Three-ness Gone Wild! Success and Achievement as America's Top Values

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sign saying If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut has a character describe the particular American loathing of poverty: "Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: 'If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?'"


The American Dream is to make it, from nothing to everything. America was founded on the notion that inherited wealth and privilege are bullshit. The capitalist system theoretically allows anyone to rise, through hard work and intelligence. Born in a log cabin, Lincoln worked building rail fences and went on to become the greatest president the country ever had. Horatio Alger wrote best-selling stories about boys from humble beginnings who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and became respectable. Pretty much every episode of The Honeymooners hinges on Ralph Kramden pursing a scheme to get rich, or somehow get ahead in life. Success is proudly worn by the successful, living, striding examples that anyone can get there and that when they do, it's right and proper to bask in the glory of it all. And if you haven't made it yet, you should be working to get there. Right now, lazybones!


type three - femaleType Three


This ethos corresponds very directly with the Enneagram personality system's Type Three, variously referred to as the Achiever, the Performer, the Status Seeker, the Paragon, the Motivator, the Best. Threes are ambitious, driven to reach the highest heights in their careers, completely comfortable standing in the spotlight as the epitome of what a person can be. Threes are confident. They know what they want, and they go for it. And they usually get it. They feel they deserve the best in all categories: job, spouse, car, house, clothes, food, and they take it without fear of being told they're rising above their station. They know they're worth it. They're image oriented. Appearing perfect is just as important as being Type Three - maleperfect. And if you aren't actually perfect, the image will do. As Buddy King, the thick eyebrowed real estate "king" in American Beauty says, "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times." Threes are also adaptable, ready to adjust themselves and their strategy if they aren't succeeding. Whatever it takes. Just reach that goal. These are the traits of Threes in the Average to Unhealthy levels of personal development. A highly evolved Three, as we'll get to later, looks much different.


All of the aforementioned descriptions can also be applied to American culture in general. America prizes and encourages Three-ish values, talents and priorities. People of other types are encouraged to emulate Threes (none of this nudging and hectoring done using Enneagram terminology, of course). And nowhere is this tendency more fervently on display than in the exhortations of the motivational speakers, self-help authors and megachurch pastors who espouse Positive Thinking, a realm excellently explored by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Brightsided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009).


(Ms. Ehrenreich never refers to the Enneagram in the book, by the way. Indeed, she voices great suspicion of it in her book Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (2005), when she encounters the system in her incognito job hunting in corporate America. But the ideas she presents in Brightsided fit so well into Enneagram patterns I felt inspired to look at the book through that lens.)


The Image of Success


As mentioned, Threes are success oriented, and success stories abound in Ehrenreich's examination of Positive Thinking. She attends a National Speakers Convention in San Diego, and describes how motivator Chris Widener tells of having been an "out of control" thirteen year old, but he'd recently bought his dream home, complete with a weight-Lakewood Megachurchlifting room, wine cellar and steam bath. A St. Louis Dispatch article about Televangelist Joyce Meyer begins: "Joyce Meyer says God has made her rich. Everything she has came from Him: the $10 million corporate jet, her husband's $107,000 silver-gray Mercedes sedan, her $2 million home and houses worth another $2 million for her four children -- all blessings, she says, straight from the hand of God." Pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen have taken the former stadium of the Houston Rockets as their church, boasting a paid staff of three hundred. Joel graciously doesn't take a wage from the tithes he solicits from his forty thousand weekly parishioners and millions of television followers, as he lives on the royalties from his multimillion selling autobiography and other books. In Your Best Life Now, he describes his initial reluctance to acquiesce to his wife's demands that they move into a big and "elegant" house: "Over the next several months, she kept speaking words of faith and victory, and she finally talked me into it.... I don’t believe it would have happened if Victoria had not talked me into enlarging my vision. God has so much more in store for you, too." The repeated message is clear: look at what a success I am. Follow my advice. Buy my stuff. Be like me. And you'll succeed like me.




Ladder, representing SuccessThrees are driven, and they make it clear that success doesn't just happen. Ehrenreich quotes Tony Robbins: "When you set a goal, you’ve committed to CANI [Constant, Never-Ending Improvement]! You’ve acknowledged the need that all human beings have for constant, never-ending improvement. There is a power in the pressure of dissatisfaction, in the tension of temporary discomfort. This is the kind of pain you want in your life." Speaker and author Jeffrey Gitomer relates having watched the motivational film Challenge to America more than five times a week for a year, and reading and rereading Napoleon Hill's book Think and Grow Rich! obsessively with his colleagues at the marketing firm Dare to be Great: "Each person was responsible for writing and presenting a book report on one chapter each day. There were 16 chapters in the book, 10 people in the room, and we did this for one year. You can do the math for how many times I have read the book." Most importantly, self-improvement involves training one's mind to always have a positive attitude, a task M. Scott Peck refers to as "a continuing and never-ending process of self-monitoring."




