Some of my recurring blog themes include topics such as knowing yourself, your working style, and your strengths and weaknesses. By knowing yourself and your tendencies, you can better figure out how to get yourself out of ruts, how to ask for help, or how to make it through a difficult situation in the lab or in the office. As part of my interest in scientific ‘self-help’, I love reading about personality assessments and combing through the theories about my own or my colleagues’ ‘types’. I use the information to think about how to communicate with other people better and also how to recognize my own shortfalls and to work to correct them.
My mother and I share the same interest in observing people and their personalities. Recently she talked to me about Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies, a personality test that distinguishes people by the way respond to internal and external expectations. I enjoyed the simple and clear presentation, and, while I was initially skeptical of its applicability (probably due to the type of tendency I fall into), I feel it’s relevant for understanding how we work in the lab and in a research setting.
You can read all about the theory behind Rubin’s tendencies on her website, but in a nutshell a person’s tendency boils down to how he or she follows instructions. In her book ‘Better than Before’, Rubin focuses on applying this theory towards changing habits, whether it be to exercise three times a week or to call your mom more often so you can discuss your entire family’s Rubin tendency distribution. It’s probably not initially clear what relevance this personality test could have in your scientific career, but as with most jobs, you spend a good portion of your day handling a lot of instructions: what your principal investigator wants, what your company/university wants, what you want, and at some point you’ll also be the one giving out instructions to others. At the same time that we receive information and instruction from various sources, we also make decisions on when do we decide to take breaks and how we decide which tasks to prioritize.
I’ll leave the details of the theory and the typologies to Rubin to describe in detail, but let’s get some context for what these four tendencies are, how they may manifest given that you work in a research-type setting, and what the potential strengths and weaknesses are in the lab for each type. But first thing’s first: take the test. No, really, it’s crucial for the rest of this post! It’s a short questionnaire and only a few questions long. And as with any personality test: be sure to answer truthfully to yourself. Respond as you would respond in that situation, and try to really picture yourself in the setting for each question.
Assuming that you have now taken the quiz and have been assigned your personality, we can discuss its implications. Rubin’s four personality types first came to be in 2013 and have now grown in detail and structure. The tendencies are also part of Rubin’s The Happiness Project, where she goes into detail of strategies for changing habits based on what types of expectations you follow the most. These descriptions come directly from her website and are referred to as either the Rubin Personality Index or the Rubin Tendencies. We like Rubin Tendencies, so we’ll stick with that one. The four tendencies are obligers, upholders, questioners, and REBELS. In the quote below, ‘rules’ also refer to instruction, or really any type of expectation.
“Upholders respond to both inner and outer rules; Questioners question all rules, but can follow rules they endorse (effectively making all rules into inner rules); REBELS resist all rules; Obligers respond to outer rules but not to inner rules.
- Upholders wake up and think, “What’s on the schedule and the to-do list for today?” They’re very motivated by execution, getting things accomplished. They really don’t like making mistakes, getting blamed, or failing to follow through (including doing so to themselves).
- Questioners wake up and think, “What needs to get done today?” They’re very motivated by seeing good reasons for a particular course of action. They really don’t like spending time and effort on activities they don’t agree with.
- REBELS wake up and think, “What do I want to do today?” They’re very motivated by a sense of freedom, of self-determination. They really don’t like being told what to do.
- Obligers wake up and think, “What must I do today?” They’re very motivated by accountability. They really don’t like being reprimanded or letting others down. “
Quoted from Gretchen Rubin blog, 27 March 2013
So now that you’ve done the quiz, what do you think of this short assessment of yourself? Do you wake up every morning thinking about what your Rubin tendency says you do? You can read in more detail about your own Rubin Tendency if you’re interested. After reading the detailed reports for the four Rubin tendencies, here’s our own shortened interpretation of them:
- Upholders are great doers and achievers, but may struggle if there’s no clarity or no plan.
- Questioners are very internally motivated, but may run into issues if they can’t accept worthwhile direction or advice from others.
- REBELS have great ambition and creativity, but may resist following direction if they don’t feel like they can do what they want on their own time.
- Obligers are reliable and dependable, but may have issues with being too self-sacrificing and spend time building up others before themselves.
While Rubin focuses on how types related to habits and her books show you how to create good habits based on what your type is, in this post I instead wanted to highlight some common scenarios that can come up in research and how each type might get caught up with and a potential solution/approach.
Upholders: The to-do list masters who may run into progress speed bumps with things like:
What can upholders do? You’ve already got a great work ethic, now you just need to figure out how to think on your feet and think outside the box:
Questioners: Good at critically evaluating everything…except sometimes themselves! Here are the issues that these constant wonderers of ‘why’ can fall into:
What can questioners do? Asking a lot of questions is a good tendency in science, as long as that critical evaluation is evenly distributed and fair. To give yourself a fair assessment, work on the following:
REBELS: Will challenge ideas and reach for the skies…but may have a hard time getting there if they don’t listen to others. Here’s what trouble REBELS can run into in the lab:
What can REBELS do? It may sound like a hard sell to be a good REBEL scientist at first, but one of the things that makes rebels great is that they go against the grain-think of all the great paradigm shifts in science that came from looking at the status quo and saying ‘no’! Nonetheless, you do have to play by the book, at least a little bit:
Obligers: You’re everyone’s favorite, most helpful lab mate, but your own work will go un-worked on if you have a job to do for someone else. Here are some other situations that an obliger may run into:
What can obligers do? It’s hard to put yourself first, so here’s some tips on how you can look at your internal obligations with an external focus:
The thing I like about the Rubin tendencies in the context of research is that it highlights the need for teamwork. There is no one perfect personality type for academic research: we all have to challenge currently held perceptions, knowledge, and ideas, but also have to know when to follow the rules and respect the knowledge already in play. We have to strike a balance between working towards our own goals and recognizing the value of working with others. The key with integrating the tendencies in your own research career is first to recognize which tendency you follow the most and to work towards ensuring that you stay on task for your own career goals. Additional life hack: find friends and collaborators who exhibit different tendencies than you have to balance out the scales. Whoever said that psycho-analyzing your friends and co-workers couldn't be fun or useful!!