Raymond Carver’s iconic short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” struck me like a thunderbolt when I read it as a young man in the 1980s. It depicts four people sitting at a kitchen table and drinking gin as the afternoon fades into evening and discussing what it means to love. Mel McGinnis, a cardiologist and former seminarian, views love as an abstract, spiritual quality. His wife, Terri, on the other hand, sees love as a visceral and uncontrollable force, capable of driving one to murder and suicide. Mel focuses on love from an analytical, mental stance; for Terri, love is all about raw emotion and action.

This story has stuck with me for the decades since I originally read it. There are a number of reasons for its grip: the elegant musicality of the title (go ahead, roll it around on your tongue a few times); the ache and despair in the “Godot”-like ending; and the futility of trying to get everyone to agree on the meaning of something as personal, yet vast and multi-dimensional, as love.

It is this latter that came to mind upon seeing an exchange in an online forum recently about the nature (and appropriate uses) of the Enneagram. We bring who we are to such conversations, and it is not surprising that there is little consensus on what the “Enneagram” truly “is” and what are appropriate and inappropriate uses of the system. (After all, does the Enneagram teach us that people are different and will have different perspectives?)The Greeks tried to answer the question of what love is by identifying seven different kinds of love—eros, philia, agape, etc.–and clearly defining them. They were more like Mel; intellectual, careful, and precise. Most of us are more like Terri, preferring to see love as a singular, all-encompassing force that blurs distinctions and resists categorizations, but which we clearly understand when we experience it.

Approaches to the Enneagram similarly seem to fall into one of two camps— that there are different approaches suitable for different temperaments and circumstances; others see that the Enneagram is a singular body of knowledge and there is only the “true” Enneagram and heretical derivatives (this view seems to be held only by a few, but they are not without some influence).

I fall into the former camp—I don’t see “THE” Enneagram, I see variations on a theme. Some of those themes are compelling and useful, others are less so. And while my basic premise here is that there are different perspectives on the Enneagram that are valid, the one perspective that gets my goat is the perspective that there is only one perspective that is true.

I’d like to make the case that when it comes to the Enneagram of personality, there is room for more than one approach.

The one thing we can all agree on is that “the Enneagram” is a geometric pattern of which readers of this article will already be familiar. From there, the diagram can be viewed as a map onto which two general uses have been applied:

  • The Enneagram as a map of processes as they unfold in the natural world (“The Enneagram of Process”), and
  • The Enneagram as a map of personality patterns and dynamics (“The Enneagram of Personality”).

As I am not a user of the Enneagram of Process, I will leave it out of the discussion.

As far as I can tell, the Enneagram as a map of personality was first developed by Oscar Ichazo, whose work was modified and expanded upon by Claudio Naranjo. Naranjo taught a number of people in the early 1970s who modified and expanded what they learned from him. Various approaches have evolved since.

Some argue that the Enneagram is much older, but I think we have to be careful with this claim.

For starters, the claim that the Enneagram is an ancient Sufi system was fabricated from whole cloth by Claudio Naranjo in an attempt to better sell his ideas.* Some still propagate this idea today despite Naranjo’s public and easily available admission of myth-making, but I see no evidence to support that any of the Sufi lineages included the Enneagram of personality as we know it.

Others point out that concepts taught by Ichazo and Naranjo are found in the work of mystics and philosophers from centuries and millennia ago. This is true, but it is a different claim than saying that “the Enneagram of personality is centuries or millennia old.”

By way of analogy, we can look at the history of psychology. The ideas that underpin modern psychology can be traced back millennia as well. Until the 1870s, those ideas were simply part of philosophy and many can be traced back at least as far as the Greeks. In 1879, however, Wilhelm Wundt opened the first experimental laboratory dedicated to the scientific study of the psyche and became the first person to call himself a “psychologist.”

Others in Germany and the US (such as Herrmann Ebbinghaus and William James) were taking similar steps.

Now one could say that psychology has “ancient roots,” but it would not be intellectually honest to say that psychology is an “ancient system;” it is a modern system informed by ancient ideas. The same with the Enneagram—perhaps the ideas that influenced the Enneagram of personality are very old, but the system as we know it is a recent creation.

