Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Not Quiet, Not Loud

I just finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I initially decided to read it because I have a couple of classic introverts working for me, and I wanted to better understand their style of work.

I have always considered myself an extrovert, so I didn't expect the book to tell me much about myself. I was wrong. As I read the book, I was surprised to recognize myself in some of Cain's descriptions. It turns out, I have two attributes of extroversion: I don't mind meeting new people or speaking in public. I certainly would not strike anyone who met me as an introvert. However, I have several characteristics that Cain identifies as being part of introversion or as often coexpressing with introversion: I dislike conflict. I dislike small talk and prefer conversation about weighty topics, even with people I've only just met. And most importantly, I find being in large groups and public speaking to be draining, not energizing. If asked what I want to do for relaxation, I certainly would not say "go to a large party" or anything like that. I like parties (in moderation!) but I usually want some downtime afterwards.

I thought a little bit more about that last part, and I realized that I find the following parts of my job the most tiring: running meetings, negotiating agreements with other groups, and handling disagreements and conflict. I find the following parts of my job the most energizing: breaking down a problem and brainstorming possible solutions, analyzing options and deciding which one to implement, implementing solutions. Hmmm. So the people-oriented parts of my job are tiring, and the analytical and problem-solving parts of my job are energizing. This shouldn't surprise me. If I'm asked to say what motivates me in my work, I will invariably answer that I like learning new things and solving hard problems. I have never once answered that I like working through competing viewpoints to find a path forward that is acceptable to all parties or monitoring/gatekeeping other people's work loads so that they can get their most important tasks done somewhat on time.

And yet, as I've advanced in my career, my jobs have gotten more and more people-oriented and less and less analytical. I spend the majority of my time on the negotiating and gatekeeing and have to work hard to protect time for analysis and problem-solving. Oops.

I feel a bit unmoored by this discovery. It casts a new light on my recent career concerns. If I steered my career to such a serious mismatch between my job requirements and the things I find most energizing, what is to say I won't do it again with any changes I make?

I am unsure of what to make of this new realization about my personality. Obviously, personalities are more complex than a simple introvert-extrovert scale, and Cain makes that clear. She also mentions ambiverts (people who are in between extroversion and introversion) and discusses pseudo-extroverts (introverts who are able to act like extroverts despite the drain on their energy this causes). So what am I? An ambivert? A pseudo-extrovert who fooled even herself? Something else entirely? The correct label for me doesn't really matter, of course- but having an accurate label would at least give me something to go research as I attempt to figure out what to do next.

As it is, I'm in a muddle. How much of my current churn is due to a mismatch between my job and my personality, how much is the from the collateral damage from 15+ years of dealing with sexism (for instance, today I discovered that my recent misstep in the labyrinth continues to cause damage), and how much is just a garden variety midlife crisis?

I've also found myself surprisingly short-tempered with my family lately, and I wonder if some of that is just too much energy-draining people stuff at work colliding with having a mommy-centric 3.5 year old and a delightful, energetic but sensitive 6 year old at home. Maybe my reserves are just depleted. It makes me sick to think I'm wasting all my patience on coworkers behaving like 3.5 year olds and yelling at my sweet, wonderful, and frustrating actual 3.5 year old. I have to fix this.

So I looked at the complexity of this ball of issues, and decided I need some help. I found a counselor in my work area whose areas of expertise seemed to match my issues, and I've reached out to set up an appointment. I'll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I can wholeheartedly recommend Quiet as a very thought-provoking book, even if you think you're an extrovert!


  1. I'm not surprised. I came out an ENTJ on the Meyer's Briggs--which really excited a head hunter. I was upset that I didn't come out a classic scientist type, but she said that ENTJs were the most sought after technical managers.

    But, I think I took the test on an extroverted day, and it was a borderline E. I enjoy people in small to moderate doses and protect my time alone for deep thinking and creative projects.

    1. I test as an ENTJ. I still think that E is accurate given the Myers-Briggs questions, but that my reality is more complicated.

    2. I test as an ENTJ at work - certainly compared to many of the 'typical' engineers I work with I'm very extroverted. But, compared to most of my friends, I'm the 'quiet' one. It's about context as well as innate personality. This week I had a lovely, quiet restorative day by myself on Monday (not working, not looking after a child) and then on Tuesday I had a 'no meetings theoretically writing a report day' at work but I totally drifted through the day and ended up leaving early because I'd been so totally unproductive. What I think I should have done in hindsight, was find someone to talk to about what I was working on to rev myself up. One quiet day is nice. Two in a row and I drift. I'm too much of a talk-to-think type in the classic, "I don't know what I think until I say it"

      I think at least part of my extrovertedness comes from a childhood where I had to make new friends at school EVERY year because the school population was very transient.

