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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Monday: A Good Day From Morning ‘Til Night

January morning light

Beautiful dawn! It reminded me of sunrise over the Gulf Coast of Florida, except that here, instead of palm trees and sawgrass, are the homier sights of cherry trees, pines, and mixed hardwoods against the winter sky. How could a day this beautiful before sunrise not turn out splendid? 

Afternoon sun streams through woods
Sarah the Intrepid!
And its early promise was fulfilled. Appointments and errands accomplished before lunch, afternoon summoned me out to meadow and woods and orchards, where Sarah enjoyed exploring, running, sniffing, and investigating, led mostly by her nose, while I followed at a more leisurely pace, my eye taking note of animal tracks and wind patterns on the sparkling surface of drifted snow.

Camera creates illusion of face-to-face meeting
Imagine the snow as sand on the beach....
It was a day of very high winds. A radio announcement warned about a wind advisory for traffic on the Mackinac Bridge. Look at the whitecaps right here on Lake Michigan. And see how bright the willows are in the sun against the blue of water and sky? They look like they’re on fire!

Sun-drenched branches, wind-tossed waters
After climbing Claudia’s hill, treading quietly through Claudia’s woods, following the orchard rows back to Kovarik Road, and then coming back north again between orchard and eastern woods, downhill toward home, I was ready to come indoors to a cup of hot tea, a tiny piece of decadent baklava, and a good book. Joseph loaned me Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, and who will be surprised that I found myself in those pages? Were you called “shy” when you were a kid? Urged against your inclination to “join the group”? Did your parents even worry that you might be “antisocial”? If this describes you, Cain says,
Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favor of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.
Or maybe—though it would surprise me to find you among my readers if this is the case—you’re the life of the party but find yourself in a relationship with a mystifying, baffling introvert and can’t help wondering what’s wrong with your partner. The answer, in a word, is nothing.

Introverts and extroverts aren’t even anti- and pro-social, as is often believed, Cain says. They’re differently social. Extroverts in general are comfortable and happy with high levels of stimulation, including louder music than introverts find pleasant. One wants a noisy party, the other a quiet table for two. Longitudinal studies show that a “high-reactive” baby, one with an excitable amygdala (located deep in the “old brain” we share with animals as different from us as rodents), a baby more vigilant and frightened and active in the face of novel stimulation, will grow up to be an introverted adult, while the placid baby undisturbed by strange sights and sounds will be the grownup extrovert.

What does this have to do with leadership—or with simply leading a happy, productive, effective life? Should we listen only to charismatic extroverts? Cain opens her book with a fascinating contrast between Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., observing that
...a formidable orator refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus wouldn’t have had the same effect as a modest woman who’d clearly prefer to keep silent but for the exigencies of the situation. And Parks didn’t have the stuff to thrill a crowd if she’d tried to stand up and announce that she had a dream. But with King’s help, she didn’t have to.
The two of them together, the introvert and the extrovert, brought about huge changes in the United States, but if the message of the book were only that different human beings have different contributions to make, we might well say ho-hum and set it aside. So yes, there’s more to it than that.

Cain cites Warren Susman who makes the claim that America shifted from a 19th-century Culture of Character (“serious, disciplined, honorable”) to a 20th-century Culture of Personality, in which (Cain quoting Susman) “Every American was to become a performing self.” An extrovert is naturally a "performing self," and in the Culture of Personality, the extrovert is valorized as the ideal, the introvert devalued. Cain is not alone in thinking that this valorization of highly sociable, stimulation-seeking “go-getters” goes quite some distance to explaining the recent Wall Street debacle. There were those who saw the edge of the cliff and voiced their warnings, but they were derided as gloomy nay-sayers, afraid of their own shadows. The happy, get-rich-quick party crowd simply did not want to listen.

Even whether an introvert or an extrovert makes a better team leader turns out to depend on the make-up of the rest of the team and how the task at hand is structured. Each type has its own strengths and weaknesses. One of Cain’s repeated points, however, is that the strengths of the introverts are more easily discounted or even completely overlooked and unheard. She makes her points clearly and engagingly and backs them up with citations to research.

