Gretchen Rubin, THE FOUR TENDENCIES: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too)

Gretchen Rubin, THE FOUR TENDENCIES: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too)

Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author and one of today’s most influential observers of happiness and human nature, Gretchen Rubin, about her latest groundbreaking book, The Four Tendencies, which analyzes four personality types based on how we respond to expectations: upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels. Gretchen and Zibby examine the four tendencies as they relate to parenting and relationships, and Gretchen offers the best advice on managing all types (mainly the rebels!). Take the quiz now at to find out which one you are!


Zibby Owens: Hi, Gretchen. Thanks so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Gretchen Rubin: I’m so happy to be talking to you again.

Zibby: For people listening, I basically begged Gretchen to come back on the podcast to discuss The Four Tendencies more. We had this great event together for Parents in Action. While talking about The Four Tendencies types, I realized that one of each of my kids was one of the four different tendencies. Then I went home and tested everybody, and I was right. That is what happened. I was like, I need to talk to Gretchen about how to parent kids with four different tendencies and what that means for a family and then realized, of course, I can’t be the only one who has to parent kids with different types, and what I could learn and what I could then share with everyone else about it. Gretchen, The Four Tendencies, why don’t you start out, for people who haven’t read it, tell when it came out and how you decided on writing that book and how these four tendencies appear in different people, so what people should look out for.

Gretchen: I stumbled across this aspect of human nature when I was working on my book, Better Than Before, which was all about how to make or break habits. I started noticing these very distinct patterns when I was talking to people about how and why they could or couldn’t break a habit. The light-bulb moment was when a friend said to me, “The weird thing is, I know I’m happier when I exercise. When I was in high school, I was on the track team. I never missed track practice, so why can’t I go running now?” I thought, okay, well, why? I can have a lot of hypotheses about why that would be, but what’s really going on? That’s what led me to The Four Tendencies. I will briefly describe them. Probably, most people will know what they are right away. You’ve got one of each at home. We could do Game of Thrones characters. These are very obvious ones you know. There is a quiz. If people want to take a quiz and get a report and an answer, you can just go to, F-O-U-R tendencies, or “Gretchen Rubin quiz.” Three and a half million people have taken the quiz. It’s free. It’s quick. I’ll explain them quickly. Most people can know what they are.

Zibby: You can even take the quiz while you are listening to us. Just open a new browser window. Listen at the same time.

Gretchen: Moms don’t have time to take a quiz. Do both. What this looks at is — it sounds very dry, but it turns out to be really juicy — how you respond to expectations. We all face two kinds of expectations: outer expectations, like a work deadline or a homework request from a teacher; or inner expectations, my own desire to keep a New Year’s resolution, my own desire to get into meditation. Depending on whether you meet or resist outer and inner expectations, that’s what makes you an upholder, a questioner, an obliger, or a rebel. Upholders are the people who readily meet outer and inner expectations. They meet the work deadline or the school assignment. 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. Their motto is, discipline is my freedom. These are the kids who, you don’t have to remind them to take their gym clothes or to do their homework. They just do it. Then there are questioners. Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense. They resist anything arbitrary, inefficient, unjustified. They have to know why. They’re always looking for reasons. They tend to love to customize. They’re making everything an inner expectation. If it makes sense to them, if it meets their inner standard, they’ll do it no problem. If it fails their inner standard, they will push back. Their motto is, I’ll comply if you convince me why. These are the kids who are told, you ask too many questions, and the adults who are told, you ask too many questions.

Then there are obligers. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. This is my friend on the track team. When she had a team and a coach counting on her, she showed up no problem. When she’s trying to go on her own, she struggles. Anybody who says to themselves, I don’t understand why I can keep my promise to other people but I can’t keep my promises to myself, or they worry about taking time for self-care or making themselves a priority, this is all signs of obliger. The big secret for obligers is even to meet an inner expectation, you need outer accountability. You want to read more? Join a book group. You want to read more? Do a podcast where you have to talk about what you read. Obligers need outer accountability even for inner expectations. Their motto is, you can on me, and I’m counting on you to count on me.

