The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) is a book by Gretchen Rubin that defines and explains a personality profile framework that may help us understand how we and the people around us deal with their outer and inner expectations, so that we can be more successful in our lives, work and relationships.
One aspect of this framework and book that I particularly like is that Rubin doesn’t try to explain too much of an individual’s personality with her framework. She writes,
Also, I think that many personality frameworks cram too many elements into their categories. By contrast, the Four Tendencies describes only one narrow aspect of a person’s character—a vitally important aspect, but still just one of the multitude of qualities that form an individual. The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t act.
In other words, this framework doesn’t try to limit or define our personality too narrowly, but simply describes one important aspect of it, one that we can learn to understand better. However, I have been positively surprised by how many practical insights are packed in this framework.
The Four Tendencies described in the book are:
- Upholders meet inner and outer expectations. They love rules, having a clear plan and are self-motivated and disciplined. Clearly tell them what needs to be done and they’ll lead the way.
- Questioners meet their own expectations, but resist outer ones. They need to see purpose and reason in anything they do. Make it clear why what you want from them is important.
- Obligers meet other peoples’ expectations easily, but struggle with their own. The must be held accountable by a friend, coach or boss to get things done. They thrive when they have a sense of duty and can work in a team.
- Rebels defy both outer and inner expectations. Above all, they want to be free to choose and express their own individuality. Give them the facts, present the task as a challenge and let them decide without pressure.
The book suggests taking a quiz (here is the link) to discover our own tendency. It takes only five minutes. After reading the book, it was already obvious to me which one was my tendency, and in fact the “verdict” of the quiz confirmed that I am an Upholder.
Reviewing the quiz reports, I have to admit that it describes very well some of the things I do or with whom I struggle. Some of the things I have observed in my own life, now seem to make more sense, according to this framework. An important positive “side effect” of this reading has been that of gaining a better understanding of why other people around me may behave they way they do. Sometimes we may forget that people are different from us, and that we don’t all act or react in the same way to the same circumstances.
So what does it mean to be an Upholder?
“Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations. They wake up and think: “What’s on the schedule and the to-do list for today?” They want to know what’s expected of them, and to meet those expectations. They avoid making mistakes or letting people down—including themselves.”
My wife laughed when she read this description. She knows that I am constantly creating to-do lists of all sort in a constant effort to organize myself, maximize my time, and be productive. I really hate wasting time.
“Others can rely on Upholders, and Upholders can rely on themselves. They’re self-directed and have little trouble meeting commitments, keeping resolutions, or hitting deadlines (they often finish early).
Because Upholders feel a real obligation to meet their expectations for themselves, they have a strong instinct for self-preservation.”
I like to finish my assignments early, and while I try to respond to others’ expectations, I need to balance them with my own internal expectations. The meeting of both internal and external expectation is one of the characteristics that, according to Rubin, distinguishes Upholders from Obliger, who struggle to meet their own internal expectations, and for this reason they can sometimes experience burn out.
“However, Upholders may struggle in situations where expectations aren’t clear. They may feel compelled to meet expectations, even ones that seem pointless. They may feel uneasy when they know they’re not observing the rules, even unnecessary rules, or when they’re asked to change plans at the last minute. Others may find them rigid.”
I can confirm this in my own life. I don’t like unclear assignments or uncertainty, but since life and people are more complex than anybody’s “framework”, and we have more resources to our disposal than a relatively abstract “tendency”, I have learned to deal with these situations the best I can. My way of dealing with change and uncertainty is to “organize chaos” as much as I can, step by step, and also to be patient and understanding with family members or coworkers who have different approaches to life and work.
“There’s a relentless quality to Upholder-ness, which can be tiring both to Upholders and the people around them.”
This relentlessness may be one of the reasons why I was able to finish a PhD in four years, when I was already married and while raising four teenage children, working outside the college and in the college, and living in a foreign country where they don’t speak my native language. In fact, English is the third language I learned, not even the second one.
When I applied to the PhD program, one professor told me that it didn’t really matter how smart I was in order to finish the PhD. What really mattered, he said, was to be persistent, to avoid becoming one of those PhD ABD (All But Dissertation)… and I know a few of them, by the way.
The professor assumed that I considered myself smart because a few years before I had obtained a Master in Business Administration (MBA), while the PhD they were offering was in Marriage, Family, and Human Development, that is supposedly a “softer” area of study.
But I was not underestimating the effort that would require: to finish it under the circumstances in which I was finding myself at the time, I really had to be relentless.
“Upholders embrace habits, and form them fairly easily, because they find habits gratifying. “
A good example of how I like to form habits, and set my own personal goals, even without external expectation, is this blog. A few months ago I decided to write a blog post every day, about what interests me, a little bit for fun, and a little bit to keep track of my readings and other interesting knowledge that I stumble upon. These posts sometimes are just like personal notes. I have kept writing even if I am probably the only one who care about it. A few times I have thought of giving up, because the ultimate purpose is not yet clear, but I have not given up yet, because I like to share what I know, and practice writing and translating. I am a creature of habit.
Conclusion: The Four Tendencies
I will probably write a little bit more about the other tendencies in other posts, but I need to say that the book The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) is amazingly practical. I have read better books, even books more inspiring, or books based on stronger research, but The Four Tendencies is fascinating because of the elegance and simplicity of the Framework.
As mentioned before, a great virtue of this Framework is that it doesn’t try to explain too much, but what it explains is compelling and very useful to deal better with ourselves and others. I highly recommend it.
THE OTHER THREE TENDENCIES ARE DESCRIBED IN THESE ARTICLES:
- Obligers. They meet other peoples’ expectations easily, but struggle with their own.
- Rebels. The defy both outer and inner expectations. Above all, they want to be free to choose and express their own individuality.
- Questioners. Meet their own expectations, but resist outer ones. They need to see purpose and reason in anything they do.
- Introduction to The Four Tendencies