I'm A Recluse and I Like It
Today, I gave a presentation to all my coworkers. The weird thing is that I actually volunteered to do it. We have weekly lunch meetings, and once a quarter or so, an employee gives a presentation on a book they've read or something they've learned that might benefit everyone else.
There were about thirty people listening. I had twenty minutes. The book I read was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
(If I were ambitious or responsible or something, I'd put in footnotes with references to pages in the book. But since no one ever reads footnotes—heck, no one even reads my blog—I'll just put in an asterisk (*) where I use info from the book. If you really want the page number to one of them, just ask and I'll look it up for you.)
This quiz is from Susan Cain's book. (Actually, the one in the book has twenty questions. I typed it up and handed it out for people to look at.) The more questions you answer as true, the more of an introvert you are.
I scored eleven out of twelve.
What does our culture think of introverts?
The Oxford dictionary says an introvert is "a shy, reticent, and typically self-centered person." Or, "PSYCHOLOGY: a person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things. Compare with extrovert."
Okay, I'll compare with extrovert: "An outgoing, overtly expressive person. PSYCHOLOGY: a person predominantly concerned with external things or objective considerations."
Dang. Can I change my answers? I mean, who wants to be self-centered and mostly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings? There are also studies showing that extroverts are generally happier than introverts.
And then there are the words used to describe introverts: quiet, shy, reserved, reclusive, few friends, aloof, loner. Sound familiar? Like the same words they use to describe the guy who shot up the movie theater in Colorado? Or every other shooter—ever? Reporters paint the same comfortable picture every time: this guy was mysterious. He kept to himself. We never had a clue he would do something like this. (Well, duh. The ones who go blabbing about their plans never get far enough to carry them out.)
We tend to lump serious, real psychological problems with introversion. What if you'd rather stay home and read than go to a party? You're anti-social. You have a hard time making small talk? You're shy or have social anxiety disorder. You don't speak loudly to voice your opinion in meetings? You lack initiative. You burn out or get distracted by a noisy work environment? You're unmotivated or lazy.
Our culture holds extroversion up as the ideal personality type.* Parenting magazines run articles every month about how to cure your kids of their supposed shyness and get them to play with the group. School desks are organized into pods, and kids are expected to work together on everything from math to creative writing. And workplaces are moving the same way. Cubicles? Noooo. We can't isolate our employees in little boxes. That's demeaning. They need to see each other, interact, share ideas and brainstorm!
This is where Mel stops me. (We have an open layout at work, so this was a bit of a jab at the boss, Mel. And no, he didn't stop me.)
It wasn't always this way. Back before the beginning of the twentieth century, self-help books emphasized character instead of personality. Heroes were modest men like Abraham Lincoln, whom Ralph Waldo Emerson said did not "offend by superiority." They encouraged attributes like "citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners, and integrity."*
But then the industrial revolution hit. People moved en masse from the countryside, where they knew all their neighbors, to cities where they were just another body among the throngs. The ones who stood out, who impressed people, and who best made their way in this new environment were the ones who spoke loud. They were the extroverts.*
The ideal shifted away from being a man of character to one of personality. Self help books changed from having titles like Character: The Grandest Thing in the World to How to Win Friends and Influence People. And the new heroes were great salesman. The new qualities you needed weren't even things you could easily cultivate. They were described by words like "magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, energetic."*
And Madison Avenue rode this wave like masters, painting the wares they pedaled as the only way to achieve the personality necessary for happiness and success.*
And today, what do we have? No one is magnetic enough, strong enough, cool enough, manly enough, thin and pretty enough. And the biggest share of the pharmaceutical market is held by anti-depressants and antacids.
Now, I propose that maybe introverts aren't the crazy ones after all. Take, for example, these famous extroverts: Richard Simmons, George Bush, Bill Clinton.
Cheerleaders in general.
Scout camp staff. Now that's a funny one, because I just got back from a week of scout camp, and I could tell a good number of those staff members weren't the extroverts they were trying to be. They'd smile and talk and do their embarrassing and sing their silly songs and it was just killing them inside. But how can you survive on scout camp staff if you don't do that stuff? You wouldn't be a team player. You wouldn't be a good leader. It's not enough to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent, which are all things an introvert can be. Indeed, they're mostly things that introverts excel at. It's just that Scouting has slowly bought into the extrovert ideal over the past hundred years, just like everyone else.
And that's backwards. Reading Cain's book was affirming and all, and made me feel like I wasn't really alone in who I am and what I like, but the very fact that someone had to write a book about how it's okay to be an introvert leaves me feeling separated out.
Now, instead of defining what makes an introvert, let's play “you might be an extrovert if...”
You recently convinced a bunch of people to walk on hot coals and give themselves second and third degree burns. (Tony Robbins)
You were one of those people getting burned.
You wiped out $200 billion of stock value buying AOL because it gave you a dopamine buzz. (Ted Turner*)
You destroyed the company you were supposed to be running. (Jeffrey Skilling*, probably many others)
You got so excited about making tons of money from collateralized debt obligations that you brought the banking system and the entire world economy to its knees in 2008. (Numerous bankers*)
Maybe it's not fair to blame the collapse of the world economy on extroverts. But those bankers made a lot of mistakes—stuff that introverts, who tend to be cautious and risk averse, just don't do, even if it will make them more money. Cain cites numerous studies showing these differences, and how when introverts make a mistake, they slow down and analyze what went wrong. Extroverts actually speed up, looking ahead to the next success.*
Yes, if introverts ran the world, it would be a much safer place. We still need extroverts, of course. But we shouldn't all try to be extroverts. We need introverts to keep things sane.
Indeed, there are entire regions of the world where the extrovert ideal doesn't exist. Asia, for example, tends to hold up quiet dignity and profound respect as the ideal behaviors. They don't see speaking as an end unto itself. They actually worry about saying something stupid.*
Take Finland, for example. How do you know if a Finn likes you? He's staring at your shoes instead of his own.*
(Here, I showed the last part of Cain's TED talk, from 15:30 to the end. The entire thing is embedded below.)
(I skipped this part in blue when I gave the presentation. Time was running short.) What's in my suitcase? It probably won't surprise you to learn that it's writing. I love to write. I love it so much that I don't just do it here, I do it at home. This is my fourth complete novel. I'm currently revising it. I have a fifth in the planning stages. The third is in the hands of literary agents whom I hope will want to try and sell it to publishers.
Someday I'll sell a book, and like Susan Cain I'll have to go out and interact more, speak for groups, do book signings. It's not my arena, but if it's to serve something I love—the stories I write—then I can do anything. The key ingredient is passion. Extroverts are naturally outspoken. They can put their energy into almost anything. They have it easier, in a way. Introverts have to be pushed from within by deep caring. Think of people like Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Gandhi. Find your niche.
These days I'm happy to be an introvert. And I see much of myself in my own children. I want them to grow up knowing that whatever the world around them might say, it's fine to prefer reading to playing with friends. It's okay to be smart. It's natural to want to work alone.
When I interviewed for this job, I remember Paul asked me if I'd describe myself as more of a jock or a nerd. I didn't have to think twice. I'm a nerd. And I knew that was the right answer even after only a few minutes in that old shed. I like working here. I've stayed here and been happy to because of the culture we have here, the atmosphere. We're all nerds, but that's not all we share. We dislike conflict. We think before we speak. We respect each others' thoughts and listen to each other. We're mellow. We're quiet.
And that's an asset.