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 could do anything they want to do. They could do anything they choose to do. If you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. Typically, they don’t like to tell themselves what to do. They don’t sign up for a ten AM spin class on Saturday because they think, I don’t know what I’m going to feel like doing that Saturday morning. Just the idea that it’s on my calendar is annoying to me. Their motto is, you can’t make me, and neither can I. Those are the four. Obligers is the biggest tendency for both men and women. Rebel is the smallest tendency. It’s a conspicuous tendency, but it’s a small tendency. I’m an upholder. You’re an obliger, if I remember correctly.

Zibby: Yes.

Gretchen: Then you have one of each in your house.

Zibby: I do.

Gretchen: Gold star to you. You pegged them all accurately.

Zibby: I did.

Gretchen: There you go.

Zibby: There you go. Once you’ve said it, I swear this has been the most impactful discovery about my children, ever, in terms of how I parent them. I’m so grateful to you because it changes the way — you’re always, with your kids, customizing communication without even thinking about it. I know to do it this way with this kid and this with this kid. This provides not only a framework for me, but because we all know now which one is which and what that means, I can say, okay, I’m explaining this to this kid because that’s what questioners need. I know you don’t need that, so don’t even listen. I know you already write about this in the book and everything, but in terms of learning how to parent, especially a type who is not yours — actually, even harder is figuring out how to motivate the child of mine who is most like me when I totally relate to the same struggles, and I haven’t mastered it myself. What do you do when you see the same issues in someone you love that you can’t fix in yourself? What would you say to that in terms of these types?

Gretchen: It’s really interesting that you say that because people often will talk about what it’s like to parent someone who’s the same tendency or how to cross over, especially one that’s the opposite tendency. Sometimes I do think it can give you insight because you get it from the inside. You’re right. With anything with parenting, it’s so painful to see our own struggles sometimes in our children. Sometimes that itself can be a parenting challenge. You have bad memories associated with something like not being good at sports, and so seeing a child — it’s so painful to you that it adds this whole other element. What I like about the four tendencies is that it’s kind of impersonal. In a way, it takes it out of, you’re like me. We’re having a conflict as spouses or something. It’s just like, you know what, this is a pattern that you see with obligers. This is not peculiar to you. You’re not behaving this way because you don’t care about me or you have no consideration or you just don’t make any sense.

This is just a way that some people approach the world. All of the tendencies have strengths. All of them have weaknesses and limitations. To me, it kind of takes the sting out of it because it’s more like, this is how some people are, let’s figure out how to deal with it, rather than, what are you doing to me? My husband’s a questioner. A lot of times, questioners don’t like to answer questions, which is ironic but true. I used to really be like, what does it mean about our relationship that I just ask you to do something, and everything is a conversation? Everything is a debate. Isn’t it enough that I just asked you? If you ask me, I’ll just do it. Now I’m like, oh, he’s just like that with everybody. I benefit from it in many ways. How has it come up in your parenting? I’m fascinated by this, that you have one of all. That’s usual in my observation.

Zibby: Right?

Gretchen: Yeah, it is.

Zibby: I know. It’s crazy.

Gretchen: What’s your husband?

Zibby: My husband’s the same as me. We’re both obligers.

Gretchen: Some of the happiest marriages I know are two obligers.

Zibby: Really? Because we’re both trying to make each other happy or something?

Gretchen: Kind of, yeah. I don’t know. I’ve just noticed that pattern.

Zibby: When I’m trying to get everybody to do the same thing at the same time is when this particularly —

Gretchen: — Parent Olympics there.

