"The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it's a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk" (Cain).
In part one of this small series on introversion, I explored the extrovert ideal that is engrained in American culture, and I shared my experiences of “faking” extroversion as a sort of survival mechanism in the high school halls. I have, since high school and early college, embraced my own introverted tendency, delighting in it, rather than fighting it. This post is about solitude, meant for likeminded introverts or curious extroverts who have an introverted friend or family member (half of my family is of the ultra-extroverted, hyper-gregarious sort; I do hope they’re reading).
I must preface this discussion with a few things: firstly, I am not a scientist, I am not a psychologist, I am not a doctor. My credibility lies only in my experience of being a highly introverted person with highly extroverted friends and family members, as well as being a decently well-read person. Secondly, I am also an HSP—Highly Sensitive Person—so my introversion is colored by this quality. This means that I have a high sensory processing sensitivity; HSPs are hyperaware of subtle changes in environment, process sensory input on a deep and thorough level, and, consequently, are easily overaroused by sensory stimulus that the majority of people aren’t bothered by (or don’t even notice). It is, essentially, a biological difference in the nervous system. About 15% of people are Highly Sensitive, and it’s also important to note that not all introverts are HSPs, and not all HSPs are introverts (if you are interested in learning more about this, The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron is a great read, as is The Highly Sensitive Child, if you have children). All disclaimers aside, let’s continue our look at introversion and solitude.
The life of an introvert is the life of the mind—rich, quiet, imaginative, thoughtful, and internally focused. The life of the extrovert, by contrast, is the life of the party—lively, vivacious, highly social, and externally driven.
The extrovert feels energized and inspired by networking events, endless chatter, and parties bursting at the seams with friends, acquaintances, and strangers (the latter, of course, are not really strangers by the extrovert’s standard—a stranger is a friend that is yet to be met). But introverts leave these experiences feeling depleted; in these situations, introverts spend their energy, and extroverts gain it. The common misconception? Introverts are antisocial. The reality: introverts do enjoy being with others, nurturing deep relationships, engaging in meaningful conversation (with a general abhorrence of small talk), and cultivating community. When I attend (read: get dragged along to) my dad’s entrepreneur networking events, his goal is to talk to as many people as possible, bounding around, making new connections and having a grand old time. My goal? Find one really nice person to talk to (and maybe find some snacks) and eventually retire to a quiet corner of the room to recharge and reflect.
A highly simplistic comparison of introversion versus extroversion from my non-scientific and experience-driven perspective is as follows: while the (college-aged) extrovert opts for weekend-long music festivals, theme parks, and standing at the fifty-yard line at college football games, the introvert seeks solitude, preferring quiet mornings at the beach, unhurried hikes (picnic lunch included), and wandering through bookshops. The introvert sees the extrovert’s activities of choice as exhausting, overly stimulating, and just plain noisy. The extrovert sees the introvert’s activities of choice as quiet, overly tame, and painfully boring. This is simplistic, as some people may enjoy activities from both categories, but the example is still helpful in painting the contrast.
To put this into a work-related context, “introverts enjoy shutting the doors to their offices and plunging into their work, because for them this sort of quiet intellectual activity is optimally stimulating, while extroverts function best when engaged in higher-wattage activities like organizing team-building workshops or chairing meetings” (Cain).
Cain uses Stephen Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, as the creative, introverted paradigm:
I love Cain’s discussion on Wozniak, because it highlights the importance of solitude as a catalyst for creativity (and I'm also an Apple fan). Woz himself encourages people to “work alone”—in his experience as an engineer, innovative breakthroughs are the product of quiet, solitary, intense focus, rather than of group brainstorming sessions and team meetings (Cain’s book also provides an excellent dialogue on how working in a group might not be as beneficial and efficient as schools and workplaces make it seem—perhaps more on that another time).
Cain's more unlikely example of this creative, solitude-seeking introvert? Dr. Seuss.
I was drawn to the Dr. Seuss example, because his cheerful, bouncing rhymes and brightly colored illustrations seem to radiate an equally unreserved, quirky, splashy, bouncy sort of extroversion (Tigger from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh comes to mind). This contrast between Geisel's temperament and his books' content emphasizes the rich, imaginative inner life of the introvert. It also reaffirms that introverts need to seek time alone to recharge, reflect, and create; Geisel's creativity was nurtured not by rambunctious meet-and-greets with his readership, but by the peace and quiet of his own home. (I'm sure his unobstructed ocean view was also helpful. I have kayaked past his house before, and it's stunning—if you ever find yourself on a kayak in La Jolla, California, I recommend paddling out near the cliffs and caves to see it from the water.)
Extending the example of the introverted writer, Cain says, “...it’s always been private occasions that make me feel connected to the joys and sorrows of the world, often in the form of communion with writers...[that] I’ll never meet in person. Proust called these moments of unity between writer and reader ‘that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.’ His use of religious language was surely no accident.” Besides their wisdom and creativity, Geisel and Wozniak are bound by their common introversion and the brilliant work that unfolded out of solitude. The mind of an introvert is intellectually fertile—both a sanctuary and a stimulus—and can produce great things if given quiet, even in a world that can’t stop talking.