Power of the introvert

The extrovert is the superhero of our society. Adorned in a wave of charisma and slouchy high heel boots, she soars fist-first into social interactions small and large (board meetings, baby showers, wine tasting competitions), deploying her powers of enthusiasm and assertiveness through elegant physical gestures and vocal cues that leave her audience thunderstruck (and possibly pant-less). She takes pleasure in and gains her powers from the smiles and laughter of the people she’s around. As the High-Queen of collaboration, her primary weaknesses are solitude and white wine. Everyone wants to be her. Society worships the ground on which her boots click.

Hesitantly playing the role of the unappealing sidekick, the introvert doesn’t care much for large, loud social interactions, unless those interactions only include a few close friends, not mobs of strangers gabbing about seemingly vapid topics (like the time the girl in stilettoes tore her ACL dancing to “Gangnam Style”). While the extrovert recharges her powers through social stimulation, the introvert gains strength and creativity through quietness and solitude and thus sits alone, observing the actions of the crowd and analyzing the situation before he participates. Because of his aloof demeanor, his preference to thrive outside of the group, he is paid no mind. He seems shy; no one wants to be him. By society’s estimation, his decision to be alone is akin to volunteering for death by banishment. 

The Extrovert Ideal

Because no one wants to be the sidekick or the tag-along who holds the title of “anti-social poopy head” (a label every child aspires to have by 1st Grade), no one wants to be the introvert; everyone longs to be the extroverted mega hero. The reason for this is pretty simple: our well-meaning parents, party-hardy friends, educational institutions, and employers implicitly (and often explicitly) encourage extrovert behavior, the talkativeness and the aggression and the teamwork that might have made you a prepubescent legend by freshman year of high school. We are rewarded for this outgoing behavior by being promoted socially (those girls dig your style) as well as materially (those employers dig your style). 

Introverts, on the less praised hand, are lightly but repeatedly admonished on almost every social level: Parents with a quiet child often “apologize” if their child shows timidity during introductions; a friend of a quiet teenager who’d rather stay in than attend a Barbie themed birthday party may frivolously toss a softball at the teenager’s sensitive hips, begging him to “come out of your shell and stop being so lame!”; an educator of a quiet or reclusive child may think that the child has a learning disorder; and an employer refuses to hire a guy unless his skills include “ADORES and PREFERS working in a pile of people within a loud and cramped makeshift office space.” Essentially, society gives little reward to the introvert, so as a matter of acceptance and adaptation he sometimes pretends to be something he’s not: assertive and outgoing and a little bit of a prick. 

Over-Flirt With the Group Work

There’s nothing wrong with an introvert wanting to become a better-rounded individual by adopting extrovert traits – it’s always beneficial for an individual to expand the limits of his comfort zone — but a problem does arise when an introvert ultimately risks discomfort or unhappiness by performing the actions that define his personality type in a social space that refuses to accommodate them. Many introverts are more productive and creative in a quiet, solitary environment, yet most schools and businesses operate on what Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, dubs “New GroupThink,” the belief that collaboration is the hereditary king of creativity and productivity.  

This theory asserts that the more jabbering intellectuals and village drunkards you have pitching ideas at one another, the higher the probability of those ideas colliding to form a malleable gob of ingenuity, such as conduits for alternative forms of energy or bacon-flavored chewing gum. As I pointed out earlier, this is a technique that many schools (and pretentious college courses) rely on primarily to generate creativity and expediency in their students; all you really have to do is crab walk into a grade school classroom to notice this initiation in collaboration: the desks are arranged in pods while the seated students, i.e. scholarly business associates, consistently refer to one another’s professional counsel on everything from essays to arithmetic. It’s an extrovert’s paradise, a space that is only effective for half of the student population but stifling to the rest. And it actually lacks the efficiency in terms of generating fresh ideas that occasional solitude offers. 

Introvert + Solitude = Innovation

Introverts have a deadly edge when it comes to the creative process – they’re freaking better at it because they take advantage of the benefits of solitude. In order to illuminate these benefits, let’s take a gander at two reasons why focusing only on collaboration to form novel ideas is inefficient and silly. 

First, too much group work is overtaxing on that little supercomputer we’ve dubbed a brain. You probably don’t notice, but when you’re slouched in a meritocratic circle posing as a democracy and spit balling concepts for a new product, your mind is being distracted by a multitude of stimuli: “I hope my hair resembles Justin Bieber’s. Smells like taco sauce in here. My son loves tacos. Mmmmm tacos…….” Even if you’re not consciously articulating these thoughts in your head, your mind is still automatically processing every detail of your environment, from the color of Cathy’s skirt to the annoying inflection in Jeff’s voice when he says the phrase “Product safety.” The point is that the effort your brain puts into comprehending the space around you decreases the energy and effort it takes to formulate good ideas. Too much stimulation makes for poor inspiration; occasional isolation allows for uninterrupted concentration on activities that facilitate inspiration, a reason why introverts are more advantageous when it comes to creative endeavors. 

Second of all, we are very easily influenced by the most charming person in the room – even if his ideas suck. All it really takes are broad shoulders, smooth speech patterns, and a willingness to dominate the speech floor to gain influence over a peer group (it also helps if he’s over 6 feet tall and smells of the Amazonian breeze). So Cathy could jettison an idea out of her mouth that is absolutely high-five worthy, but if Brant, our mountain of man and charmer in this scenario, disagrees and counters with an idea that is less awesome and more terrible, the majority of the group will blow kisses at Brant’s idea while giving dual-thumbs down to Cathy’s. Remember, it’s all about bodily theatrics: body language, and tone and speed of voice. People eat that crap up like tacos (Mmmmm….). But within a space where ideas are meant to be shared and expanded by every member of a group, there’s a problem if one or a few people can have supreme influence over how everyone else thinks with ideas that are more popular yet less productive. 

This is why it’s beneficial to take the time to ponder the ideas accumulated from collaboration in the space of solitude without the influence of the charmer and the easily manipulated. That way, you can view the idea with untainted eyes and return to the group with a fresh perspective (and a bag of tacos). To state this craziness simply, what we need is a balance between collaboration and isolation, extroversion and introversion, if we desire true innovation. And the perceived faults of the introvert, which can actually be invaluable attributes, are where the key patiently resides.

By Jedidiah Hoy

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