Zibby: Like getting in the car because we’re going to go to my book event or something. Why do we have to leave now? I know the one upholder, I just say the time. It’s done. No questions asked. Sometimes, later, why did we have to leave at that time? Now we’re here early. But no question beforehand. That’s easy. That’s the easiest one. Then the obliger wants to just do everything I say. It’s totally fine. No question because I’m external to that kid. The questioner, I have to be like, here is why we’re going. This is why it’s important to me that you’re there. This is why we have to leave. This is why usually, we leave at this time, but because it’s Friday and there’s traffic, this is why. I have to aim that whole targeted communication to that child. Now in my head, I’m budgeting more time, just a little more time, to focus and address before it comes up and there’s any kind of questioning, so heading that off at the pass.

Then with the rebel, it’s an unknown. That’s the hardest one. I’m like, this kid is not being oppositional on purpose. I have to make this something savory and fun that they’ll want to opt into on their own and not feel like they’re being forced to do. I have to find something else about the event that appeals to them directly. At my book event, for instance, I was like, “You know, we’re going to this book event. I know you love children’s books. They have a huge section of children’s books. I think it would be really fun if you were to browse that section while I go do my event.” They’re like, “Oh, I do love doing this. Could I do this kind of book?” I’m like, “You can. Actually, I was going to order that for you.” Not to make it self-centered for that child, but just the value-add for them that maybe I don’t need to position it that way. It’s about positioning. It’s like a Venn positioning messaging.

Gretchen: Another thing, because you talk about the rebel, I will say that I think the rebel tendency is the most different from the other three. It’s the smallest tendency, so I think that for a lot of people, understanding the rebel mentality can be challenging. It’s misunderstood as being selfish or something. It’s really like, I’m going to do what I want to do. There’s so much power to that. A couple other ways to think about it as you’re navigating.

Zibby: Help me. Help me.

Gretchen: One is, why do you want to do this? You’re like, you want to do this because there’s something in it for you. That’s good. Another thing to think about is identity. Identity is super important to rebels. They really want to put their values out in the world, and so something about being a loyal family member, someone others can count on, someone who shows up for the people they love, things like that. This is a big moment in my life. It means so much to me that all of you are here. That really is important to me. It’s like, I want to do that. I want to do that out of love for you. I want to do that because my identity is that I’m that kind of person. I’m an environmentalist. I’m an athlete. I’m a person who respects her body. I’m an animal lover. I’m a strong boss. I’m receptive to other people’s ideas. These kinds of things are really important to rebels. They will behave in ways that are consistent with their values. Sometimes you just have to point out with somebody, this is — a lot of times, rebels will choose to do something just out of love for you. They’re choosing to do it because it’s important to you. Sometimes it helps to frame it that way.

A friend of mine, she wanted her husband to go to a really boring client dinner with her, which he absolutely did not want to do. She was like, “I’m really nervous about this dinner. I feel a lot better when you’re with me. I feel like you make a great impression on people. It would really mean a lot to me if you came.” He chose to do that out of love for her. Whereas as an upholder, I’m like, if spouses are supposed to attend, I guess I got to go. I don’t need that conversation. Then the other thing is, information, consequences, choice. In this case, you might not want to say something like, if you’re not at the car at six thirty, we’re going to take off without you. I’d love for you to be there, but if you’re not there, I can’t let down the audience, so we’re going to go. Then you just leave them behind. Sometimes that kind of thing can work and can be fine. Sometimes you’re like, I can’t play with that fire. Information, consequences, choice is something like, look, if you want to apply to college, there’s so many excellent colleges I think you would love. We can look around and see your choices. Colleges are interested in high scores and good grades and an interesting essay. If having a lot of choices is important to you, then that’s the kind of thing a person needs. It’s like, ball’s in your court. Those are things to think. Information, consequences, choice is awesome.

Zibby: I have tried that with the rebel, by the way, leaving and saying, I understand, but we all have to go. You’ll just be here. Actually, it’s been more than one time because every time I try that, by the time I’m pulling out in the driveway or something, I hear a knock on the window. I wasn’t kidding. I really was going to go.