Continuing with the history of psychology can help us understand the argument over whether or not there is “One True Enneagram.”

Shortly after Ebbbinghaus, James et al came Sigmund Freud, who was not the creator of psychology but who was so profoundly influential that he became almost synonymous with the field in the public consciousness. He created a vast intellectual framework but numerous of his students, including Jung and Adler, split from him and developed their own approaches. Beyond a few true believers, no one today would argue that Freudian psychoanalysis is “real psychology” and other approaches are invalid.

A similar thing has happened in the Enneagram world (and in pretty much every other intellectual pursuit known to humankind…): Disparate ideas coalesced into a coherent and formal body of knowledge through the work of an individual or small number of people. In time, new insights were added, flaws were corrected, and theory expanded and evolved as the original ideas were shared. And, yes, sometimes important ideas were lost through the messy process of transmission. Some new approaches contain useful insights and improvements and others are shallow representations crafted by people who never understood the original.

And, as usual, some in the older generations become frustrated with the changes made by the next generations. Once-revolutionary and dogma-shattering ideas become calcified into a new dogma; acolytes of one teacher become frustrated with the acolytes of another teacher, thinking that they, and only they, have the full truth. Calls are made for unification of doctrine (“let’s bring everyone back to the true teaching”) but collapse under the unwillingness of the truest believers to accept change.

It is the way of things and always has been… In my 25 years of working with the Enneagram and involvement in the Enneagram world, I have seen tremendous progress in the theory and application of the system. Back in the 1990s, schools were divided and did not intermingle. That started to change as students of one teacher would study with another and begin to combine ideas. People started to see that there was value in hearing, and incorporating, different perspectives and techniques. The students didn’t care about the personal or doctrinal differences between the gurus, they only cared about what worked and how they could use it in their work on themselves or with their clients. The boundaries between dogmas blurred as ideas were cross-pollinated. While this evolution of bodies of knowledge is normal (and, in my view, welcome), it is not without consequence. Those consequences include:

  • In the (sometimes-literal) marketplace of ideas, ambitious individuals try to make a buck or an impact by making arbitrary or poorly conceived changes to theory in an attempt to distinguish themselves in the market.
  • The Dunning-Kruger** Effect (DKE) takes hold and degrades the teaching. The DKE is the phenomenon wherein people of low competence overestimate their competence and are unaware of the consequences of their ignorance. People with insufficient Enneagram knowledge start encountering what they believe is a theoretical gap or weakness in the theory and insert a theoretical fix when in reality the gap does not exist—they simply weren’t exposed to the fuller teaching.
  • Greshams’s Law proves true. This is a principle from economics that basically states that “bad money drives out good.” In any marketplace, cheaper and lower-quality products will drive out more expensive and higher-quality products. In the Enneagram world, simplistic approaches promising fantastical benefits will push more-rigorous and more-challenging approaches to the fringes. As the saying goes, everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.

Add to these the easy availability of Enneagram information and pseudo-information on the internet and what was once a divided but controlled marketplace becomes a chaotic free-for-all.

Social psychologist Michele Gelfand has written a timely book titled “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.” Her premise is that culture clash at all levels is inspired by a conflict between those pushing to make things stricter (“tightness”) and those seeking flexibility (“looseness”). As a culture moves in one direction, tension starts to grow and a backlash is inevitable. We are experiencing that today on a global level—globalism and social liberalism have led to a backlash of nationalism and conservative extremism. Ying turns to yang and back again as the universe seeks balance.

Again, the Enneagram world is no different. As ideas disperse and evolve, there is an attempt by some to pull them back; to harken to tradition as a defense against potentially dangerous innovations. This dynamic tension is not necessarily a bad thing. Too much looseness leads to decay; too much tightness leads to suffocation.

Gelfand recommends an attitude of “flexible tightness” as a balm to the conflict between loose and tight. We need to recognize that both are needed, that schools of thought die if they don’t grow and adapt to new insights and needs but that they also disintegrate if there are not some reliable underlying principles. We need to observe ourselves and catch ourselves in the act when we become too tight or too loose.