  2. sounds fascinating, I'm an ENFJ, and always always thought I was an extrovert, but as I get older, I think that is changing. Does that mean I changed? Or as you are reflecting, do my life circumstances, and possibly my own development as a human being mean that now for specific reasons I crave solitude and silence more? Its all good though, the insights proffered by reading such books I think. I much prefer the person I am at home during summers, but know that I would hate my career to consist only of summers. In other words, the months off in intensive work and family time balance with the hustle and bustle of life during the semester.

  3. I am a definite introvert, but have extroverted aspects. I really enjoy public speaking, especially about topics that really matter to me. But, i find things like networking, meetings, and conflict really draining. Networking in particular is almost paralyzing for me - I have no idea how to handle it.

    Would love to hear how your counseling session goes!

  4. Anonymous5:35 AM

    Very interesting post, and good on you for getting counseling! Good luck!

    One thing I'd recommend is to read "Nice girls don't get the corner office" sooner rather than later-- it may have some "how to fix" advice for that "misstep." It's also a very quick read (each chapter is ~2 pages).

    @Femomhist: I seem to be getting more introverted as I get older as well, but I wonder how much of that is that my children are becoming people so I get more social interaction at home now and need less of it out in the world.

    1. I read it! It is good, and I agree it is very helpful, particularly for women just starting out in business. But... I'm not in the right disposition to work on the things I highlighted as areas that are potentially holding me back. It honestly just made me angrier right now.

      Some of the problems I'm having at work are being caused by one man. If I behaved how he is behaving, my career at this company would be over. But he is fine, and may even advance. The issue that got me lost in the labyrinth was a direct result of this situation. I cannot blog the details, but my anger and frustration at the situation are part of my ball of issues. I need help sorting through that so that I can make a decision on what to do next that is good for me and not clouded by reaction to him and his behavior.

    2. Anonymous7:15 AM

      That's a bummer.

      Definitely try to separate yourself from the anger and frustration. Whenever I start feeling like that, I always look at my money. I open all my accounts and calculate my net worth. I think about how many months I could live without an income. It helps me detach and not feel trapped. (Sometimes I look up alternate careers and their pay-scales... having a plan B and plan C also helps, as I'm sure you noticed).

      Probably not the recommendation your counselor will recommend, but it helps me! (Well, ze'll probably suggest looking at Plan Bs and Cs.)

      Also, if the situation gets too bad, it might be worth just jumping ship by applying elsewhere and figuring out the big career issues later when you're more relaxed. (It's the company's loss.) Of course, that also leads to the possibility that you'll never make the big career change, but it's still better than staying in a horrible career situation forever.

      I know you've said it's a small industry and word gets around, but you might find that you still have the right words getting around. You are an awesome program manager.

      And as my mom says, if this guy is being a dick to you, chances are he's going to be a dick to the wrong person some day. (Only she doesn't say "dick," because she's my mom.)

      p.s. I'm totally sitting like a girl in my office. I've decided that I'm tenured and I don't care if it sends a bad message to sit on my feet.

      p.p.s. Women can say things like, "inappropriate," "unprofessional," "disappointed" and they can be worried about how people like that are hurting other people and the company (even if not yourself). I liked the way Nice Girls stressed "unprofessional," because I think internalizing that some behavior is unprofessional and you don't have to react to unprofessional behavior other than to label it as unprofessional is really helpful. And you're absolutely right about how it helps to treat someone like a 3.5 year old if they're acting like one (and to think about them that way as well)-- I got so many tips on how to handle students and colleagues from watching DC1's preschool teachers.

  5. I'm reading Quiet right now! I bought it in the airport bookstore after hearing so much about it, mostly because I was interested in the chapter about helping introverted children.

    I often joke that I'm so introverted I'm almost catatonic. I feel my introversion most powerfully since I became a mother and realized how much downtime and solitude I require for my mental health. I can certainly play an extrovert - my job as an academic requires a lot of public speaking & networking, which I actually enjoy, though it requires a tremendous amount of downtime to balance. (I'm an INTJ since we're sharing Meyers Briggs profiles, and every time I read the description it seems perfect.)

    1. Yes, the bits about children- both the sensitive children and the introvert children- were really good. I think Pumpkin is a highly sensitive extrovert. Petunia seems to have more introvert tendencies. It will be interesting to see how she is when she gets a bit older.

