Every four years the Olympic games convene somewhere in the world. Although usually described as a pan-national event, in which athletes from every culture gather to compete, that description is actually wrong. The Olympics are the occasion when Threes from every nation travel to one place to celebrate their values at an event made just for them.

Three is the most competitive, achievement-oriented style in the Enneagram. Unlike Twos, Threes identify less with ideals of helpfulness and more with images of success and productivity. Threes often expect to be loved for what they do rather than who they are. They are emotionally confused about seeming accomplished versus being true to their less-than-perfect inner self.

Healthy Threes are exceptionally good at setting and meeting goals and have usually mastered many life skills. Threes at their best are genuinely accomplished and practice a credo of personal excellence in whatever they do. They are organized, flexible and industrious. They learn fast and generally do well in high profile, socially established occupations where performance is measured by results. Inspired and inspiring, they are optimistic and believe in possibility in a heartfelt, unironic way. As one Three explains, “I’m an athlete. In school I was captain of the basketball team, captain of the cross-country team, leader of the student council. Whatever the clan is I come from it’s called the ‘leader clan,’ because that’s what I am. That doesn’t mean that we’re the ones who have the wisdom. We’re the ones who take the risks and lead.”

Healthy Threes are often energetic and cheerful, with a positive eye to the future and a self-confident approach to challenges. They make excellent role models and teachers of the skills they have mastered, natural examples of what they preach and teach. They often have a good sense of humor about themselves and their actions are governed by a sense of honor; they cherish their family and friendships as much as their work and are often scrupulously honest. These priorities are sometimes arrived at through a struggle with moral expediency and through a conscious search for values.

The high side of this style reflects the best of doing and Threes can display a sometimes amazing capacity for taking efficient, effective action. They are especially good at multi-tasking – doing many things at once. “She gets more done in a day than most guys do in a week,” a man said of his Three wife, “and she’s one of these people for whom everything turns out well.”

Healthy Threes know that challenges are neutral, indifferent to the emotions we have about them: “Whatever the task at hand, I want to get it, process it, and move on. I don’t want to be in a problem; I want to be in a solution. I don’t want to wallow.” Another Three echoes this attitude: “I come back to the word practical – it’s a marvelous quality. What can I do about this? If I can do things, I will; if not, I’m done. Don’t agonize; don’t waste everybody’s time. Just do what you’ve got to do and move on.”

Broadly speaking, the United States is a Three country in the sense that Three values are celebrated in American popular culture; Americans prize success, believe in overcoming adversity while being efficient, practical and pragmatic. America is an immigrant country, and immigrants who succeed in the United States often have Threeish strategies even when they are not personally Threes. The myth of America – at times true – is that it is a place of second chances. You can start fresh, create an image of who you want to be and turn yourself into that person. The downside is that you may be running away from who you really are.

When Threes are less healthy, their drive to be successful and accomplished devolves into a desire to merely seem that way. Threes tend to adopt personas, assessing the expectations of a given situation and then matching them.

Occasionally there is a news article about someone who is discovered practicing medicine without a license, giving physical examinations, prescribing medication or performing, say, surgery at a major hospital. All with no qualifications whatsoever.

After the fraud is exposed, the authorities usually try to learn how it was committed. Sometimes the police discover that the impostor had previous false careers. Before impersonating a surgeon, he might have been the vice-president of an insurance company, before that a professional pilot. Often, the imposter’s co-workers are interviewed and one of them will say, “What baffles me is how good he was at surgery.”

Like Twos, Threes can be preoccupied with the perception of others as a vehicle to their own self-definition. They want to be well regarded in other people’s eyes – what one Three calls “the living outside yourself stuff” – gauging themselves by the world’s measuring sticks, often to build up an ever-crumbling self-estimation.

