I’m an introvert. That’s why you don’t see me at meetings and celebrations. If you do, I’m in a corner looking awkward. That’s why I’m not trying to build a large laboratory of busy graduate students. That’s why I crave time alone to reflect and think, to write and code…

I am not shy: I can talk in front of 200 people without thinking twice about it. I don’t lack confidence. I have a large ego—too large some would say. (I got my wife to read this post and she particularly agrees with this last sentence.)

But my social interactions have high transaction cost: it takes me time and energy just to start chatting with someone. If I have to chat with dozens of people in a day, I end up exhausted. I can’t pretend to be your friend on the fly. My brain does not work that way.

I love how it is progressively becoming “ok” to be an introvert:

  • Carl King wrote a beautiful essay: 10 Myths About Introverts. The last myth is the most important: “Introverts can fix themselves and become Extroverts”. Gays cannot become straight. Blacks cannot become white. I cannot become an extrovert. King’s essay impressed me so much that I bought his book So, You’re A Creative Genius: a great read if you are both a creative person and an introvert.
  • Susan Cain gave a great talk based on her book: Quiet—The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. A core message of her talk is that we should recognize our bias against introverts. Not everyone works best in groups. And that’s ok. Schools and employers need to stop their attempts to fit introverts in the extrovert mold.

Further reading: Venkatesh Rao (another introvert) penned an intriguing analysis of introversion.

Note: This is an expanded version of a Google+ post.

16 Comments

  1. I found this on Hacker News and felt obliged to comment. I am an introvert who considers introversion to be something of a competitive advantage. If needed, I can ‘fake’ extroversion – I can speak in front of a crowd of people, work a room of strangers, and work effectively in a group.

    However, since I am an extrovert, I thrive when I’m alone – consequently, if given some solitary time to prepare, I can bring my A material to a meeting. Or, I can spend a weekend locked up at home working on a project.

    Comment by Greg Hluska — 3/3/2012 @ 19:49

  2. My apologies – the second paragraph should begin “since I am an introvert”…

    Comment by Greg Hluska — 3/3/2012 @ 19:51

  3. I can sympathize with your feelings; I skew introverted too, though I can definitely see a genes and environment interaction with my childhood. And, you either get +10 nerd points for the Monty Python reference, or you need to watch some Monty Python. ;-)

    Comment by Steven Hamblin — 3/3/2012 @ 22:38

  4. Thanks for the references, Daniel. It took me about 8 years of sailing alone on the open ocean to come to grips with my introversion (actually, it only took about a day, but I spent the next 8 years “perfecting” being alone).
    I am married to an extrovert, which creates some interesting “tensions”- mostly involving different styles of interaction with others- I thrive on groups of strangers, while Liz thrives on groups of intimate acquaintances (i.e, family). Since our native languages differ as well, it is sometimes difficult to communicate about these differences…Your references help.

    Comment by Charlie — 4/3/2012 @ 8:49

  5. I think your wife is wrong on several fronts. First of all, compared to many academics, you’re actually pretty humble. Secondly, ego-size is not normally a problem. It’s an ego-size that is disproportionate to ego-achievements which is a problem (a very common problem among academics). At the risk of growing your ego a little more, I think your ego-size (whatever it is) is pretty consistent with your achievements.

    Comment by Andre Vellino — 4/3/2012 @ 10:15

  6. Love your line of ‘can’t pretend to be your friend on the fly’

    Comment by Stephen — 4/3/2012 @ 18:44

  7. Fully agreed. Among the “Big Traits”, the introversion/extroversion axis is one which often gets misunderstood. As an extrovert, I’m glad that these myths are getting debunked.
    And I’m glad you didn’t start attacking extroverts. A year or two ago, some mainstream media outlets started a kind of “introvert rehabilitation campaign” based on something of a confrontation with extroverts. In the process, stereotypes about introversion were replaced by generalization about introversion and stereotypes about extroversion. Not as useful as it may sound.
    As a male feminist, I can relate to much of this. Mainstream machismo gives a lot of weight to extroversion. So much so that introverts are often forced to become more extroverted. It’s essential to rebel against this form of control. Where things become more difficult is when this rebellion takes the form of excluding extroverts. Like the idealization of a woman-only society or an engineer-only one, the ideal of an introvert society is unlikely to help us live happily together.
    Another point about this is that the introversion/extroversion axis is a simplification. It’s not as simplistic as mere dualism (it recognizes “degrees” of introversion). But it hide the contextual complexity of human interaction. I may be a “total” extrovert, there are contexts in which my interaction mode resembles that of an introvert. Part of it may be due to empathy, love of being alone, and the fact that some of the people about whom I care the most are introverts. But we may begin to think about extroversion as a social construct, like gender and “race”.
    Again, you fell in none of these traps and I commend you for a levelheaded post. I just think the conversation on introversion merits broadening.

    Comment by Alexandre — 5/3/2012 @ 9:03

  8. @Alexandre

    It is a simplification. Reality is more complex. This applies similarly to the homo/heterosexual axis too, as it does with race. (What would it mean to be perfectly white or perfectly black?)

    However blunt the labels might be, they can prove useful because by “naming” an intangible attribute, they allow us to think about it, even if it is through a flawed model.

    For example, lots of people (including you @Alexandre) love to hold meetings. I don’t like them: I get little out of them and they cost me a lot in time and energy. This creates some tension as you might call the meeting and I may not show up. Does this mean I don’t like you? No. It doesn’t. If you write a book, I might be the first one to read it, even I don’t show up to the book launch. The reason I don’t show up is that you are promoting a model of social interaction that does not work well for me.

