I stood in the crowded airport minimart at two in the afternoon, my face in a book to hide the tears. Between the goodbyes, the airplane fears, the luggage concerns and overall traveler stress, I really don’t understand why everyone looks so calm in airports. Then again I am rarely able to mask my own emotions, even when I think I am; something in my expression always gives me away!
On top of all of this leaving-home emotion, just as heartbreaking as that first goodbye seven years ago, was the devastating realization that I had forgotten my Kindle in my room. On it were the three books I was planning on reading, one for the plane, two for my week alone in Milan.
While irritating, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. On impulse I bought a book by Susan Cain called, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” and for the next ten hours was entertained by Cain’s fascinating journey into the world of introversion and extroversion. Did you know, for example, that introverts are more likely to function better without sleep, delay gratification, refrain from adultery or making rash decisions, to ask “what if”, and are actually physically more sensitive (e.g. they actually salivate more)? These generalizations may sound absurd, but the introversion/extroversion spectrum of personality is one of the most deeply studied in psychology.
As a singer and performer and extreme introvert, I can’t deny that a strong personal interest in the subject kept me hooked. Long before I ever took the proverbial Meyers-Briggs personality test, I was painfully aware of how different I was from the rest of my theater-mates. While I loved the stage, and even more so the music and drama that took place on it, between acts you could always find me hiding in the corner of a dressing room, my nose in a book. While I could laugh myself to tears when with my family, and talk for hours on end with close friends, I was terrified of that wild, raucous party that was the green room and so avoided it at all costs. Often one of the other girls would come in and ask what was wrong, and I would just say, “I really like reading.” Perhaps I should have said, “I’m an introvert and feel out of place in large crowds. I’m perfectly happy though to have a nice, quiet conversation with you about something we both care about. No small talk, please.”
The strange thing was, even when I got over my “shyness”, my love of close friends, quietness and solitude never changed. To this day I still feel horribly out of place in crowds and parties, even though I know how to handle them, and nothing energizes me more than meditation, a meaningful conversation, or a good book. The big difference from before is that, even among entertaining extrovert-types, I don’t see my introversion as a curse, and now, with the help of Cain’s book, I’m actually starting to think of it as a blessing in disguise.
I can’t speak much for other professions, but as an introvert in show biz, it’s hard not to feel like a sheep among wolves. That’s probably why I didn’t audition for a single show during my four years in college, and preferred instead to organize my own musical projects. And just as none of those projects would have happened had I not had the focus to pursue them, I’m also starting to realize that I have introversion to thank for my very best qualities. It allows me to delve deeper into a character, to daydream about a song, and respond more sensitively to the subtleties in music, not to mention spend hours alone in a practice room. In fact, singers at the very top, the ones who travel and tour internationally, must be very comfortable with hours of solitude in order to stay sane.
My introversion helps me in other unexpected ways. It gives me the perseverance to write in this blog, week after week. It helps me think before I say or act, and on a deeper level, shields me from the empty pursuit of fame and fortune (Cain’s chapter on extroversion and reward-motivation is definitely worth a read). And since I’m often surrounded by people who like to talk, it helps me be a better listener, as long as my mind is not wandering in some fanciful daydream (had to add that caveat so my dear husband doesn’t scoff!).
Certainly there are times (for example NOW, as a stranger in a new country) when I wouldn’t mind a slice of the extrovert pie. In many Western countries and perhaps most of the world, we live under what Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal. Almost daily I wish for more confidence, a faster conversation reaction-time, and the ability to tell a long anecdote without feeling the immediate need to apologize afterward.
There are, and most introverts have already discovered them, ways to gain these skills through careful study, or to successfully act the part of an extrovert for a good cause and limited time. More on this next week, and how to find your “sweet spot” regardless of where you fall on the spectrum.
In the meantime, with which type do you identify? Do you ever feel that your personality is at odds with your profession?