Something I hear a lot is “you’re very happy/outgoing/energetic”… you catch my drift. A lot of people have probably thought of me as quite extroverted as a result of how I can present myself in social situations, but the truth is I’m actually an introvert. I despise small talk, I usually last around an hour at social gatherings before the social battery runs dry etc. I crave solitude. To quote the wonderful Susan Cain, to whom I owe a great debt for helping me to come to terms with certain facts about myself, “solitude can be like the air we breathe”.
Now, the way I am in conversations isn’t an act most of the time. Sometimes nerves do compel me to seem more excitable than I actually am, but for the most part I do derive a lot of enjoyment from a good conversation and my gregariousness is genuine. However I also need my alone time, and I need a lot of it to recharge my batteries. As a matter of fact, I’m at my best in most respects when I’m alone. I like to work alone in amongst the low hum of conversations going on around me. I like to go to the gym alone where I can get lost in my music and find my “zone”. I like to just be alone because it gives me space to get lost in my head, and that’s something I love doing. I can’t speak for all introverts, but for me I am usually at my best in environments that aren’t exuming stimuli from all directions.
Enough about me, let’s get more to the point. Susan Cain believes we live in a very extroverted society and I’m inclined to agree. I don’t really think there’s much room for debate here. In our education system we’re becoming increasingly focused on group activites with the idea being that better ideas come about through collaborative thinking. I’ve had many conversations with fellow students who don’t necessarily dislike their peers but rather just believe that they work best alone and I think we need to pay attention to these concerns. I’m reading that workplaces are placing more focus on candidates being lively and outgoing for roles that don’t require you to be a bubbly persona 24/7. An emergent belief now is that the best ideas come from collaborative projects, or what Susan Cain calls the “big groupthink”. What I’m trying to say here is that the idea of leading an extroverted life is being increasingly pushed onto people from an early age when actually there’s a lot we can learn from introverts and the kind of lives they tend to lead.
Introverts are more likely to be reflective, to stand on the periphery of social interactions and weigh-up what’s going on before joining-in. Introverts are more likely to think before they speak, and as leaders they tend to focus more on delegation rather than leading the way themselves. Most importantly, introverts are very good at quietening things down and lowering the stress of their immediate environments. I realise I’m generalising here and of course not all introverts will be like this and not all extroverts will be brash in the way I’ve described above, but there’s enough research to suggest we can speak in some general terms about how introverts and extroverts are. What I take from introverts is that there’s a lot of value in solitude and in quietning yourself down and allowing yourself to ease away from the constant stimuli that society throws our way these days. Taking some time to read that book you’ve been meaning to read, to have a long bath, to even remove yourself from an immediate social situation so you can just take a minute to breathe can really be helpful. My alone time not only helps me work at my best but helps me to re-focus, remind myself of my goals, think about how I’ve behaved lately and if anything I’ve been doing is off, and allows me to simply be in the moment sometimes. On the other side of things, being solitary shouldn’t be discouraged. In the average classroom there will be a fairly even mix of introverts and extroverts and it isn’t conducive to a healthy education to force introverted kids into groupwork where they’re likely to be pushed-out by the louder, more extroverted kids in the group. In our workplaces, we shouldn’t focus so heavily on group-based sessions when there’s workers present who are far more adept at producing excellent ideas when they’re tucked away in the intellectually-fertile confines of their own work-spaces. Introverts can teach us that nuance is a great thing. Schools can be better geared-up to maximise engagement from both introverts and extroverts, and workplaces can be structured in such a way where each worker is allocated their ideal working environment. Of course much of this is highly-demanding and I’m well-aware of this. The key thing to think about here is that people work and operate best at different levels of stimuation, and we’d be wise to unlock the potential of our introverts. Just look at the creator of the Macintosh, the intellectual Father of Natural Selection, and the Mother of the African-American civil rights movement.