You’ve heard it a million times: “Know thyself.”
You think, Well yes, obviously I should know myself. That’s important. But what does that even mean?
What action do you take to know yourself? How does that manifest in the real world? How do you use that to make your life better?
It’s such a nebulous phrase that in many ways it’s almost meaningless, right?
Instead, what I want to offer today is a small lens through which you can start knowing yourself. So you can at least begin getting a better understanding of who you are and what makes you tick—because, as a man, that’s extremely important.
The Four Tendencies
Recently, I came across a book called The Four Tendencies, by Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen is probably best known for her wildly successful book, The Happiness Project, but this new book is a little different. In The Four Tendencies, she makes the argument that everyone can be divided up into four different personality types—yep, just four.
This is not one of those standardized personality tests like Myers-Briggs. It’s a bit more simplified. For that reason you could definitely take it with a grain of salt. But in some ways the simplicity also makes it more powerful.
Gretchen’s system of personality types is based on just one thing: the way you treat internal and external expectations. I know that sounds vague, but bear with me; we’ll get into this. Here are the four personality types:
The Questioner – Resists outer expectations but meets inner expectations.
The Upholder – Meets outer expectations and meets inner expectations.
The Obliger – Meets outer expectations but resists inner expectations.
The Rebel – Resists outer expectations and resists inner expectations.
I’m not going do a deep dive on all of these. What I wanted to do is talk about the personality type that I recognize myself as. If you’re the same personality type, it will be particularly useful to you. But even if it not, it helps illustrate how, once you understand yourself better, you can put that knowledge into action.
When I came across the definition for The Obliger, I knew instantly that it was me. Again, the Obliger “meets outer expectations and resists inner expectations.” To illustrate the Obliger, Gretchen tells a story of a friend who shares how she has trouble motivating herself to exercise. She said something to the effect of “When I was in high school, I ran track and I had no problem waking up at the crack of dawn to go running. But when now when it’s just me, I struggle to wake up early to run. Even though I know it’s something I want to do, I just can’t do it.”
In a nutshell, that’s what the Obliger is about. They are motivated by the expectations of others, want to serve others, but sometimes fail to meet those inner expectations. Immediately I saw this as my pattern in life, even as I was thinking of my past career choices or areas where I’ve done well.
I was a waiter all through college—in fact, an excellent waiter. And it makes sense, right? It’s all about paying attention to other people’s needs. Later, I went to work in advertising, where I was an account person—the client representative. And I was really good at it, because I was so attuned to my clients’ needs.
But what I’ve found in my adulthood is that I’ve often had a hard time keeping promises to myself. Whether that’s working out on the schedule that I’d like to, or achieving some of the larger goals that I’ve set up for myself…sometimes I’ve struggled.
How to Work With What You’ve Got
The good news is, once you recognize yourself as any of these one personality types, you don’t just stop there. Gretchen suggests ways you can essentially optimize your life for your personality type.
What do you do if you’re an Obliger, you ask? The key—and it sounds so obvious when I say it now—is to look for ways to create more external accountability in your life. This is probably useful regardless of what personality type you have, but particularly for the Obliger, who struggles with making promises to himself.
The Illusion of External Accountability
There are a number of different ways to create more accountability in your life.
Of course, we’ve all heard about how making a public declaration of a goal can sometimes be helpful. If you put it out there on social media or a blog post, or you tell some of your closest friends, “Hey, I’m going to do X,” that can be a good way to create some public accountability.
The problem with that approach, according to Gretchen, is that it’s not necessarily motivating for everyone. You can envision a scenario where, if I tell 10 of my closest friends that I’m going go climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I could still my weasel my way out of it. I might say:
“Joe, I told you I was going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but you know how things have been tough for me financially lately and….” or “You know how my life is really busy. And it’s probably a silly idea anyway….”
Yes, maybe it adds a small layer of accountability if I tell my friends, because they could hold me to task and say, “Hey, why didn’t you climb it yet?”
But even then, I could let myself off the hook, because ultimately, I don’t think they really care if I climb Mount Kilimanjaro or not. And that’s the problem.
