6 January, 2020

Why I am intrigued by the Enneagram.

Ok I admit it. I am a sucker for “systems”. I am fascinated by models built to explain structures and connections, that attempt to make the complex discernible and the abstract tangible. I know: “All models are wrong, but some are useful” and it is absolutely necessary to read the disclaimer on the back of the tin of every model you ever get your hands on. But, when you do get one that works exceptionally well some of the time and reasonably well most of the time, then it is difficult (for this writer well-nigh impossible) to cease and desist from getting stuck into it in an attempt to master and understand it.

The Enneagram is a case in point.

I first heard of the Enneagram in 2017 when Michael Hyatt reviewed a book recently published by his Nashville friend and neighbour Ian Morgan Cron entitled “The Road Back to You”. It described a framework within which we can learn to recognise and appreciate the different personality styles – the Enneagram, as the name suggests, identifies 9 distinct typologies – in the world, with the primary purpose of understanding ourselves. I originally popped it into the same box as Meyers-Briggs and DISC systems of assigning certain characteristics to individuals thereby making them more understandable, better integratable into teams and generally more predictable and would probably have left my interest at that level. However, I took a rudimentary online test to ascertain “my number” on the scale suggested by the book and then begun reading around the results out of curiosity (and because we love nothing more to have experts tell us about ourselves), only to discover that unlike any other characterisation system the Enneagram language made a beeline for some very uncomfortable aspects of me that I would much rather not have had to confront. This speaking of undeniable truth to power could have elicited one of two reactions from me: summary dismissal and rejection or an urge to confront that reaction of discomfort and later shame, in the hope of finding solace, further down the road. Indeed the whole point of the Enneagram revealed itself as a guide to our brokenness and a map which slowly uncovers the narrowness and restrictions of the personality strategy we have unconsciously slipped into in order to survive in the world into which we – mewling and puking – are unceremoniously thrust.

My road back to me, the road we are all on whether we like to admit it or not, some of us travelling it faster, others slower, became a whole lot clearer when I started my reading of discovery of the Enneagram, began exploring the history of its evolution, the people who have shaped our understanding of it, their contributions, spiritual, psychological and analytical. As a system for organising my thinking it is a model that just keeps giving. Every time I think I have understood at least where the outer boundaries of its jurisdiction are, I read a new essay or discover another author who reframes or challenges or refines the model’s scope and gives new insights and perspectives.

It should come as no surprise that people have been curious about people since the world began. I am told that social anthropologists have determined that we human beings in our primitive pre-historic form, when we were hunter-gatherers living in small tribes, eating nuts, roots and the occasional mammoth steak and before we settled down and discovered the art of cultivation, had no concept of ourselves as individuals. Our identities, such as they were, were inextricably bound to the community in which we existed. The concept of an individual personality was as alien to our ancestors as the lack of it appears to us today. Evidently. But at some stage in our evolution – probably frighteningly close in years – we began to conceive of ourselves as individuals, distinct from the tribe and with clearly defined limits and a recognition of our separateness. With that discovery of the self, we started being curious about the other-selves surrounding us and began, I imagine, asking why some other selves were such bad-tempered unreliable idiots, others flighty and impractical, others still forceful or loyal or brave or poetic or whatever other epithets we came up with to try and comprehend who these “others” were with whom we somehow had to arrange ourselves – in friendship, enmity or just to keep the ball rolling.

The Enneagram has its roots deep in this soil of our ancient civilisation and can be traced back to writings and thinking traditions of the Sufis and the desert fathers from whom much of our Judeo-Christian and Islamic wisdom stems. The personality wheel with its archetypes and their mystic connections passed, as so much of our contemporary wisdom, through the tunnel of the dark ages (which I suspect were only “dark” for the northern European communities after the collapse of the Roman Empire and before the complete ascendancy of the church as a power both spiritual and temporal: everybody else was getting along just fine) and emerged to be discovered, embellished and protected in great secrecy by church scholars. Most notably it was the Franciscan monks who kept the secrets of the Enneagram as part of their canon of wisdom, imbued it with a spiritual significance and made sure it was kept under wraps until well into the last century.

At some point in the late 1960s and early 70s of the 20th Century, the Enneagram managed to climb over the abbey walls and escape into the open, where it was discovered, fed and nurtured by the psychologist community. There it underwent a program of spiritual detoxification and emerged, almost fully secularised in a parallel universe of self-discovery and modern personality analysis, where it resides today.

That is not to say – by any means – that the spiritual Enneagram is any less alive and well than its modern manifestation: the dividing line between modern psychology and modern Christianity is a broad one with many sojourners passing from the one community to the other and indeed colonising the liminal area between in seemingly increasing numbers. Great spiritual teachers of our time such as Fr. Richard Rohr, author of Immortal Diamond (amongst many others) and founder of the New Mexico Centre for Action and Contemplation have made the Enneagram the centrepiece of their model for personal reflection and integration. They are happy combining discoveries in typology refinement from decidedly secular experts such as Dr. Beatrice Chestnut, psychologist and author of the key Enneagram text “The Complete Enneagram – 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge” to expand their understanding and application of the model.

Meanwhile and more recently, AI and the Enneagram have recently been combined by a team of IT and psychology experts in S. Africa to produce an online tool based on the 9 point motivation system at the heart of the Enneagram, blended with the Beatrice Chestnut’s Instinctual framework and several other character profiling models to produce a powerful personality analysis report for both personal discovery and professional coaching. The iEQ9 tool is currently the cutting-edge application, completely secular and aimed at organisations seeking to create a higher level of awareness amongst team members and to create a common language around personality types and perspectives. This they hope will lead to greater empathy, understanding and ultimately more productive workplaces, in which more than ever before the tapping of the group’s potential, creativity and intelligence hold the key to success (Disclaimer: I recently took the iEQ9 accreditation program and am in the process of being certified by them).

My fascination with the Enneagram is predicated on two primary aspects of the model: firstly, its depth and intricacy. You can approach it historically, philosophically, psychologically or spiritually or any permutation of approaches that your particular taste, worldview and intellectual curiosity seem most interesting. It is kaleidoscopic in its ability to reveal patterns and models of perspective from any angle you wish to approach it. Secondly, it is wholly dynamic. By which I mean that once you have uncovered the perspective or typology on the Enneagram with which you most closely resonate, then that is the starting and not the finishing point of your journey of self-discovery. The wonder of the Enneagram is the detailed map it provides for evolving beyond the limiting bounds of your personality as it is currently defined and for growing into the full storehouse of resources that each one of has at our disposal, if only we become aware of what is limiting us in drawing on them now.

This is the first time I have articulated my thinking around what up until now has been an intellectual hobby and I am aware, now at the end of this piece both that there is much more that I would wish to write and more importantly how helpful the Enneagram has been in my understanding of myself in my ability to be better as a husband, a father (particularly there), a friend, a partner to those I interact within business, even as an investor. So write I will and hopefully some of the joy and benefits that I have harvested from my short journey of discovery with the Enneagram will inspire somebody to take a look at and explore the system themselves.

There are of course many things that the Enneagram will and cannot do. I have noticed, for instance, that when it comes to eating croissants there are only two types of people:

those who manage to consume a croissant without a crumb or flake of pastry falling off or if some do, then only to land neatly on their plate and those others (that would be me) who, no matter how hard they concentrate, manage to distribute a wide circle of pastry flakes in the surroundings such that stray dogs come and feast on the remnants. The Enneagram has yet to provide me an indication – dynamic or otherwise – as to what method of self-improvement might lead to a more enlightened performance, but maybe I just haven’t read far enough yet.