January 17th, 2019

My Interview with Ian Morgan Cron, Author of The Road Back to You

 

IAN MORGAN CRON is a bestselling author, psychotherapist, Enneagram teacher, Episcopal priest, and the host of the popular podcast, Typology. His books include the novel Chasing Francis, the spiritual memoir Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, and The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery. Known for his transparency, humor, and depth of insight into the inner workings of the human heart and mind, Ian uses the Enneagram personality system as a tool to help leaders cultivate self-awareness and emotional wisdom. He is a sought-after speaker, thinker, and advisor to a growing roster of clients such as the Discovery Channel, Ramsey Solutions, and the Michael Hyatt Company, among others. He and his wife, Anne, have three children and live in Nashville, Tennessee.

In the last year I have had the pleasure of getting to know Ian Morgan Cron and discussing various aspects of the the Enneagram with him, in private conversations, on his podcast, Typology, and in one of his courses on the personality system. Ian has done a great thing for the Enneagram by bringing the system to many new people through his popular book, The Road Back to You, which invites people to get to know the Enneagram and how it can help them grow through a beautiful combination of wit, warmth, and gentle wisdom. What I appreciate about his book is it is both fun to read and approachable, but also substantive and inspiring in the way it presents the Enneagram and the personality types. I am grateful to him for allowing me to interview him about his book and his work and our shared love of helping people use the Enneagram for self-development.

 

Beatrice Chestnut:

Can you tell us how you came to know the Enneagram? How did you learn the Enneagram and what did you think about it when you encountered it?

Ian Morgan Cron:

I was in grad school, and I went to a Catholic retreat center. And I just happened on Richard Rohr’s book on the Enneagram, and I can remember thinking to myself, “here I am in graduate school doing a Masters in counseling psychology, and where has this been?” I had just done a year of abnormal psych and statistics, and I’m thinking, “this would have saved some time, you know what I mean?” Then I remember asking a professor about it because I was just riveted. When I asked my professor about it he sort of looked at me like I had lost my mind. He’s looking at the cover and he’s shaking his head. I wasn’t put off, but, you know, I was younger. I was having kids and so much was going on. But I never lost interest. I dipped in and out and read books in starts and stutters, and then went to some workshops. But about six or seven years ago when we became empty nesters, I had more time, and so I threw myself into it.

Beatrice:

What gave you the idea to write a book about the Enneagram?

Ian:

My agent and my publisher were pressuring me to write a book. I had no idea what I wanted to write a book about. And they were calling all the time and when I would see their number come up on the screen and feel panicked. And then one day I pulled up to a stop at a stop sign when I was driving and I thought to myself, nobody has written a book about the Enneagram in that sort of church sphere since Richard [Rohr] did it, in what was it, 1990-something? So I thought, wait a minute, everywhere I went in that world, I heard people talking about the Enneagram.

Beatrice:

Which world is this exactly? What audience did you write the book for?

Ian:

I hate to say “church world,” because I’m a progressive, but I’ve earned trust among people across the theological spectrum. I feel really fortunate. I think it’s because I have empathy across the board for everybody. Anyhow, no one had written a book in [the faith-based] space in a long time, particularly since the faith-based world has become more porous and open to wisdom coming from outside sources. I think many people think that if you’re in that world you must be a fundamentalist, but what they don’t see is that there’s a whole swath of people who have become quite the opposite in the Christian world.

Beatrice:

The Christian world, or people who go to church or have a spiritual focus and have faith at the center of their lives.

Ian:

Yeah. They’re very open. And they’re actually eager. They’re pretty desperate to have a better anthropology, a better sense of what it means to be human—that can be additive to their spiritual journey. They’re not as afraid anymore of something that comes from outside their tradition. They see it more as, “if it’s true, it’s true.” I think it was Luther who said, if it’s true, it must be from God. That’s the basic premise—or maybe it was Calvin. So I had this moment where I thought, there is some open highway down there, six lanes and nobody’s on it. And so I decided to write it.

The goal of it really was to write a primer. It wasn’t to write a deep exploration of the Enneagram. It was to write a book that was entertaining, that was a narrative that would draw people in, so that they would enjoy it. It would give them enough information or wisdom to maybe move a needle in their life without their ever having to move on to another book. Not so much information that they would stop because it was too long or technical, but not so fluffy that they wouldn’t get anything out out of it. I was trying to find that space–accessible, enjoyable, transformational, and a great invitation, like a gateway drug. And if you want to go further, great.

Beatrice:

But if you don’t want to go further, there’s a lot of substance in your book that can really help people, even though it’s an introduction.

