The enigmatic origins of the Enneagram
For a recent team-building event at work, we hired an Enneagram practitioner (?? tea leaf reader ??) to look deep within our souls and then put us in a tidy, numerically numbered box. To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement.
I was so frustrated by this experience that I’ve spent hours reading about the origins, applications, and business models of this cult … ahem … classic. What’s extra fascinating to me is the widespread popularity, especially spiking within the last five years.
First the facts, then my experience, then what I learned and liked. My experience aside, there is much I take away here.
Just the facts, ma’am
Our company hired integrative9, who is often cited as the most accurate assessment (95% accurate!! oh my!!). The test consists of 175 questions in a “Would you rather” style binary forced choice format. At the end of the test, we get an auto-generated 20-page PDF consisting of our Enneagram type (a number from 1-9), our wings (I can fly!), and more generic content about how different types interact.
Then, we had a private consultant (she was a Level 2 Enneagamer! watch out!) do a 3-hour discovery session with our team of 12. We walked through each person’s type, what that may mean for them, and some things they should consider. Mostly, it was reading the PDF out loud, then checking in and asking if that resonated with the person on the hot seat. I’d say we were about roughly 60-40 on fit, and only 1 or 2 people were very confident that their type accurately described them.
Then it was over. Whew.
My experience was … oy vey
First, I found the sorting hat questionnaire questionable at best. The 175 questions often posed orthogonal binary options. “When you experience conflict, do you A) punch holes in the wall or B) gorge on cookies until you want to vomit?” Ummm …
Here is an example from a real (sample) test:
What if I’m focused and intense about being spontaneous and fun-loving? Or what about how we apply ourselves in different domains of life? Many who know me would likely give me a check plus on both, so how am I to answer a question like this? There was no room for subtlety, context, or understanding, and that flattening of people and lived experience bothers me on a fundamental level.
Alarmingly, our consultant didn’t know how the assessment was created, how it was validated, or anything about the underpinning of its assessing methodology. Understanding the tool one wields, especially when it can positively or negatively impact the lives of others, seems like table stakes to me. Our consultant pointed me to iEQ9’s info@, and I reached out asking for information about their diagnostic. Unsurprisingly, I’m not the type to get a response.
Second, the type labels have emotionally-laden terms that bias perception right out of the gate. Why would anyone want to be a strict perfectionist? Or an active controller? And how can one not be disappointed to miss out on considerate helper? These labels can immediately be used as social bludgeons that beat us into submission. In fact, I noticed some of my teammates subtly referencing my type in a diminutive way until I called it out and explicitly asked them to stop.
Third, the type descriptions are chock full of astrology-esque descriptors that remind me of how fortune tellers work. I’m a Level 7 Titan moon rising with a Gemini reach around and a generative skeptic human design. They then somehow manage to veer into the realm of character judgments and note things like “you suppress and deny “bad” emotions” (verbatim from my type). Wow, you know me so well.
Fourth, the “supplemental” information (subtypes, instincts, wings, expressions, stretch point, release point) was convoluted, confusing, and contradictory. From an information architecture standpoint, I wouldn’t accept a handoff like this from one of my employees, let alone put it in front of a customer. If anything, I got the sense of perceived authority through arbitrary and unnecessary complexity. If I can’t understand what they’re saying, they must be really smart. Did you hear they have data scientists?!
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, I did not walk away from that session, or any of our discussions, with a clear understanding of how I can work better with my teammates. And as for personal growth, ostensibly the purpose of this tool, I better understood how to game the type-casting than grow something specific or actionable in myself. There is one meta-level asterisk that I’ll discuss at the very bottom when I share what I learned & liked.
On a positive note, I liked that they framed their explanations in action patterns, thinking patterns, feeling patterns, and blind spots. I like that organizational structure and will consider it for some aspects of UTT.
Overall, I had a negative experience start to finish with a limited few redeeming qualities along the way. The fact that I’ve heard this test mentioned positively by people I hold in high regard made me very curious to dig deep, learn more, and understand the delta.
Cue the dramatic music …
Goodness, I hope no one reads this
Enneagram was developed by a Bolivian philosopher mystic named Oscar Ichazo. Born in 1931, Oscar had an out-of-body experience at age 6 and spent the rest of his life trying to understand and explain that altered state of consciousness. This journey took him through libraries of mystical texts in various traditions and later, in his 20s, to study with mystics in Asia and the Middle East. He synthesized his learnings into a mystical philosophical treatise - the vaulted enneagram - and started teaching his philosophy-turned-dogma when he landed in Chile in the 60s. By 1968 he started the Arica School in Chile and 3 years later moved it to the US, where he lived until 2020.
