Portrait of an Obliger: William Shawn, Legendary Editor of The New Yorker

Of all the insights and observations that I make about the nature of habits and human nature in Better Than Before (at least I hope I make them), I’m most proud of my Four Tendencies framework.

It was very, very hard to grasp this pattern in human character, but I have to say, now that I’ve identified it, I constantly see it on display in the world.  Those four categories (Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, Rebel) do capture something–something that strikes me as truly real. (Want to find out your Tendency? 65,000 people have taken this Quiz.)

I’m always trying to understand the Four Tendencies better, and looking for examples, and evidence comes to me when I least expect it.

For instance, I recently read Lillian Ross’s memoir Here But Not Here: My Life with William Shawn and The New Yorker, and it turned out to be a case study of an Obliger — not LillianRoss, but William Shawn.

William Shawn was the legendary editor of The New Yorker. Lillian Ross was a New Yorker writer.

From the outside, William Shawn looked very successful. He was extraordinarily influential and well-regarded; he headed a great institution, where he worked for 53 years; he was married to Cecille, with three children (Wallace Shawn is his son–Vizzini in The Princess Bride); and for forty years, with his wife’s knowledge, Shawn also had a home with Lillian Ross — a dozen blocks south of his apartment with his wife and kids. Of his married life, he often told Ross, “I am there, but I am not there.”

Even if a person disagreed with his particular choices, on paper, William Shawn would appear to be someone who had the life he wanted.  But according to Lillian Ross’s memoir, that’s not how he felt.

Ross writes that Shawn felt trapped in his job as editor — he wanted to write himself — and when she asked him why he’d taken the position, he said, “There was no one else who could have kept the magazine alive…I could not abandon all those people.

She explains: “He felt eternally designated to serve others in their endeavors…he was oddly cursed by his great gift for making it possible for others to communicate their art, for he was never able to give that gift to himself.”

Occasionally he told Lillian Ross, “It’s someone else’s life that I have lived.

Although Shawn and Ross had a relationship for forty years, he never got a divorce, and lived his life split between two households. Ross explains, “There was absolutely nothing to argue about. I agreed that he could not leave Cecille. He said that his real self was not in his home [but] Cecille wanted him to be sitting there no matter what.”

Of course, we can’t know the truth about other people’s lives. But here’s how I see it, from the vantage point of the Four Tendencies.

Based on what Lillian Ross reports, I conclude that William Shawn was an Obliger; he met external expectations, but couldn’t meet his expectations for himself.

When there was a strong expectation that he play the role as editor — which is a job that requires meeting external expectations — he did it. He dreamed of doing his own writing, but this was an inner expectation, so went unmet.

His Obligerness also affected his relationship with his wife and Lillian Ross. His wife expected him to stay in the marriage. Lillian Ross did not impose an expectation that he leave the marriage. My speculation — and this is pure speculation, based on reading one memoir, of course — is that if Lillian Ross had said, “You have to choose, me or your wife,” then Shawn would have left his wife. But without Lillian Ross’s outer expectation to give him force, he couldn’t do it. (I think she was an Obliger too, by the way.)

Reading about Shawn’s life made me sad. Here was a person who had what looked like a wonderful life — but it wasn’t the life he wanted. He seemed to feel driven to meet others’ expectations for him, but he felt unable to meet his expectations for himself.

No matter what our Tendency, the key to a happier, healthier, more productive life is to understand the downsides and imitations of our Tendency, and counter-balance them.

Perhaps Shawn could’ve made an agreement with his agent or with an editor about some piece he would write — then he’d have external expectations, a deadline, and the accountability that would have helped him to be productive. Perhaps if he’d said to Lillian Ross, “You need to drive this process, I can’t do it,” she could have done it — for him.

Have you figured out how to counter-balance the downsides of your Tendency? As an Upholder, I need to question: why am I meeting this expectation, does it make sense, is this what I want? Being married to a Questioner has helped me, too — partly because I have a model, partly because sometimes I just ask my husband, “Do I have to do this?” and he helps me think about it.