Gretchen: You said something very important. These cannot be idle threats. You can’t rescue at the last minute. You can’t say it and then at the last minute, fix it. What’s key is that the consequence falls. It’s not a punishment. It’s just, this is the consequence. I’ve got to leave the house at a certain time. The consequence is you’re either in the car or you’re not in the car. It’s not punishment. That’s just a natural consequence. You have to be willing to follow through. Another friend of mine was saying — his wife was a rebel. She never paid their cable bill. He’s like, “The problem is, then my cable gets turned off too.” I’m like, “Then you just have to let that happen. If at the last minute, you’re paying the cable bill, what’s the problem from her standpoint?”

Zibby: Interesting. The other issue that I’ve been struggling with a little bit is when the tendency types clash. It’s creating the most conflict between the kids of anything. When we’re out the door, the upholder is like, come on, and not patient, necessarily, and can’t even understand why the other kids are not running out too. What do you do when it’s not just me? There’s this whole ecosystem. This could to families, but to groups of college kids or whatever it is.

Gretchen: That’s so true. It’s funny that you point out the upholder like that because as an upholder, I know we’re often considered inflexible and rigid and also sort of judgmental. If I were your kid, I would be so outraged. I would be like, Mom said we had to go at six thirty. Why am I wasting my time? I’ve been standing here for twenty minutes. I could’ve been reading on the sofa. What’s going on here?

Zibby: That’s exactly what happens.

Gretchen: People are like, why are you so rigid? What does it matter if it takes an extra fifteen minutes? The questioner is like, I think if we leave fifteen minutes later, maybe we’ll beat the traffic. You’re like, oh, my gosh, just get in the car. This is life. This is what happens when you have more than one person together. These different perspectives emerge. If you want to see this, go to an office kitchen and consult the post-it signs about how people feel about who loads the dishwasher with the dirty coffee mugs. You will see all of these things playing out. I think it’s really hard. I think that understanding the tendencies can, again, kind of take the sting out of it. One thing to be very aware of, especially with someone like you who has several children, is you don’t want to be unfair to your upholders and your obligers, because they’re the ones that are going to most readily do what you tell them, and give them more tasks and chores and unpleasant things than the questioners and the rebels because it’s just more of a hassle to get them to follow. It’s a pain sometimes to have to explain to somebody why you’re asking them to do something when you’re like, you should do it because I’m your mother.

That’s not going to fly with a questioner. A rebel is like, let’s play this out. Bring it on. I don’t want to do that. You can’t make me even though you’re Mom. I do think that sometimes it can get unfair because you just naturally go to the person who’s the most cooperative. That, in a family, is unfair. Children and the adults too, but certainly, children are very aware when things aren’t fair. It is something to be really aware of. Questioners and rebels themselves respond to fairness. If you say something like, “Look, the dishwasher, it has to get unloaded. Your brother and sister are saying they’ve already done it three times this week. Why is it fair that you don’t have to do it?” then they’re like, “Maybe we don’t need to unload the dishwasher. Maybe we should just take dishes out of the dishwasher as we need them. Why go through this whole — why make my bed every day when I just unmake it?” You have to go through that sometimes. I think it does lead to a lot of conflict when they just see things from a very different perspective.

Zibby: That was just my kids. They’re kids, so I can still intervene. They will grow up. Some adults, with their spouses, have the same levels of frustration. It’s not like it ends. Are there certain combinations — I’m thinking you should really intervene as people are dating. This should be some quiz people take before they get married. You’re about to get married. Here’s the four tendencies for newlyweds, or something.

Gretchen: Yeah, think about it. It’s interesting. Obligers are kind of the type O. It’s O for obliger, but it’s also O like universal donor because they pair up the most easily with all the other tendencies. In particular, when one person is a rebel, whether that’s in a romantic relationship or maybe in a founding team, if one person is a rebel, almost always, the other person is an obliger. I would never say never, but that’s overwhelmingly the pattern. One combination that tends not to work very well is upholder and rebel because they just see the world in such different ways. They want to work in such different ways. An upholder is someone who loves planning and calendars and to-do lists and execution and having a plan and following through. Rebels, they love spontaneity. They want to feel things through. They want to take advantage of the moment. Maybe in romance, they don’t even match up that much. They don’t match up that much except in certain very specific exceptions, which is funny. The exceptions themselves are so predictable. At work, you often hear someone saying, “It’s really hard to work for my rebel boss,” or “I’m a rebel. How do I deal with this upholder that’s bossing me around?” They do have a hard time because they just tend to thrive in very, very different circumstances.