Many Threes operate comfortably in occupations where appearance and persuasion are all – public relations, sales, advertising, etc. They may measure their success by the status of their job or social position, their reputation, the company they keep, the emblems and totems they identify with. Since their drive is to be admired by others, they tend to compete in conventional arenas. Otherwise, there would be no way to measure their success.

Threes can cut off deeper feeling in favor of outer appearance; hiding their imperfections behind a public image they hope the world will find laudable. To compensate for their sense of inadequacy, Threes push themselves harder, using their relationships as platforms for professional gain. Their once healthy flexibility degenerates into amoral scheming. Intimate relationships can suffer as the Three reroutes their feelings through their image of who they should be. They may present a persona to intimates; hiding a deep sense of flaw and instead offering a mask for others to love; pretending to have feelings they don’t have, playing a role of themselves.

In the trance of their style, a Three’s healthy industriousness devolves into hyperactivity. They may begin to think of themselves as high-performance machines whose purpose is to race from task to task, securing outcomes before dashing on to new finish lines; becoming, as poet ee cummings said of someone, “a perfectly distinct unhe, a spook of stop and go.”

It can be difficult to have a personal relationship with an unaware Three; there is a sense of no one being home. Their lack of connection with you mirrors their non-relationship with themselves. A Three who keeps you at an emotional distance and sees you as an object also sees herself that way.

Very unhealthy Threes see others as a means to an end, as allies or obstacles to fulfilling their goals or as sources of useful information. Outbursts of narcissistic hostility, cynicism and manipulation are possible because people are things and, of course, the Three is a thing too. One Three was described as “a consummate pragmatist and very tough. But he’ll stomp on anyone in his way, even a friend. Probe a bit, and you’ll find that he doesn’t really have much compassion for people.”

In a musical comedy version of Faust, the Devil offers Faust the old deal of fame and earthly riches in exchange for his immortal soul. Faust thinks for a moment and then asks the Devil, “So…..what’s the catch?” Deeply entranced Threes sell their souls for worldly success, warping themselves into a commodity to market. Very unhealthy Threes can be amoral, heartless, slick, and plagiarizing. They believe their own lies and con people without conscience. They work hard to maintain an illusion of superiority from which they derive a hollow, vindictive sense of triumph. An attitude of vain, competitive hostility replaces their true identity at this stage.

Deeply unhealthy Threes can be “Machiavellian” in the worst sense of the word, conducting themselves with unethical cunning in a way that defeats their ultimate purpose, outsmarting others but ultimately checkmating themselves.

Confused Feelings and Deceit

Threes are among the trio of Enneagram styles who reject themselves, overidentify with roles and have trouble knowing how they really feel. In the trance of their style, Threes reject their authentic but insecure feelings – and the self who has them – and pretend to be someone they are not. Most Threes have an “Achilles Heel,” a sense of inadequacy that they compensate for with their achievements and role-playing, like someone who tries to rise above humble roots by acquiring wealth. Whatever the Three aspires to be is the exact opposite what he fears he truly is. Unlike Twos, who match the expectations of specific people, Three defensively match the expectations of contexts.

So a Three teaching a seminar might enter the classroom with the goal of presenting the best seminar possible. Underneath he could feel insecure about his ability to teach or have other fears about his value and worth. He rejects those feelings and conceals the part of him who has them.

Instead, he focuses on doing the best possible job at teaching /and conjures up an image of what he should look like or a model of an excellent teacher, perhaps someone the Three admires or even feels competitive towards. Next he subjectively “steps into” that image, and begins to impersonate the behavior of an excellent teacher.

While the Three teaches the class, his awareness is split. He is partly in his body, seeing out of his own eyes, and partly off to one side, watching his own performance. During the class he unconsciously refers to the excellent teacher image, comparing his behavior with what the image is doing and adjusting his behavior to match it.

When the class is over and the students respond well, the Three has the image of having done well and feels good off that image. As the class applauds his teaching performance and therefore his image, the Three feels good and his insecurities are quelled – at least for the moment.

