‘What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.’ — Ralph Waldo Emerson
There’s a writer called Gretchen Rubin who’s written many books, including biographies as well as self-help-type bestsellers such as The Happiness Project. I find her kind of irritating as she’s sort of bossy, but do admit she’s smart and insightful. I heard an interview where Rubin explained the premise of her book, Better Than Before.
I haven’t read the book, but this is what I gathered from hearing her speak*. All of us have internal and external commitments and obligations. How we approach each of them can be broken down into four categories of people:
One she calls Upholders. They respond to both external and internal expectations equally well. That is, they’ll deliver what they promise to other people, and they’ll do the same for their own resolutions and goals.
To me, these are the intensely annoying people who will say, ‘why don’t you just eat less and exercise more?’ or ‘why don’t you go to sleep early so you have an extra hour in the morning?’ or ‘why don’t you do it in moderation?’. To these rare creatures, it is as simple as stating a goal and then fulfilling them. Blast them. I have friends like this, and it’s a very good thing I love them despite this trait, because it really is infuriating. Largely because they imagine the rest of the world functions much like they do. And it really doesn’t. These are a minority group.
A second group are Obligers, who make up the bulk of the population, according to Rubin. These are people who are good with fulfilling other’s expectations but not their own. These folks are almost always over-extended because they can’t say no to other people. Critically, they imagine that if only external obligations were completed or removed, they would be able to tend to their internal wishes, but they really need some sort of external obligation to fulfil even their personal goals.
Because I’m the kind of person who would rather die than not deliver what I’ve promised to someone else, I thought this was what I was, but apparently – according to the quiz Rubin has on her website – I belong to the third category, which is:
Questioners. These are people who will question everything, and if the obligation – whether external or internal – makes sense to them, they will fulfil them. These are the folks to require a lot of data and research before agreeing to something. Indeed, it was a lightbulb moment when Rubin described these people as constantly looking for more information, to the point where it can be paralysing – because we’re always searching for something that can convince us to go ahead. And until we’re convinced, we just can’t move forward. This is why I often hover in limbo, not committing to a country, a relationship or a job; I really need to feel something is Right For Me before I can accept it. This also explains why I always like to know the story behind everything; I don’t automatically trust what sits on the surface (I’m also just plain nosy).
The last group are Rebels. They reject all obligations and, indeed, scoff at the very idea of going along with anyone’s expectations. These are also a minority. They are self-driven, self-motivated, disciplined, original thinkers who will balk at the very idea of pleasing someone else. They will only fulfil what they believe is important to themselves and their identity. (We have plenty of these in the film industry…)
I’m the first to admit that it can be trite to categorise people. A lot of my business-savvy friends use the Myers-Briggs test to understand how they can get the best out of their employees and colleagues. I even have friends who need to understand someone’s star signs to be able to explain why we each do what we do. For this INFJ Sagittarius Questioner, it can get a bit much. What’s with all the boxes?
More interesting than using them to assess ourselves or others, these tests can be useful by understanding what motivates us. Rubin says that people can’t really change their type, but once they understand themselves better, it can help them fulfil their goals. Obligers often ask how they can become more like Upholders, but she says to instead switch their internal obligations – get fit, say – to an external one: join a running club so you’ve committed to other people to follow through.
Food for thought.
*Gretchen Rubin discusses all four tendencies in detail on her own podcast, Happier, episodes 35–38.
I really want to know
Here is something I have been asking people a lot recently: what three things would you like to learn? Due to its timing, it feels like a New Year’s question, so I’ll package it accordingly.
I, for one, am excellent at making lists of Things To Do. Find apartment, colour hair, change sim, buy tomatoes, write my damn book.
But there’s something about learning that transforms the agenda from merely Getting It Done to Seeing How It Goes with no necessary fixed destination or boxes to tick. I love learning curves. Learning something new is a strong motivation for me. When I stop learning is when I get bored. And being as nosy as I am, I’m always curious to hear what other people want to learn, whether professionally or personally, formally or informally.
So, I ask you: what three things would you like to learn this year?
‘Dare to be yourself.’ — André Gide
The Lively Show is a podcast by Jess Lively who interviews interesting people who have found interesting ways of living their lives. Jess Lively seems like a sweetly earnest person, and she edits the interviews efficiently to make them compelling and easy to listen to. One of my favourite episodes is with Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home.
Elizabeth Gilbert, she of mega-wattage fame thanks to her memoir Eat Pray Love, wrote a how-to guide on creativity called Big Magic. I find Gilbert charmingly sincere and so will happily read anything she writes. While I don’t believe that reading a book can unlock your creativity (though I know enough people who have tried with that old now-classic tome, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron), Gilbert’s stories make this a fun read. There is an insane one about her and fellow writer Ann Patchett and a novel idea they both had that stunned me.
I am hyper aware of how important tribes are. I used to believe that it became difficult as you got older to meet people you can be real friends with, but that’s not true. I now think anyone with an open and curious mind can always find interesting people to bond with. One good way is to sign up with local Meetup groups. These are formed all around the world. You find your own particular interest – rock climbing, poetry reading, sword collecting, whatever – and look up to see which group is out there doing what you like to do. This was how I found a brilliant nutritionist and therapist I consulted in London last time. The meetings are almost always free, usually held in cafés, and everyone gets to geek out over their favourite things. Bonus: it’s nicer to meet like-minded people in person than from behind a screen.