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!

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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.

L Is for Luck

Plans, practice, and preparation are all useful, even essential, if you want to accomplish anything significant in life. But no matter how rock-solid they are, your plans, practice, and preparation cannot immunize you against random occurrences, aka luck. Your luck in a given circumstance may be good or bad, but by its nature it isn’t predictable.

A good definition of luck is:

The chance happening of fortunate or adverse events.

It’s important to recognize that, statistically speaking, random events occur far more often and have a far greater impact on us than we recognize. Events outside our control will occur. When everything goes according to plan or falls into place, we can thank our lucky stars. But we can’t count on being lucky. And we can’t take credit for luck.

The fact that luck is something we can’t control automatically casts it in a bad light. Both the nature of it and the outcome are uncertain and uncertainty gives the unconscious part of our brain the heebie jeebies. We prefer to operate under the illusion of control, maintaining our belief that we can influence outcomes even in the face of significant irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Thus there are people who believe they create their own luck. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” said Louis Pasteur. And in some circumstances that’s true. You can’t necessarily take advantage of advantageous circumstances if you don’t know how to respond or are not prepared to do so. You can, to an extent, be ready to open your arms to random good fortune—which would certainly be more welcome than bad fortune.

Estimating Impact

However, good fortune does not always lead to good outcomes. Take lottery winners, a group that has been the subject of numerous studies. Not everyone who wins the lottery ends up worse off than they were before—but a surprising number of winners do. And most report being no happier after winning than people who didn’t win.

Our beliefs about outcomes are strongly affected by one of the cognitive biases we’re afflicted with. This one is known as the impact bias, and it has two parts. We think we know whether a future potential event will affect us in a positive or in a negative way. And we’re usually pretty good at getting that prediction right. We also think we know how large or small that impact will be and how long it will last. That’s where we often miss the mark by anticipating that both good and bad events will affect us more—and for longer—than they actually will.

Something that is pretty predictable is that you’re more likely to overreact to bad luck when you aren’t fully committed to your current plan of action. If you’re more or less going through the motions, it won’t take much to blow you off course or permanently derail you. You might think what you’re up to is just not meant to be or that you don’t have what it takes.

That’s why it’s critical to get very, very clear about your desired outcome ahead of time. If you have a strong commitment to what you’re going after, you’re more likely to consider bad luck a bump in the road. Maybe it’s a small bump or maybe it’s an enormous boulder. Nevertheless, you’ll be more inclined to figure out how to navigate around it and continue on your way if you really want what’s on the other side and if you know the next steps you need to take.

Enter the Black Swan

Sometimes luck, good or bad, has a relatively minor effect. On the other hand, luck—in the form of what Nassim Taleb calls Black Swans—can be life-changing. Taleb describes a so-called Black Swan this way:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

The majority of swans are white, so black swans are unexpected. As Taleb says, on September 10, 2011, the events of September 11 were not reasonably conceivable. If they had been, something could have been done to prevent them.

A Black Swan event can permanently alter your course or at the very least make it vastly more difficult to pursue. But you can’t anticipate such events or know whether they will be positive or negative. What you can be certain about is what is meaningful to you. If the course you’re on is massively disrupted, you will still have the knowledge of what’s important to you, even if you have to find a completely different way to create it in your life.

If there’s something you want to do and the main thing holding you back is uncertainty, try imagining a world where all is preordained, everything is known in advance, and there is no possibility of surprise. Is that really a world you’d want to live in?

You can’t predict the future no matter how much your brain wants you to believe you can. Although you can—and should—plan ahead, it’s important to remember that the path from here to there is rarely a straight line. Randomness and luck often play a larger role in both process and outcome than we’d like to acknowledge.

In the long run, how you respond (persevere) in the face of setbacks and random events is more important than achieving instant or quick success. And you can take all the credit for persevering.

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

C Is for Commitment


When you set out to accomplish something significant or change a longstanding habit, do you stop to consider how committed you really are to doing it? You may have plenty of good reasons for wanting to do it. You may be able to rattle off the positive consequences that are likely to result if you succeed or the negative consequences if you fail. But altering the status quo isn’t easy. Reasons and potential consequences hold no sway over the unconscious part of your brain, which strongly prefers that you continue doing exactly what you’ve been doing up till now.

Making a commitment means binding yourself—intellectually, emotionally, or both—to a course of action. Some commitments in life are implied or assumed. For example:

  • following the rules of the road when you get a driver’s license
  • performing your job to the best of your ability after you’re hired
  • treating your employees fairly after you hire them
  • being considerate and faithful to your partner or spouse
  • providing for your children

Clearly some people “bind themselves” to these commitments more than others do. If you feel bound by your commitment, you’re more likely to follow through even if it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so. Otherwise, you’ll find it easier to slack off and easier to come up with explanations and excuses as to why you did. The exigencies of the moment will feel more compelling than the course of action you never fully committed to.

Reality Check

alphabet-of-changeBefore my clients begin filling out a Goal Action Plan, I ask them to complete a “Reality Check.” Part of the reality check includes rating themselves in the following three areas on a scale from 1-10, 10 being the highest:

  1. certainty (how confident you are that you can achieve the goal)
  2. passion (how much you want it)
  3. commitment (how willing you are to bind yourself to the course of action)
Failure to Commit

People are unwilling to fully commit to a goal or a habit change for a variety of reasons.