Europe’s most famous broker of legitimate fake paintings operates out of Italy. A Three, he commissions high-quality “original fakes” of famous paintings and sells them to rich collectors. He has a stable of painters who specialize in certain periods or particular artists. The legal fakes come with their own certificate of authenticity that declares the painting is a “master forgery,” valued and authenticated by the Three’s organization.

The idea of selling authentic fakes came to him after he was a victim of a forgery. He bought a painting by a contemporary Italian artist, certified by a reputable gallery. A few years later he showed the painting to the artist who said, “I never painted this. But, it looks like I did, even to me. But, it’s not a straight copy of one of my paintings, either.”

The Italian artist was so fascinated by the forger’s ability to capture his style that he made a perfect copy of the forgery – which he then gave to the Three as a gift. At that moment the Three decided that forging was a creative activity in its own right.

When Threes are less healthy they are prone to image-matching or deceit, a kind of forgery of the self. Their drive to be successful and accomplished devolves into a desire to merely seem that way. Their intelligence is no longer focused on their inner life, but on their ability to copy, to imitate, to be “all hat and no cattle,” as ranchers say of cowboy wannabes.

Like Twos, Threes are preoccupied with how they are perceived by others as a vehicle to their own self-definition. They want to be well-regarded in other people’s eyes – what one Three calls “the living outside yourself stuff.” They gauge themselves by the world’s measuring sticks, often to build up an ever-crumbling self-estimation.

Threes intuitively sense that the approval they work so hard to acquire is conditional, based on performance and therefore not really love. They also know the effort that went into making others love them. If I smile at you so that you will smile back at me so that I’ll feel good, I know that I have tricked you into smiling. So I can’t receive your smile as part of a genuine exchange.

This can lead to a feeling of trying to fill a bottomless barrel, an endless attempt by the Three to constantly prove herself through her actions. As one Three explains, “I don’t know whether it’s because of a tremendous insecurity or a vacuum that’s unfathomable, that I can never fill, but there’s just a sense that I’m incomplete. It just takes a continual challenge to validate my existence. The only way I survive it is through constant challenges.”

Another Three adds, “My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. That’s always pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody. My life in other people’s eyes is picture perfect – this woman who can succeed at anything. I’m on this race to feel worthy by my works and accomplishment. If I can stay absorbed in that effort then I don’t have to feel my own darkness.”

The defense mechanism for Threes is identification, which means subjectively merging with a role, task, function or project and believing that it is you. One Three described this as similar to an actor adopting a role: “In each new situation I’m always assessing everybody – what works, what are they about, what seems to be important here, how can I fit in? Then I step in and become whoever the situation requires.”

Identification is evident in the way that some people identify with and, in effect, become their possessions. While we all do this to some degree, in Threes the tendency is markedly stronger, resulting in a kind of “brand name hypnosis.”

I had a neighbor once named Dave who was a cheerful pleasant Three. One day I walked by him when he was polishing his BMW motorcycle. BMW bikes are superbly engineered, very expensive and exceptionally durable. Unlike most motorcycles, they are engineered to last for 100,000 miles. They are attractive refined machines, among the best of their class. Walking past, I admiringly said, “That’s a beautiful bike.” Dave replied, “Thank you.”

On the surface, this was a banal exchange of pleasantries, but something in Dave’s tone carried an extra bit of pride and pleasure at my compliment. I sensed Dave was not just feeling complimented for his taste; he was identified with his motorcycle. Dave was the person who owned the best motorcycle there was to own and had aligned himself with an agreed-upon symbol of excellence. On one level, Dave was his motorcycle and he was the best of his kind.

In 1970, an American celebrity was asked how he handled the criticism of his avid support of the unpopular Vietnam war. He replied, “Whenever people criticize me I just point to that” and he gestured towards a Presidential Medal of Commendation sitting in his office. Like my neighbor with the BMW, the celebrity identified with a symbol outside of himself. In his mind, the medal was probably a credential of such profound social validation that it shielded him from any personal criticism.

