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

Black and white photo of a man and woman walking side by side.

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.



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