Saturday, October 12, 2013

Some Peace and Quiet

It's taken some time, but I've shrugged off much of my childhood shyness.  This change came in part from gaining experience--after all, confidence should follow competence--and in part from the fact that the older you get, the less you give a shit about what anyone thinks.  I had started to feel so at ease in social situations that I was beginning to think that I might actually be a closet extrovert, or perhaps an "ambivert."  That was until I took an introversion quiz.  After answering "yes" to every question ("People tell me that I'm a good listener"; "I enjoy solitude"; "I fear change"), there seems to be no doubt about it.

Hi, I'm Zach.  I'm an introvert.

Being introverted shouldn't feel like something you have to confess, but sometimes it does.  I could relate to the stories Susan Cain tells in her book Quiet and her TED talk, in which she felt shunned at camp if she picked up a book rather than socializing all the time.  She argues that our culture has an "extrovert ideal," where playing well with others is more valuable than having good ideas.  This is a problem because 1/3 to 1/2 of all people are introverts.

It's important to distinguish between shyness and introversion.  Shyness is anxiety.  Even extroverts can be shy--apparently Barbara Streisand is a shy extrovert.  Extroverts and introverts mainly differ in how they react to social stimuli.  Introverts tend to prefer deep conversations and then need time alone afterwards.  Extroverts are stimulated by being the center of attention.  This doesn't mean that introverts aren't social; they're just differently social.

How you recharge your batteries is important for how you should structure your work and personal life.  For example, I try to get to work early to have space to think without interruption.  After any highly social event, like company picnics, I reward myself with time to read or write.  Cain says introverts should have "restorative niches," such as jogs, couches, or bathroom stalls.

Cain rightly emphasizes that many leaders are introverts.  She points to Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Bill Gates, as well as a study showing that extroverts are better at managing passive employees while introverts are better at managing people who are supposed to think for themselves.  Maybe we needed extrovert leaders in a world of salespeople and factory workers, but now, in a knowledge economy, we need introverts who can listen before they act.

Personally, I hope that we'll soon see the end of open office plans and "visionary" executives.  Why should I listen to anyone who isn't ready to listen to me?

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