On Typing: Steve Jobs, Heuristics, and Other Observations

Mario Sikora
Apr 2, 2012
By Mario Sikora

I was intrigued by Peter Zappel’s take on Steve Jobs on Ginger Lapid Bogda’s blog, and while I disagree with his assessment I appreciate Peter’s insights. Peter’s post has inspired this post, not because I wish to argue over Jobs’s type, but because I think it opens up a broader conversation about methodology in assessing Ennea-type.
Like Barry Ahern, who wrote an excellent assessment of Jobs on the same blog, I came to the opinion that Jobs is a Four and have explained my reasoning in other posts. As I wrote in the comment section regarding Barry’s post, I think that how we reach our conclusions is vital. Generally in the social sciences, an academic paper will follow a basic format: identification of the problem, description of the methodology used in analyzing the problem, the results of the analysis, and a discussion of the results. Granted, it’s not fair to hold blog posts to those standards (mine certainly didn’t meet them), but I think that a conversation about methodology in assessing Ennea-type, especially speculative typing of public figures, is needed.

Let’s begin with all the appropriate caveats: It is critically important that people are the ultimate arbiter of their own Ennea-type. Any assessment of public figures is, by its nature, a speculative exercise and any opinions should be held lightly. We don’t know all of the facts or of the internal workings of public figures beyond what they reveal publicly. Any assessment of another person should always be seen as merely a provisional hypotheses.

This raises the question of whether it is even appropriate to make such speculations. Though conflicted, I believe that, done appropriately, it is a good pedagogical tool. Whenever I don’t give examples of the types, my clients ask for examples. If I don’t provide them, they make up their own. I find it is best to provide examples and be very explicit about all the caveats mentioned above.
Before moving on to process, it’s important to talk about accuracy of premises. My main disagreement with Peter is on his view that Jobs can’t be a Four because Fours are generally not ambitious and aggressive business people. Others voiced this view when I blogged about Jobs, and it is an assertion that I think is simply wrong. I know and have coached Fours who are very ambitious and aggressive business people. Fours are just as capable of leading large businesses as Fives such as I believe Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to be, or any other type for that matter. If you want to see aggressive Fours in action, watch some of those fashion reality shows that seem to be so popular on cable.

Maybe Jobs was a Four, and maybe he was something else, but I don’t think we can say that he was not a Four simply because he was aggressive in his business dealings.

On to the bigger issue: what methodology do we use for assessing Ennea-type? Let me emphasize that I don’t believe that there is any one true wayto assess type. However, whatever methodology one uses should have some rigor and consistency to it. It is very tempting for people make an intuitive guess about someone’s type and then seek evidence to confirm that intuition. They make an intuitive assertion and then try to build a case rather than looking at the bulk of the data and forming a hypothesis based on the data. Humans are notoriously prone to confirmation bias–seeing data that confirms an existing belief and non-consciously blocking out data that contradicts that belief. In the sciences (even the social sciences) it is important to try to disconfirm our hypothesis, not just seek to confirm it. (This is what Karl Popper called falsification, one of the foundations of the scientific method.)

Before we can even form a hypothesis, however, it is important to have solid heuristics that help form the hypothesis. Heuristic is a fancy word for “rule of thumb” or “mental model.” Merriam Webster Online defines heuristic as “involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial and error methods.” We have some innate, non-conscious heuristics; others are developed consciously over time. They help us to make sense of the world by providing cognitive short cuts to solving problems we face frequently.

The rigorous use of quality heuristics used in assessing Ennea-type is an area where I think practice in the Enneagram community could be stronger; it is frequently not clear what heuristics people are using to assess Ennea-type. People often seek to divine a broad gestalt about an individual and then try to make a decision as to that person’s Ennea-type. The problem with this is that a broad subjective gestalt is far more prone to confirmation bias than a more structured model.

There are many cognitive biases and logical fallacies that can shape how we perceive someone’s Ennea-type, though space here does not allow me to address all of them. Studying them will make one better at objectively analyzing data. I will mention, however, one that it is particularly important to watch out for: the correspondence bias, “the tendency to draw inferences about a person’s unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situations in which they occur.” (Gilbert, Daniel, and Patrick Malone, “The Correspondence BiasPsychological Bulletin, January 1995 Vol. 117, No. 1, 21-38. It is all-too easy to make an assumption about someone’s type based on one piece of data and then seek evidence to confirm it. We have to make sure that the preponderance of evidence supports an assumption, not that we are building a case on a hasty generalization of a single or few apparent facts.

Once a model is decided on, it is much more rigorous to evaluate the data in light of that model than it is to cherry pick random data sans defined method and then draw a conclusion. An academic paper in the social sciences that did this rather than describing and following a clear methodology would be rejected out of hand. Again, this is not to assert that there is only one correct way to assess Ennea-type or that a blog or article on someone’s Ennea-type should be held to the same standards as an academic publication, but anyone assessing people, should use someclear and consistent heuristic.