Reading about Ichazo’s original philosophical grounding helped me understand why I sensed so much dissonance with this framework. Ichazo’s offering was intended for man, broken in the image of god, to find a psychospiritual path to enlightenment.
From a sound synthesis by an unnamed author on reddit:
Ichazo taught that man is born in Essence, and degrades to their Ego (or personality). Within Essence, we are in touch with our Holy Ideas and our Virtues, but when the connection with the Essence is severed, a regression occurs, and the Ego (or personality) is formed:
We have to distinguish between a man as he is in essence, and as he is in ego or personality. In essence, every person is perfect, fearless, and in a loving unity with the entire cosmos; there is no conflict within the person between head, heart, and stomach or between the person and others. Then something happens: the ego begins to develop, karma accumulates, there is a transition from objectivity to subjectivity; man falls from essence into personality.
As a person falls from their Essence, the disconnection with the Holy Idea creates a person's Fixation, and the disconnection with the Virtue results in the individual's Passion:
An essential individual will be in contact with these [Virtues] constantly, simply by living in his body. But the subjective individual, the ego, loses touch with these Virtues. Then the personality tries to compensate by developing passions.
It should be therefore understood that the identification of a person's fixation or passion (finding one's type) is the first step in a much larger process, in order to reclaim the Essence. To know one's type means to recognize the fall from Essence, and to allow for the transformation which must take place, to reclaim the Essence.
This sounds similar to every Abrahamic religion’s version of “fall from grace”. In the beginning, there was god - god was good and great. Then god sneezed and humans were made, humble snotty shards of god’s light. If we can congeal enough, may, just maybe, humans can reconstitute into their godly nasal passages. Hey, at least it’s not a different orifice!
On a foundational level, I do not accept any teaching that casts humans as broken, downcast, wrong, bad, evil, etc. To start there is to suggest something innately wrong with our life force or our character. I understand why it’s useful for organized religion to seed shame and self-doubt as an organizing principle of enforced power differential, I just have no interest in perpetuating a narrative that’s caused untold harm in the human psyche. In the tradition of Harari, broken man is a meme no longer adaptive for human Thriving.
As a humorous aside, a number of authors (including, but not limited to, the official-sounding Enneagram Institute) note ancient origins for the Enneagram from vastly different corners of the earth. If it’s ancient, it must be wise, right? All hogwash, but a brilliant way to gain credibility for a new construct, if Ichazo’s main student Naranjo doesn’t say so himself. Start around 1:45 for the origin story and listen through to 3:10. My favorite line of the whole thing:
I was reminded of the recommendation from Oscar Wilde: if you want your idea to become famous, attribute it to a famous person. So, at the conference I made up a tale that this information came from ancient sources and Sufis.
I think I’m finally starting to understand - Ichazo had a mystical experience as a kid, went chasing the dragon, then created a new jargon teaching that was falsely attributed to others to gain credibility. It worked! Some Jesuits (makes sense given the ennea-Adam eating apples and bananas with the ennea-Eve) snuck home the promotional pamphlet, shared it with Stanford psychology grad Don Riso who wrote a book and made a splash. Some people latched on, a number of thinkers wanted to rebrand with their own spin, and an intellectual tug-of-war ensued. Some good, ol’ fashioned enlightened infighting led to a uniquely American past-time: litigation. Ichazo lost his copyright case, some free-range authors in the 70s and 80s got synced up with the “New Age” crowd, and a movement was born! Or maybe it was the salad grab bag of Christian denominations who picked the ball back up in the late 90s early 00s and started pumping Enneagram as a path to godliness. Oh, wait, no, the real hockey stick moment happened when the business types figured out how much they could charge to train consultants to charge for this thing …
South American mystic → Jesuit priests → psychologists → New Agers → Christians → corporate team building. Makes sense to me.
Grow as much as you like, but don’t think for yourself
The Enneagram framework, in its entirety, is extremely complex. Ichazo’s version had 108 enneagons that were intricately interwoven into a super heady high. Ichazo sounds like a sharp cat who liked to read a lot, talk to diverse humans, and synthesize ideas from various cultures. I imagine talking to him would be both interesting and illuminating, and he probably came up with some nifty ideas along the way.
The current version of Enneagram that we did through our consultant was a homeopathic dose of vague human potential framing. But the most important thing is not to ask any questions that doubt the foundations of the framework, the assessment, or its implementation. I see why they got along with some sects of Christianity so well!
Of course, iEQ9, the assessment we took, never cites how they define or measure accuracy. And they certainly never explain the design principles, underpinning theory, or anything of substance about their proprietary questionnaire. But watch out - it’s revolutionary! And sophisticated … sexy.
