coming from a different place — Questioner and Rebel — so you want to know what the child’s tendency is so that you can communicate with them in a way that’s going to resonate with them. But I think it’s really true — it’s something that comes up a lot for teachers.

How can teachers help students develop awareness of their tendencies?

Yeah, you can’t know from the outside. The thing that always tips me off to a Questioner is the word arbitrary. Maybe you feel this way as a Questioner yourself. Five garments to a dressing room? Why five? This is just unthinkable to them. Fifty-five miles an hour speed limit for every driver on the highway? How is this a good idea? Something Questioners have to learn is how to ask questions in a way that seems constructive. It’s very important to understand that they just need to understand why. The idea that you say, “We’ve always done it,” “That’s what fourth-graders have to do,” “Because I’m the teacher and I say so,” these are totally illegitimate for Questioners because it’s going to drive them crazy and inspire that spirit of resistance.

For a Rebel, it’s really coming from a place that if you say something to a child and their answer is, “You’re not the boss of me,” that’s a Rebel. And so for a Rebel, it’s much more like: This is what you want. If you do well on this test, you might make the honor roll, and the kids who go on the honor roll are going to go on the trip to Washington, D.C. Everybody wants to go on the D.C. trip. So if you want to make the honor roll … . That’s how you really speak to a Rebel. Also, Rebels always want to put their authentic identity into the world because many Rebels are very idealistic or have very high values, such as being a considerate member of the community. You might say: This is what it means to be a considerate member of our community, or If other people are counting on you, you want to come through for them. It’s that identity of who it is that you are.

But you’re right, you really have to know from the inside of the person’s head. You can’t judge from the outside.

What would it look like for teachers to use the 4 tendencies to help gain student buy-in so kids can successfully meet classroom expectations? 

I think that Upholders are the easiest for teachers because they want to meet outer expectations, but they also have their own inner expectations, and they tend to love to-do lists — they don’t like dropping the ball. So these are the kids that check their own homework, who pack their own gym clothes, who say: Can you sign my permission slip and I’ll put it in the backpack and take it to the teacher? And that all just happens.

You want to make sure that Upholders are thinking about what they want because they can meet inner expectations if inner expectations are articulated. If you just say to an Upholder child, Well, you really should do debate team, and you should be on Model U.N., and you should be on the basketball team, that child might be like, Oh, I guess I should. Because the Questioner would be like, Well, why would I do debate? I’m not interested in debate … and so on. But an Upholder might go along with that. So you want to help them understand what they want for themselves.

For an Obliger, you really want to make sure that they have those outer accountability expectations around inner expectations because they are going to find it a lot easier to hand in the book report or study for the test because they have that accountability. But what about a child who wants to do something like practice guitar on their own? Can you create outer accountability around that? There’s got to be some form of accountability that’s attached. So you want to look for what it is that the Obliger wants to do for themselves and help them create the outer accountability. And often Obligers will ask for accountability and then Upholders and Questioners and Rebels don’t want to provide it. But an Obliger needs outer accountability. If people ask for outer accountability, it’s because they know they need it.

Right, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s not something that we need to stop them from doing.

No. I’m so glad you said that. That’s such an important point, because sometimes Upholders, Rebels, Questioners, and even Obligers themselves will say: It’s weak. I don’t want to have to rely on outer accountability. I want to have it self-generated. I want to have it all inner motivation. That doesn’t work, and 40 percent of people are Obligers. The world is set up for accountability. This is why there are deadlines and teams and bosses. Most people need outer accountability and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s very easy to plug it in once you know that accountability is what you need, and there’s no reason to feel like there’s something wrong with you or that it’s some kind of lesser form of meeting commitments. It’s just the way some people are, and you don’t need to fix it or change it or wish it were different.

You just have to say: Knowing what I know about myself or knowing what I know about somebody else, how do I give them the outer accountability that’s necessary for them to achieve their aims? Because it’s easy to have outer accountability. It’s easy to plug in outer accountability, but to force yourself to give it up if you need it is very difficult. So don’t do that — don’t try to change yourself. Just change the way things are set up and you’ll get there so much faster.

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See, that’s how I feel too. This is just so validating. This was actually one of the main things that I wanted to bring you on here to talk about because one of the really pervasive ideas in education that has been in place for a long time is that intrinsic motivation is best. So teachers are always told we have to move away from external rewards. Kids have to develop their own purpose for learning. We can’t have them dependent on external motivators. They can’t be dependent on the teacher to set up these accountability structures for them.

I’ve always really struggled with that as an educator because it just doesn’t jive with what I know about human nature, with what I know about kids, with what I know about how productivity works. Because in my experience, it’s just nearly impossible to develop intrinsic motivation for certain tasks, especially if we’re talking about low-level and mundane work.

And then we’ve also got the tendencies here where some people always, throughout their lives, just achieve more when they have this external motivation and accountability.

