Its ok to be an introvert. Really, it is.

September 14, 2017 - Posted by: admin - In category:

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“Those who know do not speak.  Those who speak do not know.”  

Ok, that quote may be somewhat of an overly-broad generalization, but it got your attention, right?  What do Abraham Lincoln, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein and Dr. Seuss have in common? Among other things, they were all introverts.  You can add to this list the likes of Moses, Sir Isaac Newton, Frederic Chopin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Rosa Parks, Steven Spielberg, Eleanor Roosevelt, Larry Page, J K Rowling, Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak, etc., etc., etc.[1] It is estimated that one-third to one-half of all human beings are introverts.  Scientists have discovered that the structure and manner of operation of introvert brains are different than that of extrovert brains. In other words, biology is at work here; this is not just a matter of someone making a conscious decision to be an introvert or extrovert.

It is high time that we stop acting like there is something wrong with being an introvert and treating introverts like 2nd class citizens.  We also need to stop the madness of the trendy new open-floor office space concepts and the corresponding “group work only” format of teaching in elementary school and beyond.  Why? Because for one-third to one-half of all workers and students, such things are not only unhelpful, they are counter-productive.  In this age of information and enlightenment, we should be able to recognize that a very large percentage of everyone who walks this planet is an introvert. Moreover, that is nothing to be ashamed of.  Rather, introverts are in good company, as noted above.

Please take note that the afore-referenced list of famous people (only a small sample, since 1/3 to 1/2 of all people are introverts, as mentioned) is replete with great thinkers, statesman, scientists, authors, and inventors.  That should not come as a surprise.  For example, how could one expect Einstein to have discovered and worked through his many scientific achievements while at a New York night club or a crowded football stadium?  Nobody would think of Abraham Lincoln composing the Gettysburg Address during a White House gala, even if the orchestra was playing Mozart in the background.

Anyone who has ever tried to do any serious writing (novel, a research paper, a PhD dissertation or otherwise), likely has discovered that this type of creativity and mental exertion almost always requires solitude and no small amount of quiet time (at least for 1/3 to 1/2 of all people).  In fact, I would venture that the vast majority of the world’s great writers have been introverts.  That makes sense, both because of what is required to write a book (or any worthwhile written work) and also because usually, introverts place a much higher value on books in general (reading and learning via books). So, it would naturally follow that an introvert who highly values books is most frequently going to be one who will undertake the endeavor to write a book.  There are going to be exceptions, but I would further theorize that a very high percentage of all of the great inventors and innovators in world history have been introverts.  So again, and I would very much like to shout this from the mountain tops, there is nothing wrong with being an introvert!  By the way, I am NOT trying to suggest that there is conversely anything wrong with being an extrovert.  Rather, given the prejudice towards extroverts in so very many areas of our modern western culture, I do not think that we need much support for or defense of extroverts.  Heck, just look at who currently lives in the White House, and you can see just how much we as a society seem to value and be prejudiced towards extroverts!

Not long ago, I came across a TED talk by Susan Cain titled “The power of introverts”.  Introvert or not, listening to or watching that TED talk is well worth the 19-minute investment.  Susan has also written the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.[2]  I am not a paid endorser of Susan or her book, but without such approved endorsement, I nevertheless give my unqualified recommendation of her book.  For introverts, extroverts, and anyone in between, that book provides a lot of very useful information, stories and scientific data on the subject.  Introverts come away from the book with a much better understanding of what makes them tick, why they are as they are and the realization that there are biological reasons for the same.  Extroverts should also read the book and otherwise become more educated on introverts so that they then realize that there is nothing pejorative in the term introvert and there is nothing that needs to be “fixed” when it comes to introverts.

I am obviously an introvert.  Nothing surprising about that, especially given my passionate defense of introverts. I have always found it interesting that many extroverts seem to feel the need to help or fix introverts. Extroverts often feel that there must be something wrong with someone who enjoys solitude and the exhilaration of a good book and solo learning. Why is that such a troubling reality to extroverts? How often have you seen the opposite? When did you last witness an introvert barge into a loud party and “quietly” offer a stack of books for the consumption of the party goers? In other words, we should all do a better job of learning to recognize and accept one another as we are, introvert or extrovert, and learn to appreciate our differences.[3]

