Quiet: The Power of Introverts

06 Nov

Quiet: The Power of Introverts

This sermon, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on November 6, 2016. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.

By Nichole Sajdak

The first 18 years of my life, my parents had rather strict household rules: Home by 11 p.m.—and don’t even ask for later, because we’re too tired to wait up for you.

I had a tight-knit group of friends who understood this, and we found workarounds to have fun. I would typically show up early to “help set up” for parties and then leave just as the party was changing from cozy to crazy as too many others were arriving. In retrospect, it was pretty convenient that I was able to get small-group interaction and have a convenient excuse to leave before the craziness—and frequently the trouble—came.

RECOMMENDED READING Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain Throughout undergraduate school, I followed the same patterns of having four or five close friends who “got me” and I still talk with to this day. But, I was an engineering student and by some standards in that department, I was a social butterfly. I was comfortable and happy in my own skin, but I was starting to get other cues at this point, too.

I remember my department chair trying to persuade me to chair a student organization that worked with the local business community. The group was responsible for organizing and arranging networking events that were filled with small talk. It really wasn’t a forum I was particularly drawn to.

Although I didn’t fully understand why I didn’t want to do it, I said something to the effect that while I was working part-time, taking a full load of classes and doing volunteer work, I didn’t think I had enough time to do a good job at this. He discounted my reasoning by saying, “Nichole, we all need to come to the realization that we don’t have time to do everything well, to an A-level. Sometimes in order to get more accomplished we need to settle for average, a C-level in some areas.” Here was my department chair coaching me that it’s more important to get out and meet people than it is to study to get that A. It blew my mind and honestly changed the way I viewed him a bit.

Mixed social messages

Through time and experience, though, I recognized he had my long-range plan in mind and wanted the best for me. But it was one of the times I got the message that somehow my quiet and introverted style of being was not necessarily the right way to go—that I should be trying to pass as more of an extrovert.

This mindset and message were repeated by others in the corporate world as I started working, meeting clients and “selling” as a consultant. So I ignored my intuition, and worked hard to prove to myself that I could be bold and assertive, too—the perfect “seller-doer” engineer. Part of that meant always going off to happy hour at crowded bars, conferences or networking events when I really would have preferred to just have a quiet dinner with friends. In the pursuit of creating the perfect image, I made these self-negating choices so reflexively, I wasn’t even aware of making them.

This is what many introverts do, and it can spiral quickly into negative self-talk and feelings of shame. My trigger had become the idea that being an introvert was somehow synonymous with being inadequate, imperfect. Most of the time I always sensed deep down that this was wrong and that introverts were pretty excellent just as they were.

Shy vs. introverted

Then I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, published in 2013. It helped me understand the connection that introversion was having on my level of shyness—and the difference between the two terms. Introversion is different from being shy. Introversion is about how you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation. Shyness is about fear of social judgment.

Let’s explore these definitions a little farther. By definition, extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation and derive energy from being with and interacting with other people. Introverts feel most alive, switched-on, and capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.

Think of a yo-yo. When it isn’t being used, the string is coiled cozily within itself. When it’s time to play, the string unwinds, and the yo-yo extends outward. Fun!

Here’s the key, though: To maintain momentum, the string must frequently return into the yo-yo. As long as the rhythm of extending and returning is maintained, the yo-yo can be played with indefinitely.

Introverts are very much like yo-yos. We are comfortable when we are coiled within ourselves. But we are also perfectly capable of extending ourselves when it’s time to play or work with others. The key is to return to our inward selves when we begin to lose momentum. But the trick is allowing yourself the space and freedom to return to it without recrimination, excuses or self-judgement.

How introverts recharge

When I’ve overextended myself in social activities without giving myself a chance to recharge, the anxiety level creeps up along with self-defeating messages in my head. That’s when the shyness starts. And even though I know I am most likely being my biggest critic, I’m certain that if I’m thinking it, so is everyone else. Allowing myself the freedom of peace quiet and introspection breaks this cycle.

During graduate school, I had a favorite coffee shop that I went to. If I needed to picture heaven in my mind, part of it would be Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill. It was a small shack of a building, actually located off a dirt driveway behind an auto parts place. It had a patio in the back that was part of a wooded trail and stepped down to a ravine area. My best breakthroughs with lessons and writing papers tended to happen there. The solitude and natural setting—coupled with the free refills of coffee—were energizing for me.

School and workplace setups

To maximize our talents, each of us has to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us. When I walk into Alex and Jacob’s school sometimes, I honestly feel a bit of a cold sweat when I see their classroom setups. When I was going to school, we sat in rows. We sat in rows of desks like this, and we did most of our work pretty autonomously. But nowadays, your typical classroom has pods of desks—four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other. And kids are working in countless group assignments.

Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members. And for the kids who prefer to go off by themselves or just to work alone, those kids are seen as outliers or, worse, as problem cases. I often wonder if I would have fared as well in school if I had been put in the same situation.

And unfortunately for some others, the same thing is happening in our workplaces. I am grateful every day to be working in an area with affordable real estate prices. This has allowed our office manager to keep most of us in an actual office WITH A DOOR. But from what I gather from friends in other companies, offices are more likely using an open plan, without walls, where we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our coworkers. A competitor of ours recently announced they were going to a festival seating arrangement where nobody even has assigned spaces.

I deeply believe our offices should encourage casual, chatty cafe-style types of interactions—you know, the kind where people come together and spontaneous exchanges of ideas happen freely. That is great—both for introverts and extroverts. But we need much more privacy, freedom, and autonomy at work. At school, too. We need to be teaching kids to work together, for sure, but we also need to be teaching them how to work on their own. This is especially important for extroverted children too. They need to work on their own because that is where deep thought comes from, in part.

When it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best. A third to a half of the population are introverts. That’s one out of every two or three people you know. So even if you’re an extrovert yourself, I’m talking about your coworkers, spouses, children, and the person sitting next to you right now. They’re all subject to this bias, which is pretty deep and real in our society.

Nichole Sajdak is a member of Harmony.

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