Monday, March 18, 2013

Reading Journal: Quiet: The Power of Introverts

I celebrated St. Patrick's Day by shooting a lot of green stuff out of my nose. In the midst of being unfit for anything else, I had time to finish the second half of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012).

It's no surprise to me or anyone who has known me for more than a minute that I'm an introvert. After all, in the face of student loans and a mortgage I voluntarily quit an office job, which had me sitting almost directly in a traffic pattern and being interrupted every few minutes, to start the rather risky enterprise of freelance copyediting from my home office, where I could go weeks without ever talking to anyone besides my family and the clerk at the grocery store if I wanted to.

So enjoying a book that celebrates the introvert is obviously well within my wheelhouse, but I wasn't quite expecting to read a book that explained me to myself so clearly. Amid the discussion of brain chemistry and magnetic resonance imaging scans, the takeaway is that one-third to one-half of the population is like me. We enjoy parties as much as the next person, but we're likely to get tired and go home sooner. Public speaking may or may not cause abject terror, but regardless of whether we feel stage fright (I usually don't), we are more likely than our extrovert counterparts to plan our remarks ahead of time--which explains why I type out a full script every time I have to make a 30-second announcement in church. If we have jobs that require lots of interaction with co-workers and the public, even if we love and are passionate about what we do, we're likely to want nothing more at the end of the day than to be left alone to hibernate.

And whoever said planning ahead and a little judicious hibernation are bad things? I didn't pick up Quiet expecting a self-help book, but I did find validation for the way I prefer to approach the world as well as suggestions for how to make my, um, quiet approach more efficient and effective. In addition to the positive introvert attributes like the tendency to plan ahead and to work longer to solve problems before giving up (can you say stubborn?), Cain discusses the value of developing extrovert-style skills for particular, limited situations--and somehow that's easier to take when you're given permission to come home at the end of the day and be as quiet as you like. But she also emphasizes that extroversion as a personality type is in no way superior to introversion. Extroverts need to learn to channel their inner introverts as well, she argues. Enron and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown? You can thank the extroverts, with their tendency to accept the ideas of the person who speaks persuasively rather than intelligently, for that.

As for me, it was when I started working from home that I began to genuinely enjoy socializing. When I worked by myself all day, I found that rather than being drained by the end of the day, I was energized. The idea of facing a group of human beings didn't, for maybe the first time ever, make me feel slightly nauseated. Almost without noticing, I was suddenly a member of a knitting group, a church, a book group, a committee. And what's more, I enjoyed it! I had more commitments than I've ever had in my life, and instead of feeling overwhelmed and put-upon, I loved it.

In the last few months, my work situation has changed again. I've taught more on-campus classes recently (and I've never "performed" more energetically than when trying to keep a roomful of eighteen-year-olds engaged in grammar and composition), and that has drained a lot of energy and affected my social life. I've pretty much stopped participating in anything I'm not obligated to do partially because my work schedule has been so full, but also largely because the idea of sitting in a group of people and being expected to make conversation seems so exhausting. Now I've started a part-time job that has a good mix of time spent working with the public and time working behind the scenes on my own, plus a staff that genuinely values each others' need for a little quiet time on break. The unique thing about this crowd is that they respect the power of the book--if you're reading, they don't interrupt! I hope this job will complement my freelance work and teaching (online for the next two semesters), and make it possible for me to rejoin the world.

A friend recently asked me if I'm ever going back to knit night, and I gave her a flip answer that I don't remember now. The real answer is, I hope so. That part of my life is valuable. But I have to find a good work-life balance with plenty of down time to both work and play on my own. Being "in the world" is worth the energy it uses, but introverts like me can't do it without a reserve of energy to use in the first place. The beauty of Quiet is Cain's validation that, even in the midst of a culture that values the extrovert ideal above all else, my approach has been right for me all along.