    At work, this creates difficulties. Some people need constant and diverse social interactions. I don’t. I need quiet time. They sometimes don’t. Different needs.

    The solution is obvious: stop trying to apply universal solutions. Let people work the way they prefer without assuming that, for example, having constant social interaction will improve everyone’s productivity.

    But my experience is that extroverts a keen to impose their views, not because they are evil, but mostly because they can’t imagine that others might be different. And there is a widespread belief that those who are not extroverted should simply adapt.

    That’s very similar to thinking that the gays should simply fix themselves and behave like straight people.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 5/3/2012 @ 9:16

  9. @Daniel: Quite so. The next-to-last paragraph is what I meant in my comment about machismo. But some of us do look behind these preconceptions.
    As a straight extrovert male who happens to be an anti-homophobic feminist in love with an introvert, I readily see privilege at all these levels. That’s because I’m an ethnographer and that’s what we do. Not that I always behave in a way to break down privilege, but I try. For instance, I try to use gender-neutral terms to designate someone’s partner in order to fight heteronormativity. But I might slip, though not always in the same direction. A well-known exercise is to switch gender when talking about one’s partner. For instance, I could talk about Sarine, my girlfriend, as if she were a man. It’s quite effective at making people realize all sorts of things we take for granted. (And, yes, it applies to homosexuals as well.)

    The love of meetings is an example. Especially since I began my relationship with Sarine, I became increasingly attuned to different needs. I do love meetings and feel at home in them (though I’m a homebuddy spending a lot of time alone) and I do try to organize meetings and parties as much as I can. It doesn’t mean that I force people to come, that I judge them if they don’t, or that I won’t try other methods to interact with people. In fact, despite my love for larger groups, a lot of what I do is one-on-one, offline or online. When I meet with someone on an individual basis, I often get the impression that they rapidly become quite comfortable. My “extrovert persona” (which is so prominent in large gatherings) transforms into something else. In fact, many people who know me agree that I’m a good listener.

    As an aside on shyness and public speaking…
    While it’s clear that the connection between these things and introversion isn’t linear, there’s a fairly strong tendency for introverts to consider themselves shy. Fear of public speaking is extremely common, and some people associate it with introversion. Which causes a problem, in some contexts, especially since public speaking is highly valued.
    And while I feel I don’t have so hard a time with introverts, I do need to deal with people’s fear of public speaking, especially in classroom and other academic settings. I never force anyone to speak publicly (for instance, I have “office hours” alternatives to classroom presentations). But I try to help people get past their fears, which puts me in difficult situations. Not that I personally think public speaking should be so important. But there’s a strong sense that one can’t “get ahead” without “good communication skills” and these skills are associated with public speaking.
    Which is where distancing the fear of public speaking from introversion can have very positive effects. Some introverts may perceive a connection and refrain from public speaking because they see it as complying to extroverts’ rules. By taking these things apart, it might be easy to get introverts to use their communication skills in diverse contexts.

    But maybe we could talk about this privately…

    Comment by Alexandre — 5/3/2012 @ 9:42

  10. @Alexandre

    Introversion is not about “fear”. I don’t “fear” meetings or public speaking. Do you fear quiet time?

    It is really more about energy, at least for me. I’ll finish a meeting drained of all my energy and it will take me a lot of time alone to replenish my energy.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 5/3/2012 @ 10:01

  11. Exactly. Those who realize they are introverts may mistake the draining effect of publicness as fear. Which makes it harder for them to prepare for public interactions. So, decoupling the two should be useful.
    As for your question, no, I don’t fear being alone. In fact, I cherish it. I’m a social animal but I’m as solitary as you can get. There’a a stereotype about extroverts that we need others for energy. It might be true for some extroverts but nothing could be further from my case.

    Comment by Alexandre — 5/3/2012 @ 10:07

  12. I really doubt you are, because you have a blog that you are obviously enojoying. I once thought to be an introvert. A more careful analysis of my friend demonstrated that I was actually on the extravert side (or a borderline extravert). The truth is that probably very few persons are fully introverted or fully extraverted. It is a spectrum.

    Comment by Itman — 5/3/2012 @ 11:34

  13. Thanks a lot Daniel for this great post.
    Added the references to my “wish list” ;-)

    Comment by Sergio Cruz — 6/3/2012 @ 5:23

  14. High demand jobs for introverts:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/not-into-schmoozing-7-in-demand-jobs-for-introverts-2012-3

    Comment by Andre Vellino — 12/3/2012 @ 10:17

  15. Great link @Andre.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 12/3/2012 @ 11:19

  16. Thank you for this article, Daniel.

    There is a good book called “The introverted leader” by Jennifer Kahnweiler. Even though it is rahter repetitive in some passages, I am glad that such a book exists.

    Not paying attention to your introverted nature can have rather drastic consequences. When you try to ape the dominant extrovert culture, you put a lot of pressure on yourself, as I know from bad experience. The pressure is even higher in business, I guess, than in academia, so as an introvert one should be very careful not to get energy-drained. This can mean that one should leave early at the so-called social events. The downside is, of course, that the introvert misses out on the informal networking stuff, which helps people to boost their careers. It doesn’t matter. Often (and I am overgeneralizing here) introverts tend to be reflective, creative and intelligent people, with a great talent for deep analysis and thorough solutions. These talents should make up for all the beers and chitchat the other folks are having.

    Comment by Martin — 5/1/2013 @ 14:21

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