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One of the most gratifying things about authentic self-connection is gaining a better understanding of who you are, what matters to you, and how you like or don’t like to do things. Knowing and honoring our own truths helps us to manage both our strengths and our weak areas, and create a more productive, personally fulfilling life.

Understanding ourselves is often easier said than done, however. We humans tend to create narratives or identities for ourselves that are often based on what a few people once told us, or what we want to believe, rather than on our own objective truths. We may think we like something when we don’t, for example, because we have never thought to question it. We may think we’re lazy, or obstructionist, when in fact we just need a different form of motivation to move us to action.

Knowing Our Tendencies

This question of motivation is central to Gretchen Rubin’s book The Four Tendencies. In her direct, articulate way, Rubin shares her theory that most of us respond to expectations in one of four ways: as Upholders (readily motivated by both external and internal expectations), Rebels (resistant to both external and internal expectations), Obligers (happily motivated by external expectations, but not by internal expectations), and Questioners (motivated only when they have gathered enough information to conclude something is worth doing). 

With stories and statistics from the thousands of people interviewed about their behavior and tendency, Rubin’s book outlines her theory of what does and doesn’t work for each of these four groups when it comes to friends, partners, work, and basic living. Her website hosts a free online quiz to help you determine which group you fit under.

It’s important to note that although Rubin’s theory is grounded in the results of a professionally run study among a nationally representative sample, across a geographically dispersed group of U.S. adults with a mix of gender, age, and household income, the four tendencies model has not yet been scientifically validated in the medical or clinical context. At the same time, medical professionals have expressed great interest in doing so, due to the enormous potential it may have for improving medical outcomes – since patient compliance with “doctor’s orders” is such a critical factor. If customizing treatment advice to a patient’s tendency could reliably increase the likelihood that they’ll follow that advice, that would be a win-win for doctors and patients alike.

Not A Judgment, Just A Tool

Rubin’s book stresses repeatedly that a person’s tendency does not equate to strength of character, or determine their destiny or personality; these tendencies are simply a shorthand to talk about what motivates different groups of people. What probably works for an Upholder (the simple announcement of a rule) will not work for a Rebel; what motivates a Questioner to start taking daily walks (information that convinces them this will improve their lives) will not necessarily motivate an Obliger, who typically would need an external reason beyond him/herself to take action.

Rather, Rubin reasonably suggests that understanding the differences between these tendencies can help us in our interpersonal dealings, as well as our personal resolutions. By gaining insight into the different ways people are motivated (or demotivated), we can become better communicators, parents, leaders, and partners. We become more compassionate toward ourselves, as well as those with different tendencies than our own.

By better understanding motivational tendencies, we can more easily take appropriate actions – facilitating the changes standing between us and a more connected, authentic life. If you struggle to invoke your own motivation, or that of the people around you, this book is well worth a read.

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