For example, the classical vices are one such heuristic. If one were using the Enneagram of vices as their preferred heuristic, they could analyze the data regarding Steve Jobs in light of the nine vices and, based on that analysis of the broad data, form a hypothesis. Using the vices, for example, I would immediately rule out Jobs as a Seven because gluttony does not seem to be an issue. In fact, when Jobs returned from exile to Apple he famously cancelled most of the product development initiatives and took a “fewer is better” approach–the opposite of gluttony. Likewise, the vice of lust does not show up much in the literature about Jobs. Envy, on the other hand, a jealousy about recognition and credit, do show up frequently.

So, using the heuristic of the vices one might reasonably hypothesize that Jobs is a Four, but then we would want to pick another heuristic and see if it disconfirms the hypothesis. Let’s take the Holy Ideas–does the idea at point four, Holy Origin, disconfirm the hypothesis that Jobs is a Four. No, and it is much more consistent with the data than either Holy Joy (at Seven) or Holy Truth (at Eight).

Being an executive coach, I don’t use the vices or holy ideas with my clients–it’s language that can be too distracting in that environment. When Bob Tallon and I were writing our book, Awareness to Action, I was deeply immersed in Claudio Naranjo’s book Character and Neurosis. In it, Naranjo refers to the Ennea-types as “adaptational strategies,” a term that I couldn’t get out of my mind. One definition of strategyis “an adaptation or complex of adaptations (as of behavior, metabolism, or structure) that serves or appears to serve an important function in achieving evolutionary success.” It is a good, corporate-friendly word, and this concept of Ennea-types as strategies seemed to be a useful and fundamental heuristic. Bob and I began to see the Ennea-types as manifestations of nine strategies for adapting to the world, an affective state that served as a pattern of problem solving and influence the way we think and behave. We spent two years analyzing hundreds of clients, friends, and family members and finding language that we thought accurately represented a shared strategy for each type.

When I am assessing someone, I analyze the data and see which strategy it seems indicative of. I hold traits lightly (different types can exhibit similar traits) and I try not to assume too much about internal motivations because motivationis a pretty broad term and I’m reluctant to assume too much about another persons inner states. It could be argued that the strategies themselves, the “striving to be _____” Tallon and I wrote about is itself a motivation, but I prefer to focus on observable behaviors and infer a strategic theme from them rather than assume an internal condition when assessing type. (The motivational aspect of the strategies is much more useful when coaching clients, however.)

In Jobs’s case, the data seems to fit the strategy at point Four of “striving to be unique” for reasons that both Barry and I have already written about. I don’t believe that a case can be made as strongly for the Seven’s strategy of “striving to be excited” (Jobs was widely viewed as introverted, shy, and serious), or for the Eight’s strategy of striving to be powerful (yes, Jobs was powerful, but there is little evidence that shows he sought power for its own sake). There is a lot of data that could make one consider the One’s strategy of striving to be perfect, but Jobs’s perfectionism tended to be focused on the aesthetics of the products rather than a general and super-ego driven perfectionism.

So, based on the heuristic of the nine strategies, my provisional hypothesis would be that Jobs was a Four. My next step would be to test the hypothesis against a second heuristic, and my second heuristic is usually a set of behavioral derailers. Jobs’s behavior seemed consistent with the derailers of the Four, as I pointed out in my original March 5th blog. The derailer heuristic did not disconfirm the hypothesis, but would have disconfirmed my hypothesis if I thought Jobs was a different type.

I’ve conducted hundreds of 360 assessments on my corporate clients over the years. My preferred method of conducting a 360 is through verbal interviews with the raters rather than through online or written assessments such interviews help me home in on exactly what the critical derailers are hampering my clients. Through the years, patterns have developed around the assessments of people with shared Ennea-types and the lists of common derailers appear in an appendix of “Awareness to Action” (that list is also available here).

When I have my initial assessment meeting with a client, I develop a provisional hypothesis on their Ennea-type, but then I try to falsify that hypothesis as I conduct their 360. That is, I look for the patterns of derailers that show up in the feedback and see if they contradict my initial assessment. If so, I re-examine the data in light of the new evidence.

Once, for example, I met with the general manager of a $1bn-plus business unit of a Fortune 500 company. Bill was charming, outgoing, immaculately dressed, and accomplished. He handed me his resume at the outset of our meeting and proceeded to walk me through all of his accomplishments. He was based in Asia and he regaled me with stories of all of the politicians and local business leaders he regularly encountered. Everything pointed to him being a Three, someone “striving to be outstanding,” and I left our meeting convinced that that was his Ennea-type. I shared my thoughts with him, pointing out that they were provisional, asked him to read about the Three in the book and said we would discuss it further after the 360.

As I conducted his 360, however, a new picture emerged. The overwhelming characterizations of Bill from those who worked with him were that he was conflict averse, indecisive, and imprecise in his direction to his team. He was repeatedly referred to as “a people pleaser.” On first impression he had the appearance of a Three, but the reports on the long-term pattern of derailers clearly matched the typical derailers of the Nine. It occurred to me that Bill seemed to fit a pattern I had seen before—Sexual Nines who look like Threes on the surface but are simply Nines with an extra focus on polish and presentation caused by the instinct.

