No ToE (Theory of Everything)

I have enjoyed learning about and working with the Enneagram for the past couple of decades because it describes—amazingly accurately—how we humans actually function. I’ve gotten to know myself much better as a result and have learned to curb some tendencies and to live with some shortcomings. It has also been an invaluable tool for working with clients in various situations and capacities. Maybe best of all, I’ve learned to laugh at myself, at least a little. And I’ve gotten to know others on a deeper level.

But sometimes I think we ask too much—or expect too much—of the Enneagram. As comprehensive and amazing as it is, the Enneagram can’t and doesn’t explain everything there is to know about us. It is not the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything.

One aspect of the Enneagram that has become increasingly popular over the past 10 years is identifying the so-called Instinctual Variants, and more recently Instinctual Variant Stacking. The concept seems to have originated with Oscar Ichazo, but it has been considerably expanded and given greater significance than it once had. The purpose of the Instinctual Variants, and the stacking thereof, appears to be to try to explain the differences within types. (This is what I’ve read, not just my interpretation.)

Well, of course there are differences within types. And there are all kinds of things that could explain them, most of which have nothing at all to do with the Enneagram. Over a dozen years ago, my then partner in crime Elizabeth Libbey and I devoted a great deal of time and effort reviewing a large portion of Enneagram literature and looking at how the Enneagram maps onto or corresponds with other psychological, sociological, and neurological research. We found a solid basis for the Stances (Aggressive, Compliant, and Withdrawing), but nothing comparable in regard to the Instinctual Variants. In fact, I came across research results that flatly contradict the idea (held by many in the Enneagram community) that “instincts” have anything whatsoever to do with actual biological instincts. That’s why I don’t write about that particular topic.

Trying to fit all the disjointed, fractured, and misshapen pieces of us inside the Enneagram doesn’t seem realistic or useful to me. And I wonder if that isn’t what turns some people off about personality typing systems. What I’ve learned about the brain and mind supports the idea that who we are is much more complex than that. There are aspects of ourselves we will never completely know or be able to explain, as much as we may be driven to search for such explanations. I also think that’s a good thing!

Originally posted in

You Can Call Me (Antisocial) Al

Al was one of my substance abuse clients at the methadone clinic where I used to work. I knew he was a Type 5 because I managed to persuade every single one of my clients to complete an Enneagram questionnaire. With his shaved head (usually covered by a baseball cap) and multiple tattoos, Al was a little off-putting, appearance-wise. He had spent more than one stint in San Quentin where he joined an Aryan Brotherhood gang. As he—and several other ex-con clients—explained to me, you had to belong to some group in prison in order to survive. He never seemed very committed to the white supremacist thing, and being a 5, he certainly wasn’t part of any gang on the outside.

Somewhere along the way, Al had encountered a psychiatrist who diagnosed him as having Antisocial Personality Disorder. I’m not sure what the psychiatrist was thinking. Did he believe that because Al had committed antisocial acts, he must therefore have Antisocial Personality Disorder? I don’t know. And I wouldn’t have cared, except the doctor was so convincing Al took on the diagnosis as part of his identity. It was almost as if he introduced himself by extending his hand and his diagnosis, “Hi, I’m Al. I have Antisocial Personality Disorder.”


The disconnect for me was that Al was unfailingly prompt for his counseling appointments and far more considerate of me than many of my less-sinister-appearing clients. He’d knock softly on my door and stick his head into my office after the client ahead of him had left. “I just wanted you to know I’m here,” he’d say. “Take your time. If you need a break, I’ll wait.”

He knew I was a big San Francisco 49ers fan when Steve Young was the quarterback (possibly because of the red jersey with the huge number 8 I wore to the clinic every game day). So when he came across a used set of 49ers sweats at a thrift store, he got them for me.

He once spent a few months in an East Bay correctional facility, during which he wrote me several droll letters. He also sent a card with a kitten in a wicker basket on the front. On the inside it said, “Just want you to know how much I miss you!” In pencil (the only writing implement allowed), he’d added, “I’m out before you can say ‘meow!’”

After months of weekly counseling sessions, I figured that if Al had a mental health diagnosis it was probably Avoidant Personality Disorder. Although I’ve never been in prison, joined a gang, gotten tattooed (something I’m still threatening to do), or committed any felonies, based on Enneagram type alone I’m a much better candidate to develop Antisocial Personality Disorder than he was.

Avoidant Al

Eventually, I pulled out the DSM IIIR (a version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and during one of our sessions we read through both diagnoses. It seemed clear to me he met the criteria for Avoidant Personality Disorder—which also fit with his Enneagram type—and he agreed.

To some extent, it was a matter of exchanging one label for another. What difference did it really make? Well, it was subtle at first, but once Al started to see himself in that different light, he began to open up more. He developed some insight into his behavior and especially into his feelings. Before I left the clinic, he got involved in a relationship with a woman who had a young daughter, and I saw him access the healthy side of Type 2, which is part of his triad. It was a wonder to behold.

The Enneagram gave me another lens to look at my clients through—ultimately one that was more humane and more useful than some of the other lenses through which they’d been seen.

5 Reasons to Study the Enneagram

We move through this world under the impression—some would say the illusion—that we’re consciously choosing all of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But most of the time we’re operating on autopilot, stuck on the hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, in spite of our best intentions.

The Enneagram provides a window into our habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. The result is that the more we know, the less we’re at the effect of the programs that are usually running us.