It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.  Albert Einstein

I have experienced the friction of an introvert trying to exist in our modern world, which places a disproportionate and unjustified reliance on extroverts and extrovert tendencies (i.e., group study, group learning and open floor office space design).  During college and law school, I was often invited to study groups.  However, after a few experiences with study groups, in each case, I came away exhausted and wondering why I had wasted my time in that manner.  You see, an introvert learns best alone. In fact, I might go as far as to say that some introverts (myself included) may be able to learn only that way.  However, in this context, learning alone does not require being alone.  By that, I mean that I did very well in college and law school learning in the classroom while the professor was lecturing.  In that setting, I was still “alone” in that I was focused on listening, watching, taking notes and doing so while seated next to many other students.  In that format, I could usually tune out those around me and focus on the lecture in a way that it seemed that I was having a one-on-one learning experience.  However, again, “group learning” was always a waste of time for me.  Parenthetically, I understand the value of group collaboration for many things and the importance of practicing collaboration with others during school so that individuals can be “team players” later in life and in other settings.

Fast forward to my life as a young attorney–during my second summer of law school, I interned at a large international law firm in Dallas.  Summer associate life then was a mix of socializing and substantive work. The basic premise, apparently, was that the decision-makers at the firm wanted to get to know you, see if you “fit” into the team and also ensure that you had enough brain power and overall acumen to be able to perform the tasks assigned (both as a summer associate and eventually, as an attorney at the firm).  I attended various social functions, including lunches and evening activities. At those activities, I understood that I was then in the “group setting” where I was expected to make small talk, socialize, etc.  No problem, I could do that. However, I was also given significant work assignments, with tight deadlines. As I have always been one who likes (and really, requires) solitude and relative quiet to think clearly and be productive, each day at the firm after the obligatory “small talk” sessions in the hall, I would go into my office, close the door and work.  After a few weeks of this, one of the senior attorneys stopped by my office one day to talk. He said that my work product and overall performance thus far was exceptional, no complaints.  (He was also aware that I had attended the various social functions and had acted the part at those events).  He was, however, concerned was my practice of working with my office door closed, as that somehow seemed to indicate a lack of friendliness and “team player” attributes.   I remember looking back at this senior attorney, a very successful and long-standing veteran of this prestigious firm, and trying to figure out a diplomatic way to tell him that I thought his concern was misplaced and, frankly, silly.

Later in my career, while working a different international law firm, I encountered almost the very same situation and concerns regarding my propensity to work with my office door closed. By the way, I should add that whenever someone would come to my office, they always found me ready and willing to interact and even to make “small talk.” All that was required was for someone to open the door (preferably knock first, but whatever..:).  Over the course of several years as a young, then senior attorney, this scenario was repeated a handful of times. Somehow, there was an expectation that even though I was being billed out to clients at hundreds of dollars per hour (almost $600 per hour when I finally left Chicago) and even though I was being asked to work on highly complex legal matters, things which required my full focus and all of my available brain power to adequately handle…even so, sometimes there was the expectation that I should be able to do such things with an open door, undeterred by the noisy hallway, people passing up and down the hall, etc.  Not always, but many times, the “important people” at the firm behaved as if they wanted to have a highly skilled and diligent attorney who also was a social butterfly (in other words, the perfect blend of introvert/extrovert, convertible and available on demand).  Thankfully, the longer I worked at the firm and the more I became a “known quantity,” the less this was an issue. I believe that eventually, people had a chance to get to know me and realize that I was a “nice guy” who could socialize and make “small talk” when needed, but that I was one who preferred solitude and quiet to work and to focus.

There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum. (Quiet p.14)[4]

In the business world today, especially law firms large and small (but especially the large firms), extroverts tend to excel and climb the corporate latter faster than introverts. I understand that much of this is due to the perception (with perhaps some relation to reality) that extroverts tend to be more likely to become the “rainmakers” that bring in clients and revenue to the business/firm.  Yet, when I consider the very best attorneys I worked with during my years at the large firms, almost without exception, the best attorneys were more like me–they were introverts.  Is that a self-serving comment? Yes. Is that an example of revisionist history? No, it is the truth. In my experience, the rainmakers at the firm were mostly that–social butterflies who concentrated almost exclusively on meeting people, shaking hands, winning clients, etc. That was their specialty. They would bring large amounts of work to the firm, and the other attorneys (i.e., the “non-rainmakers”) would be tasked with doing the work. It might be the rainmaker/extrovert who would be largely responsible for the initial connection with a new client and new work, but it was almost always the other attorneys (the introverts) who would do the work, establish and maintain trust with the client both through personal connections and through doing excellent attorney work. As we know, actions speak louder than words.

