In which I am apparently recognized as an 8, even though none of us has heard of the Enneagram yet.Note: Lots of people who never experienced est consider it a cult or an example of brainwashing. It was neither. No doubt it wasn’t for everyone. But what was behind it was a powerful concept for empowering people to go out into the world and make a difference.
Participation was one of the est keywords. (It’s difficult to make a difference while standing on the sidelines.) After graduation, est trainees were invited to begin participating in two things: the seminar program and the assisting program. Est couldn’t have operated without it’s cadres of unpaid assistants. I recently came across a statistic that at one point there were upwards of 10,000 est assistants worldwide. They were most visible in the training as the people who ran microphones up and down the aisles, handed out name tags, and greeted people or stood at the doors.
I’ve often said that although I hated the experience of the training itself, I would have paid to participate in the assisting program. When you agreed to assist you made a commitment to show up at a certain place and time and to remain on the job “till completion” (during a training that was long after the trainees had gone home). Once you arrived, you parked all of your day-to-day concerns on the doorstep. You were there to do whatever needed to be done and to do it impeccably. You were on purpose. You knew what you were responsible for and who to report to.
People generally worked their way up the hierarchy of assisting positions to get to be supervisors, but I didn’t know that when I was enrolled as a sort of co-supervisor of trainer support for an upcoming training. Before I even had a chance to meet her, the actual supervisor of my team dropped out, leaving me in charge. Probably most other Enneagram types—the smart ones—would have bailed at that point. Or wiser heads would have replaced me, since I had no assisting experience whatsoever. But as an 8, I just kept moving forward. My first weekend, during which I also came down with a cold, wasn’t exactly a disaster, but it wasn’t pretty.
I saw the whole thing as a challenge. The existing protocol for running trainer support seemed out of date and not particularly effective, so I just figured out what worked and then did that. I was given the room to change things, to try something new. The second weekend of that training went much smoother.
TRAINING FOR DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE (OR AT LEAST THE EXTREMELY DIFFICULT)
The primary purpose of trainer support was to support the trainer. Those people worked incredibly hard, often flew in to a particular location just for the weekend of the training, and most were also employed full-time in some professional capacity (doctor, architect, etc.). There were a variety of things our team did, but dinner was always the main event. Of the several breaks during a training day, only one was a meal break. The breaks weren’t determined by clock time, but by where participants were (as a group) in terms of getting the material that was being covered. So you always had a window of a couple of hours to aim for, but you had to stay alert and on your toes because the meal break could be called earlier than expected or it could be delayed—and delayed—and then delayed again.
Nevertheless, we were supposed to have the meal the trainer had requested on the table and at the appropriate temperature when the trainer entered his or her room. It wasn’t sufficient to bring the meal into the room after the trainer had arrived.
Given the variables and the sometimes difficult conditions we operated under (trainings in hotels were much easier than trainings in schools), this often seemed plain impossible. And it probably sounds as if we were being put through a pointless exercise or forced to cater to raving narcissists. But I was truly in my element, maybe more so than ever before or ever since. I assisted for two straight years in various capacities but always doing trainer support, too. After that first weekend of my first assisting experience, my teams and I never, ever, ever missed getting the meals handled perfectly and on time. In est jargon, it worked, and we became semi-legendary (seriously).
YOU MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN
In order to be effective, we had to be present. I’ve engaged in all kinds of mindfulness exercises and practices, but I have never been more consistently present than when I was doing trainer support. I remember one particular instance at a weekend workshop at the Oakland Airport Hyatt where the majority of trainings, workshops, and seminars were held. It was an absolutely beautiful, sunny day—outdoors. I was indoors, standing in the lobby outside a meeting room, “on hold,” waiting for some word or other from the training supervisor. There was nothing for me to do but be there. As I stood there I realized that the moment was utterly perfect. I was completely content and there was nowhere else I wanted to be. Looking back on it now, I think assisting may have been the perfect mindfulness practice for a Doing type.
I was employed full-time as the administrator of an accounting firm during most of my assisting. When I’d go back to work on Monday after 15 to 18 hours total sleep over the previous three nights, I’d laugh at my co-workers who had played all weekend as they complained about being tired. I was never tired. Assisting enlivened me. It empowered me. Being present for hours on end has that effect.
In the long run, what real difference did it make if Neil or Arlene or Michael got fed on time? That was hardly an achievement for the ages. But if you could put aside your considerations and get Neil his meal—still hot, still fresh—two and a half hours after the original estimate for the meal break—or if, as actually once happened, you could pull together meals for nine trainers, which involved locating sushi at 3:00 on a Sunday afternoon, getting Buffalo Wings from across town, and preparing eight very individualized dinner salads (in a location with no running water) on less than an hour’s notice after someone (Werner, I’m talking to you) suddenly switched the bathroom break with the meal break—what else might you be able to do in your own life that seems impossible?
As an aside, all those trainers thought it was impossible, too. They filed into the dining area a little grumpy, figuring there was no way the food would be ready. That was one of the best times I ever had assisting.
Coming soon: Part 3, in which I finally get to the point.