Gretchen Rubin Solved a 27 Year-Old Mystery

Picture of The Four Tendencies

At the end of my first quarter of junior high, I was called down to the principal’s office where seven of my classmates were assembled in the conference room looking worried.

The principal welcomed us and in solemn tones announced that we were were the only straight-A students in the class. He went on for what seemed like hours about what a great students we were and what great opportunities awaited us and how he expected great things from us. I left that meeting full of shame and anger.

And also an apparent perverse determination—it turns out I wouldn’t make the honor roll again until the end of my senior year.

I think all of us have a few memorable moments—

Moments that we know are pivotal to the course of our lives
Moments that we reflect on over and over across the years
And in my case, moments that baffle; what the hell happened in that room?!!

Photo of Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin addressing the Forefront conference. Photo by Sam Interrante.

This last question is one that a good therapist could have turned into a new BMW. But instead of therapy, I attended Ramit Sethi’s Forefont conference where I was introduced to Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Four Tendencies (Amazon link).

The Four Tendencies

Rubin’s thesis is that people can be classified into four categories based on how they respond to expectations, which can either be external (those laid on us by school, family, employers, society, etc.) or internal (things we expect of ourselves).

In Rubin’s model, people either naturally meet or resist internal or external expectations in some combination:

  • “Upholders” meet both internal and external expectations.
  • “Obligers” meet external expectations but resist meeting internal expectations.
  • “Questioners” meet internal expectations but resist meeting external expectations.
  • “Rebels” resist both internal and external expectations.

This is not a complete personality model and it doesn’t seem to map to any of the popular personality tests. The four tendencies is applicable only to how we relate to expectations, but that can be pretty significant, because consider some of the expectations we face.

Examples of external expectations

  • Be at your desk by 8:00
  • Go to law school
  • Log in to Linkedin daily
  • Eat Grandma’s “world-famous brussel sprouts”
Examples of internal expectations

  • Run a 5k this year
  • Write in my journal every day
  • Keep my desk clean
  • Complete my task list each day by 5:00 p.m.

Resisting or meeting expectations like these has huge impacts on our health, success, and happiness.

What Happened in the Principal’s Office?

In reading Gretchen’s book, I instantly understood that day in seventh grade as well as dozens of other defining, memorable decisions I have taken over the years.

I am a rebel:

  • I responded to a well-meaning principal by never getting good grades again.
  • I responded to a wise mentor’s counsel to study computer science by studying theatre.
  • I responded to an observation that I would be an excellent Air Force officer by immediately dropping out of the officer candidate program.
  • And the list goes on.

Finding that I am a rebel was depressing—I felt doomed to a life of frustration and disappointment.

The Promise

But being a rebel is not all bad. The more I read and thought about it, the more I recognized the upside of rebellion:

  • I responded to a guidance counselor’s suggestion that taking the national merit test would be a waste of my time and money by immediately signing up for it and winning a scholarship.
  • I responded to the combination of my doctor’s expectation that it would be very difficult to lose weight and society’s expectation that I drive a car to commute by bike and lose 50 pounds.
  • And the list goes on.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” This, to me is the rebel’s call to arms and the promise that the rebel can be a force of change.

The Effect

Understanding the nature of my rebelliousness has changed my life over the past month. I am now mindful of my rebel tendencies, have a whole new set of mindgames to play with myself, and I see the actions of others in a new light.

Mostly, the effect has been one of tremendous relief and freedom. The upholders of the world set the agenda and the example for the rest of us, but 40 years of trying to follow their examples and use their systems and frameworks has been an exhausting and frustrating experience.

Understanding my tendency toward rebellion and how it manifests frees me to explore and use my strengths without excuse and without guilt. It allows me to look at the examples and teachings of others and unapologetically say, “That’s not for me.” And while it doesn’t excuse poor behavior or offer me a free pass on the rules of society, it provides permission to look at the world from my strengths.

I expect that an understanding of the four tendencies will most profoundly affect the rebels of the world, but it is also valuable for those who fall into the other three tendencies and especially for managers. For instance, I recently used it with my new direct report to find out how to best give her assignments.

You can take access Gretchen’s tendency quiz here. She also explains the tendencies with links to videos about each tendency on that page. Some of this material is older and I hope she updates it soon with her latest findings and thoughts.

Notes in the book
My copy of Gretchen Rubin’s “The Four Tendencies” has so many stickies in it that it’s hard to get the section on rebels closed.
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2 thoughts on “Gretchen Rubin Solved a 27 Year-Old Mystery

  1. I’m so excited for you, Kwin! It’s amazing to read about someone who reacted as strongly to Gretchen Rubin’s thesis as I did.
    It’s funny you say that rebels will find her work most profoundly, because I felt the same way as an obliger! Maybe we’ll have to meet in the middle and say it can help us all.
    Cheers to you as you go forth in your newfound rebel freedom. I linked to the post on my personal blog where I talk about how learning about my tendency changed how I look at myself.
    Thank you again for sharing!

    1. I felt the same way as an obliger

      I’m glad to hear it. I didn’t want to presume how others would react—we rebels hate it when people tell us what to feel!

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