Now, I should be careful to add that what I have just described above is a gross generalization as to my law firm experiences. Without question, there were introverts who were both excellent legal technicians and who could also rainmake (i.e., gain new clients and work) with the best of the extroverts.  However, it is interesting also to note that the manner in which the introverts tended to generate new business for the firm was often quite different than that of the extrovert.  The introvert would normally work one-on-one by networking with an established connection, leveraging trust and reputation gained over time to get a recommendation and introduction to a new client. From what I could observe, the extrovert would do some of this but would spend more time in the group-connection setting, whether that be cocktail parties or other meet-and-mingle events, sporting events, art exhibits, etc.  In other words, I believe that in many instances, the introvert could achieve results similar to the extrovert, he or she just went about things differently.

I believe businesses, including law firms, will be most successful when there is a proper blend of healthy working relationships (i.e., synergy) between the extrovert rainmakers/salesman (a/k/the show horses) and the introvert individuals (i.e., the “worker bees”).  I witnessed such synergy in action during some of my time working at large law firms. Even so, I must admit that I do not recall a lot of “let’s roll up the sleeves and find a solution” mentality or work ethic from the show horse members of the firm.  In other words, when the hard work was being done, it was most often accomplished by the introvert laborers.[5]

If it is true that introverts can generate revenue and bring new business, why then do we find that extroverts tend to rise higher and faster on the corporate ladder, both in law firms and business generally? Great question.  Referencing back to Susan Cain, I believe that part of that is our modern western cultural bias towards extroverts as great leaders.  In other words, modern-day western culture tends to equate fast, smooth, persuasive and loud talkers as always being great leaders. Whether this is a conscious realization and decision or a subconscious one, this seems to be a reality. Along similar lines, Ms. Cain, in her book, Quiet, explores the culture of the Harvard Business School.  It is probably not surprising for anyone to learn that at the HBS, extroverts are preferred, including in the application and acceptance process. Therefore, since the student body tends to consist of many more extroverts than introverts, and since extroverts tend to talk more loudly, grab the spotlight and otherwise be extrovertish, while introverts are content to sit on the back row of classes, listen and learn, skip study-groups and pretty much keep to themselves–it’s not rocket science to see why HSB (and most other business schools these days, in my view) are disproportionately biased towards extroverts.

If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more successful people always carry the day.  This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed.  Yet studies in group dynamics suggest that this is exactly what happens. (Quiet p.51)

Contrary to the Harvard Business School model of vocal leadership, the ranks of effective CEOs turned out to be filled with introverts, including Charles Schwab; Bill Gates; Brenda Barnes (CEO of Sara Lee); and [Warren Buffet;] … Brigham Young University management professor Bradley Agle studied the CEOs of 128 major companies and found that those considered charismatic by their top executives had bigger salaries but not better corporate performance.  (Quiet p. 53)

We tend to forget that much of (perhaps most) leadership is done in smaller settings, often one-on-one, rather than in constantly making big speeches before shareholders, etc.  The Apple Events and Tesla reveals are the rare exceptions, rather than the rule in the corporate world.  When it comes to dealing with employees, clients, vendors and other persons who comprise the person-to-person interactive business operations experience for a CEO day in and day out, very often it is the person who is inclined to listen carefully and act deliberately that will make the best decisions for a business (small or large).  Am I saying that ONLY introverts should be CEOs of large companies? No. But I am saying that we already have ample evidence that introverts can very successful in these roles of leadership. Those facts are beyond dispute.

It has been said that introverts often work more slowly and deliberately.  They prefer to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration.  They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame. (Quiet p. 11)

I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork..for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding. Albert Einstein (Quiet p. 71) 

What about a more blue-collar focus on the work environment for the regular employees? Moreover, how do these things apply to the prevalent attitudes and views about format and content of educating our children in schools? Does any of this have application in those contexts? Of course.  To summarize, we need to stop the madness of insisting that all workers share an “open office” set-up, with no other options and no accommodations for introvert-type workers who may greatly prefer and even require private and quiet to be productive.  We also need to rethink our “modern” approach to education insofar is that approach focuses on relies too much on extrovert style teaching and learning only.

