Wellness: “The Four Tendencies”, with Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the bestselling author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before. Parvati Magazine’s Wellness Editor Dr. Karen Ho spoke with Gretchen Rubin about her new book on personalities, The Four Tendencies. This book explores in depth a personality mapping Rubin introduced in Better Than Before, based on how people respond to expectations both from within and from without.

Parvati Magazine: How is the Four Tendencies framework different from other personality frameworks?

Gretchen Rubin: I think all personality frameworks are fascinating, and each have their own power although it may not be possible to try to correlate one to another. The Four Tendencies is very specific in its focus on how an individual responds to expectation. This is its strength, because it tells you only one thing, and a very important thing. I believe that some frameworks can be too inclusive in trying to describe every aspect of personality.

PMAG: You believe that the Four Tendencies —the Upholder, the Questioner, the Obliger and the Rebel are hardwired. Could this change, however, over one’s lifetime?

GR: I’m a big believer in the genetics of personality and I really think that our core Tendency is part of our fundamental nature. As a mother, I also see this in my children. With time and experience, we hopefully learn to harness the strengths of our tendency and offset the weaknesses. For instance, many Obligers instinctually figure out that they need outer accountability and they find ways to incorporate this into their lives. Or a Questioner may choose a job where their questioning nature is highly valued, instead of a workplace where he is seen as not being a team player because he is asking so many questions. So it’s not that their nature changes, but that they change their circumstances in order to achieve their aims. Certainly, your Tendency is not meant to be a label that defines you, or that limits your possibility. It’s meant to be a light that can illuminate patterns of behaviour. We have to say, “Given this [tendency], what more can I do in order to act and live more skillfully?”

PMAG: The Four Tendencies strikes me as almost archetypal.

GR: It’s a very human impulse to look for big patterns and to search for archetypes, but I think this might work against a nuanced understanding of the Four Tendencies. People might jump to a stereotypical imagination of the Four Tendencies. For instance, one might assume that an Obliger might look like a stay-at-home mom who can’t say no and does not take time for herself. But Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods [are] both Obligers. Or Rebel– you might think James Dean, hoodlum, can’t get anywhere in life. But I have many friends who are very successful and are Rebels. However, there are also those who fit quite classically— Hermione Granger as the Upholder. So I think that treating this as archetypes might get in the way of recognizing that the Tendencies can present in very different ways. The output— what people see– can come from very different motivations. You cannot judge people’s Tendency by the way they behave. You have to understand their reasons.

PMAG: Do you tend to see certain tendencies attracted to certain professions?

GR: I believe that every job can be done by every Tendency in its own way, because many complex factors determine one’s profession including interests, values, willingness to pursue higher education, etc. But I do think that sometimes a Tendency may be able to explain or predict why you might or might not find certain work satisfying. For example, Rebels tend to be attracted to sales, because often the mentality is “whatever it takes to get the sale” and the Rebel might be more willing to bend the rules in order to get the job done. Whereas an Upholder might have more difficulty in this work because he often feels he has to do everything by the book. So it can be helpful in figuring out why a career is a match. The Four Tendencies can also help to create more empathy in understanding other people’s frustrations, and why they may be frustrated with us. This can be applied to resolve workplace conflicts coming from a lack of awareness into the fundamental Tendencies that drive our behaviours.

Gretchen Rubin is one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on the linked subjects of habits, happiness, and human nature. She’s the author of many books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers, Better Than Before and The Happiness Project which have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. She hosts a daily blog, gretchenrubin.com and an award-winning podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. She lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.

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