An Introvert’s Confession

First published March 1, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I am an introvert.

Which, I guess, qualifies as an introvert’s confession — a metaphorical “coming out of the closet.” But if you were an introvert, you would know that’s the last thing you really want to do. The closet is such a non-threatening place to be.

A few columns ago I wrote about personality tests and said that, according to the Myers Briggs Personality Test, I’m usually tagged as an “INFJ” – which, according to the labels applied, means I’m an Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling and Judging person.  Apparently that’s one of the rarest of the 16 personality types. Only 1% to 3% of the population are “INFJ”s. Depending on when I’ve taken the test, the last two letters have wavered a bit, but never that first “I.” I am, was and always will be an introvert.

I write this from TEDActive – which may just be the definition of introvert’s hell. It’s a gathering of some 600 well-meaning, gregarious TEDsters in the desert east of LAS (Palm Springs) who are prodded at every juncture to “interact” and “connect.” A good question would be, “Why the hell would you subject yourself to that?” A better question might be, “Tell me why this is this your third TEDActive.”

This year, much to my delight, one of the speakers of the first day of TED was a fellow introvert, Susan Cain, who spoke (much to her discomfort) on the TED stage about the importance of introversion. Internally I cheered, because that’s what we introverts do. Externally I stayed calm and expressionless, because that, too, is what we introverts do.

Let me tell you how an introvert negotiates the social minefield that is TEDActive. Tonight (being the night I’m writing this column) is “Free Night,” which means you’re supposed to somehow connect with a group of five to eight total strangers and invite yourself out to dinner with them at a local restaurant.

Yeah, right.

I, to the contrary, bailed out of the last session early (which was not that big a sacrifice, frankly) and snuck away to a local diner to grab a quick bite, by myself. By the time the rest of the TEDActive crowd was heading out to dinner with their new friends, to be followed, I assume, by poolside partying and midnight karaoke, I was already back, safely ensconced in my hotel room, writing this column.

If you were judging me through an extrovert’s eye, you would probably be using words like “antisocial” (you do know what “introvert” means, don’t you?) and “pathetic.” What you don’t know is the profound pleasure an introvert can get from observing life and thinking about how it all fits into the bigger picture. As I sat in that diner, I watched a four-generation family reunion unfold before my eyes. I watched a mom take her 3-year-old daughter for a walk around the restaurant so she could be the center of attention as her new shoes sparkled and lit up with each step. And I asked myself why most of us adults don’t feel the need to wear shoes that light up when we walk through a restaurant. What happens along the way that steals that wonder from us?  If I were there with a group of others that I felt compelled to socialize with, I would have never seen that sight. That’s an introvert’s modus operandi: we observe, we think and we wonder. There are worse ways to spend your life.

Now, to be clear, I don’t skulk my way through the entire TED program avoiding eye contact and sneaking back into my hotel room. I had a very enjoyable conversation at lunch about space travel, the global rebalancing of wealth, the ethical dilemma of artificial intelligence and how our sense of entitlement may kill North America. That’s why I have come back to TEDActive for three straight years. But by 6 p.m., the tank was full. I needed some solitary time to digest.

My career has forced me to take on some extroverted characteristics. I’ve had to learn to speak in public. And owning your own business dictates that you become a salesperson. But I can’t live on a steady diet of that. At the many search conferences I attend, I usually stay at a different hotel than the “official venue.” It just makes life easier. And my longtime industry friends can tell you that I’m much more comfortable with a quiet dinner and engaging conversation than the more gregarious gatherings around the hotel bar.  That’s just how I roll.

As an introvert, you get used to living in a world that’s largely defined and judged by extroverts. As Susan Cain pointed out today in her talk, somewhere in the 20th century, the value of character somehow slipped and gave way to the cult of personality. We introverts are constantly made to feel that we should be more “outgoing.” Perhaps, though, the rest of the world should become more “thoughtful.” Would that be such a bad thing?

All of this has little to do with search engines or digital marketing. But I do think that our newfound digital connections may actually turn the tables on the imbalance between the introverts and extroverts of the world.  It seems to be less of a social stigma to spend time by yourself. And thanks to online connections, we can now connect on an “as required” basis.  Perhaps, as a society, we’re beginning to put more importance on the value of individual contribution.

Maybe, just maybe, the introvert’s time has come.

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