Embracing Both the Introvert and Extrovert Side of Life

Reading Susan Cain’s great book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was a kind of homecoming for me. For years I’ve known I was an introvert, that I recharge by being alone (versus extroverts, who recharge by being with people), but her book has empowered me to embrace my introversion as a gift not a curse. I enjoyed reading about successful, happy people who only had a few friends because, well, that was all they needed. Frankly, if it weren’t for my wife and a couple of persistent long-term pals who make most the effort to keep in touch, I would probably never make phone calls or go out. I get enough interaction at work with my students and home with my kids. I’ve often thought that the world was built by evil people who want to talk to each other all the time, and now I know I’m not alone.  But if we’re all talking, interacting, constantly engaged, we lose something.  We lose the side of us that can go within, the side that can focus, think-deeply, create art and solve big problems. We need to train our young people in both the yin and yang of the human personality.  We need to nurture our opposite nature.

Actually, the world was not built by evil people. But the truth is, the majority of people are extroverts.  And that’s great and important. If we were all monks, if we all hid in our offices, if we all wanted to write novels alone in back rooms, then there would not be much of the world, and no marketers, agents, and publishers to sell those novels. I love extroverts because they do all the stuff I don’t want to, and they like it. But as the majority, they have more power, so they need to be reminded of the power of introversion, the power to be alone, think deeply, reflect, mull, ruminate, and take in the quiet.  For years, as a teacher, I’ve been told to get my kids to work in groups.  I’ve been told that a noisy classroom is a productive classroom, that kids need to interact, to talk, in order to learn. Yes, there is truth to this. But I’ve always felt, deep down somewhere, that they also needed quiet, time to reflect, long spaces of silence to think deeply.

Working primarily with kids who have emotional and behavior disorders, usually coupled with ADHD, I deal with especially impulsive and reactive kids. And they are usually extroverts. They want to talk constantly, always be “at the table,” work in groups, have music playing, do things “out loud,” show it not write it, and I often given in, knowing this is their ideal learning setup. But shouldn’t they be challenged to work in the other way as well? How is a kid going to function in life if he can’t sit down in the quiet and balance his checkbook? So I force my extroverted, ADHD kids to do part of the class at their desks (which they hate–they all want to sit in a circle at the table and gab) and, mostly, in silence. It’s always pure torture, at first. But with practice, they become more self-regulating.  They take time to figure out problems by themselves instead of immediately jumping up and saying, “I can’t do this.” I see signs that it helps their spinning monkey-minds slow a little.

My point: both introverted and extroverted skills are necessary, and both can be taught.  As an introvert, I spent a lifetime learning how to be a good extrovert. Looking back, I remember some of the most stressful and yet fulfilling school-life accomplishments were in my speech classes.  I worked hard at those speeches, and these days, I feel like I’m a good public speaker.  But it is still very hard for me.  I can be gregarious and friendly in groups (beer helps, which Susan Cain calls “a big glass of extroversion”), yet I’ll be exhausted when it’s over.  But I’ve trained to be a good extrovert when necessary because it is a valuable skill to have.

The question is, if our world is built for extroverts–the classrooms, the offices, the social world–then are we training our kids in introverted skills, too?  As Susan Cain makes clear in her book, don’t we still want, need, our kids to have introverted skills? Yes. We need to train our youth to be able to pause, work in solitude, think deeply, focus for long periods of time.  That’s how many big problems get solved.

So, of course, the answer is always balance. These days, my classes are cut in half–half working at desks in quiet, and half at the table in group. I prefer the quiet, my students like the group work. Schools and offices should be careful to not over-extended their extroverted natures, assuming full engagement and interaction is always necessary. I still get angry over “important” meetings I’m forced to attend that could have been dealt with in a short email, but the extroverts prefer to say things than to write.  And I snicker when people talk about going to the movies or out to dinner alone as if it’s some kind of test of their resilience. I love going out alone.  My wife and I give each other weekends to recharge and grow. She’ll go away with girlfriends; I’ll go away, you guessed it, alone.

I thought I was a weirdo. Maybe I still am. But I’m not alone, at least not in spirit.  Take some time this week to nurture your opposite nature.  If you find you area always engaged and with people, take a few hours to cultivate the practice of silence and being alone, preferably outside.  If you find you are always alone, take some time to be with people.

I’ll end with a great quote by theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.

 

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