woman with four arms, representing adaptabilityThis reshaping of one's inner landscape fits with Threes' adaptability. A Three will consciously or unconsciously adjust herself to the demands of her situation, faking it till she makes it if necessary. Gitomer's obsessive watching and rereading paid off after an initial period of fruitlessness: "Friends would ask me how I was doing, and I would extend my arms into the air and scream 'Great!' Even though I was crappy…. One day I woke up, and I had a positive attitude … I GOT IT! I GOT IT!" The great bible of the field, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), says: "A show of interest, as with every other principle of human relationships, must be sincere." Presumably the onus is on the person who wants to win friends and influence people to find it in herself to feel sincerely interested in whatever the person she's speaking with has to say. Or to simulate interest convincingly enough to fool even herself.


But What Does It All Mean?


Ehrenreich offers a poignant critique of this relentless positivity: it's hollow. Nowhere does any motivational speaker  recommend learning "hard" skills that would widen a person's abilities, knowledge and hireability. Attitude Changes Everything - with a smiling faceThe megachurch pastors don't tell their followers to give to the poor, transcend their egos or rally their efforts for social justice. Instead they tell people to "Keep a good attitude," "Don't get negative or bitter," "Be determined" and "Shake it off and step up." In an astounding passage, Ehrenreich describes attending the Osteen's celebration services (two on the same Sunday) for Victoria's recent victory in court after being sued for assaulting a flight attendant who hadn't immediately cleaned up a stain on the arm-rest of Victoria's first class seat for a flight to the ski resort town of Vail, Colorado (the flight attendant was helping other passengers board at the time). Joel opens the service covering his face with his hands, then rubs them vigourously with a handkerchief, appearing to cry or have been recently crying, although no tears are visible in his enlarged image on the stadium/church's massive video screens. He tells his congregation "It's not just a victory for us… It's a victory for God's kingdom." But how? How is the world a better place because of Victoria's triumph over a flight attendant? What kind of a lesson is imparted? And don't their followers mind that Joel was faking crying? Did they notice? Does it occur to any of them to question their shepherds' message? Or would they tamp those thoughts down as soon as they voiced them in their minds, not wanting to be "negative"?




self deception - as symbolised by a woman removing a maskFundamental to the psychology of every Enneagram type is a fundamental misperception, a survival strategy adopted early in life - known as that type's "ruling passion." Joel Osteen's performance fits perfectly with the ruling passion of Threes: deception. Threes aren't necessarily deceptive in a deliberate, malicious or manipulative way - although they might be. But more often a Three will effortlessly convince herself she really is the perfect image she's presenting to the world. It's highly doubtful Joel Osteen is thinking "what a crock of shit I am" as he simulates crying for a stadium full of people, two shows a day. I'm sure part of why he can convince millions of his sincerity is because he's convinced himself. And he is a massive success, after all. In a culture that values material success above all else, his empty message gets swallowed whole by millions who thirst for their part of the American Dream.


When Threeness Just Doesn't Fit


So Three-ness spreads. Not to everyone, of course, but to many. People of all nine types. Who then try to adapt themselves, like a Three, into being a Three. They buy the books, the tapes, the CDs, the DVDs. They attend the seminars and workshops. They construct vision boards. They repeat the mantras. They do A Key laid over the word Success on a piece of papereverything they're supposed to do. And it just doesn't work for everyone. But they're told the only obstacles in one's quest for success are mental. If you're not succeeding, you're just not trying hard enough. You need to REALLY REALLY want it! So people redouble their efforts. And again, it doesn't work for everyone. Because not everyone's a Three!!


So they grow more miserable and powerless. Ehrenreich quotes from a study of flight attendants by sociologist Arle Hoschild which finds them stressed and emotionally depleted from having to be cheerful and happy all the time. "They lost touch with their own emotions" says Hochschild. Ehrenreich relates meeting jobless white collar workers who had swallowed their downsizing meekly, one of them telling her with "quiet pride": "I've gotten over my negative feelings, which were so dysfunctional." Workers who've swallowed Positivity's message have traded any possibility of actual power - by protesting, working for political change to reform the system that discarded them, or getting retrained - for an imaginary power that tells them they control the universe.


The Negativity of Positive Thinking


But the regimen of Positivity is actually very cruel and demanding. Ehrenreich points out that Positive Thinking grew at least in part as a reaction to the Calvinism that formed the mental and spiritual backbone of America's earliest settlers. (Calvinism relates to the Enneagram's Type One: stern, authoritarian, action-focussed and morally upright to the extreme.) Sin was the bogeyman in those days. People monitored themselves for sinful thoughts. Sinners were denounced, even ostracized. Pleasure was extremely suspect. Life was toil and hard logo for Positivitywork. To be miserably strict with oneself and others was to be virtuous. Positive Thinking threw out the sternness of this approach, but retained the dictum of never-ending inner monitoring - but for "negativity" instead of sin. So the smiles of positive thinkers mask an inner experience just as rigid as any fire and brimstone pilgrim's. And this provides a frightful image of unhealthy Three-ness, working furiously all the time to maintain a facade of perfection, as a person becomes more and more distanced from their actual opinions and desires. And this ethos spreads through the success-worshipping culture to people of other types, who realign their values and are shamed for not being all the things successful Threes are.


