What Andre Agassi Can Teach Us About Habits, Happiness–and Ourselves.

For yesterday’s weekly quotation, I quoted from tennis star Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open.

It’s a fascinating book, on many levels (and I say that as someone who has no interest in tennis).

I’m always particularly interested when something sheds light on habits or happiness, and as I read the book, several observations stuck out at me.

First, Andre Agassi is an Obliger.

For my upcoming masterpiece, a book about how we make and break habits, I’ve written extensively about a framework, the “Four Tendencies,” that I’ve developed.

The framework helps to explain why people can make or break habits–or not. People fall into four categories, which describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves


Agassi is a classic Obliger. He’s able to meet others’ expectations (his father’s demand that he excel at tennis, his girlfriend Brooke Shields’s desire to get engaged) but struggles to meet his own expectations for himself.

He also demonstrates “Obliger rebellion,” a striking pattern in which Obligers abruptly refuse to meet an expectation, or when they rebel in symbolic ways (Agassi rebels with his hair and clothes).

If you want insight into the Obliger perspective, this book is an outstanding resource. Agassi shows the tremendous energy and accomplishment that Obligers can bring to bear, and also the anger and resentment that can arise from Obligers’ feeling that they’re working towards others’ expectations.

For you Obligers out there, who have read the book, did it strike a chord with you? Did you identify?

(If you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, look here: Upholders, here; Questioners, here;  Rebels, here, and Obligers, here. If you want to hear when my habits book goes on sale, sign up here.)

Agassi insight #2 tomorrow!

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  • mrsk

    Oh my goodness- if you discussed Obliger Rebellion before I’ve missed it and that is me to a T. I go along to a certain point, but then when there is something really important to me, I will go against the grain. But then I seem to run into the problem that it doesn’t feel like people understand how dearly I hold the thing I’m ‘rebelling’ about. It’s like they are so used to me going peaceably along that they have a hard time taking me seriously or something when I try to ‘rebel.’

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I am thinking of the four irritated sayings most heard by your four tendency types:

    Upholder: “So, miss smartypants, why do you have to be RIGHT all the time?”
    Questioner: “Make up your mind already!” or “Just DO it!” (I am one of these)
    Rebel: “Do what is good for you even if your parents (boss, spouse) would approve!”
    Obliger: “Don’t be such a pushover!”

    Have you ever heard one of these sayings directed at you? Hmmmmmm. I may think of some others. This could be fun!

    I have, for instance, always liked the saying ‘It’s better to get forgiveness than permission.” . . . which might be a rebel thing, except that rebels really don’t give a darn about forgiveness.

    • Gillian

      To the upholder – “Don’t be so rigid!”

    • PolarSamovar

      My husband was a Questioner. For our first ten years together, I was constantly asking, “why can’t you do anything the NORMAL way for once?”

      Our second ten years, I’d just shrug and let him do it his way.

  • Ann

    Gretchen, I’m sure that you have addressed this, but somehow I missed it: I feel that I fall into more than one tendency type. Can you comment on this? By the way, I was just dusting some bookshelves and one of the books on my shelf that needed some “attention” was your book on Churchill. Had to browse through it again. So good!!!! It’s always interesting to look at a familiar subject through a new frame/lens.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed the Churchill biography. What a joy it was to write that book.

      As for falling between two Tendencies…all the Tendencies overlap with one other Tendency, so we all share some characteristics.

      I’m working on an online test that will help you figure out which one BEST describes you.

      Most often, people often tell me that they’re part Upholder, part Obliger. That means you’re an Obliger.

      Questioners do come in two flavors – they question, but some have an inclination to Uphold (like my husband) others have an inclination to Rebel. That is, they can be persuaded, but they may be easier or harder to convince to meet an expectation.

      Thing is, you can’t look at someone’s actions to know their tendency. What matters is their THINKING.

  • Kathy

    I haven’t read his book yet, but now I’m going to! I’m an Obliger also. (And thanks for putting “Obliger rebellion” into words!) I always rooted for Agassi when he was playing tennis, so now it will be interesting to read more about him as a person.

  • Megan

    I think this is helpful from the point of view of a parent. I think my oldest son is an upholder – he gets anxious if he doesn’t know how to please us, gets upset at the tiniest mistake, and most times we’re telling him to “just relax” about things. We need to try harder to understand his thinking, and work with his upholder tendencies, so he can get his gold star! Gretchen – I would love if you wrote a post about parenting/kids and the Four Tendencies!

    • Amy

      I am definitely an obliger and being told to relax upsets me more than anything. If I could, I would.

  • Judy

    I, too, had never seen the term Obliger Rebellion before, but what a revelation to have a name for a life-long tendency. I’m going through it right now as I struggle with a volunteer commitment that is no longer right for me, but which I would feel much guilt about quitting. Your post has made me curious to read Agassi’s book, Gretchen, even though, like you, I’m not a big tennis fan. Thanks!

  • shannon

    The way you describe an Obliger here is very similar to how psychology describes a codependent – someone who puts the needs of others before their own, and struggles to take care of their own needs. Obliger Rebellion is even seen in that framework – codependents will occasionally angrily refuse to meet the needs of their partners, generally noting that their own needs always come last (“it’s never my turn”, basically).
    The interesting – and damaging – thing about codependents is they often believe that this is how you show love. Love means meeting the needs of others and putting yourself last, and they end up constantly disappointed because they tend to end up in relationships with people who will allow their partner to be in last place. This makes me wonder, does a sense of disappointment figure into your view of Obligers?