In a big team, you could say we need a little bit of everything. When it’s just in a one-on-one combination, sometimes that can be tricky because they just work in a different way. You mentioned something that I thought was a great example of how you could use this in the workplace. You said to some of the kids, I’m going to explain why we’re leaving at six thirty. Other kids, you don’t have to listen to this. That’s a good thing to do at work. You can say, hey, I’m here to explain this to you if you care. If you want to go back to your desk, you don’t have to sit through this. A lot of times, you’re like, why am I listening to this? I want corporate to figure this out. I don’t have to understand the rationale behind the software program. Some people are like, hey, I’m not switching software programs until you convince me this is a good choice. We can tailor that so that some people don’t get frustrated and feel like their time is wasted. Then other people feel like, I want to understand the rationale behind an important choice. Both of these things are valuable. We want to be part of organizations or families where people make choices for reasonable reasons, but maybe we don’t have to listen to it.

Zibby: Are these fixed? Is there any hope that maybe some of my kids might outgrow their type, or no?

Gretchen: Here’s the thing. I don’t think anybody should. They have all tremendous strength.

Zibby: I’m not saying I want them to. I’m just wondering. Do people ever cross over to become another type, or is this like hair color?

Gretchen: I do say that because sometimes people do want to kind of evolve out. I don’t think that they do. I believe in the genetic roots of personality. I think this is part of what’s hardwired. I think people bring them into the world with them. They’re obvious in children, often from very, very young ages. I don’t think you’re one at work and one at home or one at twenty or one at forty. What I do think is that with time and experience, people learn how to manage their tendencies better. They don’t feel the frustration of their tendency as much because they’ve learned how to manage it. A lot of times, obligers, just intuitively, they’ll build in all kinds of accountability for things that are important to them, and so they’re effortlessly following through on everything that’s important because they have the accountability they need. They’re not aware that that’s a pressure point because they’ve built it into the system, so it just happens.

Zibby: Here’s my last question of something that really bothers me. As an obliger, when I am meeting someone for anything, ever, even just, “Come over. How does five sound for dinner?” I’m like, we are getting there at five. In my head, I’m backtracking. Being on time, for me, is incredibly important. When I’m two minutes late, I’m so annoyed.

Gretchen: I have a great suggestion for you.

Zibby: Tell me. I won’t even finish. Go.

Gretchen: I have the exact same problem. Somebody told me what to do. The problem is you want to be on time. Instead of saying, we’ll be there at five, say, we’ll be there between five and five fifteen. We’ll be there between five and five thirty. Often, the person on the other end doesn’t need that level of certainty. To you, you’re like, if it’s 5:02, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late. If you give yourself more of a margin, then you’re going to feel like, I’m not going to be late until five thirty. Probably, you’ll be trying to get there by more like five. You take so much of the pressure off yourself. Then if somebody’s like, hey, five thirty’s too late because you need to get here and then we need to take off, then they can say to you what is the proper margin. Then you know that. Still, I have found it to be so helpful because I’m exactly the same way. My anxiety would be — for no reason. It didn’t matter if I was five minutes late, but I would be really worried needlessly. Give yourself wiggle room.

Zibby: Okay. What about trying to convince the other person not to be late?

Gretchen: This is really hard.

Zibby: That’s why my on-time thing fails. Somebody in the ecosystem is making us late. What do you do to that person who’s not as concerned about time?