  6. Honestly I've gotten a bit confused about the whole introvert/extrovert thing. When I take the Myers-Briggs, I test right in the middle of I and E. I know when younger I loved being around my friends, meeting new people, going to parties---it gave me energy & made me happy. Now I really don't need that kind of interaction; it seems exhausting---but is that because I AM generally exhausted or is it introversion?. I think I really have evolved into more of an introvert with time---or maybe as nicoleandmaggie mentions, its because I meet my quota of "social" time being around my family. I am truly never "alone" anymore.
    But on the other hand, I've always hated conflict and I've absolutely always been shy---so is networking exhausting to me because I prefer to be alone or is it social anxiety? I've heard that shyness and introversion are not at all the same thing but they are hard to separate out.
    I do notice that my 3-year old is quite shy AND introverted---in that he needs to be alone and play by himself for a little while every day, especially after daycare in the evenings. In my mind, this seems like "abnormal" behavior for a small child---I definitely think our perception of what is normal behavior for both adults & children is based on how non-shy extroverted people behave. Thankfully I have a my own experience is a painfully shy child to help guide my husband and all the grandparents on what NOT to say to my pre-schooler, because I remember lots of well-meaning things my parents said & did that made me feel so bad about myself.
    I really need to read that book!

  7. I always test as an IN and the other two letters vary by the day, but I've always thought of myself as an introvert despite the fact that I'm very loud and am delighted to speak in public and am reasonably good at working with people.

    People are often amazed that my child (who is 16 months) will play by himself. I like to claim that I'm teaching him by example. :)

  8. I am wholeheartedly an extrovert. However when I'm falling into depression, I start exhibiting introverted characteristics. Another factor is having loud young children... so my natural extroversion gets superseded by my need for what I don't get much of... peace and quiet.

    I have "Quiet" on my library list as it was recently recommended for helping me figure out how to help my oldest daughter. She's always been spirited/high-needs and one of her needs has been to be around people. So imagine my shock when I've recently made some connections about her behavior and the fact that I think she may actually be an introvert. So she has a need to be with and interact with people, yet it exhausts her. No wonder it's hard to be L!!

  9. Mr. Sandwich and I liked Cain's book so much that I want to give copies to Baguette's day care. And her grandparents.

    I'm an "ambivert," although I'm not crazy about the word--I think it's hard enough for people to start to understand introverts properly without introducing a new term that is, frankly, kind of clunky.

    I am more likely to describe myself as "cuspy" (based on my Myers-Briggs results) or "an introvert who likes to show off" (based on my behavior and preferences).

    Another book I liked was "Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead (But Gutsy Girls Do)" by Kate White. It helped me figure out how to assert myself in ways that seemed comfortable to me. If I'm remembering Frankel's book correctly, I liked the overall idea, but found that many of her recommendations were things that simply did not fit my character and personality.

  10. I think I mentioned on my blog before but the world, from school to work, definitely favors the extrovert. I think that is part of the reason I haven't advanced that high up the ladder. I find extroverted-related activities tiring so in order to really advance in my field, the shift would be as you described -- at least 70% people-oriented work --which just makes me tired. It's unfortunate because I think that many introverts can add value to a company in leadership positions but are not given the chance since our society (esp in the U.S.) rewards extroverts.

    1. This is a huge part of what she talks about in the first chapters of the book! The extrovert ideal and how it permeates everything in the US.

  11. How funny, I was thinking about recommending this at bookclub. I found her interview a lot more engaging than the book as it is a little slow at times, but it really struck a chord with me.

  12. I should definitely read this book. I'm consistently INTJ, and very strongly I. And as you mentioned and as Erin did, in my job (as an academic) increasingly to move ahead I need to do things that are draining as an introvert- manage people, deal with conflict, give talks, network. I find I spend a lot of effort working at these things and trying to get better at them. The thing is the NTJ in me really enjoys the other aspects of my job, the creative, planning, sciency parts, so I just push through my discomfort.

    One thing I find interesting is that while I'm strongly introverted, I do gain energy from talking to and being with my husband. In that way it's almost like he's an extension of myself, and being with him is almost like being alone. Maybe it's just because I don't get to spend enough time with him alone, so don't feel like I need more breaks from him.

  13. paola4:30 AM

    Sounds like an interesting read.

    I would consider myself a slightly shy intovert, but there is no way that I'm quiet ( you know, Italian). As a result, I probably come across as being outgoing, which gets me into all sorts of problems, when I suddenly start to exhibit my natural traits. My line of work ( teaching) has been great therapy, so too has my lifestyle and all that moving about and having to start over and over again.

    For the moment Noah is definitely an outgoing extrovert, Zoe a shy extrovert, which is probably the most difficult combination to manage.

  14. I'm an introvert, but not a shy one. I enjoy interacting with people -- even public speaking! -- but I need solitude to recuperate.

  15. I really like Susan Cain's book but I thought she confused the issue by conflating introversion with shyness. She mentions that they are different but tends to focus on the latter more than was useful for me. The best article on introversion remains Jonathan Rauch's Atlantic piece: Caring for your introvert. I found his definition the most apposite: do you gain or lose energy when interacting with people? I am very good at being outgoing and dynamic but I pay for it afterward (a pseudo-extrovert in Cain's list).


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