Aside

Quiet: Understanding & Celebrating Introverts

The last few weeks I’ve been as limp as a lettuce leaf that had stayed a few weeks too long in the fridge.

This is not unusual. It is what happens if / when I do back to back events / workshops/ etc. I end up putting so much energy into the world to be present to others than I am spent. And limp. I then revert to what I sometimes term a phase called “I hate people”. In the “hate people” stance, I get snarky to everything and everyone. As the person closest to me, my husband has witnessed these oscillating waves of behavior of friendly/warm to spent/wornout with a great deal of confusion.

So did I, to some degree.

I like people. I welcome problem solving with teams. I love doing keynotes. Those workshops with Fortune 500 teams trying to figure out their cultures of innovation are amazing to be a part of. Exchanging ideas is best done in person. I love meeting interesting people and learning what makes them tick.

All of that is AWESOME, until it’s not.

All these years, I’ve had the nagging sense that something was wrong with me. I see so many fellow entrepreneurs or executives love to spend entire evenings – week after week – meeting new people when I love to spend a quiet evening reading by myself or having a quiet dinner in my hotel room. I value having a low-key weekend with the family. I feel bad for this. I know that a lot of success depends on being “out there” and all I want to do is be alone or at least, quiet.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I discovered that there was, in fact, nothing wrong with me. (Well, not in this particular way.)

I finally realized that I was taking all the Meyers Brigg and similar tests as what I did, not what I actually wanted. As soon as I took the test with a different lens, I learned I am an introvert (an INTJ) and get energy from being with close friends and solitude, and not from large groups. The concept of being an introvert gave me a new lease on life. In fact, I will tell people about this so they know have some more context. Just because I have social skills does not mean I want to use them in a 24×7 way. I have to pace myself.

At work, most organizations/ teams celebrate extrovert-ness, often rewarding the first one who speaks rather than the one who speaks in a more considered way. We celebrate the vocal ones, when the quiet ones often add more considered ideas. Introversion is not something to be fixed, but something to be understood and then to be included. There needs to be a time for both silence and discussion in all creativity and collaboration work. These are balances that need to be considered for all innovators and innovation.

Susan Cain, wrote a wonderful book, Quiet, on this topic. It provides research and perspective for introversion and extroversion and points out how much we need both. I got a chance to thank her in person recently for writing this book. She has given us introverts a tool to explain ourselves to others.

As Susan says: Solitude matters, and for some people it is the air that they breathe. Certainly for me it is. And that is okay.

Here’s her TED talk on the topic.

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12 Responses:

  1. Charlie. March 29, 2012 at 6:45 pm  |  

    I had many of the same thoughts you outlined at a digital marketing summit I attended last week with thousands of other digital marketers. Often I felt I had to be “networking”, attending after hour parties and generally be someone I’m not to fit in when instead I opted to go back to my hotel room read and be alone with my thoughts. I read Susan Cain’s book on the plane ride home and wished it had been in print years ago.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 29, 2012 at 8:55 pm  |  

      If conferences could understand that big mass rooms of people is not the only way to connect people… we’d make big progress, right? TED, where Susan gave this awesome talk has back to back nights of 1000+ person parties where you have to YELL at one another to get heard. SO painful.

      Reply
  2. Peter Nicholls. March 29, 2012 at 8:40 pm  |  

    A most perceptive blog Nilofer. There is the natural self and the self we project to others. You are not alone. We so often feel that modern living demands us to create a persona that is not the natural self. I relate very comfortably to the true person you describe yourself to be. And I am sure that there are many thousands of other people out there who either secretly or openly share your thoughts.

    I call myself Australia’s People Gardener for a few reasons, the most important of which is that it reflects the real me. I believe life is about developing our natural talents through the pursuit of passionate interests (not just at work) and allowing the true self to blossom to one’s full potential.