Are you afraid of trying, failing, and disappointing yourself and/or others? The reality is that making a half-hearted commitment usually leads to half-hearted efforts which then lead to half-hearted results. This is a great example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Are you trying to keep your options open? It’s true that committing to one course of action generally means not pursuing other courses of action. And it’s true that you might miss out on something. But the reality is that trying to keep all of your options open doesn’t enhance your life; it prevents you from fully living it.

You can have what really matters to you or you can have the freedom to NOT have it, but you can’t have both.

Are you waiting to see how things turn out before making a full commitment? (I’ll give myself three months and if things aren’t panning out by then, I’ll give up or switch to Plan B.)  Although this sounds like a reasonable approach, it’s self-defeating. The reality is that we can’t single-handedly control the outcome, but we do have complete control over the extent of our commitment.

Going All-In

We often refuse to make a commitment, even to something we really want or that really matters to us.

Sometimes it’s hard to go “all in” when you don’t know how things are going to unfold. But fully committing yourself to a course of action actually has an effect on the outcome. When you’re fully committed to a course of action:

  • You don’t waste time rethinking your decision.
  • Instead of looking for ways to avoid taking action, you look for ways to take action—and by you, I mean your brain. Making a commitment alters your mental model and your perception. You literally see things differently—and see different things. Also your brain connects the dots in different ways.
  • You’re more likely to find your way around obstacles and to keep going even when you don’t feel like it.
  • You don’t have to rely as much on willpower and self-control in the face of temptation and the urge for immediate gratification.
  • You tend to view the results you get as feedback that you can use to adjust your course.

If you want to change your status quo, you need to take action, you need to be persistent, and you need to figure out how to overcome obstacles. But first you need to make the commitment to do those things. You won’t know ahead of time what your experience will be or how things will turn out. But making a commitment will increase your chances of success.

Are you holding back? Are you keeping something in reserve? For what?

If you’re not fully committed to a course of action, why are you taking it? If you set out to do something, be fully engaged in doing it instead of a sideline observer. Aim to get it done, not to wait and see how it all turns out.

This post is part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

Uncertainty: Learning to Live with Butterflies


The unconscious part of our brain abhors ambiguity and uncertainty. And patience is not its middle name. That’s unfortunate.

We work to eliminate as much uncertainty as we can as quickly as possible. But when we eliminate uncertainty, we necessarily eliminate novelty. And novelty is the starting point for creation and innovation. In eliminating uncertainty, we kill our shot at brilliance. We become derivative. All in the name of not having to learn to live with butterflies. —Jonathan Fields

In our haste to return to the illusory state of certainty, we tend to do things like jump to conclusions, accept the first answer or explanation that comes to mind (consistent with our mental model), act prematurely, or immobilize ourselves in endless rounds of rumination. (Rumination feels like problem-solving but it’s the opposite: problem-prolonging, if you will.)

By refusing to allow ourselves to simply observe the discomfort that accompanies ambiguity and uncertainty, we often deny ourselves another experience: the pure joy of the aha! moment when a solution presents itself. That may take an hour or several days—or even longer—but suddenly what was murky and inchoate becomes bright and clear. The path ahead becomes obvious.

I say the solution “presents itself” because although we tend to take credit for coming up with the brilliant idea or flash of insight, the part of our brain we identify with had little to do with it. It’s the unconscious that figured it out and then clued us in.

It’s interesting that the unconscious is equally capable of jumping to quick conclusions and of wrestling with an issue long after we’ve depleted our conscious capacity to think about it. In situations where a wrong conclusion isn’t likely to make a huge difference, jumping to one is probably more efficient. But when the issue or problem or project is bigger, it’s worth letting the unconscious mull it over for a while.

One of the reasons waiting this process out makes us squirm is that we have no control over it. It isn’t going to occur by the force of our will or on our timetable. When we try to make it happen we usually just end up getting in our own way and muddling the process.

Certainty Is Not Clarity

Although we frequently use the terms interchangeably, certainty is not a synonym for clarity.

Certainty itself is an emotional state, not an intellectual one. To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong. –Steven Stosny, Ph.D.

There’s a big difference between being unclear—not knowing which step to take—and being uncertain—not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be. It’s important to distinguish between the two and to be able to recognize whether it’s a lack of clarity or the fear of uncertainty that’s getting in the way.

Certainty is an illusion—a somewhat comforting illusion, but an illusion nevertheless. There’s no way to predict the future, and randomness plays a much bigger role in our lives than we want to believe. So if we wait until we are certain of the outcome of our actions, we’ll never act because the outcome can never be certain. There are no guarantees in life.

The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. —Robert Burns

Clarity, unlike certainty, is not an emotional state. It’s a state of mind: unclouded, unobstructed, unambiguous. Clarity isn’t arrived at via a tortuous route. Unfortunately, since the unconscious part of our brain is biased against uncertainty, we are biased against it, too. This is another example of our brain using us instead of the other way around.

What you can do:

  • Practice tolerating uncertainty and not being attached to the outcome by adopting an attitude of curiosity.
  • Learn to distinguish between being unclear (not knowing which step to take) and being uncertain (not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be).

It isn’t easy, but rather than trying to get back to comfortable and certain as quickly as possible, we can develop a tolerance for the discomfort. We can even learn to appreciate the uncertainty and the opportunity it presents for novelty. Whatever is on the other side of our current distress may be unimaginable to us now, but it could be brilliant. Why take the chance of missing out on something brilliant just to avoid feeling a little uncomfortable?

Additional reading: 12 Signs that You Lack Clarity