Podcast: Getting More Sleep, Resisting Strong Temptations, and Why It’s OK To Be Boring

I’m very excited to announce the second episode of the new weekly podcast, “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

One thing that makes this podcast especially fun is that I’m doing it with my sister the sage, Elizabeth Craft.

So what will you hear us discuss, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin“? We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).

Each week, we give  a “Try This at Home” suggestion, for some easy habit you can try, as part of your ordinary routine, to boost your happiness—something like setting an alarm to signal your bedtime, or using the one-minute rule, to help yourself stay on top of small nagging tasks.

We also suggest questions to help you “Know Yourself Better”—like “Whom do you envy?” and “Are you a Marathoner or a Sprinter in your work style?”—and explore “Happiness Stumbling Blocks,” those small, seemingly insignificant parts of daily life that drag us down—everything from the problem of the Evil Donut-Bringer to the fact that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

We “Grill the Guest,” consider “Listener Questions,” and finally, we get even more personal, and each of us either gives ourselves a “Demerit” for a mistake we made that week, that affected our happiness, or awards a “Gold Star” to someone or something that deserves recognition.

We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

Here’s what we discuss in this episode:

Try This at Home: Set an alarm to help yourself get to bed on time.

Know Yourself Better: Are you an “abstainer” or a “moderator” when it comes to resisting a strong temptation? (Spoiler alert, I’m a 100% abstainer.) Not sure? Take this quiz.

Samuel-Johnson-readingThe quotation I mention, from eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson, is when a young friend urged him “to take a little wine,” Dr. Johnson explained, “I can’t drink a little, child; therefore I never touch it.Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.”

Listener Question: ‘What was your biggest misconception about happiness before you wrote your first book about it?”

Demerit: Elizabeth admits that she should’ve re-scheduled an important school interview, because her husband was recovering from the flu — but she didn’t, because she so badly wanted to cross the interview off the to-do list.

Gold Star: I give a gold star to our mother, for her idea about the email “updates” that my mother, father, Elizabeth and I now send to each other. Our motto: It’s okay to be boring!

To listen to this episode, just zip to the bottom of this post and hit the red “play” button.

Or if you’re reading this post by email, click here to view online, to listen to the podcast from this post.

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: If you’re like me (until recently,) you’re intrigued by podcasts, but you don’t know how to listen or subscribe. It’s very easy, really. Really! Instructions here.

Or for an amusing short how-to video made by Ira Glass of This American Life, click here.

If you want to listen to more than one episode, and to have it all in a handier way, on your phone or tablet, it’s better to subscribe. Really, it’s easy.

Tell us what you think! Drop us a line at @gretchenrubin, @elizabethcraft, Facebook, podcast@gretchenrubin.com, or call 774-277-9336. Or just add your comment to this post.

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Happy listening! Or I should say, HAPPIER listening!

“The Way We Live Our Days, What We Do at 10 A.M., Really Is the Way We Live Our Lives”


Interview: Brigid Schulte.

I’m fascinated by habits and happiness, so I’m very interested in how we can use our time wisely, get the most out of every day, include everything we value into our ordinary routine, and so on.

So I was very interested to read journalist Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. The title says it all! The book discusses a crucial issue:  how we can make time for the things that really matter. It just came out in paperback, so it seemed like a good time to ask Brigid Schulte some questions about her own habits and happiness.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Brigid: That time is power. As trite as it sounds, but the way we live our days, what we do at 10 am, at 3 pm, how the evening flows, like habits, it really is the way we live our lives, as the writer Annie Dillard said. And that to live a meaningful life, means making meaningful choices for what to do at 10 am and 3 pm and in the evening. And that means taking time to pause, to step out of the swirl of crazy busyness and think about what really matters most to you. Then put that on your To Do list.

So often, we think we’ll get to the big stuff after we get to the end of the To Do list – that’s something I still struggle with, living what I call an If/Then reality – IF I finish all this drudgery and little stuff, THEN I can get to the stuff I really enjoy or is really important. Then we get so caught up in the IF, the doing, the stuff, we never get to THEN. So I’m trying to flip it, and put the important stuff, the things that give meaning and joy, not just on the list, but at the top.

