E Is for Enneagram

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The Enneagram is a straightforward, yet rich and complex system that describes our individual strengths and weaknesses, deeper-level motivations, and most importantly, the compulsions that often rule our lives. Although we’re wired to operate under the impression that we’re consciously choosing what we do, most of the time we’re at the effect of unconscious impulses. We’re living our lives on autopilot; asleep at the wheel, doing the same things over and over again, expecting different outcomes.

As I wrote in A Is for Autopilot:

Estimates are that close to 80% or more of what we do every day we do on autopilot, which means without conscious intention or volition. It’s not just what we do, either. The majority of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of automatic brain processes.

As neuroscientist David Eagleman says:

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.

When you look outward at the world—or even inward at yourself—you see things not as they are but as you are. You view the world through your own set of filters, biases, opinions, judgments, personal experiences, and temperament. You act and react as you do—and not as someone else might—because you’re looking out from within your own model of the world. Your model of the world influences what you pay attention to, how you interpret and react to events, the meaning you assign to them, and most of what you think, feel, do, and say. When it comes to trying to change the status quo, your preexisting model of the world is your most formidable obstacle.

In order to create and sustain positive change, you have to change your model of the world. But how can you change something you can’t see—the very lens you see through?

That’s where the Enneagram comes in. It offers each of us a window into our particular model of the world so we can develop the self-awareness that’s essential for creating change.

The Enneagram is the most practical and accurate tool I’ve found for describing our basic temperament or personality, and therefore our habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. (Other typing systems include the MBTI, OCEAN [a/k/a Big Five], DISC, and Social Styles.) The Enneagram is comprehensive and multifaceted, so it requires some effort to fully grasp. But it’s worth it. When you identify your type, you may find that the Enneagram knows you better than you knew yourself. It isn’t the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything, but it gives you a place to look, a way to pay attention to what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

In a Nutshell

Enneagram is a Greek word that means nine points. The Enneagram symbol is composed of a triangle and a hexad within a circle. The triangle connects points 3, 6, and 9. The hexad connects points 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8.

The 9 points represent 9 basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. We tend to polarize near one of those points, as a result we overdevelop some areas and underdevelop others. That polarization strongly affects how and what we perceive of the world around us—and how we respond to what we perceive. Our perceptions and responses become so much a part of us that they occur automatically, without any conscious thought.

alphabet-changeOne way to think about the Enneagram is that each point represents a particular kind of imbalance. (It’s easier to spot imbalances in others than it is to recognize them in ourselves. So it can be tempting to “helpfully” point out those imbalances to friends, family members, and co-workers. It is also tempting to stereotype people because categorizing is an automatic process of the brain.)

The Enneagram can make you more aware of your particular autopilot behavior. It can show you how you tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways, as well as in negative and sometimes destructive ways. Your core personality type doesn’t change over the course of a lifetime, but as you become aware of your tendencies and imbalances, you gain the ability to moderate them. You’re no longer run by them.

Some people believe that being typed diminishes them somehow, that typing puts them into a box. But typing doesn’t put people into boxes; it identifies aspects of the boxes we’re already in. It points out what’s inside the box and what’s outside, both of which are equally important.

The Nine Types

Very briefly, these are the nine types:

Type 1: The Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist. Principled and responsible, but can also be rule-bound and critical.

Type 2: The Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner. Compassionate and altruistic, but can also be co-dependent and manipulative.

Type 3: The Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, and the Status Seeker. Self-assured and accomplished, but can also be competitive and performance-driven.

Type 4: The Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person. Creative and inspiring, but can also be overly dramatic and fault-finding.

Type 5: The Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker. Perceptive and curious, but can also be cold and detached.

Type 6: The Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate. Organized and hard-working, but can also be indecisive and overly-vigilant.

Type 7: The Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast. Cheerful and multi-talented, but can also be acquisitive and thrill-seeking.

Type 8: The Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter. Courageous and magnanimous, but can also be combative and domineering.

Type 9: The Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist. Deeply receptive and serene, but can also be disengaged and inattentive.

When it comes to creating change, the greatest benefit of learning about your Enneagram type is discovering how you repeatedly get in your own way. Without that knowledge, your efforts are likely to lead to frustration more often than to success.

