The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too

“When we ignore the Tendencies, we lower our chances of success” – Rubin 16

At the beginning of every school year, I’ve always given students some sort of questionnaire so that I can start getting to know them right off the bat. It helps me build relationships and trust with my students and just makes class more fun.

This year, I decided to adapt a personality quiz from Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies to figure out how to better motivate and encourage students.

The Four Tendencies work like Myers-Briggs, enneagrams, or socionics. Many people are skeptical of personality frameworks like this, while others — sometimes organizations and companies at large — embrace them to better understand their community.

Rubin isn’t a psychologist; she left a legal profession to become a writer. She focuses on habits and happiness. She even has a blog and a podcast centered on how we can lead happier lives. 

I’m not sure how other frameworks look at the question of “Nature vs. Nurture” when it comes to a person’s personality development. Still, Rubin believes that our Tendency is inherent, or nature:

“Our Tendencies are hardwired: they’re not the result of birth order, parenting style, religious upbringing, gender. They’re not tied to extroversion or introversion. They don’t change depending on whether we’re at home, at work, with friends. And they don’t change as we age. We bring these Tendencies into the world with us”

Rubin 9

I’m one of the latter. Any insight that I can get into my own personality, as well as those of loved ones and the people I spend my days with, can only help, right? As long as I take each framework with a grain of salt, I believe understanding someone’s personality from different perspectives makes me a more empathetic and responsive person.

The goal of using the Four Tendencies is to better understand what motivates us to fulfill our potential. She realized that there are two types of expectations we face in life:

“outer expectations – expectations others place on us, like meeting a work deadline

inner expectations – expectations we place on ourselves, like keeping a New Year’s resolution”

Rubin 6

Depending on how you respond to these two types of expectations determines which Tendency you are. The Four Tendencies are:

“Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations.

Questioners question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect they respond only to inner expectations.

Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike”

Rubin 6

She even color codes each tendency:

“Yellow represents Questioners, because just as a yellow light cautions us to ‘wait’ to decide whether to proceed, Questioners always ask ‘Wait, why?’ before meeting an expectation. Green represents Obligers, who readily ‘go ahead.’ Red represents Rebels, who are most likely to ‘stop’ or say no. Because there’s no fourth traffic light color, I chose blue for Upholders — which seems fitting”

Rubin 8-9

Rubin, despite the belief that each person is unchangingly a certain Tendency their whole life, encourages us to see each Tendency in ourselves:

“no matter what our fundamental Tendency, a small part of each of us is Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel”

Rubin 10

For example, I’m roughly 40% Obliger, 30% Rebel, 20 % Questioner, and 10% Upholder.

They can overlap with one another as well.

Upholder Overlap
Questioner Overlap
Obliger Overlap
Rebel Overlap

To find out what Tendency you are, Rubin designed a quiz that she shares at the beginning of her book so that you can discover which Tendency you most likely are. You can also take the quiz online on her website. It’s super short and easy to understand.

I’ve taken the quiz multiple times, and I’m a solid Obliger. (What are you? Let me know in the comments if you agree with your quiz results; I’m curious!).

Sometimes, when overwhelmed, Obligers can rebel. Of course, I’m mostly made up of the two most difficult Tendencies (the rest of my family is made up of the two easiest . . . go figure).

“people find the Obliger and the Rebel Tendencies the most challenging — whether as a member of that Tendency themselves or dealing with that Tendency in others”

Rubin 11-12

Even though people find these two Tendencies the most challenging, each Tendency comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. 

Upholders are great at following the rules, but sometimes it is nonsensical to follow the rules, especially in standing up for justice. Upholders have reliable moral compasses but too quickly judge others for what they perceive as misbehaving, even when that’s not stringently true. They can really struggle with a phenomenon called “tightening”:

“It becomes harder for them to make an exception, to take a break, to lighten up. That can be good — but it can also be bad”

Rubin 43

Rubin makes sure to provide Upholders with strategies for dealing with “tightening” when it limits and Upholder’s potential.

Rubin says a great example of an Upholder is Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series:

“Hermione never falls behind on homework, constantly reminds Harry and Ron about the regulations of the magical world, and becomes anxious when anyone steps out of line. Nevertheless, when she believes that conventional expectations are unjust, she crusades against them — she sees the rules beyond the rules — even in the face of others’ indifference or outright disapproval. She campaigns to improve the poor treatment of house-elves, and she quits school and opposes the Ministry of Magic to fight the evil Voldemort. She eagerly meets society’s rules and laws until they conflict with her own inner sense of justice — at which point she rejects them”

Rubin 31

Questioners are self-directed and authentic, but they are stubborn if they don’t feel an expectation is justified, which can clash with how others around them think about it. They love spreadsheets and are good at organizing information. Still, they might struggle to finish a project if they don’t perceive it as necessary, even though that project and deadline might be important to others. 