Becoming Someone New

Threes make exceptionally good proteges and subsequent mentors to others. As proteges they can identify with a mentor, absorb what the mentor knows, make it their own and then move on. In the process, they could adopt the mentor’s brand of clothing, appearance and tone of voice. NLP calls this “modelling,” which means acquiring a skill or quality by imitating someone who has mastered that skill or demonstrates that quality.

Modelling is based on identification: you pick a role model and pretend you are that person, forming a subjective basis for acquiring their ability. In everyday life, children model adults and anyone who has a hero or heroine practices modelling when they imitate their idol’s behavior. Some Threes don’t model a specific person, but rather observe and imitate several people who effectively practice the skill the Three wants to master. To this end, the Three might try to determine what the role models all have in common as they achieve the same result.

A Three who coaches others on how to become successful likes to say, “success leaves clues.” A professional comedian who heard this quipped, “In comedy, we call that stealing.” The down-side of modelling is that you can lapse into impersonation, acting like your role model but not really integrating their skill or quality, simply stealing their moves instead of making them your own. Like someone who stays in school but never graduates, some Threes model perpetually and remain stuck in an impersonation or serial impersonations.

Every four years, just prior to the Olympic games, the most promising new athletes are profiled in newspaper and magazine articles. The profiles almost always describe the athletes’ current achievements in terms of their past limitations: a promising long distance runner who was born with a club foot, a champion swimmer who overcame childhood asthma. One Olympic sprinter was a victim of childhood diseases that caused her left leg to be almost paralyzed, and she was forced to wear a special shoe fitted with a leg brace until she was 11: “My first goal was to get rid of that ugly shoe and run like the other kids. Then I realized I had a special talent. After that, I wanted to be the best.”

This mirrors a split common in Threes. Whatever the Three aspires to be now is the opposite of what she once was and still fears she truly is. The specific qualities that the Three now cultivates and displays to the world are a kind of reverse silhouette – the opposite of their insecurities. The stronger the Three’s drive to model, the stronger the Three’s insecurity.

One Three remembered: “When I was a kid I had a bad speech impediment. It was frustrating because I would stand up in front of the classroom and make mistakes, and the kids would ridicule me.” The Three became an accomplished public speaker, although decades later he still actively feared that he might falter when giving a speech. Another Three who stuttered in childhood and endured many painful experiences finally “just shut up and wouldn’t talk. That’s when I directed all my time and energy to what I could do physically.” He later became a professional athlete.

When adult Threes try to become someone new, they split off from a younger self within them whom they reject as inadequate, insufficient or defective. As they perform and achieve, they unconsciously hope to triumph over this young self, but actually this rejected self/part of them/ follows them like a shadow.

Unlike Sevens, who defensively inhabit fantasies of future times, places and activities, Threes are focused on becoming a future self. A Three who had just turned 40, said, “Worry about getting old? No! At 40 I’m so much better than I was before. I look better than I did 10 years ago; I’ve just come into myself. I’m going to start planning that 50th birthday party now. I just can’t wait to see me.”


Excerpted from The Dynamic Enneagram by Tom Condon

Copyright 2009, 2013 by Thomas Condon

Available as an ebook serial at Tom’s website  http://www.thechangeworks.com

Tom Condon has worked with the Enneagram since 1980 and with Ericksonian hypnosis and NLP since 1977. These three models are combined in his trainings to offer a useful collection of tools for changing and growing, to apply the Enneagram dynamically, as a springboard to positive change. Tom has taught over 800 workshops in the US, Europe and Asia and is the author of 50 CDs, DVDs and books on the Enneagram, NLP and Ericksonian methods. He is founder and director of The Changeworks in Bend, Oregon.

Tom can be contacted at: http://www.thechangeworks.com