Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home”, recently wrote a thought-provoking blog post identifying four different personality types and the way each type responds to “rules”.

There wasn’t any difficulty determining where I fall on this continuum: I am definitely an Upholder, which Rubin defines as someone who “accepts rules, whether from outside or inside. An upholder meets deadlines, follows doctor’s order, keeps a New Year’s resolution.” 

Upholders don’t question or rebel against the rules, whether those rules are generated from outer forces, such as traffic laws and social protocol, or inner instructions, such as a commitment to exercise or meeting a deadline.

Of course, like anything, there are pros and cons of each personality type.

For example, making an internal commitment to a Project 365 fits in well with my upholder tendencies. Once I state my intention, it becomes an internal rule and I follow it. Self-motivation tends to be easy for me – this means I get things done and generally fulfill my commitments to myself and to others. Being an Upholder helps me achieve my goals.

The downside is that I tend to follow those rules without question, even when they no longer serve me and my best interests. I also have a strong tendency to convert a choice into an unchangeable inner rule, often without noticing. And once things are solidified into “rules”, then it becomes my “duty” to uphold them. Which is when my upholder inclinations become detrimental to my creative growth.

As I wrote earlier this week, it is a constant struggle to recognize and break through these artificial limits that I place on myself. The idea that I am “this” type of photographer who shoots “these” subjects with “this” composition – hard-baked rules that I must now uphold. This kind of thinking leaves little room for growth or experimentation or just plain fun.

Applying a label to my rule personality helps shine a light on those tendencies that are harmful, giving me a better chance to recognize and modify my negative upholder tendencies.

Where do you fall in your relationship to rules? Are you a fellow Upholder, a Rebel, a Questioner or an Obliger? And how does this help or hinder your creative work?


Posted on January 10, 2013, in Photography and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Great link and I loved your piece on this. I’ve just written a blog post which is basically about my inertia at sticking to my resolutions – I think that puts me firmly in the obliger category as I’m pretty much a stickler for outside rules. It drives me mad because it means I have lots of ideas which end up never getting done – though, as I talk about in my post – I might have found a solution, via Martha Beck. We’ll see! Love your image here too. Gorgeous light and patterns.

    • Becs – isn’t it funny how many times we need to “re-learn” the same lessons over and over? Maybe if I declared a new rule NOT to follow rules in my creative life, my upholder self would uphold this “no rules” approach. It’s worth a try 🙂

  2. Interesting post here. I think I’ve always been an ‘upholder’…a one who builds an internal rule structure to which I follow. But slowly…ever so very slowly – I’m beginning to see these rules as the chains that sometimes gag and bind. Permission to rest…to let go…to practice outside-of-the-box – granted (to you and to me!)

    Love this image!

    • Ah, a fellow upholder! Yes, perhaps we need to set up a series of rules for each other that basically through out all the rules that gag and bind – and as upholders we can dutifully follow this new “no-rules” approach 🙂 It is certainly the first step to acknowledge those hidden rules so that we can let them go.

  3. Beautiful light, color, and composition here, Brenda. Is that a rebel chair there? I guess I am a questioner — I follow rules when they make sense….. I don’t stop at the stop sign in a deserted place at 3:00 am. As a teacher, I had to enforce the rules all the time, but there seemed to be good reasons for most of them.

    • Gina – yes, I think that chair, the one out of line, is the rebel chair – the one I would like to be, at least in my creative life. I would like to step out of line, put myself in the middle of the floor, without regard for what the other chairs might think. But perhaps going from an upholder all the way to rebel is more than can be expected. I think it would be good to at least adopt a questioning attitude, in order to throw away the rules that hold me back.

  4. I’ve yet to read Rubin’s post, but will.

    For me, this marvelous image and the title don’t go together. What stands out for me is that chair facing the opposite direction and being out of line. Not an upholder. Perhaps the Rebel in you is showing?!

    • Anita – you are absolutely right. This image expresses perhaps what I wish I was, rather than what I am. A goal toward which to strive? A internal desire to move out of the line? I just know that this image spoke to me.

  5. OK, so often when I open your post I have to shake my head….in an unbelievable way, like “how does she keep doing that magic and why is my “magic” only appearing from time to time?” I think we judge our own images the harshest and I do not doubt that I am able to make good images, I guess I’m struggling to do that as regularly as I’d like to.
    That said, um…wow! Wish I took this photo. It’s brilliant, and I don’t mean just the light. Wondering if that chair in the foreground was there or if you moved it to taste. I almost never move anything to alter a composition. I like to just find the composition and capture it. Maybe too long playing golf and hitting the ball where it lies. I was wondering if you break the rules by moving stuff, or make the rules by creating a more perfect comp.
    All this brings me to that “what type are you?” Honestly-I’m all four. Depends on my mood. I guess I’m mostly a questioner, but can be totally an upholder if necessary and a rebel when my mood wants to be irreverant, maverick, defiant, or angry. that last category I’m least likely to apply to myself. Can’t remember the name of it even.
    I’ve always come out that way. Anytime a new version of “learning styles” came out and I was charted, I was a diamond pointing in every direction nearly equally. I don’t know if this is blessing or curse. I don’t think I’m strong in anything, but I can dip my toes in nearly any direction.
    So much to ponder. I have been trying to listen more to the person inside who doesn’t follow rules so much. I think that person has been stifled.
    Thanks for the great image and the super interesting food for thought, you upholder you. BTW-cruising thru stop signs is good at 3 a.m. or 5 a.m. or 10 p.m. Just be careful.