As a system for describing our basic temperament or personality, the Enneagram is comprehensive, multifaceted, and accurate. It requires a bit of effort to fully grasp, so if you’re wondering why you should bother–what’s in it for you–here are five good reasons to learn more about the Enneagram:

1. You’ll Be Able to Let Yourself Off the Hook.

A surprising amount of what we perceive of as our own individual quirks, flaws, and shortcomings are not the result of our upbringing or personal experiences—or the fact that we’re stubborn, wrongheaded, or lack any semblance of willpower. It’s just the way we’re wired. That means we don’t need to continue expending time and energy trying to figure out why we’re that way or attempting to fix ourselves. The Enneagram offers a short-cut to self-awareness and self-acceptance, which is very powerful ground to stand on.

2. Other People Will Make You Less Crazy.

Even when you don’t know what someone else’s type is, just being aware of the fundamentally different perspectives and attitudes of each type can be eye-opening. That awareness makes it a lot easier to cut the other people in your life some slack and stop expecting them to be who they’re not. It also makes it less likely they’ll be able to push your buttons as often and as easily. Our differences don’t always have to be frustrating or divisive. They can be a source of humor and even a way to connect.

3. You Can Stop Banging Your Head Against the Wall.

Do you ever feel like your life is the one Narcotics Anonymous was referring to when they defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? If so, take heart. The Enneagram explains how we get into our particular ruts of behaving, thinking, and feeling—and then offers a range of alternatives to try out from among the other types. Knowing your type is also extremely helpful—maybe even essential—if you are in the process of attempting to change your behavior.

4. It’ll Make You Smarter, Improve Your Memory and Mood, and Keep Your Brain Healthy.

Learning about the Enneagram may not add measurable points to your I.Q., but brains crave challenge and stimulation in order to maintain their plasticity. Learning something new actually changes your brain physically by not only increasing synaptic connections, but also growing new neurons—no matter how old you are. That’s one of the main ways to keep your mind sharp and flexible and your memory intact. These neuronal interconnections in our brains affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings on a daily basis. You can definitely nurture your neurons by learning about the Enneagram.

5. It Has What You’re Looking For.

On the psychological level, the Enneagram is a great tool for anyone who’s on a journey of personal exploration or wants to change old, outmoded patterns of behavior. On the interpersonal level, it can help you deepen your relationship with your partner or develop clearer communication with friends and family members. At work, it can help you get along better with your co-workers, understand your boss, and become more effective. What you take from it depends on how you come at it and what it is you’re looking for.

I learned about the Enneagram 20 years ago when I was working as a substance abuse counselor and trained to become a Certified Enneagram Instructor. Not only did the Enneagram help me get a handle on some of my own automatic (System 1) behavior, it was the single most effective tool I ever found for working with my clients.

The work I do now is based on the most recent understanding of the mind and brain that neuroscience and psychology can provide. And once again I have found the Enneagram to be an invaluable tool, in this case for identifying my clients’ automatic behavior and tendencies.

Many of us want to increase our self-awareness, but we can’t pay attention to everything. The Enneagram points us in a direction that allows us to see how we tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways and in negative and sometimes destructive ways. It’s one way to find out some of what’s in our particular mental model. Since the contents of our mental model are not directly accessible, I see the Enneagram as a short-cut to self-awareness.

Permission to Fail

Here’s a handful of quotes to inspire you to fail and fail again because failure is an essential part of the creative process. It’s also a part of life.

If you’re not failing, maybe it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.

So go out there and fail better, fail faster. Rack up as many failures as you possibly can!

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. –Edwin Land

Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. –Winston Churchill

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything. –E. J. Phelps

It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket. –Werhner von Braun

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. –Ken Robinson

Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. –Leonard Cohen

I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot… and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed. –Michael Jordan

To develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can. –Richard P. Feynman

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success. –Thomas J. Watson

Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo. –Jon Sinclair

An inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once then he’s in. –Charles Kettering

I failed my way to success. –Thomas Edison

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckettt

To be wrong is nothing unless you continue to remember it. –Confucius


The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. –Linus Pauling

If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied. –Alfred Nobel

I’m a perfectionist, which I think is a mistake. –Michelle Shocked

So try not to be too attached to any of the ideas you currently have or to take failure personally. Use the results—good or bad—as feedback not as evidence. And begin again.

Look for Limitations

When Phil Hansen was in art school, he developed a shake in his hand that prevented him from drawing a straight line. He was interested in pointillism at the time, but the technique exacerbated the problem to the extent that eventually he gave up art. The shake in his hand didn’t go away. The neurologist who told him he had permanent nerve damage suggested he “embrace the shake.” So he did.

Embracing the shake meant embracing limitation, which is what led him to discover that working on a larger scale with bigger materials was easier on his hand.

This was the first time I encountered the idea that embracing limitation could actually drive creativity.

In the video below of his TEDx talk in Kansas City, Hansen says:

I realized that if I ever wanted my creativity back I had to stop trying so hard to think outside of the box and get back into it.

He set out to impose all kinds of constraints on the art he created. The image at the top of this post was the result of his intention to create something for under a dollar. (When he asked someone at Starbucks for 50 empty cups, he got them.)

You become more creative by actually looking for limitations.

He’s written a book about creating art aimed at “kids” from 8 to 70 titled Tattoo a Banana: And Other Ways to Turn Anything and Everything Into Art.

Looking at limitations as the source of creativity changed my life.

It’s impossible to create anything, do anything, or just be (alive) without experiencing limitations. The trick is not only to look for limitations, but also to embrace them.