Something that happens to Questioners is “analysis-paralysis,” where 

“They want to continue to gather research, weigh options, and consider more possibilities. They crave perfect information, but very often in life we must make decisions and move forward without perfect information”

Rubin 69

Happily, Rubin provides tactics for Questioners to help them move on from “analysis-paralysis,” such as avoiding situations that trigger this response, talking with an “expert” to help them trust the information they do have set deadlines. 

Obligers are the largest group out of the Four Tendencies. Rubin calls them “the rock of the world.”

“Obligers show up, they answer the midnight call from their client, they meet their deadlines, they fulfill their responsibilities, they volunteer, they help out (until they stop)”

Rubin 103

On the one hand, we are the universal partners in relationships; we get along with just about anyone. But, our relationships with ourselves may not be fantastic. 

“no matter how much they may want to meet their inner expectations, if they don’t have some kind of outer accountability, that expectation won’t be met”

Rubin 104

Sometimes, this builds up into feeling overwhelmed. At that point, the Obliger might feel what’s called “Obliger-rebellion”:

“if the burden of outer expectations becomes too heavy, Obligers may show ‘Obliger-rebellion’: they meet, meet, meet an expectation, then suddenly they snap and refuse to meet that expectation any longer. Acts of Obliger-rebellion can be small and symbolic or large and destructive”

Rubin 106

I felt so seen by this description of an Obliger! Knowing this about myself helps me in so many ways. Since I’m motivated to oblige others and not my internal self, I figured out some “hacks” that I can use to get things done. I realized that I don’t feel motivated to work out alone because there is no one to count on my presence. But, if I take a class or work out with a friend, other people depend on me, and I almost magically feel motivated to exercise. I rarely feel motivated to clean my house; but, if I invite people over, I instantly clean my house. 

Rubin’s suggestions for avoiding Obliger-Rebellion helped me overcome many situations where I wasn’t taking proper care of myself by meeting my inner expectations.

Rebels are fun because they do what they choose to do and often take on challenges; but, they frustrate others and themselves. Even if a Rebel wants to meet an expectation, they struggle to complete it for the simple fact that it is an expectation. Because Tendencies don’t change, Rebels may work against expectations their entire lives.

“The harder the push, the greater the Rebel pushback”

Rubin 160

It helps me to understand other people’s Tendencies, too. I’m reasonably confident that my mom is an Upholder.

“Upholders find it fairly easy to decide to act and then to follow through; they also more easily form habits”

Rubin 28

I used to think that it was just because she was perfect and I wasn’t. Now, I realize that we just have different Tendencies and feel motivated by different things. 

“there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all answer for building a happier, healthier, more productive life. Different strategies work for different people — in fact, what works for one person may be the very opposite of what works for someone else”

Rubin 4

I used to wonder why my dad took so long to make decisions on things he wanted to buy. Now I know it’s because he is a hardcore Questioner.

“[the Questioner] readily meets an outer expectation that’s well justified because it then becomes an inner expectation”

Rubin 62

This framework is immeasurably helpful as a teacher. For each Tendency, Rubin offers advice to educators about how to interact with students (she also looks at how to interact with a spouse or partner, your children, your boss, your employees, or your patients!).

I always struggled to motivate students who are probably Rebels, or I often felt frustrated by students peppering me with questions about why something was worth doing. I struggled to help Upholders manage the tightening around internal and external expectations, and Obligers handle feeling overwhelmed (especially since I struggled to help myself do that). 

“telling a Rebel child what to do doesn’t work. It’s possible to make a child do something, of course, by establishing consequences that are sufficiently dire — but that’s very difficult to enforce in the long run . . . . information, consequences, choice — with no nagging or badgering”

Rubin 194

“Childhood can be a painful time for Questioners because children are so often expected to do things because an adult ‘said so’”

Rubin 91

“Obliger children — like all Obligers — respond to accountability”

Rubin 147

Now that I can recognize who is a Rebel or a Questioner in my class, it makes it easier to understand their perspective, use language that appeals to their specific Tendency, and work better to motivate them to move towards their educational goals. 

“When we understand others’ Tendencies, we’re more tolerant of them. For one thing, we see that a person’s behavior isn’t aimed at us personally”

Rubin 15

Going forward, I want to work more closely with students to help them understand their Tendency and capitalize on the results so they can learn how to best motivate themselves and work well with others. 

But, you don’t have to be an educator to get a lot out of Rubin’s framework or book. Anyone can use this resource to get more out of life, to be happier. 

“This self-knowledge is crucial because we can build a happy life only on the foundation of our own nature, our own interests, and our own values”

Rubin 9

Suppose you are struggling with eating a healthy diet to motivate yourself to begin a new exercise routine, with a co-worker, in your marriages and relationships, or with your children. In that case, the Four Tendencies is an excellent place to start. 

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