    • Susan – oh, yes! Of course, we all judge our own images harshly. I experience the same “oh-my-gosh!-why-can’t-I-shoot-like-that?” when I witness your images or images of others that I follow. There is just that jolt of seeing something through the eyes and vision of another – something I would never have thought of. And I get that “wish-I-had-shot-that” feeling all the time.

      I actually took this image through a window – the scene is shot as it existed inside the downtown convention center – me outside, with camera pressed up against the glass. I do clean things up in post-processing all the time – straigten lines, clone away debris and dirt – but I suppose that is following my perfectionist rule that things must be “pretty” whenever possible. And with Photoshop, virtually all things are possible. So yes, in that sense, I do modify my scenes in post-processing to serve my vision.

      I think it is great to be so flexible in your approach to life and your relationship to rules. Being a diamond is pretty darn special!

  6. I think I’m a cross between an Upholder and a Questioner.

    • I would definitely like to strengthen my Questioner abilities – determing which rules makes no sense and throwing them away!

  7. I love how different we are. I see myself in the other three types but not the upholder. Occassionally the rebel comes out in me but mostly I had a hard time choosing between questioner and obliger. I think this image will hold many meanings for many people and I love that you’ve been able to convey that. Your following the rules have got you where you are . . . now is the time to break free and soar to even more amazing heights (if that’s even possible). :0)

    • Kathryn – yes, it has been interesting to find out where others fall on this continuum in their response to rules. And I do realize that there are strengths associated with being an Upholder – it does allow me to get things done. The trick now is to keep what works – and adopt some of the traits of the other types. To question and even rebel – especially against so-called “rules” that merely exist in my own head.

  8. Well, this has generated interesting comments. Like you, I am definitely an upholder, yet as I grow older I am starting to question more. Here’s an example – I can sometimes stop reading a book if it’s not feeding me (wouldn’t have happened a few years ago).

    I see the benefits of rules, but I also see where rules are limiting and often need to evolve.

    Your image is interesting with that one chair standing out from the pack – breaking the pattern, not following the rules.

    • Kim – I had to smile. Perhaps I’m learning something as well, here with the wisdom of age – I abandon books too now. Something I never did either, when I was younger. So perhaps I am learning that rules can be broken without the world coming to an end. Learning to question. Perhaps even just a tiny bit of rebellion.

  9. Stunning image, I wonder the story behind the single chair in the front!! I am most definitely an “upholder.” I always have to follow the rules! Sometimes to the frustration of those around me! I’ve let a few things slip as I get older, but not a lot! Lots to think about!

    • Fellow Upholders Unite! 🙂

      I think that is why I like this image so much – we can all find a story there, in that lone chair, sitting away from the others. I imagine the true situation is quite dull – the janitors simply hadn’t been through that room to put all the chairs away or something equally boring. But it’s more fun to imagine the metaphor for life that we can find there, isn’t it?

  10. I dont think I fit neatly into any of those categories- maybe there’s a fifth?
    Love this image, the light & reflections are just beautiful.

    • Leanne – As Rubin says, not everyone fits neatly into these categories – you may exhibit all of the different styles, depending on the situation. And I’m sure we could come up with a fifth option, just for you 🙂

  11. Brenda…spectacular! SPECTACULAR!! The image alone would have been enough..but with your amazing written piece, wow! So much richness. And, I’m loving reading all the comments. I definitely have to read Gretchin’s piece to figure out where I fit (which already makes me think I’m an upholder..that is, that I have to read the piece first..but I could also be a questioner, or a rebel….mmmm!)
    In the meantime, that image! I love the lone chair, too. But, what really jumped out at me, is that floor – that reflection, that pool of light and shadow! Gorgeous! The hard and fast lines of the image softened. The colours muted. It’s such an extraordinary part of the image.
    The whole thing is extraordinary. You are a magic maker, Brenda. Magic maker, and wonderful upholder! 🙂

    • Ah, Juli – your enthusiasm is so heartfelt and so very gratifying to me – thank you! The reason I took this shot was because of the floor and those reflections and distorted lines. That is what attracted my eye but I am also trying to improve my story-telling abilities, so the chairs and their arrangement also spoke to me. Then when I read Gretchen’s piece – I knew the two belonged together. Come back and let us know where you stand on the rules continuum.

  12. Fascinating post Brenda. I need to think about which group I might fit into–I think I’m an upholder but I might be an obliger. Hmm interesting. Not in question? How cool this image is–this one falls into that category of “I wish I’d shot that!”

    • It is interesting to think about our relationship to rules and how that aspect of our personality may help or hinder our creative lives. And I’m pretty proud of this image – and even more to know that you put it into your “I wish I’d shot that” category since I have done that with so many of your images.

I greatly appreciate your comments!

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