Today’s employees inhabit open office plans, in which no one has a room of his own or her own, the only walls are the ones holding up the building, and senior executives operate from the center of the boundary-less floor along with everyone else.  In fact, over 70 percent of today’s employees work in open plan. (Quiet p. 76)  

If we understand that introverts can (and often do) make great CEOs and other business executives, why is it so difficult to digest the fact that worker-bee/blue-collar/regular employee introverts, permitted to work and act in their introvert-manner-of-working, can also contribute mightily towards the success of a commercial enterprise? Why does there seem to be such a trend towards “team only” working styles and office arrangements?  Can’t we find a way to co-exist, to let extroverts function and labor for the business in a way that is conducive to their strengths and styles, while at the same time permitting introverts similar opportunities and allowances?

Well, I think introverts can do quite well. If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert, which might be, say, being willing to go off for a few days and think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself very hard to think out on the edge of that area. Then, if you come up with something, if you want to hire people, get them excited, build a company around that idea, you better learn what extroverts do, you better hire some extroverts (like Steve Ballmer I would claim as an extrovert) and tap into both sets of skills in order to have a company that thrives both in deep thinking and building teams and going out into the world to sell those ideas.  Bill Gates

By the way, this does not mean or in any way require that introverts are at all times given their undisturbed and private work spaces.  Said another way, we can find a happy blend between the open office plans and the total solitude for introvert’s concepts.  Going back to my time at the large Chicago law firm—our office building was organized in the “traditional” office style—with private offices around the perimeters of the building and common spaces in the middle.  We also had cafeterias and other social spaces elsewhere in the building. Overall, this seemed to work well and to enable the firm to be VERYsuccessful and VERY profitable (one of the top 10 most profitable law firms in the world in any given year).  Further, attorneys often worked from home and other remote locations but connected with other firm members via phone, Skype, and other means.  Why can’t we continue to follow, or at least permit, such arrangements and structures in the business world? Why must so many of the new and trendy work environments be slanted so far in the other direction towards the extrovert-only open office plans? If it is a matter of trying to save money, increase profits and otherwise benefit the “bottom line” of the Company, please consider that most employees will be productive and profitable to a much greater degree when they are permitted to work in a manner and environment that is conducive to their brain composition and social preferences (i.e., extrovert or introvert).  A wise leader and business owner will recognize that profitability and success for the company will best flow from putting employees in the best position to work according to their strengths.

I am going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. Not on a committee. Not on a team. Steve Wozniak[6]

What is wrong with the traditional elementary classroom setup of a series of rows of desks facing the teacher and the chalkboard, with students listening and learning as they are taught by the teacher? This was how I was taught and how generations of Americans were taught. Even with such “tradition,” I can remember during my elementary years when our desks were sometimes placed in pods of 3 or 4, for days or weeks at a time. I believe this was often done by the teacher to give us variety (and perhaps to give the teacher variety…?) and to permit us to practice our social skills during the course of our school day.  And regardless of how our desks were arranged, we often engaged in group projects and we had recess and lunchtime each day. The point is that in retrospect, as an introvert through and through, I thought that this format worked well for most of the children.  There seemed to be a good blend of self-learning and group learning, as well as ample opportunity for social interaction.  Regardless of my take on how things used to be, it would seem that, just as with office space and work environment, the trendy movement in education is towards the group learning/working model.

The New Groupthink is also practiced in our schools, via an increasingly popular method of instruction called ‘cooperative’ or ‘small group’ learning. (Quiet p. 77)

I feel fortunate to have completed my formal education in the “old days” that were in most respects before this new “Groupthink.”  Again, I had my share of group projects and group learning.  And although I enjoyed the social aspects of such group work (especially if there were one or more cute girls in my group), I do not recall having much of an educational experience through those group projects. In fact, I do remember being required to leave such group projects and then go to the solitude of my room to study my notes and otherwise ensure that I was able to learn what I needed to learn to be prepared for the test or class presentation the following day.  I understand that what may have worked well for me as an introvert (i.e., the traditional teaching and learning methods) may not have worked well for an extreme extrovert.[7]  So if more groupthink is required to address the learning needs and preferences of extrovert students—that is fine. Let’s just not implement and use those things exclusively, and in a manner, that disadvantages those who are less extroverted—the ones who prefer and sometimes require being able to learn by himself or herself.[8]  We should be able to use our talents and resources, as educators and society in general, to implement places of learning, styles of teaching and opportunities for all students to be taught and to learn in a manner that is congruent with their personality, their biology, and their preference.  It does not have to be exclusively one way or the other at all times.

