Friday, March 28, 2014

introverts


First, let me say just how much I love to read. I remember going to story time at the library when I was a toddler. Mom even took me to both the town and city library story hours. Hey, they were free. When old enough to check out books myself, I would plow through stacks of them. In middle school, I dove into non-fiction and have never quite come up for air since. Sure, fiction is fun sometimes (especially when set in a different culture or historical time), but I want to read about real stuff.

Back to toddler-hood for a moment. I was an only child back then (until I was 10), and apparently shy enough that I failed nursery school. There were so many kids there that I didn't know quite what to do, I guess. I did excel at playing quietly by myself, though. In school, I preferred to sit in the front of the class. I was still shy, but sitting in front meant I didn't have to see all the other kids and I could pretend it was just me and the teacher. Ok, it also might have been the nearsightedness. I have since learned to participate in discussions, lead groups and speak publicly, but these roles didn't come naturally.

I still spend the bulk of my time in solitary pursuits. I like having other people around, I just like to be doing my own thing. The things I love to do every day: walk, yoga, read, write at coffee shops, stitch on tiny quilts and cook are pretty quiet. I also like to bike, hike, ski, and sail. None of these activities are particularly social. It's not that I avoid people, I just have to remind myself to seek them out. I'm very lucky to have a companion that plays quietly by himself, too.

I first happened on the TED talk by Susan Cain about introverts and really enjoyed it. She validated a lot of what I already knew about our kind of folks. So, when I saw the book on sale on Power Reads, I clicked. 

It's a very enjoyable read, her style keeps the facts flowing and the analysis and interpretations are right in line with my gut instincts. Especially interesting to me is the discussion on creativity and introversion. According to Susan, many inventors and artists are introverts. Problem solving and designing can pretty much take over my entire brain if I'm left alone. I may not produce many solutions, but the thinking part is addictive.

Another point she makes about group collaboration also hit close to the mark for me. I spent my working career at one of Fortune's top 10 companies. Ms. Cain speaks of the bias that US corporations have for extrovert personalities. We actually had to rate candidates for employment on their "energy level". Yet many introverts, who may not exhibit much "energy" in an interview, may be more productive and valuable employees. She also discussed group collaboration techniques, such as brainstorming sessions, team assignments and open office plans as endemic in US corporations. She then presents research that proves those methodologies actually don't produce results as well as letting people have space and time to work on their own. Thankfully, I left my company just as the walls of my office came down, making way for 40 people to sit in open cubicles all day. The introverts on our team spent time finding places in the library or down in the labs to work quietly. The extroverts just talked all day.

Ms. Cain then discusses several characteristics of introverts, from our sensitive physiology, to blushing, to our risk-averse behavior. She uses historical examples of introverts in science, politics and art. She takes the reader on a journey to other cultures where quiet and the characteristic studiousness of introverts is revered, unlike the extrovert-enamored US. 

Reading this is helping me to understand how much of my nature is shared with other introverts: things like feeling uncomfortable wearing costumes, wishing to avoid arguments, and needing restorative solitude time. I always wondered why I was interested in the occasional leadership position (yet embarrassed to have it mentioned). Turns out introverts can excel in leadership roles because they are often trying to make something work the way they envision it. It's not about leading the people, it's about the leading the processes.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore a deeper understanding of personality types, on the continuum from introverted to extroverted. It has certainly made me more mindful of people's differences and strengths.