Ian:

If it moves the needle two degrees, great, if it introduces you to lots of other stuff that moves it 15 degrees, even better. But either way I’m happy.

Beatrice:

Right. One of the things I like about your book is how much you’ve interwoven humor with the message. I think it’s enjoyable to read because in every paragraph, about everything you say, you’ve said it in a funny way, with a humorous anecdote. And your book has been really successful! You’ve sold over a hundred thousand in one year?

Ian:

I think now about a hundred and fifty thousand now, and I think it’s actually accelerating a little bit.

Beatrice:

It might be tricky to ask a Four this, but what do you think are the reasons The Road Back to You has been so successful?

Ian:

People ask me that, and in a lot of ways, I’m stumped. I wish I could come up with some wonderful answer, but I can only speculate. I think a lot of the institutions that once helped people understand who they were are gone, for good or for ill. Whether it was the church or the boy scouts or the girl scouts, there were institutional, cultural norms and they were uncritically accepted: “This is who you are, this is what you’re doing.” I’m not saying they were all good. I’m just saying they were there. And I think there are lots of people now, millennials and younger people, who are like, “I just don’t actually have any idea who I am.” The issues around identity are so enormous right now. And the conversation isn’t always very helpful or healthy. So I think that may be part of it.

It’s like Brene Brown with shame, that topic seems to show up every 15 years. Whether it’s John Bradshaw and there’s a pause for several years—it’s never old. Next to love shame is like the most powerful force in the universe, but in the wrong direction. I like to say that next to God we’re the greatest mystery we have to face every day. So who doesn’t want to explore? Well, we know plenty of people who don’t want to actually, but I think people are forever desperate to unpack or explore the mystery of who they are in service of better relationships and understanding the meaning of why they’re here and the errand upon which they’ve been sent to this crazy ball in the middle of these galaxies.

Beatrice:

Can you say a little bit about your background for people who may not know you or your work very well? You are both a therapist and a pastor?

Ian:

I’m a therapist and I’m an Episcopal priest. I don’t have a parish, but, I’m still..in that tradition it doesn’t matter, you’re still a priest. I was a songwriter. I’ve written three books. Am I starting to sound like a Four? Lots of speaking and retreat leading. I’ve enjoyed this wonderful kind of portfolio of life with lots of different dimensions to it, but all of them have, in the aggregate… I’ve pursued them in service of helping people and entering a conversation maybe with the mystery of their own lives. And you know, that’s been a really wonderful journey and calling. I feel like, how cool is that, you know?

Beatrice:

Yeah. And it gives you the perfect background for writing a book like The Road Back To You because you have come both from the spiritual tradition of being a priest and also being a therapist and understanding that angle on how people suffer and try to change and heal.

Ian:

Yeah. And as a Four, I do laugh at how the language is suffering is like so second nature to me. So when we’re talking about topics like meaning, like what’s to be gleaned from suffering, all these things—and I mean somebody has to do it, somebody has to be the voice of lament in this culture. Other people get anxiety, other people get joy, I get lament. The Enneagram just became another tool to help people in that conversation. And I love what you say about the Enneagram not being a stand-alone tool. That really stuck to me because I’m with you, I think people who do that really limit themselves. But it sure is a good way to discover who I am and why I’m here.

Beatrice:

Can you say a little bit about your process of discovering you were a Four?

Ian:

Ten months. I was a therapist and a priest and I’m like, “what?” You know, it’s because I’m a Self-pres Four and I understand the limitations of self report assessments, and I like them inasmuch as they help people get into the conversation. Jillions of people—that’s how they got into learning about the Enneagram, so whatever. But every time I take one of those, I come out as a Seven.

Beatrice:

Interesting.

Ian:

Or, I have that ambitious bone, and so there’s that Three side that’s pretty strong, but that motivation, that hidden Four unconscious motivation is definitely…actually it was a phrase from your book that actually dropped the penny. Did I tell you that? I had read I don’t know how many books, and kept thinking, “I don’t know, I think I’m a Seven…I think I’m a Three.” But then you used the phrase, “unredeemable deficiency” and it was like the mic drop, you know, it’s like, boom, there it is. And that’s one of the things I love about the Enneagram, unlike so many schools of psychology where the nomenclature is all stuck, you know, it’s all defined and immovable. There are so many voices—and it can be confusing, but I still like it—all these voices speaking in this vernacular. And so people drop a phrase. And I just tell people, keep reading a book, keep reading different books because someone will…there will be a turn of phrase that will turn the light on, or you’ll hear the tumblers drop—the key goes in, and click.