Gretchen: There is that whole thing. What is it? For every person, after the first three, add twenty minutes to get anywhere. There’s some rule about that. This is really hard. I keep meaning to really think this through, about how people have very different senses of time. There’s one thing. One is people’s senses of time. One thing is whether people think it matters to be late. Some people, especially someone like a questioner is like, it doesn’t matter if we’re twenty minutes late. I want to finish up what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter to them. You have to explain to them why it matters. Why does it matter? Something like, if we leave before six thirty, we’re going to have so much less traffic. If it’s six thirty or after, forget it. We’re going to be in the car for an extra hour. Okay, that makes sense. They’re planning to start dinner, and if everybody is there and we’re not there yet, everybody’s going to be waiting for us. We’re going to feel very self-conscious. We’re going to be very inconsiderate. It’s like, oh, okay, that makes sense. Even with the rebel, often, if you explain why something — again, that’s information, consequences, choice. If we keep other people waiting, that’s rude. This idea of, I want to get going on my day, that kind of doesn’t really cut it with a lot of people because that’s really just your preference. They’re just like, you would prefer to be up and out the door at nine thirty. I would prefer to be up and out the door at ten. I prefer to sleep a little bit later. Why do you get your way and I don’t get my way? Why?

Zibby: Maybe something I need to work on too is, is it that important? Like what you were saying, is this one of those times where we have to be right on time? A podcast, yes. A dinner party where you’re going to be there for three hours doesn’t matter if you’re five minutes late, if you’re at someone’s house versus a restaurant or all those things.

Gretchen: I realized I had a very bad habit where I would, even when we weren’t in a rush, I would push, push, push. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. It creates this atmosphere of freneticism. Why? Are we running late? Why is it that you have to be racing to do these things instead of naturally unfolding? I really worked on that myself. One thing that helped me with that was to really have a specific time, especially when I was walking my daughters to school every day. Instead of just starting to speed up because I unconsciously wanted to cross it off my list, I’d be like, we want to leave the house at this time. If we were five minutes before that time, there was no need to hurry because it wasn’t time to go yet. Sometimes having a specific time, it’s not even that you leave on time. It’s that you’re not hurrying early. Some people, you start hurrying early, which is totally unnecessary. It’s easy to fall into that. At least for me, it’s very easy to fall into that trap. This happens at the airports. I have to be careful or I will leave six hours early.

Zibby: I leave so early.

Gretchen: Right? So early.

Zibby: Actually, when it was easier to just jump on a new flight, I used to always arrive and hop on the other flight. Then I would end up rushing anyway to make the earlier flight.

Gretchen: This is a problem. This happens to me. I arrive so early that I’m like, oh, there’s a train leaving for New Haven in ten minutes.

Zibby: Yeah, so then I rush.

Gretchen: Then as an upholder, I’m like, do I try to get on that one and change my routine, or do I sit here because I can’t be that flexible? The answer is, I can’t be that flexible, so I will watch that train leave. I’m so early. Sometimes it’s a relief that I’m not so early that I’m faced with that option.

Zibby: Yes. That’s so funny. This has been so enormously helpful to me. Thank you. I hope this was enormously helpful to everybody listening too. Otherwise, it’s just my own personal coaching session on life lessons. I really do think all of these interpersonal relations are so great. This really unlocks the key to more effective communication. That helps improve people’s lives. Thank you.

Gretchen: I’m so happy to hear that. If you want to read more, the book is The Four Tendencies. On my website also, I have a lot of nutshell guides, if you’re like, give me one page on dealing with a rebel child. What do I do with my questioner husband? There’s a lot of cheat sheets there. Then in the book, I go into it all in a lot of detail.

Zibby: Anyone listening should subscribe to Gretchen’s amazing newsletters. She has many. You were so kind to include a little interview with me this week, which made me so happy. Thank you.

Gretchen: Congratulations to you once again.

Zibby: Thanks. Seriously, thank you. Have a great weekend. Now I’m going to go or I’m going to be late for the next thing.

Gretchen: Okay, good. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Gretchen Rubin, THE FOUR TENDENCIES: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too)

THE FOUR TENDENCIES: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin

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