As someone who has been accused of playing loose with the system (usually by people who have not attended my programs), I am particularly sensitive to this issue when it comes to the Enneagram. I am, by temperament, alarmed by any claim that any approach to any body of knowledge is full and complete. No serious thinker in any legitimate field would make that claim. At the same time, we can’t ignore all boundaries and make any claim we want about the Enneagram. We must cultivate “flexible tightness” by being adaptable and responding to new insights but also respecting the traditions of the system that have proved so valuable.

In that spirit, I would like to offer some random observations and suggestions regarding working with the theory and application of the Enneagram, as well as some insights on how I addressed problems I encountered as I started teaching the system. The attempts to address these problems led to the theoretical adaptations to the Enneagram as I learned it and became the basis of what I refer to as “the Awareness to Action Approach to the Enneagram.”

  1. There need to be nine types in your approach to the Enneagram. This should go without saying, but it’s not as obvious as one might think. I was talking to some “Enneagram” teachers a few years ago who told me there are actually ten Ennea-types. I pointed out that since “Ennea” means “nine” they were, by definition, no longer teaching the Enneagram. They seemed unfazed, and as far as I know they are still teaching their decagram and calling it the Enneagram. There are, however, valid and useful ways of dividing and delineating those nine-types (such as subtypes).
  2. Your version of the nine Ennea-types (and subtypes, for that matter), should be relatively consistent with the consensus. If you are suggesting that, say, Ennea-type Ones are the life of the party, through caution to the wind, and break all the rules, you are not teaching the Enneagram as it is generally understood and should probably rename your system.
  3. Any model, including your model of the Enneagram, needs to be internally and externally consistent. That is, your ideas should not be self-contradictory and they must accurately represent the phenomena in the real world that they claim to represent. This is the standard that any model must meet, and if one’s model of the Enneagram meets these criteria it is good enough for me.
  4. Precise first principles help. You should have a clear and consistent basic understanding and explication of what is at the core of the Ennea-types. Some use the classical vices (“Sevens are the ‘gluttony’ type), others use fixations (“Eights are the vengeful type”), etc. The frustration that led me come up with a view of the Ennea-types as specific adaptive strategies was my frustration that there was no way of defining the Ennea-types that was not judgmental or off-putting to an audience that included business users, the scientifically literate, and pragmatists like me. Your theoretical approach to the Ennea-types should include a defining characteristic and not just a list of traits. For me, what separates a Seven from an Eight is that the Seven habitually and non-consciously uses an adaptive strategy of striving to feel excited more frequently than the other eight strategies, whereas an Eight preferentially uses the strategy of striving to feel powerful. To my way of thinking, the traits and behaviors seen in people of a shared Ennea-type are manifestations of the shared preferred strategy.Another first principle for me is that there are three clusters of evolutionary adaptations that express differentially in people. I call these “instinctual biases.” Most people refer to them as “instincts,” “instinctual variants,” or “subtypes.” Unfortunately, the idea that there are three (and only three) discrete “instincts” has taken root in the Enneagram and is one of the shortcomings of the system (see point six below).

    In my view, the instinctual biases represent what we “instinctually” value and thus focus on,while the nine Ennea-types are rooted in nine strategies for satisfying those values. Taken together (nine strategies and three instinctual biases) we can derive 27 variations or “subtypes.”The value of clear and precise first principles is that they are easier to learn than a collection of traits. My clients don’t need to remember everything there is to know because they can infer and extrapolate from the first principles.

    When it comes to the instinctual biases, they only need to remember that someone is “preserving” and they can infer what a person with this bias would focus on. When it comes to the strategies, they need only remember that that a person is, say, “striving to feel peaceful” and they can infer how such a person would tend to act. If they combine the ideas remember that someone is “peaceful preserving,” they can extrapolate what characteristics they might see.