And here’s the thing. I don’t like the word motivation. I feel like the word motivation is very confusing because it kind of combines ideas that are very, very different from each other. It combines the idea that I really want a result. I’m very motivated to lose weight. I’m very motivated to pass the bar. But it also combines the idea that I’m sort of willing to do things that will take me toward that goal, like the idea that you’re motivated to something kind of suggests that you’re taking action. That is not the case. There are many times when you really, really desire an outcome, and yet you are doing nothing in order to achieve that aim. This was very confusing to me as an Upholder, because that is something that Upholders experience less of. So I think putting away motivation just makes everything clearer. I think it’s just clear to think of: Do I want to achieve a certain aim? And then, what am I willing to do to achieve that aim?

I’m so glad that you made this point that being motivated is not the same thing as taking action. So it’s pointless to say to a kid who’s not turning in his or her work, “Don’t you care about passing? Don’t you care about getting into college?”

Because not turning in your work isn’t the same thing as not caring. A kid can care deeply about his or her future and want to succeed, but taking action to achieve that goal is not necessarily related. So making sure that kids care about the goal or the expectation helps, but it’s not everything. It’s not the only tool that should be in our toolbox.

And I totally accept it and think it’s incredibly important. If you’re deeply interested in something, everything is easier. It’s like the child who can’t memorize the multiplication tables but knows every baseball statistic. Or the child that can’t memorize Wordsworth but can memorize every song lyric from Rodgers and Hammerstein. When I become passionate about a subject, I remember so many things that I couldn’t remember before I was interested. So it’s not like it doesn’t matter how engaged you are, but I do think it gets confusing, because it’s like, how do you intrinsically motivate somebody to memorize the multiplication tables? That’s just no fun. It’s no fun for anyone.

Right. And that’s not necessarily a key to productivity when we’re talking about sort of pivoting here a little bit and talking about just getting things done. You don’t have to have this deep intrinsic motivation for everything that you do in order to be productive.

In a way, it feels like a burden to try to work yourself into some state of enthusiasm when you’re just like: I just want to get it done. I don’t even want to have a mental state in relationship to it. But with something like to-do lists, they want to do it because it’s on their to-do list, but then the minute they have a to-do list, they want to resist their to-do list. What does that even mean that they’re intrinsically motivated? Because they’re also intrinsically resistant, and so it can get very complicated.

Speaking of productivity, there’s sort of an assumption that everybody should have to-do lists which are a great productivity tool. They aren’t for everyone. Rebels will write something down on a to-do list and then immediately refuse to do it. So they have to take that into account.

I’m wondering if you have any advice or any resources for teachers to help students develop awareness of their own tendencies. Do you think that would be useful, for kids to understand their tendencies?

I think it’s super useful, and I’ve been surprised by how many children and teenagers I’ve heard from. One of the things many people have asked me to do is to develop a quiz for children that is specifically geared towards child language and child scenarios. And so if anybody has any ideas, please let me know! A lot of times you can tell, and the children themselves can tell if you describe it. I mean there are five-year-olds who are clearly Rebels, clearly Questioners. My daughter was an Upholder from the time she was five years old, and it’s not unusual to hear the same about three-year-olds.

And so at this point, I don’t have a quiz specifically for children, but I do think that if you know the description, it’s often very easy to tell what a child is. Now not always, because children aren’t autonomous in the way that adults are, so sometimes you really can’t tell because they just aren’t making their own decisions the way an adult does. With my older daughter, I couldn’t tell until she went away to college. I couldn’t tell if she was a Questioner or an Obliger. Now I know she’s a Questioner because she’s out on her own, but often you can tell earlier.

But for resources, you can visit my website, under the book, The Four Tendencies, there are resources related to the four tendencies, and there is a sheet that’s specifically for teachers, parents, and coaches that specifically explains what you look for in a child and how you work with a child depending on the tendency.

Or, people can always contact me through the website and I can send it. I also have an app, called the Better App, which is free. People can use this app to talk about the four tendencies, and there’s a whole discussion group there that’s for teachers, parents, and coaches. You can also go into a discussion group, like for Rebels, and pose questions and start conversations with people depending on it. So that’s if you really want to go deep into the four tendencies — there’s a lot of conversation there. And then we talk about it a lot on the Happier Podcast too because it just comes up all the time.

I want to close out the show with a “Takeaway Truth” that listeners should remember in the week ahead. What’s the most important thing you wish every teacher understood about the topics we discussed today?

I just think that we’re all different. In many ways, we’re very much like each other, but we’re all so different. It’s so easy, and I certainly have felt this way myself, to assume that what works for me is going to work for you, or the way that I see the world is the way that other people see the world. I really truly believe that when you can see how other people have a different perspective, then it’s not personal. It’s not, “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “You’re right and I’m wrong.” It’s just, How do we understand where everybody’s coming from so that we can create an environment where everyone can thrive?

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