Saturday, March 3, 2012

Introvert is not a Four Letter Word

I have a confession to make.  I am an introvert.

Some people I've admitted this to have a hard time believing it.  I jokingly refer to myself as a "high functioning introvert" in these instances.  If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  And in a world dominated by extroverts, its best to at least fake it.  

Introverts Just Want to Have Fun...
However, truth be told, I'm the kind of person who gets slightly nervous in social settings.  The kind of guy who has trouble making small talk, and sometimes leaves the bar early because I'm just not in the mood to be social.  I'll usually say it's because I had a long day or I'm tired, because if I gave the real reason, namely that I just need some alone time to think and analyze, I get queer looks from my extroverted friends.

This confusion is exacerbated because I have a talent for public speaking.  I can get in front of a crowd of hundreds, and barely feel a butterfly.  I also love hosting dinner parties as often as I can.  Yet, when faced with introducing myself to a new acquaintance at the same dinner party, uncertain nervousness begins. 

I end phone conversations prematurely if there's an awkward silence because I usually can't think of anything to say.  Sometimes I just want to get back to thinking about something that popped into my brain -- and do so with no distractions.

I secretly usually want at least two other people with me on long car rides, because I know my ability to maintain conversation with one other person for extended periods is limited.  I'm good with silence -- but it unnerves a lot of people.  And that perception of another person being unnerved unnerves me.  Better to have two other people conversing so I can listen, and occasionally tune out to consider what's going on. This is also why I'll tend towards the back seat -- feigned by being polite and offering the other guy shotgun. 

Many people think that being an introvert is some kind of disease.  Especially extroverts.  But I'm here to tell you that I'm perfectly normal; millions like me just operate in a different way than much of our society.

For instance, at this moment, it is 12:30am on a Saturday morning.  A bunch of my friends are out raging in the Gaslamp.  I even contemplated joining them for a bit.  Instead, I've spent the evening catching up on reading I missed over the week and watching TED talks.  Alone.  And frankly, I'm about as content as I've ever been.  Giddy, even, as new ideas and avenues of creativity flash before me. 

I love the overflowing number of books I have in my condo.  The worlds that are within, real and imagined.  Worlds I can play out in my head whenever I want.  Ideas I can escape to and tear apart.  Characters I can converse with and learn from -- all in blissful silence.  

If you've got 20 minutes, I recommend you watch Susan Cain's TED2012 chat about the Power of Introverts.  She sums up the thoughts I've been battling my whole life.

This isnt to criticize extroversion -- far from it.  A world full of my personality type would be quite dull.  The girl who fills many of my waking thoughts is probably one of the most energetic and social people I've ever met.  And I love it.  Most of my closest friends are extroverts.  They're the ones who drag me from my contemplative den, and by the end of the night, I am usually thankful they did.  But they also have no idea how to deal with my occasional withdrawals.

I get asked quite frequently, "are you okay?"  And its usually when I'm in my most blissful state.  They see a pensive, emotionless face and can't imagine anything other than something quite awry.  I really am just fine...

So, what does all this have to do with disruptive thinking?  Nearly everything -- especially since many of our most disruptive innovators had this trait:  Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Bill Gates, Carl Jung.  A society biased towards the bombastic and charismatic would do well to foster other traits as well.

Especially in leading active employees, introverts perform head and shoulders above their extroverted peers:  they are often able to elicit unspoken ideas, and let everyone have their say prior to coming to a decision. Solitary reflection, when used by leaders, can have profound effects on organizational effectiveness. 

Additionally, while group work is quite effective and useful, its also good to understand the creative requirements of introverts.  Sometimes the best ideas come running forth in quiet contemplation.  

We celebrate diversity in nearly all its permutations.   Innovation increasingly depends on leveraging a multitude of interests and the cross-pollination of expertise.  Yet when it comes to personality types, our society prefers and encourages extroversion as the only acceptable interaction.  We can go that route, but we'll lose out on some incredible talent.

I'm more than happy to go out every Friday and light my hair on fire.  Just don't give me the stink eye when I demurely pass occasionally and instead read my Economist late into the night.  Sometimes I just need time to myself to make sense of this crazy world. 


  1. Thanks for this reflective piece Ben, on how being an introvert has impacted your life and your work. I am enjoying Susan's new book and the connections it is providing me with fellow introverts. My story is a similar one to what you've shared working in public education, speaking in public, the enjoyment of entertaining, and the deep need for routine solitude. Keep up the writing and thanks to your parents for sharing this post with me!

  2. Was it that I could weather the potentially awkward silence longer than you could that elicited vocalizations on your part? This fellow introvert always wondered why I was blessed with a seemingly double portion of your words.

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