    5. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Einstein, your model of the Enneagram should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. People love to complicate the Enneagram, to continue to find new derivations of the system that shed light on different aspects of our nature. I have no objection to this in principle, and some derivations are genuinely interesting. I strongly believe that someone should be well-versed in all the “traditional” aspects of the Enneagram if they are going to teach the system, but then if they encounter an application need that is not met by part of the existing theory, they should be free to (cautiously and rigorously) add derivations of the system. But we should avoid adding redundancies that (wittingly or unwittingly) fill a presumed gap that is already covered by existing theory.

    Similarly, I am all for letting go of concepts that may be valid, but don’t add value that outweighs the degree of complexity or confusion they add. I would prefer to remember a few useful principles than many less-useful principles. Added variables may lead to precision at times, but they come at a cost.People often ask me why I don’t teach various aspects of common Enneagram theory that others teach. My rationale is that while they might be valid (or not…), they add complexity without adding equal value and, sometimes, they are attempts to explain something that is better understood by things I do teach.

    The fundamentals of my approach to the Enneagram are the instinctual biases, the strategies, the Awareness to Action Process for creating change, the nine “core qualities,” and nine “accelerators.” Other elements, for me, provide diminishing returns. Is it critical for anyone who is teaching the Enneagram to understand the virtues, vices, fixations, etc., of the traditional Enneagram? Absolutely. Do people attending one of my workshops need to understand them? No. In fact, the language can be off-putting and, for me, adds little usefulness beyond what I am already teaching. I am more than happy to refer clients or students to someone who ably teaches those elements of the literature if the person is so inclined and wants to gather more information.

    6. There should be a solid rationale for the changes you make to the theory. Such rationales may be related to the needs of a particular audience, an expansion on the theory that covers correlated phenomenon, or corrects a flaw in traditional theory (yes, they exist). I am frequently asked why I changed the name of what are commonly referred to as the “instincts.” Rather than “self-preservation,” “social,” and “sexual” (or, in my view, the more-polite-but-deeply flawed “one-to-one”), I refer to three clusters of individual adaptations called “preserving,” “navigating,” and “transmitting.” I made these changes because my audience tends to be business- and science-minded, but that is not the only reason.

    Yes, “sexual” is a word that is not optimal for a corporate audience. But even more relevant is that it does not capture, for example, the display behaviors and conversation dominance usually seen in people with this instinctual bias. I refer to these phenomena as “instinctual biases” related to “clusters of evolutionary adaptations” rather than “instincts” (though I used “instincts” in my earlier articles and videos). I use this terminology because there is nothing in the scientific literature to support the idea that we have three (let alone only three) “instincts,” and instincts is not a word used much in formal biology. Instead, we have numerous adaptations that we express “instinctually” (a word that also carries the meaning “deeply rooted, as if by instinct”).

    Thus, my alterations to the common teaching related to the instinctual biases is justified by all three criteria I set in the first paragraph of this section—it fits a particular audience, captures phenomena not otherwise captured by the literature, and corrects an existing theoretical weakness.

    7. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Some ideas within Enneagram theory, both the earlier teachings and recent adaptations, can be safely ignored. Others, however, I find to be very useful even if others question them. For example, I find a lot of value in exposing people to the idea that there are specific dynamics related to the connecting points.

    8. Be both a “scout” and a “soldier.” In a Tedx video, Julia Galef describes two mindsets—the scout and the soldier. The soldier in our brain fights for what it believes is right—it is an advocate and attacks the views of others while defending our own. The scout, however, is open-minded and curious, seeking to understand accurately and willing to change its mind as it discovers new information. Too many of us over-rely on the soldier, holding fast and fighting for “our truth.” We need the soldier part of our mind—some ideas are worth fighting for and some ideas deserve quashing.

    However, we all need to do a better job at cultivating the scout and become open to new ideas. In fact, we should actively seek out new ideas and look for their merits as we also skeptically challenge them. Above all, we need to be willing to change our minds. The Enneagram teachers that impress me the most are the ones who are able to say, “I don’t believe X anymore, and tomorrow I might believe something else if new evidence comes along.”

*Naranjo admits this in an interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlO3KJWnNd8.