Beatrice:

I also think it’s natural for Self-Preservation Fours to have a hard time finding themselves in the Enneagram because in many of the books it’s not a type that’s described. I didn’t know about it until I learned the approach to the sub-types that I talk about and write about, which I think is one of the things that recommends it, that you learn about a Self-Preservation Four in a way that isn’t really out there very much.

Ian:

No, it’s not out there hardly at all. And so I do think there’s a whole demographic of Fours were kind of wandering around going, “no one really does understand me…including in the Enneagram world.”

Beatrice:

[laughs]

Ian:

“Oh my gosh, I’m really deficient in some horrible way.”

Beatrice:

Exactly! It’s the worst irony that the Self-Preservation is out of the system somehow.

Ian:

Because I would read about Sevens, and I’d go, “well, yeah…but no, because I’m actually not afraid of bad feelings. I’m don’t like them, but I’m okay with them.” And you know, the Three thing I get, but there’s a lot of it I don’t. I know when I’m working a room. My inner observer goes, “yep, I have to do this right now. It’s not awesome, but they didn’t pay me to be up here and just be like Eeyore up front here, I gotta be a little energetic…they really weren’t looking for Tim Burton to be teaching this class.”

Beatrice:

[laughs] I know that you wrote The Road Back to You with a co-author, with Suzanne Stabile. How did you come to partner with her?

Ian:

She invited me years ago to come and be a plenary speaker at a university in Texas, at TCU. And she’s been teaching the Enneagram in Texas for a good number of years, and I went to a bunch of her workshops and that’s what kind of sparked the idea. And so I asked her when I came up with this idea if she would sort of be a kind of contributing or consulting author, you know what I mean?

Beatrice:

It seems like the book is mostly in your voice.

Ian:

I can’t stand the idea that two people would write a book. You’d feel the speed bump every other page. It’s like, OK, someone just changed the voice. And there’s just no… it’s a great way to make enemies with somebody, write a book with them. But she was very helpful.

Beatrice:

Do you think there’s a particular message that speaks to the Christian audience or the faith-based audience about the Enneagram? Do you think that there a reason why that audience has embraced your book?

Ian:

Isn’t it fascinating? Well, it’s not just Christians, it’s Jews, it’s people from different faith traditions. But this is just perennial wisdom. The beautiful thing about it is you can take it into the corporate world and strip that out and it’s as true there as it is when you bring a spiritual lens onto it. I like a spiritual lens because, well, it’s more me. But I know how to put that aside in service to some other setting. But here’s one thing I say. I think a lot of traditions, and particularly the Christian tradition, are long on beliefs and short on practices. A spiritual journey cannot merely be giving assent to doctrinal propositions or abstractions. You don’t get up in the morning and say, “boy, my life is really going to be changed today by the doctrine of the trinity.”

If you told me there was no trinity, it probably wouldn’t change any of my plans for today. So I think people are in search of a solutions besides “just pray about it.” Or the pastor or priest who has to say, “I’m going to outsource you to a counselor.” I meet so many pastors who say, “now that I have this tool, I actually know what to tell people. I actually know how to work with people.” When a couple comes in for premarital stuff or hey come in for help with their marriage, I now have a tool that is not inconsistent or discontinuous with my beliefs.

Beatrice:

Right. It kind of gives a practical path that goes along with the beliefs.

Ian:

Totally. And the darn thing is so malleable, meaning adaptable. Which, of course, is a good thing, unless you take a too far, which I see from time to time where it’s like, wow, that wormhole is a little too deep. But, I just think people are looking for tools and solutions. And they should be able to go to places like their churches and synagogues to have access to material that is time-tested and genuinely works. Darn it.

Beatrice:

Right.

Ian:

I’m always under promising because I just know it’s always going to overdeliver. It’s fantastic that way.

Beatrice:

Do you still work with people as a therapist at all? What do you spend your time doing these days?

Ian:

Just writing and speaking. That’s it. I would love to start some kind of a retreat or learning center in the Nashville area so I don’t have to keep traveling and bring people like you and others, like Richard or whomever to come and teach.

Beatrice:

One of the complaints people sometimes have about the Enneagram or some books about it is that it sounds negative. They hear what sounds like a critical message about the ego and it’s discouraging.  And one of the things I like about your book is you seem to expect that people might have that reaction and you work against it in a variety of ways. It’s like you keep telling people, “OK, you might not like the sound of this, but…” and then you kind of make it palatable in some way, or you prepare them or tell a joke. It’s almost like you take them by the hand through some of this stuff.

