By David Daniels and Virginia Price
Harper San Francisco, 109 pp.
Are you one of those hopelessly out-of-the-loop types (like me) who knows so little about the modern-day tools of self-discovery that when someone says "enneagram," you say, "Huh?" If so, you'll be as shocked as I was to find that all of human nature has been divided into nine basic personality types to be employed in a handy self-analysis tool--the enneagram (the word originates from the Greek name for a symbol with nine points). Descriptions of these nine types have been around for centuries, apparently, and reference to them in one form or another can be found in ancient traditions from Sufism to Judaism to early Christianity.
What's new is that therapists and counselors have begun to use enneagrams, and some employers even use them in business settings. The idea is that if people can understand what core personality trait--like anger or pride or lust--drives and impedes them, they can find their way in a complex world and in the process help themselves live better lives, be better people, or become more successful sharks in corporate waters.
Sounds simple, right? In the hands of Stanford Medical School psychiatry professor David Daniels and former Stanford researcher Virginia Price, it's probably as simple as it's going to get. In their "Essential Enneagram," Prince and Daniels guide the reader through a concise test they've developed for decoding personality types, labeling them, and putting these new insights to work.
Here's how it all works. Step one is to read nine short paragraphs--each one a snapshot of one of the nine basic enneagram types. The paragraphs start with simple statements like "I approach things in an all-or-nothing way, especially issues that matter to me." Or, "I would characterize myself as a quiet, analytical person who needs more time alone than most people do." Then they divulge other, more specific attributes. This part takes a bit longer than your average women's-magazine-pop-psychology quiz; but then again, you're playing with the personality pros. Even so, by the time you reach page 8, you will have narrowed the building blocks of your soul down to three of these possibilities: the Perfectionist, Giver, Performer, Romantic, Observer, Loyal Skeptic, Epicure, Protector, or Mediator. Then you follow the instructions to whittle your choices down to one.
Given that who we think we are often varies dramatically from who we really are, this part can be tricky. To continue, you need to buy one major aspect of enneagram theory: Somewhere along the way, you, me and everyone else on earth lost sight of one of life's fundamental principles (conveniently, there are nine of these, too). Then we each developed a new belief to replace it, say the authors, and the person we've become is the output of our new and skewed belief. So, for each type, Daniels and Price provide a brief description of what they call the "basic proposition"--a description of the lost fundamental belief, what you've come to believe instead, and what personality traits that has caused you to have. Reading through the propositions and deciding whether they ring true are the next steps, then, to decoding the real you.
Let's say type 3--the Performer--is on your short list. You'll read that all Performers forgot that "everything works and gets done naturally according to universal laws." Instead, Performers believe that what gets done depends on personal effort, and that people are rewarded for their efforts, not for who they are. As a result, say the authors, Performers learn to get love and approval by achieving success and maintaining a good image. If this sounds like you, you'll evaluate the characteristics that you developed because of this makeshift belief system--learning where you focus your attention, what you avoid, what causes you stress and anger, how you cope with both, and so on.
So, you might be asking, can you find out you're a Performer and work to become, say, an Observer instead? No, you still have to live with yourself. The idea, though, is to learn to recognize what holds you back and how it makes you behave so that you can lose some of the barriers to personal growth--including spiritual growth.
Many will balk at this cookie-cutter or rule-of-thumb approach to something as complex as human development. Others will find the exercise falls somewhere between entertainment and a useful jumpstart to becoming more self-aware. And no doubt many readers will join the ever-growing bandwagon of enneagram devotees. If you fall into the latter group, you'll want to pay particular attention to this advice: after you've selected your personality type, verify it. Daniels and Price recommend asking someone who knows you well to review your type profile and see if he or she agrees that it fits. And, be sure to do this before following the authors' type-specific instructions for self-development. After all, having a Romantic follow a Perfectionist's instructions for growth and change is akin to mistakenly putting Lucille Ball into Miss Manner's therapy session. And we wouldn't want that, now, would we?