Wading through integrative9’s vomit of psuedo-business psuedo-science psuedo-language is entertaining. By way of example, here is how they explain their “accuracy”:
We measure and test the validity of the iEQ9 robustly across a number of dimensions, enabling us to measure Enneagram type within a 95% confidence interval, backed by qualitative and quantitative data. We draw on feedback from global Enneagram thought leaders, data and independent research studies into the Enneagram constructs, detailed analytics, test panels and large global sample groups, cross-referencing with other typing methods and research partnerships.
… come again?
First, 95% accuracy is not the same as a 95% confidence interval. And to be accurate at all, one has to define a standard of accuracy, a unit of measure, and a methodology to validate that accuracy. One very reasonable place to start, especially with a self-reported questionnaire, is to have a follow-up survey that asks how accurate the participant finds their type, perhaps with some qualitative why or why not follow-ups. Of course, the assessment company didn’t ask and the consultant, though she asked, clearly was not feeding that data back to anywhere other than the black hole of her pre-baked scripts.
Second, qualitative data does not inform confidence intervals or accuracy.
Third, hearing oneself speak at a trade show echo chamber is not corroboration of accuracy or validity.
Fourth, if there is so much compelling research, why can I find only 1 systematic published review that doesn’t start from the place of assuming Enneagram is god’s gift to, well, god I think. Humans can play if they’re not too broken (or too broke to heal their brokenness).
Fifth, Ichazo’s original teachings spoke about traversing the Enneagram types, sloughing the worst and picking up the best of each one, to ultimately transcend the ‘gram. This is a dynamic evolution over time with a climax of graduating from the type-caste system, if you’re radicalized perfectionist or rainbow care bear enough. The current iteration voices over change with muted handwaving, and my assessment had no concept of assessing progress on the growth path. Just slap a number tattoo on your forehead and you’re all set for life.
Well, that was a weird roundabout, and I learned something valuable
I’m an enraptured student of mysticism. Much of my evolving worldview is a techno-futurist approach to ancient mystic teachings.
I see Ichazo’s life work as an unfortunately dogmatic attempt at Campbell-esque cross-cultural overlap analysis and synthesis. I would be curious to read more of Ichazo’s earlier works and teachings if I can ever find them (apparently, he was a fan of oral tradition but then disagreed ardently with his disciples).
On a more pragmatic level, I am appreciating how much people like taking quizzes to categorize themselves into their Hairy Plotter house or True House Wives of Bumblef**k character. Consistently faddy.
The most value I got from the framework writ large is a long and elaborate list of patterns, some of which are often paired. At least, so say the Enneagram consultants / fan boys & girls. As a generative skeptic, I’d like to understand how they validate these patterns beyond god whispering in Ichazo’s ears. I’m all for divine intervention, just don’t hoist your revelation onto me.
Some folks really like Enneagram and feel like it helps them understand themselves, their partners, and their peers much better. A useful tool, whatever its origin, is still useful. I just encourage people to question what they are using this tool to accomplish and whether it’s having the desired impact.
Where this framework can act as a mirror for people to see, and overcome, aspects of themselves that do not serve, I welcome its value. I reject the most central tenet of Enneagram upon which the entire methodology is built - that our very existence is evidence of a splintering from godliness. And no need to throw out the “Take it to 11” baby with the putrid bath water. The work of systematically identifying recurrent think / feel / do patterns that a non-trivial portion of people identify with is hugely valuable. For UTT, I can use these patterns as a pallet of colors to paint a very different philosophical approach to Life and all humanity.
Naturally begs the question: what does a Thriving type look like?
The team at integrative9 responded to my question about their assessment design with this post. The post basically says, to the best of my (limited) statistical knowledge, that they are measuring what they set out to measure and that there is little spillover / miscategorization between the types.
As expected, they did not answer the meat of my question related to how do the questions they ask point to types (the design approach) or how they know if the type feels right to the individual (user validation vs. model validation). On some level, I understand this is their secret sauce. Also, this creates a black box model effect that, given the context and conflict noted above, does not inspire confidence in me.
I heard back from the contact form response and they confirmed that they get feedback about "mistyping" from the consultants but there is no way for me as an end user to offer that feedback directly. I sincerely doubt our consultant shared my misgivings and that solidifies my clarity that there is no effective feedback loop from those who the typing impacts most directly.
Also, in an unexpected turn of events, our company's Head of People (not me) got an email from Dirk Cloete, the founder of integrative9. Dirk suggested that I have statements in this writeup that are factually inaccurate. Thankfully, our people person forwarded the email to me and suggested that as this is my personal blog that this a personal matter. I responded to Dirk offering to connect via a video call to hear him out on what he considers factually inaccurate with the explicit commitment to update where his research and resources convince me of new facts. I appreciate that, even though Dirk read on my website, he did not choose to reach out to me directly so he may not be inspired to reply to my offer. I will update this post if I ever hear back.