So, what to make of all of this? Let me end by quoting more wisdom from Susan Cain (again, I highly recommend her excellent book to everyone):

Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured. If an introverted child needs help with social skills, teach her or recommend training outside of class, just as you would do for a student who needs extra attention in math or reading. But celebrate these kids for who they are. “The typical comment on many children’s report cards is, ‘I wish Molly would talk more in class,’ ” Pat Adams, the former head of the Emerson School for gifted students in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told me. “But here we have an understanding that many kids are introspective. We try to bring them out, but we do not make it a big deal. We think about introverted kids as having a different learning style.” Studies show that one-third to one-half of us are introverts. This means that you have more introverted kids in your class than you think. Even at a young age, some introverts become adept at acting like extroverts, making it tough to spot them. Balance teaching methods to serve all the kids in your class. Extroverts tend to like movement, stimulation, collaborative work. Introverts prefer lectures, downtime, and independent projects. Mix it up fairly. (Quiet p. 255)

If you are a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasms for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth-century art. They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow. If you are a manager, remember that one-third to one-half of your workforce is probably introverted, whether they appear that way or not. Think twice about how you design your organization’s office space. Don’t expect introverts to get jazzed up about open office plans or, for that matter, lunchtime birthday parties or team-building retreats. Make the most of introverts’ strengths—these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems, and spot canaries in your coal mine. (Quiet p. 264)

Remember, it is ok to be an introvert. Maybe we need to make t-shirts that say this very thing!!! ? While I am a pretty unspectacular and vanilla-flavored individual, I take solace (and some measure of pride) in knowing that I have at least one thing in common with Lincoln, Mozart, Einstein, Newton, Jefferson and some of the other famous introverts in world history. Think of what our world would be like without their contributions. If you are an introvert, remember that you also share a common thread with such greats and perhaps you can think about such things this weekend when your friends and family are at a loud social event and you are engrossed in a good book. ?

[1] You can also add Larry L. Jensen, a professor of engineering, a rocket scientist, my father and one of the greatest men I have ever known.

[2] The quotes below, unless otherwise noted, come from this book.

[3] (Now, I must confess that as a parent of young children, including two teenage boys who once read lots of books and now spend most of their waking hours with their phones and social media, I do often “encourage” my sons to read more…Ok, with that somewhat hypocritical confession out of the way, let’s move on…:)

[4] I recognize this reality and do not intend to suggest that the world is nothing but polar extremes between those who are 100% introverts and others who are 100% extroverts. No, just as Tolstoy talks about how people are “like rivers” which ebb and flow at times, change course, etc. in their capacity to be both good and bad, I believe that for some of us the same is true with regard to our introvert and extrovert tendencies. Yet, I also believe that there are many individuals who are very close to the 100% categorization as introvert and extrovert, at least as far as their biological makeup (reference brain composition points above).

[5] By the way, please don’t assume that I am somehow labeling all senior partners as always being the show horses and associates as the worker bees.  That is NOT the distinction I am trying to make.  Rather, among the senior (and very well positioned partners) with whom I worked during my time at the large firms, there were many introvert senior partners who did roll up their sleeves and work alongside the junior attorneys, for as much and as long as required. Likewise, I can think of several examples where the “show horse” junior attorneys had long-since vacated the field of labor before the real work was done—not because of their “status” within the firm (after all, some of these were junior attorneys), but maybe because the task at hand did not seem to have an adequate level of “excitement” for their extrovert sensitivities.  But regardless, it is not my experience that extroverts were always the equity partners and introverts were always the junior associates. Some of my closest mentors, who taught me the most about how to be a good attorney, were very successful senior partners who were also introverts and who possessed the capacity and interest to work long hours, side by side with the junior attorneys.

[6] Obviously, the quotes and the tone of this article are biased towards introverts and away from extroverts. I have already disclosed, to the extent, it was not obvious from the start, that I am an introvert through and through (pretty close to 100% introvert).  But again, I realize that success in business and in life, in general, will best be achieved by introverts learning to exist and work alongside extroverts and vice versa. The extroverts have their voice and their advantages in today’s world, in my view. In many respects, they are often given a “head start” and an unfair advantage in the race of life, now starting in our schools and continuing in the workplace.

[7] Perhaps some of my friends who seemed to struggle to get good grades and otherwise had a miserable school experience were such extroverts for whom the traditional methods were highly ineffective and thus the challenges and disruptive behavior of my student colleagues.

[8] As noted earlier, traditional learning done via professor lecture style can very often be “one on one” learning for an introvert.  At least that was always my experience. Though I was sitting in a large classroom, shoulder to shoulder with many other students, if I was permitted to focus on the teaching/professor, this qualified as individual learning for me.

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