For more information about the Enneagram, visit ninepaths.com.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

Z Is for Zombie Systems

What could zombie systems (also known as alien subroutines) and blindfolded cup-stacking possibly have to do with behavior change? Quite a bit, as it turns out. But first, what exactly are these zombie systems and alien subroutines? According to David Eagleman in Incognito:

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Eagleman uses the terms interchangeably. He says the term zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.

Some alien subroutines are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry.

Cup-Stacking Smack-Down

Cup-stacking, at least as performed by Austin Nabor, is an example of a highly automated algorithm—and thus a zombie system.

Nabor has been practicing all the moves involved in cup-stacking regularly for several years. As a result, physical changes have taken place in his brain to hard-wire cup-stacking. He can now perform it automatically without thinking about it, which is why he can do just as well when he’s blindfolded as he can when he can see what he’s doing.

In the video (link above), 10-year-old Nabor faces off against David Eagleman mano-a-mano, as it were, and hands him a resounding defeat. Eagleman said of the contest that he wasn’t even an eighth of the way through his routine when Nabor finished. During the competition, both were fitted with skull caps to monitor electrical activity in their brains. Instead of burning more energy to complete his complex cup-stacking routine speedily and flawlessly, Nabor’s brain used considerably less energy than Eagleman’s brain used to perform the routine much more slowly. In fact, Eagleman described Nabor’s brain as serene.

Eagleman’s brain burned more energy because he had to think about what he was doing and conscious thought burns more energy than zombie systems and alien subroutines burn.

When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Your brain rewrites itself based on the things you repeatedly practice, such has hitting a ball with a bat, driving, or swimming. Some of those things could be classified as skills while others might better be classified as habits. Whether they are skills or habits, once they become “etched into the circuitry of the brain,” you lose conscious control over them. Your brain doesn’t particularly care what skills or habits (good or bad) are turned into zombie systems. The purpose of the process, as Eagleman says, is to free up resources, allowing the conscious you to attend to and absorb other tasks.

Because you lose conscious control of zombie systems and they run automatically, it’s quite difficult to change them—to put it mildly.

Learning to Ride the Backwards Bicycle

Engineer Destin Sandlin, creator of the website Smarter Every Day, was challenged to ride a bicycle that had been modified so that when you turn the handlebars to the right, the wheel turns left, and when you turn the handlebars to the left, the wheel turns right. Watch him try—and fail—to ride the bike, and then offer to pay other people if they are able to ride the bike 10 feet.

“Once you have a rigid way of thinking,” Sandlin says, “you cannot change that, even if you want to.” Riding a bicycle, for most of us, is a hard-wired zombie system. Since we don’t have conscious control over the bicycle-riding algorithm, knowing that the bicycle has been altered has no effect on our ability to modify the algorithm—at least not right away.

It took Sandlin eight months of regular practice to learn how to ride the backwards bicycle. However, he noticed that the old pathway was still there and minor distractions, such as a cell phone ringing, could cause his brain to “jump back on the old road it was more familiar with.”

Sandlin’s young son, on the other hand, who had been riding a bicycle for three years, required only two weeks to get the hang of the modified bicycle.

When Sandlin attempted to ride a normal bicycle again after having more or less mastered the backwards bicycle, he couldn’t do it at first. But after about 20 minutes, his brain slipped back into gear, and he was able to remain upright. Think about that when you’re struggling with changing a habit you’ve had for years or maybe even decades. It takes a great deal of repetition and persistence to master a replacement behavior but very little provocation to revert back to the old path.

Consciousness on the Sidelines

Having the knowledge, information, or even will to change your behavior are all System 2 (conscious) processes. They’re certainly useful and even desirable. But a habit is a System 1 (unconscious) zombie system that is not immediately responsive to your conscious intentions or attentions.

In fact, those System 2 processes can sometimes get in the way. Eagleman says:

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. As an example…I mentioned that thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea!), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

Essentially we come up with conscious explanations for unconscious systems we have no access to. When we think we understand something, but we don’t, we’re likely to also think we know what to do about it. But we don’t.

