I Have Two Heads: Introverts, Unite!

Opinion by Rachel Kolb
Feb. 15, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

I Have Two Heads: Introverts, Unite!To people who know me, saying that I am an introvert comes as no revelation. What might be more surprising is how I struggle with a measure of insecurity about how my nature predisposes me for real-world success. This past fall, I stumbled across a 2003 article from The Atlantic with one of the best definitions of introversion that I’ve ever read: introverts are people who find other people tiring. The way we recharge our batteries is by withdrawing into ourselves. I read this description and just about whooped in recognition. While I enjoy the company of my friends, and while I can be garrulous with my family, I desperately need my daily dose of alone time. I sometimes worry about the degree to which I like being by myself. After all, I’m at Stanford, surrounded by fascinating people, but sometimes at the end of the day I only want to clam up into my study lair with a sign on the door that reads, “Do not disturb.”

To put it simply, too much social interaction leaves me short-circuited, yet Stanford is a place designed for the open exchange that makes academic innovation possible. I’ve noticed a tension between my withdrawn, “studious” qualities and the overall energy of the Stanford campus. To be sure, private study is an essential part of being a Stanford student — none of us would be here if we didn’t have the ability to retreat into our own minds and focus. Yet in terms of campus atmosphere, extroversion takes a dominant role. Outside of the sometimes-daunting task of speaking up in class, there is always some colloquium or speaker event to attend, or some student-run activity, or some group-focused gathering to fill the leftover time. Come interact! all those neon flyers scream. Come meet people and discover something new! Ours is an age of continuous networking, an increasingly public sphere that offers less and less space for self-reflection. In many ways, it is an age not very conductive to introverts. And this tension has made me ask: just what sort of personality best fits into the academic setting, or into any sort of open discourse?

From a strictly school-based perspective, I see two somewhat contradictory stereotypes at play. The first encompasses the highly verbal people who, simply from their lack of inhibition in sharing their opinions, garner the most public attention. For me, this “verbal vomit,” so to speak, was present even in high school, where I remember a correlation between teachers’ favorites and the people who said the most in class. These people were the ones more in line with the extroverted mold, who had a backwash of ideas that could dominate any conversation, sometimes without regard for making sense. The quieter students, the ones who mulled over what they wanted to say but who had to be prompted to say it, were often less successful in defining the mood of a class. Our world is a world where the people who cannot keep their ideas to themselves will tend to dominate those who are more reserved — do we not see this with political lobbying, activist groups and celebrities? What is more, our culture tends to associate high verbal skills with intelligence, when the attribute in question might be no more than sheer force of personality.

The second stereotype I imagine in terms of the academic setting is that of the bookworm. Being “bookish” (if not quite “nerdy”) evokes visualizations of the classic introvert. Granted, it might inspire images of a stodgy Casaubon as often as it does an obliging Cincinnatus, but nevertheless it fits well with associations of deep thinking. People respect, even romanticize, individuals whose ideas are heavy but whose words are few. If you don’t believe me, google John Wayne. However, there are dangers in this assumption just like there are in allowing a single perspective to dominate a conversation: how do we really know that the man sitting on that bench staring off into space is probing unprecedented intellectual depths? He could just be bored. From the flip side, how do we know that someone is brilliant unless he says something to prove it?

At this point, I’m tempted to raise the question of which individual can exercise the most influence in the university setting, the social magnet who always has an opinion, or the more reticent, self-reflective thinker. Of course, the answer is neither. Both have their place, and true innovative ideas require a mixture of self-reflection and self-expression. Introverts and extroverts can be equally good at both, and so the difference between these personality traits seems to boil down to how we process our thinking in a social context. In the end, individual success may result from how well we recognize and manage our natural inclinations.

And, however charismatic an image Stanford presents, I know that I must be walking among some closet introverts. Go ahead, close that door and breathe. Just don’t forget to come back out.

Rachel is privately pondering whether “introverts unite” is really an oxymoron. Draw her out of her shell at [email protected].

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