In my utopian vision of a world where the Enneagram is widely known and accepted, it would be understood that all nine types differ, and each has its own legitimate path to fulfillment. Think of the joy of a musician who's hit a streak of perfect notes while improvising, or the thrill of a collector of rare books who stumbles upon a prized specimen, or a caring friend who's there for someone who really needs them. Each type has their own sources of satisfaction, and no one gets closer to achieving happiness by contorting themselves to fit another type's ideals.


The Power of Negative Thinking


In When the Body Says No: the Cost of Hidden Stress, Dr. Gabor Mate recommends the "power of negative thinking" to a patient who's bewildered that he's developed cancer despite his relentless optimism. Mate admits his phrase is tongue in cheek, and explains that what he's really advocating is simply "thinking." But when you qualify the word "thinking" with the word "positive" you deliberately blind yourself to anything you perceive as being "negative." But genuine positive thinking begins when you can take in all of reality. It's when you trust yourself to face the truth, whether it's the truth you want, or not.




Part of a Three's development toward greater health is to move past deception into authenticity. In the best of circumstances, healthy Threes display the positive characteristics of Type Six - the Loyalist. As Riso and one blue marble amidst black marbles, symbolizing authenticityHudson describe in The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Threes shift their efforts from sustaining their image to "the real desire to support something larger than themselves." They build their sense of worth in genuine ways. "Communication becomes simple, sincere, and direct - there is no need to dazzle people."


Gabor Mate echoes this recommendation for moving past our personal, ego-driven goals in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction: "In our own hearts most of us know that we experience the greatest satisfaction not when we receive or acquire something but when we make an authentic contribution to the well-being of others or to the social good, or when we create something original and beautiful or just something that represents a labour of love."


A culture that allows people to be who they are and actualize their talents and interests, and which also featured Threes expounding their fellow successes to use their status to embody selflessness, compassion and service to our fellow human beings - this could build an awesome civilization far outstripping anything the Positivity industry has ever promised anyone.


End Note:


If you're a Three and wonder how to reach this much desired state of Authenticity, check out this page: Personal Growth for Enneagram Type Threes at the Enneagram Institute's website. The Enneagram Institute was founded by Don Riso and Russ Hudson, two of the leading names in the field, and coauthors of the aforementioned book The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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  • Comment Link Chela Friday, 18 February 2011 19:10 posted by Chela

    This is awesome TJ! I love the enneagram articles you've been posting, keep em comin'!
    I have been noticing more and more, with clients and friends just how much positive thinking and feeling like they 'should show up in a particular way in the world' totally takes them out of the emotional experience of what is really happening. There seems to be a mass dissociation from our emotional lines and I can see it in my own development. Moving away from positive thinking and beginning to own our WHOLE experience is a much richer move in doing real work on oneself as opposed to simply trying to get somewhere.
    I applaud you. Thanks!

  • Comment Link Marjorie Friday, 18 February 2011 22:44 posted by Marjorie

    A dose of reality. Thank you.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Saturday, 19 February 2011 21:12 posted by TJ Dawe

    It's possible someone reading this article and the other one ("Positive Thinking Won't Save Us") would get the impression that Barbara Ehrenreich (and by extension, me) is against all forms of positive thinking, or even happiness, and this isn't the case at all. She wrote another book that's a history of collective joy - and not a dry history, but an extrapolation of how cultural celebrations are an essential part of how we evolved as a species and that we need them now more than ever.

    I'll be writing an article about that book soon, by the way. And plenty more Enneagram articles too.

    But here's a passage from Brighsided's concluding chapter, which points to what you mention, Chela, and it's Barbara Ehrenreich's argument not against positivity, and not for negativity, but to see things as they are:

    "In this moral system, either you look on the bright side, constantly adjusting you attitude and revising your perceptions - or you go over to the dark side.

    The alternative to positive thinking is not, however, despair. In fact, negative thinking can be just as delusional as the positive kind. Depressed people project their misery onto the world, imagining worst outcomes from every endeavor and then feeding their misery on these distorted expectations. In both cases, there is an inability to separate emotion from perception, a willingness to accept illusion for reality, either because it 'feels good' or, in the depressive's case, because it reinforces familiar, downwardly spiraling neural pathways. The alternative to both is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things 'as they are,' or as uncolored as possible by our feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity - the change of great happiness as well as the certainty of death."

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