How Laura Ingalls Wilder Got a Rebel To Learn His Lessons

I’m a huge fan of children’s literature (in fact, I’m in three reading groups where we read children’s and young-adult literature), and Laura Ingalls Wilder has always had a special place in my heart.

So I was thrilled when I found out that her book Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, was being published. I raced through the book last week; so fascinating. For instance, it turns out Nellie Olsen was an amalgam of three annoying girls.

I was particularly struck, however, when I read a scene that also appears in These Happy Golden Years. Which I know like the back of my hand, by the way.

Laura is fifteen years old, and teaching school, where one of her pupils is Clarence. He’s older than Laura, very smart; “he was quick in speaking and moving…[and] had a way of speaking that was almost saucy.” He misbehaves occasionally, but the bigger issue is that after the first few days, that he refuses to study, and tells her “It’s no use trying to learn such long lessons.”

Laura is frustrated, because she knows that he could learn the lessons if he tried, but he won’t.

When Laura asks her parents for advice, Ma says, “It’s attention he wants.” Now that I’ve figured out the Four Tendencies, I disagree. I think Ma was nearer the mark when she also observes, “Better not try to make him do anything, because you can’t.” (If you want to read about the Four Tendencies–Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel, or take the Quiz to determine your own Tendency, go here.)

From the description, I’d say that Clarence is a Rebel. He can’t stand for someone to tell him that he must do something; when he hears this, he resists, even though he’s a smart kid who wants to learn.

But when Laura changes her approach, he changes.

When Laura gives others their assignments, she tell him, “This doesn’t mean you, Clarence; it would make your lesson far too long…How much do you think you can learn? Would three [pages] be too much?”

In this way, she does two things. First, she leaves the choice to Clarence, and gives him freedom. Rebels want to act from choice and freedom.

Second, for Rebels, the impulse “I’ll show you!” is often very strong. They tend to respond to a challenge. When she suggests that he can’t master three pages, he thinks, “I’ll show her.”

The Pioneer Girl version shows this dynamic even more dramatically. There, Laura reports that she said, “‘Is that too long Clarance? Perhaps it is and better take only to here. I really don’t think you could learn so far as I first said,’ and he would exclaim, ‘Oh yes I can teacher.’ He had now gotten to the point where he would add a little more to my first suggestion and learn it too, to prove that he could.”

Within a week, Clarence has caught up to the other pupils.  He studied at night to master the material.

It’s very useful to understand the Four Tendencies, because Rebels — and Upholders, Questioners, and Obligers — really have very different perspectives on the world. If we want to be persuasive, if we want to work and live harmoniously with other people, it’s helpful to understand their ways of seeing things.

Ah, how I love Laura Ingalls Wilder! The end of my book Happier at Home is an homage to her and her brilliant work. Of everything I’ve ever written, I must say, the last few pages of Happier at Home are definitely among my favorites.

Have you ever found a way to communicate with someone — so that a point of conflict vanished? It’s not easy to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Why I Was Stunned To Realize that Yesterday Was February 17.

Warning: This post is full of self-promotion. If you don’t like that sort of thing, skip it! (Most of my readers seem to understand that in a world of fewer bookstores and book coverage, we authors can get a bit pushy. I very much appreciate your patience on that front. )

This morning, I heard a radio announcer mention that today is February 18. And that means that yesterday was February 17. And that means that Better Than Before, my book about habit change, will be published in less than a month.

Suddenly, March 17 seemed much, much closer than it did before.

Then, today I got a box in the mail — of finished books! Now it seems very real that the book is about to hit the shelves.

I’m excited to get Better Than Before out into the world at last. It was a very challenging book to write — I’m sure I say that every time, but this book did seem unusually hard to write. There’s so much fascinating material about habits — but how to organize it? How to present it in a way that’s not overwhelming? How to come up with terms to describe phenomena that no one else ever seemed to notice? How to incorporate all the fascinating examples I’d heard, of how people changed their habits?