    • gretchenrubin

      The term “codependent” sound so pejorative…

      I think it’s really about the issue of accountability. Obligers do very well when they have structures of external accountability. So, if there’s something that they want to do (e.g., for themselves) that they’re having trouble doing, put in those structures of accountability.

      • Shannon

        It sounds like your knee jerked at a word I used. You didn’t really address the question I asked, even.
        I get that psychological diagnosis really isn’t your point here (nor should it be the point of anyone that is not a therapist), but your point IS about making and breaking habits, and that’s inherently linked to psychology. Bearing that in mind, I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone to add to the stigma of codependency – or any mental health issue – by offhandedly declaring it pejorative.

  • PolarSamovar

    I started reading Agassi’s book right after your first post about it. I am enjoying it thoroughly, and am identifying with him a great deal.

    I think I’m an Obliger. I’m not codependent (as described below); I don’t put others’ needs in front of my own. That’s against my respected advice givers’ rules of healthy interpersonal conduct! 😉 I resist (fight, abhor, refuse) setting or meeting goals/expectations for myself. Yet I panic at the prospect of breaking other peoples’ rules.

    My form of Obliger Rebellion is to be insistently lawless in minor ways that affect only myself. I work off site from my office, and I find myself being late to work every morning. I never do dishes in the evenings, even when I have the energy. I don’t balance my checkbook. If I set a budget, I won’t stick to it for even a week (better not to budget at all – *then* I somehow naturally live within my means). At least one room in my house is always a mess, though I keep the other spaces nice and tidy.

    Nothing that’s really going to hurt anything, but these little rebellions somehow give me a feeling of freedom, a release of pressure, reassurance that I am still okay, even if I don’t conform 100%.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      sounds pretty passive aggressive with yourself as the main victim to me
      . . . something you might want to work on getting out of your life. I say this because I have known myself to do it–as if I NEEDED to have huge overdue fines and little library fines and late fees to tell me how bad and worthless I was. Definitely something I am glad to have gotten pretty much behind me.

      • PolarSamovar

        Hmm. I’m willing to entertain that idea – I appreciate a lot of your insights. The thing is, these little rebellions feel GREAT. They make me feel free, relaxed, and they don’t cost me anything. They don’t make me feel worthless, but luxurious and, weirdly, empowered. I may not be able to stop myself from driving the speed limit and following all my work SOPs to the letter, but I don’t HAVE to wash the dishes or tidy my sewing stuff unless I feel like it. Which I probably will. In the morning.

        I would suffer if my whole house was disorderly or dirty. But a nice clean house with one exuberantly disastrous room feels like saying out loud that I am not ashamed of my imperfections. For me, it’s somehow the difference between keeping my house totally clean from fear of what other people will say, (stressful, shame-based) and keeping it mostly clean because I like it that way (relaxed, self-respect based.)

        • Penelope Schmitt

          Oh well, if it’s only a messy room! I was talking about things at the level of not getting my car inspection sticker updated and courting a ticket and fine, or the time I accumulated a huge late fee at Blockbuster for some silly movie. THAT was the way I used to passive-aggressively attack myself. . . with ‘things left undone.’

  • PolarSamovar

    I am wondering if my inability to choose a career path is related to my Obliger tendency. I did not want what my parents wanted for me (medicine, law, or classical music); I didn’t pursue those fields mostly because my parents aren’t pushy, bless them. When they objected to a path I chose for myself (cooking), I quit that path but didn’t choose anything else.

    I got a “day job” (office temp) and my Obliger nature has turned that into a decent career. I have no passion for it, but it meets all my criteria – it pays well enough, is ethical and does some good in the world, and best of all, I like my co-workers. It doesn’t violate my soul to conform at work, so here I stay, contentedly enough.

  • PolarSamovar

    OK, just one more post. 🙂 I agree with you 100% that Obligers need to set up structures of external accountability in order to do something for ourselves. What’s going on when we resist setting up that accountability because we can’t stomach the idea of “having” to do something? (One more thing?)

    Concrete example – I need to exercise more, for both my mental health and physical health. Even 15 minutes a day would be a big improvement. I really enjoy walking with friends. I’ve had friends suggest setting up a regular time to go walking together. As a one-time thing, I’m all in, every time; but thinking of committing to doing it regularly makes me feel terrible. My soul screams, “Won’t Do It!”

    I feel the same sense of panic at *choosing* an expectation for myself, as I feel at the idea of *violating* a big (legal, moral) external expectation.

    Have other Obligers reported this? Or am I on my own here? 🙂

    • Sara

      I’m an obliger and I have definitely felt that ‘choosing panic’ that you describe. I also can’t seem to pick one small habit to change, I tend to make my target too big, or try to change everything at once, thus guaranteeing failure. I do this again and again even though I know I’m more likely to succeed one change at a time. Is that an obliger problem or is it just me?

  • Jenya

    Four Tendencies seems kind of vague. How about the Rubin Motivation Matrix? Your categories form a matrix, similar to how the Eisenhower Decision Matrix is set up.

  • Nat

    I think you just hit the nail on the head with my marriage. I am an obliger and he’s a rebel. Things don’t get done and talking about it seems to make it worse. Thoughts?

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s interesting – I’ve found that when a Rebel is in a long-term relationship, it is almost always with an Obliger. There are many strengths to being a Rebel, but it does often seem tough on the people around them.

  • Ethnic Food

    Nicely written post

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