A Color Wheel for Personality

The Enneagram is a way of dividing personalities into 9 types, sort of like the MBTI. It's totally unscientific, but very much worth learning if you care about understanding people.

The Enneagram feels a bit like the color wheel of personality. Knowing the color wheel gives structure to your observations about color. Anyone can say "these two colors are similar." But only someone who knows the basic colors and their relationships can say "this mixture between orange and blue creates a muddier look, because they're complementary." The latter observation is much more powerful, because it naturally brings to mind all the other times you've seen orange and blue together, even if the resulting color was quite different.

Likewise, the Enneagram gives structure to your observations about people. It's easy to say "Alice wants to be a trader; she must care about money." But someone who knows the Enneagram might say "Alice wants to be a trader; I wonder if that's more about feeling successful (type 3) or wanting power (type 8)?" And then you can start to ask questions like "where else does a desire for power or success show up in Alice's life?"

The real power of the Enneagram comes when you start attaching patterns to each type. For example:

  • People who value power might have difficulty expressing love, because admitting love is at some level giving someone power over you.
  • People who enjoy understanding things might use academics to shield themselves from the complexity of reality.
  • People who have unstable childhoods might be motivated to make a lot of money so their adulthood is more stable.

Starting with the desires and fears of some type, these patterns trace out chains and loops of implication, reinforcement, and suppression, that might cause or arise from those desires and fears.

Then, like the critic who knows the color wheel, you can identify these patterns more easily in the wild. When you notice someone who cares a lot about power, a natural curiosity about their relationship with love will bubble to the surface. When you notice someone who cares a lot about money, you'll feel a curiosity about the circumstances of their childhood. It doesn't always fit, but when it does, it often feels like a big step towards understanding their world.