I remember when I came up with the idea of organizing the book by the “strategies,” not by the desired habits or anything else. What a relief — but boy was I surprised as my research continued, and I figured out that there are 21 habit-formation strategies. Yes, 21 may seem like an overwhelming number, but it’s actually helpful, because it means that you have many from which to choose, to pick the ones that suit you best.

As usual, I put in far too many quotations — how I love to quote — and had to cut out about two-thirds of the number originally in the text. (If you want to read the ones from the cutting-room floor, sign up for my daily newsletter of a habits or happiness quotation.)

Of everything, however, by far the biggest intellectual challenge was identifying the Four Tendencies. When I finally figured out how that framework came together, I was ebullient. (If you want to take my quiz to find out which Tendency you belong to, take it here.  More than 50,000 people have taken it.)

To give some idea of the struggle, from one “finished” draft to another, I cut 60,000 words. That’s longer than Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Golding’s Lord of the Flies! I cut out that many words, but I didn’t cut any ideas. So that was just…excess.

So I’m excited about having the book finished and out in the world. But I’ve heard one question from more than a few people.  “Um, why should I buy your book,” some have asked nicely, “when I can read the blog for free?” Here’s why:

1. The ideas in the book are presented in a more distilled, thoughtful way, and the book framework allows me to tell longer stories and explain far more complicated ideas. Also, I can be funnier (or at least, try to be funnier).

2.  In the book, I write about many ideas and episodes that I’ve never mentioned elsewhere.  I reveal the amazing habit-related gift I gave my sister (life-changing, if I do say so myself) — and my attempt to start a habit of meditating — and whether my husband changed his habits — what happened to my father — and so on.

3. Here on the blog, I write about whatever subject interests me that day, so it skips from topic to topic. The book is organized by Strategy: Strategy of the Clean Slate, Strategy of Safeguards, etc.  That makes it easier to absorb the arguments, and to figure out how you might use those strategies yourself. Plus there are so many more examples from real life, and it seems that people really benefit from hearing examples of how other people successfully changed a habit.

4.If you’ve been enjoying the blog, and you’d like to share it with a friend, you can give the book as a gift. You can’t give the blog as a gift. Or if a friend was a fan of The Happiness Project or Happier at Home, you can give Better Than Before.

5. In a book, you can more easily take notes about what applies to you and your habits (or maybe, other people’s habits!). Underlining, highlighting, and taking notes in the margin allow you to engage with the material. I think a lot of people will want to mark up this book.

6. As a writer, my specialty is endings. How I love the ending of Happier at Home, and Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. Here, my younger daughter came up with the immortal phrase that gave me the conclusion to this book.

7. Many of my readers have written that they want to buy Better Than Before to show their support—a “thank you” for everything I do for free. Which I very much appreciate.

Of course, the book may be of special interest to people with health issues, people who want to be more productive, people who can’t get themselves to exercise regularly, people who are perpetually exhausted, people who are dissatisfied with their weight, people who want to help someone else change a habit…hmm, looks like that covers just about everyone! Because the fact is, for most people, habits are a very significant element of their happiness.

If you’re thinking, “Yes! I’m intrigued! But, Gretchen, how can I learn more about Better Than Before?” well, you’re in luck. You can…

read the sample chapter 

listen to a clip from the audio-book (yes, that’s me reading)

request the one-page book-club discussion guide, also one for work groups, and for spirituality book clubs, Bible study groups, and the like.

request the “starter kit” for people who want to launch a Better Than Before habits group, for people who want to work on improving their habits together

— talk to me in person at an event when I’m on my book tour

I’ve said this before, but can’t resist reiterating it: If you’re inclined to buy the book, it’s a big help to me if you pre-order it now. Because of the way book publishing works these days, pre-orders really help to boost enthusiasm for a book among readers, booksellers, and the media. So many people have pre-ordered, and I very much appreciate that.

Thank you as always, dear readers, for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support. You make me very happy.

Be Selfless, If Only For Selfish Reasons; Selfish, If Only for Selfless Reasons

From Further Secrets of Adulthood:

This is a very important Secret of Adulthood.

Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons: do good, feel good — it really works! One of the best ways to make ourselves happier is to make someone else happier. It’s a kind of gratification that never palls. Some people think that this good feeling detracts from the altruism of any virtuous act — but to my mind, the fact that we feel good when we do good for others is one of the best aspects of human nature. I feel happier when I see anyone doing something good — especially if it’s me!

Be selfish, if only for selfless reasons: when we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves. That’s why we need healthy treats. That’s why we need to work on the Strategy of Foundation.  When we take care of ourselves, we can forget about ourselves, and turn outward to think about other people and the problems of the world.  People who are happier are more altruistic: they give away more money, volunteer more time, and are more likely to lend a hand. One of the best ways to make someone else happier is to be happy ourselves.

Agree, disagree? Agree partly?

A Happy Habit: Celebrating Valentine’s Breakfast (as Pictured)

As part of the happiness-boosting experiments I tried while writing The Happiness Project — or was it while writing Happier at Home? — one of my favorite was to celebrate holiday breakfasts.

I’ve been doing this for several years now.

I copied this idea from a friend, after I saw how she’d set her table for her Valentine’s Day breakfast. For minor holidays, these days, I prepare a “holiday breakfast.”

For birthdays, I have a special cupcake plate, a special candle, and a big banner. For Halloween, I have special plates, special pumpkin candles, those window-gel decorations that stick on windows and mirrors, and I dye the peanut-butter black (my daughter eats peanut-butter on toast for breakfast). Etc.

For Valentine’s Day last Saturday, I put out my special place mats, heart-shaped plates, scattered a few Sweethearts and Hershey’s kisses candies around the table, and dyed the milk pink, with added fancy butterfly straws. As the photo shows (yes, that is an actual photo of what I did), I didn’t do anything fancy.

Now, like most traditions, this was a bit of a pain. When I woke up that morning, I didn’t feel much like pulling out the decorations and getting everything set up.

But the preparations weren’t very onerous, and it was a lot of fun. I took photos, and I sent photos to the grandparents, and we enjoyed ourselves.

I celebrate many minor holidays this way — for instance, I planned this silly celebration of Leap Day.

One of the nice things about kids is that it doesn’t take much for them to feel like something is “special,” so even something simple is very gratifying. These kinds of traditions mark the passage of time in a pleasant way and add a note of festivity to everyday life.

Also, the major holidays can become a lot of work. It’s nice to celebrate in a very manageable way. And by making this a habit — meaning that I don’t ask myself “What, if anything, should we do for Valentine’s Day this year?” but just follow this plan without any debate — I save myself a lot of strain.

However, I realized just this morning that I forgot a key part of our Valentine’s celebration!

Each year, instead of sending holiday cards, when everything is so crazy, we send a family Valentine’s Day card. After we send out each card, I put one in a pink/white/red/silver frame, and add it to our Valentine’s Day gallery. This display is very festive, it’s great to see the girls change over the years, and because these photos are out for a short time, they don’t fade into the background as photos tend to do.

If you’d like to see what our Valentine’s card gallery actually looks like, watch here.

But this year, I utterly forgot to unpack the pictures! Oh well, we’ll display them for a week or so, just a bit late.

One of the main themes of both my happiness and habits projects is memory. Time is passing so quickly; I worry that I won’t remember this time of life, what it’s like to have children this age. My shorthand for this worry is The days are long, but the years are short. In fact, of everything I’ve ever written, my one-minute video, The Years Are Short, is the thing that resonates most with people.

How about you? Have you found ways to celebrate minor holidays, or to find other ways to build and preserve happy memories?

Feel Hurried Because You Have No Time, or Because You’re Wasting Your Life?

“The feeling of being hurried is not usually the result of living a full life and having no time. It is on the contrary born of a vague fear that we are wasting our life. When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else.”

–Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

Agree, disagree? This quotation reminds me of one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastation. I have to remind myself of this often.