In the world of the extrovert, introversion is undesirable at best. At worst, introversion is distinct threat to the established social order. The extrovert's world is bright, noisy and stimulating. It dictates to us, demands our attention and more often than not, distracts us from things of true value. Things like time with family, time alone with our thoughts, and the benefit of doing things for no materially valuable reason. It's an effort not to succumb to its lure. So much so that many of us relate being busy with personal value and worthiness. We put on a show to convince ourselves and our peers, that this model for life is good, right and proper. Our introverted needs play second fiddle to the needs of an extroverted world where Mr and Mrs showy pants are king and queen. In this week's article, I'm shining a critical light on this phenomenon.
An Introvert Playing Extrovert
About ten years ago, I took the recommendation of a friend and business partner and joined a local business network.
I hated it.
But the voice in my head said I needed to do it. It was for my own good, and the good of the business.
Every Friday at 7:00 am for four years, I adopted a disingenuous personality. I would make up empty conversations with people I couldn’t relate to, (although there were some with whom I did), and pretend to be someone I was not.
Everyone engaged in the pretense — that was the culture.
I’ve no doubt that some members felt at home being Mr or Mrs chatty pants, front and centre, bathing in the glory of being number one in referrals for the month. But I didn’t — I felt like an alien. I was forgoing my authentic self for a rotten carrot on a stick. The hustle–the pursuit of leads and sales was of highest importance, apparently.
It’s not like I needed to be there.
The prior years from 2001 were kind to me based on genuine connections I had made in sporting and social circles. Without precondition or ulterior motivation, people got to know the authentic me and referred me to their friends and colleagues.
But I was chasing bright and shiny things.
I spent every moment trying to land new business and fight fires. I neglected the customers who supported me in the early days of the business, and crucially, I neglected my sense of integrity.
A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.Arthur Schopenhauer | Philosopher
These days it’s different.
I work alone mostly, and on the occasion I’m working in company, I try to keep to myself. That's maybe why writing suits me. It's not to say I’m unfriendly and closed off, that I'm socially awkward or petrified of being spoken to. On the contrary, I enjoy the company of others and value friendship. But when I’m in my work, I need space to concentrate and execute.
There is to me now, an almost immeasurable value in keeping a business of one with little ambition but to engage in the work.
Needless to say, I stay away from organised networking events these days, especially those held by organisations bent on using my attendance and that of others as a marketing exercise. I find these things superficial and disingenuous.
Why do you need a corporate organisation to build a connection with other human beings when a sports club or a social initiative provides this without the superficiality or conceitedness? Some of the biggest business opportunities I received over the last 20 years came from social circles.
On reflection, I appear to be fundamentally introverted, a nerd perhaps, interested in technical things and deep meaningful discussion. I have little time for frivolous, idle nonsense. In a room full of people, I’d rather stand on the edge than move to the centre. I'll take my time, and if I engage with you, I’ll do so because I’m interested in genuine conversation and not because I want to sell you my shit.
There are many people like me, people who retreat to the safety of small numbers away from the noise and vibrant madness of crowds. People who do detailed and expert work mostly in solitude, who recoil from putting on a fake face for the sake of gold. People who need not play Mr or Mrs showy pants to feel valued.
However, it’s a constant battle.
When I was younger, others close to me would say “don’t be so unsociable”. I was a quiet kid, and that insistence from well-meaning others only made me question myself and my motives. Thankfully though, I’ve gotten over that, mostly.
I am an introvert; I am unapologetic for how I am.
You see, the popular, extrovert led social narrative suggests that we should be out there “crushing it”, building our personal brand and hustling for the big win. It’s a narrative built upon capitalist ideals, one that offers no consideration to the merit of introversion and time spent in solitude, and I think it’s damaging.
I run counter to that philosophy.
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.Henry David Thoreau
The Discomfort of Solitude
Perhaps the truth of the matter is that many of us are uncomfortable in solitude. To be alone with only our thoughts is a fate worse than death, it seems. So we use avoidance coping and distraction to deal with our loneliness and anxiety. Our belief is that to be valuable and worthy members of society, to have the right to live, we must join the crowd, be busy, contribute and be productive.
We fill our days with as much as possible — kill that to-do list! Show your bosses, clients, friends and family that you’re a doer!
Smartphones don’t help.
App developers and their corporate financiers are voracious in their pursuit of users because monthly active users equal potential advertising dollars. They build algorithms upon principles of predictable human behaviour that have been linked to addiction. They want your attention and are prepared to go to substantial lengths to get it.
So at what expense?
People are not referred to us for smartphone addiction. It’s usually for anxiety, depression or other things but when you start to unpack their issues, a problematic relationship with technology is often there.Dr Colman Noctor | Psychotherapist, St. Patricks
Physicist Alan Lightman, in his book In Praise of Wasting Time, calls the always-on nature of things, The Grid, and says it is an addiction. He recalls a conversation he had with New England psychiatrist Ross Peterson. Peterson says that the source of increased depression and anxiety in teenagers is their “terror of aloneness”. Lightman says this terror “is intimately connected” to the intense, always-on world in which we live.
He offers evidence from a 2015 study of social media use of 13-year-olds at the University of California and the University of Texas. The research found for these teenagers that “there is no firm line between their real and online worlds”.
Lightman also cites Psychologist Jean Twenge from her book, iGen. Twenge quotes 2007 research that claims since the coming of the iPhone, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children agreeing with the statement “A lot of times I feel alone”.
Correlation, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.
I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude, but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me.Charles Bukowski
To exist, for many of us, to be someone of significance within our particular social circle, there must be feedback from other members. They are vital to our existence. To be alone and exist without peer validation seems impossible. But then in parallel there is the need for alone time. It’s like a psychological tug of war.
I know what I prefer, I’m just not too sure how to resolve the conflict.
Perhaps I can’t.
I’ll still enter crowds and be with other people — it’s unavoidable, although things are different now post Covid. I’ll go there and wear a mask (pardon the pun) and pretend, just like everyone else. The difference is, when I'm there I know it's a game. I know I can take off the mask and be comfortable on my own.
I think that’s vital for a healthy mind.
In solitude there is power, peace and integration. It is something that cannot be found in the company of others. So I will retreat to that as often as possible.
I think you should too.
How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.Virginia Woolf
In Praise of Wasting Time by Physicist Alan Lightman
This book costs only a couple of quid, and it is a short and valuable read. If you are looking for valid reasons to give up the hectic pace of life, then grab yourself a copy.