Whether the topic of a book is business success or world peace or how to raise kids or whatever, the ones I find most valuable offer not just theory but some kind of practical advice and strategies, and Cain comes through on this criterion, too. How should you go about finding a work environment in which you can flourish? Is it all right to “fake it”? How far can you “fake” being the type opposite from yourself and still be true to yourself? How can life partners with different needs and styles understand, accommodate, and enjoy each other over the long term?

Good stories, recent research, why it all matters, how you can apply it to your life—but maybe the single most important take-home lesson for the struggling introvert "in a world that can’t stop talking” is the permission Cain gives us (and invites us to give ourselves) to take the quiet time we need, away from the crowds. The book will be out in paper ($16) later this month, and I’ll be happy to order and ship.

Meanwhile, out in the woods in the afternoon with my dog, back home with a book, then enjoying a quiet evening with my darling and our dog, I could feel the stress of December slipping away in the peace that is January.

Savoring quiet


Dawn said...

I never thought about how the two, introvert and extrovert, might work together to push for change. Interesting thought.

I was shy, right from the start. For years I thought I was shy because we moved in the middle of fourth grade...and I didn't know anyone at the new school and they were learning all new math. I was traumatized. But years later I found my report cards from as far back as kindergarten and they ALL said I was very quiet and shy. So I have to stop blaming my parents! :)

Loved the photos...especially the treeline...and the footprints...and of course my beloved Lake Michigan.

P. J. Grath said...

Isn't it interesting how we interpret our own pasts? I had a horrible traumatic incident in 6th grade but later learned from my mother that I'd been very shy even before starting school.

I'm sure there is a spectrum of extroverts and introverts, with some people further to the extremes and others closer to the middle. The big lesson for all is that while we cannot change our basic temperament, we can stretch and grow within it. People learn to "go beyond their comfort zones" especially when they are passionate about something. Look at you, Dawn, a shy person traveling every year to the nation's capital to urge legislators to improve highway safety!

The photo of the willows over Lake Michigan was taken from a high hill with a big ZOOM. I was afraid it might not turn out well, but I love the way it looks! Glad you liked it, too.

Kathy said...

Very interesting thoughts. Sorry it has taken so long to comment, Pamela. My parents said I was very extroverted until age 4 when suddenly turned extremely shy and introverted. By 7th grade it was hard to even speak to anyone except the more shy.

At age 15 began slowly, slowly, becoming more extroverted but the shyness didn't really abate until after age 30.

Am only in the last five years most fully exploring the extroverted part of my the same time as spending hours & hours in very introverted mode.

Wondering if many of us are both extroverted and introverted even while our logical minds try to convince us we are one way exclusively?

P. J. Grath said...

Very interesting question and perspective, Kathy. Supposedly what happens in the amygdala would give an objective determination of introversion or extroversion, and I think of my present dog and my most recent former dog in this context: Nikki was shy and startled easily, whereas sociable Sarah hardly has a startle response at all. But if, as I speculate (based on nothing!), there must be a spectrum ranging from extreme extroversion to extreme introversion, with a lot of people (and animals) falling in somewhere in the middle, couldn't the amygdala also vary in its responses depending on environmental factors, internal (nutrition or disease, say) and external (e.g., barometric pressure) and experience and one's own beliefs about the self?

Like you, I "came out of my shell" in early middle age, and for a while I was confident that my confidence (!) was permanent. It turned out, however, that the underlying shyness could be reactivated under certain conditions.

Nikki learned to play at the age of three. It took her longer to learn not to be afraid of mailboxes or men in caps. She was fortunate to have a pretty active social life and a lot of physical freedom for a dog who had been brought to the animal shelter and adopted out and brought back twice before I found her. She had a very good life.

Might seem odd that I would bring dogs into this discussion, but remember, we and dogs have co-evolved, and they share many things with us that even chimps don't.