The other thing about time being power: psychologists say that peak human experience comes from getting so wrapped up in something that your experience becomes timeless. That’s the state when art, literature, philosophy, and civilization gets created. It’s the kind of time that, throughout history, men with status have typically been the only ones to have.

Women’s time has always been fragmented and interrupted, by child care, by housework, and now, with work piled on top, because gender roles haven’t changed as much as we have.  And I found fascinating studies that show women feel they don’t deserve this kind of flow, they have to earn it by getting to the end of a To Do list of chores first. (Remember the If/Then mentality!)

So I’m arguing, it’s time now for women, too, for everyone, to carve out concentrated time for the things that give them joy, and get them into flow. And with technology splintering everybody’s time and attention, we all need to be aware of that pressure, and find ways to knit time together to concentrate, get lost in something we love, and just pay attention to our lives. It’s a skill, and it’s something we can get better at the more we practice. I’m practicing!

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Cocktail minute with my husband. We don’t even have cocktails. He’ll have a beer or glass of wine, and I may or may not. It’s just what we call that small space to check in with each other every day.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

 I wish – boy – I wish I’d known a lot of things. Though I’m sure I’ll feel the same at some future point, looking back now. But I guess I wish I’d known how powerful baby steps are. I would think of something that needed changing, and feel like I had to do it all at once, and I’d start, make a herculean effort, and usually give up.

One of the most powerful strategies for changing behavior, changing the way we think and use time was this: Just Start.

Sometimes we overthink things. And sometimes, the brilliant Udaya Patnaik of the design firm, Jump Associates, told me, it’s easier to act ourselves into a new way of thinking, than it is to think ourselves into a new way of acting. You just start where you are.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I still don’t sleep enough. I know how important sleep is, but I’ve developed a lifetime of bad habits from thinking it wasn’t important. I’ll stay up too late, pushing to finish something, then get up too early to try to get a workout in, then feel jetlagged through the day. I know it’s nuts – that it takes me longer to do things, that I’m not thinking as clearly, that I make more mistakes, that I’m not giving myself the space for creative thoughts and innovation to rise – that they’re more likely to come when I’m rested and relaxed – so – ON THE LIST! Work in progress.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I wish! I keep hoping that will happen. It seems like it would be so much easier to be hit with that flash of clarity. But maybe  I’m a slow learner, or a little thick headed, so I just keep slogging forward in the fog and uncertainty, sometimes backward, sometimes falling on my butt. I guess what I’m learning as I get older – sometimes the point is to just keep going.

Do You Find It Hard To Imagine That an Important Place Continues, After You Leave?

“I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.”

— John Knowles, A Separate Peace

One of my children’s literature reading groups is reading A Separate Peace, and I certainly know the feeling described here — that it’s hard to imagine these institutions, that we experience so intensely, continuing on their way once we’re gone.

I get this feeling a lot when I go back to Yale Law School. Many things are the same, many things are different…and it’s hard to imagine that it’s all happening, while I’m far away.

Revealed! Book Club Choices for March

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

· one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.

Nevertheless, because so many readers have requested it, I’ve decided to give a bit more context for these choices in the book-club newsletter. So if you’d like to know more about why I made these selections, check there. To get that free monthly book-club newsletter, and to make sure you don’ t miss any recommendations, sign up here.

In any event, I assure you that, for all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think?

In a few weeks, I leave on my book tour and that means…lots of time for reading! I love to read on airplanes, but it’s crucial to have a great book. I’ve been poring over my book list, to decide what to take. High stakes. Any great suggestions?

So if you’re in San Diego, LA, Plano/Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, Princeton, Washington DC, Wellesley, New Haven, NYC, Cedar Rapids, Doylestown, Toronto, or London, I’m headed your way. Please come, tell your friends! A lot of these events take place in bookstores…and you just can’t spend too much time in bookstores.

Happy March, and happy reading.