How to Add Teeth to External Accountability
Fortunately there are ways that you can “add teeth” to external accountability when you make public declarations. My friend Thomas Frank—who runs a phenomenal YouTube channel and the popular site College Info Geek—had a creative solution for this. He wanted to start waking up at 5:55AM every day so he could work out. So he used social media scheduling platform, Buffer to schedule a Tweet for every morning at 6:10AM (15 minutes after his target wake up time).
The idea is that he has get up and turn it off, otherwise his Twitter followers will receive a tweet that says:
“It’s 6:10 and I’m not up because I’m lazy. Reply to this for $5 via PayPal. (Limit five), assuming my alarm didn’t malfunction.”
Fortunately he limits it so he’s not going to be totally screwed. He has a lot of Twitter followers (36k as of this posting) so that could be a big hit to his wallet if he’s not careful. But still, having to pay money each time you oversleep would be a drag (even if it’s only a few bucks). The real motivator is the urge to avoid public embarrassment.
Getting Creative With Accountability Partners
Another common way to create accountability for yourself is to have an accountability partner. The thing is, if you’re an Obliger, this may not be enough. You still have to find a way to make that accountability really meaningful to you. Another story Gretchen brings up involves two workout partners who took their arrangement to a whole new level.
Rather than just having an agreement to meet up on a regular basis to work out, they made it even more critical that they both show up. They each exchanged one shoe, so if one of them failed to show up in the morning, the other one wouldn’t have shoes.
What they understood is this: yes, you feel guilty if you miss a session with your workout partner. But even if you slack off they’re just going show up and work out anyway. Maybe they’ll be pissed, they’ll razz you, but it’s not the end of the world.
But if you know that you missing a workout is going to mean that your friend also misses a workout—because he or she doesn’t have their workout shoes—that’s going to be WAY more motivating to you.
My wife and I have been wanting to clean out our garage for a long time. There’s old furniture, boxes of junk we’ve been meaning to take to Goodwill, and other assorted things that won’t fit in our house. As the garage has become more disorganized, it’s becoming impossible to move around in it—and it’s even harder to keep clean. Even though organizing it is a priority for us, it keeps slipping off our to-do list each weekend because we’re the only ones who are accountable to it.
In The Four Tendencies, Gretchen tells the story of someone who had a similar problem with their garage. Realizing that they were an Obliger, they came up with a brilliant solution: they would hire a helper. When I read that, I immediately appreciated the beauty of that approach. While having an extra set of hands is helpful, the real reason it works is that it helps create external accountability. Suddenly I figured out my plan for getting my garage in order.
I decided I would hire someone to help me finally tame my unwieldy garage. The beautiful thing is, I know that if I hire someone for two to three hours, even if I do all the work, I am going to be motivated to actually show up and make it a priority because I’m going to be accountable to this other person.
Hiring someone on an app like Takl for 2-3 hours isn’t a ton of money. But it’s not so cheap that I wouldn’t feel the pain if I just decided to blow this person off. I want to say it’s something like $100 for 3 hours—that’s not nothing. But it’s not about the money. It really is that accountability to that other person: “We said we were going do this thing on this date at this time.” The beautiful thing about that is, even though I’ve been putting off cleaning my garage for 6 months, I’ll finally get it done. And it probably won’t take us more than two to three hours with two sets of hands.
Wrapping it Up
So these are just a few examples of ways to build in accountability for yourself. Regardless of your personality type, the idea of keeping promises to yourself is a very, very important thing. I know in my own life that when I don’t keep promises to myself, even the small ones, it begins to weigh on me. Like with the example of my garage, it takes up mental RAM. It just wears you out after a while to have all these things on your to-do list, or ambitions—big or small—that you haven’t tackled yet.
Also, I hope that insight about the Obliger personality type was helpful. If you think yours might be different, I definitely recommend checking out the other three personality types. And while it may never be possible to “know yourself,” as a blanket statement, I’d encourage you to keep an eye out for other small lenses that can help you better understand your true nature. When you get those rare glimpses of who you really are and what you need, that’s when you can make real progress in your life.