And let’s face it, one of the things the Enneagram is really good at is highlighting the blind spots and the hard stuff. In fact, when I went to the first Enneagram conference at Stanford in 1994, the absolute high point for me was Richard Rohr’s talk. It was on the ancient symbol of the Wheel of Fortune, and he said that Americans are good with the ascent—moving up, feeling good, achieving success—but we’re not very good with the descent—with suffering, encountering the shadow, working through difficult situations, confronting blind spots. And the Enneagram helps us understand the ascent, but it especially clarifies and supports us in navigating the descent, which is an inevitable part of life that many of us want to avoid. And he got a big standing ovation after that talk.

So I want to ask you about the Enneagram as a tool for dealing with the hard parts of life. It relates to something I heard you say in one of your podcasts. You do an excellent podcast, called, Typology, which I really enjoy. And in one of your podcasts you ask the question, “do people really want to do the work?”

And I think it’s true that one of the issues around using the Enneagram as a tool is that people get discouraged when they hear something negative. They don’t want to face the shadow. Did you think about that when writing your book? What do you think about that whole issue we might call resistance to doing inner work? Do people really want to change? And how do we help them see the shadow without demoralizing them before they even start their work?

Ian:

I totally think about it. I’m very conscious of it. Maybe it’s an instinct. I grew up in an alcoholic home, where you’re always anticipating things and trying to figure out how to say this right.

Beatrice:

My rule has always been meeting people’s anxieties right up front. So don’t dance around. Just come right out and say, look, I understand if what I’m about to say really bothers you, but just hang in there with me. You just take an ironic tone. You say, look, this is going to be hard, but we’re going to get through it together. And as an Irish kid, the best antidote to every trauma was a joke. It was always like the Irish author Frank McCourt—just when this thing can’t get any darker he tells a joke and lightens it. The journey to self discovery should involve some laughter. If you get too earnest and serious about it…I mean, there’s a lot that’s funny about us.

Ian:

To approach it in a humorless way is just not helpful. I just don’t think shame is ever going to change anyone for the better. I think compassion is the natural soil in which people change. I try to love the people I write to. I try to love the people I speak to. I’m also always thinking about what people’s objections are as I’m writing. I would think, “I know what a therapist is going to think about this.” In fact that’s the thing that make it so hard to start that damn book—because I kept thinking about that–in those first pages when I was trying to unpack the system, I was thinking about what therapists would think

And I eventually had to rinse it out of my head and just say, well, who cares? I mean, you know, just do it. I have so much personality theory in my head, and sometimes it’s really squishy. I hear the word personality get thrown around and I’m a little bit like, you know, that word means more than you think it does.

I’m always thinking about not just therapists, but objections from anybody. Like there’s the question of “where did it come from? It’s like “I don’t know, in a cave somewhere in Syria, I found with Harrison Ford.” Nobody knows really, but it doesn’t matter. If it’s true and useful it doesn’t matter.

I was at a conference a year ago and there was a research psychologist—so this is a guy who just teaches—he’s an academic. And he came the day after I had done an all-day workshop on the Enneagram. It was a small conference—about 150 peopl—and everybody was talking about. And here’s this research psychologist who is the plenary speaker and he’s really brilliant. But he’s a stats guy, a mainstream psychologist. And he’s looking at me like, “you’re a nice guy and I like you, but this thing just sounds like bullshit.”

And I like him. I don’t take that stuff to heart. I actually think it’s kind of funny when people say this stuff. But his wife came to the conference workshop. And I talked with him last week for an interview on Typology, and I asked him, “are you still a cynic?”

And he said, “I hate to admit it.” And then his wife comes around the corner, and she says,”it has rocked our world.” And he said, “you know, I’m an evidence guy, but anecdotal evidence is still evidence.” And that was so encouraging to me that this skeptical guy with a PhD and a deep, deep background in that side of psychology and psychometrics and everything else. He’s like, well, you know, you can’t argue with what you see works.

Beatrice:

I always remember what Helen Palmer said in her first book, the Enneagram is “self verifying.” It’s like, well, here’s what I’m like and here’s what it says. I’m not with the people who need some sort of scientific validation to support the truth value of the Enneagram.

Ian:

They other way I talk about [the Enneagram] is to say, “look, it’s a watercolor not an x-ray.” Now, watercolors are beautiful depictions. Sometimes I learn more about something from a watercolor than I do from an x-ray—the truth of something. If you look at a Georgia O’Keefe work—talk about a Five with a Four wing—no picture, no camera in the world saw that lily the way you did. So, it’s not an approximation, but one that’s crazy true. It’s like a little bit of a paradox, isn’t it?

Beatrice:

Thank you so much for spending your time talking with me.

Ian:

I love this. It’s helpful to talk. I always find myself learning as I talk out loud. I appreciate your support and your kindness and your contribution to my understanding of the Enneagram and myself.