    Enjoy being your true self Nilofer :)

    Reply
  3. Oscar Bolanos. March 29, 2012 at 8:47 pm  |  

    I had the same enlightenment while doing a Meyers Briggs Test, and even though I am an Introvert, I have an effective voice when called upon. I created my twitter handled based on my style IntrovertLDR, and after a quick google search, the book “Introvert Leader” popped up, I read it and validated everything I knew about myself, and taught me a thing or two to become even more effective. Just as you celebrate Introverts in your post, I give you kudos for bring up a topic that is not talked about often.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 29, 2012 at 8:56 pm  |  

      Thanks Oscar. I didn’t know of the Introvert Leader book. I’m sure people will value knowing about it…

      Reply
  4. Aprill Allen. March 30, 2012 at 11:20 am  |  

    Great post. I’m an introvert, too. I recently did my first speaking engagement to a seminar room of 100 people. I’m glad to say it went very well. But the next night I slept for 12 hours straight and didn’t stir at all. I can see why now. I was spent!

    Reply
  5. Todd Gorman. March 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm  |  

    Although Susan Cain has rightly been getting lots of attention for her work, and (much to her credit) heavily publicized, too,this whole story was blown open a few years ago in Jonathan Rauch’s pieces for The Atlantic (http://theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/caring-for-your-introvert/2696/). Required reading for anyone who groks this post. Or anyone who is peeved at a party-pooper spouse.

    The truth is that a majority of people are extraverts, plus they are more talkative, therefore more noticeable and influential (and may have larger networks). This dynamic further shrinks the perception and influence of introverts, who are a sizable minority that appears smaller. Still, it’s true that extraverts run the world and it was designed by them (re: your TED complaint).

    [Ahem, INTJs are more likely to be CEOs, however. They build systems very effectively. Walt Disney and numerous other examples. They also don't make such bad presidents: Jefferson, Wilson, Kennedy.]

    There is an old book called Type Talk at Work (http://oka-online.com/2010/06/06/type-talk-at-work/) that has hardly gone out of date because human nature hasn’t changed. Helps everyone harmonize.

    Two final points (that you only allude to): 1) effective management means not only working well with people who are like you, but also types that differ. Whatever you are, you are more valuable if you can work with dissimilar others, rather that just drawing the best from people who are in fact much like you.

    2) Effective management and leadership begins with self-management, which means understanding your tendencies and needs. Acknowledging reality takes on an entirely new dimension in this context.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. March 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm  |  

      Love the additional points — “you are more valuable if you can work with dissimilar others”. Perfect.

      Reply
  6. Linda. March 31, 2012 at 3:32 pm  |  

    Nilofer, now there’s yet another reason why we get along. I felt like I was reading about myself in this post.

    What’s interesting is that I shifted over the last decade from an E to an I. I don’t know if that comes with maturity or confidence in one’s abilities? Maybe both? But I have noticed that I tend to listen more and consider my contributions before I share them. And that being an introvert doesn’t necessarily mean that you are shy. We both know that is definitely not a word to describe either one of us :)

    Loving your posts, Nilofer. Keep them coming.

    Reply
  7. Laura. April 3, 2012 at 9:19 am  |  

    Great post Nilofer!

    The way we gather energy – like rechargeable batteries that need to plug into an energy source from time to time – is an important and often overlooked topic. The MBTI suggests that extraverts are energized by interacting with others, while introverts are energized by quiet time. In truth, we all need some of both, but the ratio of others-to-quiet varies greatly between these two poles. Thanks for pointing out that there is nothing wrong with one way of being or the other, despite our cultural celebration of the extravert.

    On a deeper level, our culture does not yet recognize the significance of energy exchanges among people – yet we can all feel when a conference room has a “bad vibe” following a tense meeting, or when we’re part of a team that seems to be positively “on fire” working together. We are drained or energized by the group’s vibe. Most people are feeling drained these days, and putting ourselves out there invites them to fill up on our energy.

    I’ve learned to pay attention to and honor what feeds my energy and what drains it. This is a daily practice – that long-awaited week in Maui isn’t going to replenish all the energy I’ve lost over the last six months. Alone time and quiet time are great, but they are not enough unless I actively and intentionally use that time to cultivate daily habits to clean, restore and protect my energy. It takes attention each day, yet it’s worth it for what I get in return!

    Reply
  8. Michele Tilander. May 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm  |  

    This identifies many of us who know that while others might label us extroverts, the replenishment we need is the solitude in the air that we breathe. Stolen line from Susan Cains Ted Talk.

    Reply

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