(I think a solid understanding of the instincts is critical in helping to make fine discriminations about type but, again, space constricts the scope of the conversation.)

When I next met with Bill, we spent some time exchanging pleasantries and I was about to say that I thought I mistyped him when he said, “I read your book on the plane, and I don’t think the description of the Three fits me. My wife also read it and she didn’t think it fit either.”

I told him that I had doubts about my original assessment as well and asked if he saw another type that fit.

“Yes,” he said, flipping through the book before landing on Type Nine. “This one.”

“And my wife agreed.”

Even a pretty good heuristic will sometimes fail, which is why it is important to be provisional in the initial hypothesis, look for disconfirming evidence, and address the assessment from multiple angles.

The Strength of Our Heuristics

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

George Box, statistician

I start all of my Enneagram trainings with this quote, not because I think the Enneagram is flawed, but because I think it is limited. All models ultimately break down because, as the saying goes, the map is not the territory. All maps are only representations of a particular phenomenon. Any attempt to improve the detail of a map ultimately reaches a point of diminishing returns in terms of utility. What good would a 1:1 scale map of the state of Pennyslvania be, for example? If I have to drive from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, I want a map that I can fold and put in my pocket, one that has enough details to be useful but not so much that it becomes unwieldy. (Yes, I know, I would actually rely on the Google Maps app on my iPad, but let’s play along with the analogy here.)

In fact, when we talk about the Enneagram as a map of character (to use Naranjo’s word), we are really talking about a number of interlocking models—“classics” such as the vices and virtues, holy ideas, fixations, etc.; but also more recent innovations such as various groupings into triads or the model of strategies that Tallon and I constructed. I would even go so far as to put the idea of each type having two wings in the category of relatively recent innovations. (Perhaps Peter’s assertions about “binary types” and “ennea-fields” are also examples of heuristics but since I’m not familiar with his hypotheses on these, I can’t say for sure.)

Using multiple Enneagram-based heuristics when assessing type, as in the examples I provided above, will improve the accuracy of assessment because they can support or disconfirm an initial hypothesis. Like the blind men trying to describe the elephant, each piece gives us a greater picture of the whole.

We have to be careful, however, and make sure that our heuristics have strong empirical support and are not largely theoretical constructs in search of confirmatory anecdotes. Having too many Ennea-heuristics, especially if they are too tightly held or not empirically grounded, creates an environment very prone to the correspondence and confirmation biases.

I think the discussion of Jobs is a good example here of people holding their heuristics too tightly; some think that he can’t be a Four because Fours are a “withdrawn” type and a “heart” type. A simplistic and theory-driven view of these heuristics would naturally lead one to the conclusion that Jobs can’t be a Four; empirical data (witnessing actual Fours who are aggressive business people) would make one see that the reality is more complicated than those heuristics may imply.

Once this idea of Fours is firmly planted in one’s mind, it is possible to start grasping at pieces of other heuristics to confirm one’s view: “Jobs is clearly creative, innovative, and obsessed with aesthetics, but since he is not a Four, perhaps he is a Seven; but since Sevens are generally have a much lighter affect he must also be an Eight or some other combination of types.” Such approaches feel like an intuition in search of a theory rather than hypotheses drawn from an objective analysis of the data and then tested by a rigorous methodology.

It is easy to create new heuristics when our existing heuristics are either not applied rigorously or used in an effort to explain something they shouldn’t be used to explain. The Enneagram, with its visual power, its roots shrouded in romantic legend, and its versatility, is particularly suitable for experimentation and speculation. Thus, it is particularly important to ensure that our heuristics are grounded on strong empirical observation, use in the real world with real people and with a solid understanding of the fundamentals. Innovation is great, but the vast majority of innovations (appropriately) end up in the scrap heap.

Because I work primarily in organizations, where attention spans are short and skepticism is high, I have learned to be ruthless in trimming away concepts and models to those that seem to have the greatest accuracy and explanatory power for the environment. I rely on three basic heuristics: the strategies and derailers that I described above, and the instincts. I will on occasion, oddly enough, invoke the vices, virtues, and holy ideas with the right audience, but I almost never discuss wings, centers, or various triads. These choices of models may not be the ones that work for others and in other environments, and others may find different models more useful.

The specific models that one uses is not the point, however. The important point is that when working with the Enneagram, especially when speculating about someone’s Ennea-type, one’s models need to be rigorous and empirically grounded and that we should try to be methodical in our use of the models. We should watch out for correspondence and confirmation biases. We may end up with different conclusions on occasion, but in the long run we will be more accurate and we will elevate the field.

When writing about the types of public figures, it will help readers evaluate the conclusion if they understand the methodology used to get there, and rigorous methodology will make the case even stronger. It will also help people new to or skeptical of the Enneagram see that assessments are not being done frivolously.

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