If your brain is running an alien subroutine or a zombie system you don’t want it to run, you have to make like Destin Sandlin and practice the new routine over and over and over again. And you have to be prepared to have your brain “correct” you back to your old behavior at the least provocation.

When that happens, it’s far more productive to get back up on the horse—or bicycle—than it is to create a story about it.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

Y Is for Yesses

Your unconscious shrugs off neutral or positive news or experiences, sometimes barely registering them, and hones in on the negative. You have a stronger emotional reaction to negative stimuli, which increases the likelihood you’ll remember it. Since it takes less time for negative experiences to get stored in memory, your unconscious has more negative memories to draw on than positive ones when it’s evaluating information. And negative experiences affect you longer. As Rick Hanson famously says:

Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

That’s because your brain’s main concern is your survival, so it’s primed to detect threats. Positive things may indeed help you survive. But negative things can kill you. It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s better to expect and prepare for a possible threat than to be surprised or ambushed by one.

It’s easy to forget you’re operating with essentially the same brain your ancestors on the savanna had—a brain that doesn’t necessarily deal effectively with the stimulation, stressors, and sheer volume of information you have to contend with in modern daily life.

The brain is, first and foremost, a survival tool, and the way that it has found to be most effective at guaranteeing survival is through the threat and reward response. Put simply, your brain will cause you to move away from threats and move toward rewards. —Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work

This may not seem particularly problematic until you realize that, in additional to actual survival needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) and actual physical threats, each of us has personalized our threat-detection system to include situations we have defined as threatening. And once your brain gets the idea that something is a threat, it responds as if it is facing a literal threat to your physical survival.

Your brain automatically looks for what isn’t working: the threats, the slights, the hurts, the things that fall apart or don’t go your way. And because the unconscious part of your brain uses associative thinking, it is all too easy to get on a negative track and stay there. One thing leads to another, or one similar thought reminds you of another similar thought, and before you know it, your mood and your attitude have soured, and your ability to refocus your attention has evaporated.

Count Your Yesses

You can’t stop your brain from noticing the negative, and it wouldn’t even be a good idea to try. But neither do you have to give in to it. The advice to count your blessings comes to mind, but I find blessings to be a loaded word on several levels. I prefer to count my yesses. It’s an effective way to turn the tide when I notice I’ve mentally starting traveling along that road to nowhere.

Although I tend to be pretty optimistic and upbeat, the first thing I noticed when I began this practice was how much easier it is to count my nos. Because the nos are brought to our attention by System 1, the part of the brain that is always on and processes 11,000,000 bits of information at a time, they come to mind immediately and automatically. Counting yesses, on the other hand, requires intention, which is a function of System 2, the conscious part of the brain that is slow, lazy, and easily depleted.

That’s why when you’re tired, stressed, or sick—or when life has dealt you some kind of blow—you simply have less System 2 attention available. It’s easy, then, for the nos to get the upper hand. I remember when I experienced a bout of food poisoning. For several days, the nos were abundant. While I observed the downward trend in my thoughts, I understood what was happening. I was pretty sure my perspective would shift once I got better (which it did), so I didn’t let the nos carry me too far downstream.

It’s easy for one no to outweigh many yesses, so much so that we may not even notice the yesses when they occur. A Facebook friend used to post what she called “The Daily Yes.” It was a good prompt for me because it was my cue to pay attention to what’s juicy and zesty and working in my life—to who and what has said yes to me and who and what I’ve said yes to.

Don’t Let the Nos Foil Your Plans

The negativity bias can really wreak havoc on your attempts to meet your goals, master a challenge, or change an unwanted habit. Your brain is more likely to point out all the things you don’t do—or don’t do as well as you could or should—while ignoring your successes. Along with repetition and perseverance, change requires a cheerleader, not a critic scolding you from the peanut gallery.

If you allow the negativity bias to run unchecked, you’re likely to believe there are more nos than there actually are—and that they mean something. You’re likely to perceive anything that doesn’t work or turn out the way you planned as evidence that something is wrong with you or with your plan instead of using it as feedback to help you adjust your course.

Any time you’re trying to change the status quo is a good time to be intentional about counting your yesses. 

