I watched this morning as my children – two very different kids – got out of the car and headed off to the school. My older son who is so very self-possessed marched right up to his friends and they all quickly gathered around him to say good morning and see how his weekend was. My other son – younger, a bit more insecure little bit more timid – walked slowly and lazily around to the door where his second grade class enters. He waved to one or two children along the way but was busily living inside of his own head thinking about “stuff”.
I sat in my car and watched them both and I couldn’t help but think about what DNA went into each one of them allows them to be the people that they are. I also can’t help but compare it to what I was like when I was a child. I suffered through every morning, going to school wondering if any of the kids would even talk to me. I was so painfully shy, so painfully insecure, so certain that nobody would be my friend. As I look at my older son and his strut and his swagger as he moves up to see the other kids, I long to be back in school and to have his confidence and his power. On the other hand, I also appreciate the quiet intensity of my younger boy who is, frankly, oblivious to the need to be cool and cares only about the thoughts that flutter through his mind. There is serenity in his demeanor and his lack of need to race to socialize with the other kids. However, my child is no wallflower. He will chat up children and adults but he does it on his own terms whenever he desires.
Over the last few days many of us saw the video of Susan Cain’s talk from last week’s Ted conference. Susan recently released a book about the power of introverts called Quiet and her talk spoke to many of the same topics in the book which suggests that we, as a society, value extroverts and create professional and educational environments that cater towards their behaviors. Susan suggests that, in contrast, there is a lot of power in the behaviors and styles of introverts. Most of the world’s creative geniuses unleash their creativity in an introverted manner. She talked about Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, who developed his ideas alone in his cubby at HP. He later went on to collaborate with Steve Jobs but his original creativity was cultivated in a quiet introverted place.
I have always been intrigued by the notion of extraversion vs introversion. I am a lifelong student of human behavior and it is my habit to watch people’s behavior and learn from understanding how others think and act. For most of my life I considered myself to be an introvert with extraverted tendencies. Because I have always been quite shy around strangers and never enjoyed networking, I defined myself as an introvert. I spent the bulk of my early childhood alone, never having attended preschool, and did not make friends easily. I was a voracious reader and had a rich fantasy life. I wrote stories all the time, tapping into the creativity that introverts often nurture. Even as I got older and became more social, it was not something that came naturally to me. I often felt awkward despite my growing desire to spend more time in social situations but slowly became the life of the party. Regardless of my evolving social status, my belief was that I was purely introvert flexing some extraverted muscles. As a young adult, I would take quiet weekends alone for introspection. When I began commuting into the city from the suburbs, I would opt for solitary reading time on the train rather than insert myself into the countless social circles that would be chatting away on the ride in and out of the city.
It was only a few years ago that I began to consider a different reality. As part of my work, I was asked to take a personality assessment using the HBDI tool. This tool, a bit different from others I have used in the past, measured my thinking style and looked at my personality from a whole brain perspective. Ultimately, the test determined that I lean much more heavily towards extraversion than introversion. Big surprise! I really was quite surprised to learn that, after 40+ years of believing that I was an introvert that, perhaps, my tendency was towards extraversion and that my natural inclination was clouded by unnatural factors such as my experiences through childhood, insecurity, etc. When in my most natural state and being most authentic, I am an extrovert with introverted behaviors. I had to completely readjust my perspective about myself and, with this new classification, I actually came to embrace my extraverted self. I spent a great deal of time exploring the reasons for my introverted behavior and decided to own the fact that I am an extrovert (which most people who know me well will say they knew to be true all along).
Yesterday I was having a great talk with a friend about this topic. We were discussing important relationships in our lives and how we could potentially improve our interactions if we began to understand their personalities through this lens. I talked about my husband who is very naturally social and, in my estimation, exudes confidence. What I know about him after being together for 20 years is that he is more naturally an introvert. He likes to think alone and needs quiet downtime. While he is not a big reader, he enjoys sitting on the couch alone watching very cerebral television shows on the History Channel and the like. He does not crave social interactions and does not feel the need to expel every thought from his head to socialize it with others. This makes for an interesting dynamic in our house because I want to go out and socialize with friends as frequently as possible and I cannot process my feelings without some type of extraverted dynamic. I surround myself with a large groups of people so there are always people around for me to talk to and gain lots of different perspectives. On the other hand, I can also lock myself in a room for hours and write endlessly and feel a tremendous amount of peace with this. For my husband, this would be a living nightmare. He’d rather sit at the bar at his restaurant and chat with the patrons. It all seems a bit like a giant contradiction until you look at the most natural tendencies we have. According to research, very few people are truly at one end of the spectrum or the other but, instead, most sit right in the middle leaning towards one end or the other. So, for me, I am not 100% extrovert but I am probably in the 70-75% range with some tendencies towards introversion. My husband is likely the polar opposite or leaning a bit closer to the middle as an ambivert.
Interestingly, when I read the results from my HBDI which listed one of my strongest quadrants as the one that focuses on interpersonal, spiritual and emotional behaviors, it suggested that I have both introverted and extraverted tendencies here. My introverted self is expressive through writing or non-verbals and caring in a quiet way. At the same time, my extraverted self is talkative and interested in bringing people together and sharing. Both are equally true for me. However, in my strongest quadrant which is the creative quadrant (which seems naturally introverted to me, by the way), I excel in an extraverted way in that I have a constant flow of ideas and love to have fun and experiment with others rather than the introverted corollary which is characterized by being off in your own world, doing your own thing and being a loner. That is certainly not me.
This all is so fascinating to me because, as I continue to evolve my own thinking about human behavior and as I apply it to my work in dealing with individuals and groups in the workplace, it really is quite powerful. As Susan Cain outlined, we put such a premium on collaboration both in schools and the workplace that we may be forgetting about the value that comes from quiet, independent thought. That hit right to the core with me because I know that, without my quiet time, this blog would never exist.
So, as I look at my kids and their individual styles, I love and respect them both. They each dip their toes into the introvert and extrovert styles and their personalities continue to evolve. One thing is for sure, I am not about to push them in any direction that they are not already comfortably living in.