Note: Counting your yesses isn’t the same as positive thinking. Although positive thinking sounds like a good idea, it may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Nor is positive thinking the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

X Is for eXpectations

Life is an ongoing series of experiences, one after another after another. When you’re in the midst of one of them, you experience it. After it’s over, you explain it, meaning you remember it and tell a story about it, incorporating it into your ongoing narration.

But before anything even occurs, you have an expectation about what will or won’t happen, what should or shouldn’t happen, or how events will unfold and the consequences that are likely to ensue.

Expectation is

  • A belief about what should happen or the way things should be.
  • An estimate or forecast of a future situation based on present or past experiences.
  • Anticipation: looking forward to something, whether hopefully or fearfully.

Experience is:

  • The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind.
  • An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
  • Direct personal participation or observation.

Explanation is:

  • A story about how or why something happened or turned out the way it did.
  • Rationalization, justification, and/or judgment about the experience.
  • The cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason.

There’s some degree of conscious (System 2) involvement in all three phases of an experience. But there’s even more unconscious (System 1) involvement in them.

The Way Things Should Be

According to Andy Clark, philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh:

Our primary contact with the world…is via our expectations about what we are about to see or experience. 

Your expectations are constrained not only by what has already happened (your past experiences), but also—and even more significantly—by the stories (and explanations) you’ve constructed about them. Your expectations, arising from your mental model of the world, determine much of what you make of your experiences.

It’s worth remembering that your experience of what’s going on in your mind and in the world is not the same as what is actually going on in either your mind or in the world.

In addition to helping you navigate the terrain you inhabit, your mental model gives rise to your sense of the way things should be. It generates expectations that are either confirmed or denied, as well as assumptions, biases, etc., that determine what you pay attention to, what you perceive (even what you are able to perceive), how you interpret and respond to what you perceive, and the meaning you assign to it.

Who I am is the habit of what I always was and who I’ll be is the result. —Louise Erdrich

Although it doesn’t have to be, the cycle of expectation/experience/
explanation can be a vicious one that narrows your perspective—and your world.

Generating expectations isn’t something you are doing; it’s something your brain is doing. You may have come across advice to do away with expectations because they are either “self-defeating” or nothing but a prelude to disappointment. (Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath are just a few who have linked expectations with disappointment.) The advice to eliminate them is based on a belief that expectations are consciously created, which gives us control over them.

Your Brain is Predictive, not Reactive.

Your felt experience may be that something happens and you react to it, but the reality is that your brain is not reactive but predictive. It is always doing its best to anticipate what’s going to happen next, as if it were playing a never-ending game of chess, continuously anticipating and preparing you for your next move.

Your brain generates multiple possible representations of what to expect in the environment. The representation with the smallest prediction error is selected. However the generation of representations is constrained by what is stored in memory and by the sampling of the environmentDirk De RidderJan Verplaetse, and Sven Vanneste, Frontiers in Psychology

You’re only aware of what your brain thinks you need to know, when you need to know it. Although your reactions and responses feel spontaneous and freely chosen, most of the time they are neither.

The unconscious is always several steps ahead of the conscious part of your brain. As neuroscientists have pointed out, this is what makes activities such as sports possible. If the brain was merely reactive, it wouldn’t operate fast enough to enable you to hit a baseball or block a goal. A reactive brain wouldn’t have helped Michael Phelps win his 10th gold medal while swimming blind after his goggles filled with water. All of his previous practice, experience, and knowledge gave his brain a solid basis for predicting what to expect and what he needed to do in order to win.

Because your brain is predictive:

  • You are not constantly surprised.
  • You don’t always have a choice.
  • You are able to engage in activities that require quick and accurate responses.
  • You are capable of learning from your experiences.
  • You don’t have to think about every little thing you do in the course of a day.
  • You find it difficult to change undesirable habits.
  • You may be tricked by various types of illusions.
  • You are unaware of your visual blind spot.

Your predictive brain—and the expectations it creates—can be a major obstacle when it comes to behavior change if you don’t take it into account. The neurons in your brain are constantly firing, interacting, and stimulating each other at various rates. If you stick to the belief that you always have a choice and try to use willpower to override your brain’s wiring, you will make things much harder for yourself than they need to be.

Not only can you not stop your brain from generating expectations, but doing so would be self-defeating. What you can do is become more aware of what those expectations are, check how closely they match reality, and evaluate how well they work for you in creating a satisfying and meaningful life.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

W Is for Writing

Writing is such an effective tool for change that I use it in all of my classes and workshops. It can help you clarify intentions or goals and assist you in staying on track. It’s also extremely useful for helping you calm down, focus, and develop clarity about troubling or difficult issues.

The pen compels lucidity. —Robert Stone, novelist

The catch is that in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing. You could just fill page after page in a notebook (something I did for quite a few years until I chucked the lot), but after you’re finished you may not be any clearer than you were to begin with. You might even be more confused.

Starting out with a question or prompt, maybe just a keyword or key phrase, can allow you to access some of the thoughts that may be swimming below the surface. Using a multi-part exercise can help you get even deeper and reap greater rewards.

The two basic approaches to writing—flow writing and deliberate writing—involve using the two different parts of the brain (System 1 and System 2). The problem with completely unstructured writing is that it can muddle these two approaches so that you don’t get the full benefit of either.

Flow Writing:
Making Use of Associative Thinking

The unconscious (System 1) excels in associative thinking. It detects patterns and connects dots quicker than the conscious part of your brain (System 2) can. It’s a fast processor that sometimes sacrifices accuracy for speed. But it also has access to lots of information the conscious brain isn’t aware of.

Flow writing, which is also called free writing, is non-linear, non-rational, and non-logical. You put your pen to paper and write quickly, letting the words “flow” without censoring or editing them. You don’t stop to think about what you’re writing. The best way to free your mind for flow writing is to set a page limit or use a timer.

Flow writing is a good choice if you’re not entirely sure what the problem is. If you have a lot of thoughts swirling around in your head, you can get them down on paper and take a look at them. But even with flow writing, you’ll get better results if you begin with a specific question, prompt, or keyword.

Deliberate Writing:
Making Use of Logical, Linear Thinking

The conscious part of the brain is rational, logical, and linear. It operates at a much slower—more deliberate—speed than the unconscious. A good way to engage conscious thinking is to respond to a series of questions or prompts. While flow-writing casts a wide net in search of answers or information, deliberate writing narrows the search.

This 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise is an example of using deliberate thinking to gain clarity. You proceed through the sequence of questions or statements with the intention of reaching some resolution.

Integrated Writing:
Making Use of Both Kinds of Thinking

Sometimes flow writing or deliberate writing alone is sufficient, but integrating them can be much more powerful. Integrated writing is synergistic rather than additive, which means the whole (the result) is greater than the sum of the parts you used to get there. A few examples of integrated writing include:

10 minutes of flow writing (System 1 associative thinking) followed by writing the answers to a series of questions (System 2 logical, linear thinking). You can create your own set of questions or use the ones in the 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise.

Write Your Way Out of the Story. For instructions scroll to Antidote #3 in this post on rumination.

Go Deeper: This is a 4-part exercise that’s best to do in one sitting. Begin by writing a question at the top of a blank page and then flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Next, reread what you wrote (engaging System 2), select a sentence or phrase, and write it at the top of another blank page. Flow write in response to this sentence or phrase for 8-12 minutes. Finally, reread both pieces (System 2), find a question—either one you asked in your writing or one that occurs to you after reading—write it at the top of a blank page, and flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Then reread all three pieces and write a one-paragraph summary (System 2).

No matter which type of writing you decide to use, remember to have an intention. Be clear about what you’re doing and what you want to get out of your writing.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Even if writing doesn’t come naturally to you or seems like punishment, if you want to create habits that serve you, follow through on your goals and intentions, and develop your self-awareness, it’s worth exploring and experimenting with it.

As with any tool you want to master, regular practice makes all the difference. When you set and keep the same general time and place to write, you encourage (or prime) your brain to respond.

When you go into a restaurant, your brain is focused on deciding what to eat. When you get into your car, your brain is focused on driving. This is one of those obvious things you probably don’t really think about it. When you go into the restaurant, your brain is not focused on driving because it isn’t presented with environmental cues related to driving.

Another reason for developing a writing practice is that the real benefits of writing are cumulative. They are gained over time, not as the result of any individual exercise or piece of writing.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.