When I was researching my upcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I met a scientist performing groundbreaking work on the neurobiology of social anxiety. An articulate and seemingly confident man, he confided that his interest in the subject came from his own struggles with shyness. When I asked if I could tell his story in my book, he hesitated. “I don’t think so,” he told me. “Not everyone is as comfortable as you are exposing their true feelings.”
To that, I could only say: “Ha!”
Because I am not a natural self-exposer at all. In fact, it took me thirty years to realize my childhood dream of becoming a writer, mostly because I was afraid to write about personal things — yet these were the subjects I was drawn to.
But eventually my drive to write grew stronger than my fear, and here I am with my first book coming out next year. I do envy friends of mine who write about impersonal subjects, like science or politics. They can announce their book topics at dinner parties without having everyone wheel around to ask, “Are you an introvert?”
But you know what? I’m getting used to the self-exposure.
I tell you all this because I hear often from readers who want to flex their own creative muscles, but are held back by the fear of “putting themselves out there.”
Maybe you fear others judging you, and your work. Or you’re uncomfortable with self-promotion. Or perhaps you’re afraid of failure, or of success.
So many fears, so much creative drive. What to do? Here are seven ideas to help you power through these disabling emotions.
1. Know that you’re in good company: Creative people have always had to put themselves out there. There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days about how the greats of the olden days, people like Harper Lee and Emily Dickinson, didn’t have to self-promote the way we do today. This is true. But they had to go public with their deepest feelings and beliefs, too, and this has always been scary. Darwin waited THIRTY-FOUR years to publish his theory that humans evolved from monkeys. Scholars call this “Darwin’s Delay,” and many believe it was due to his fear of how others would judge his heretical idea.
2. When it comes to social media, think self-expression, not self-promotion. Here’s a comment I get a lot: “For a quiet person, you sure do a lot of blogging and tweeting.” I think this is a great misunderstanding of social media. Blogging and tweeting, if practiced properly, feel more like a creative project than an exercise in “brand-building,” even though of course they are both. They also don’t require the all-hands, in-person social multi-tasking that many people, especially introverts, find so exhausting. In fact, an online poll on Mashable, the social media news site, found that only 12% of its readers were extroverts. (See also this blogpost on “Why Introverts Love Social Media,” from Mack Collier, a prodigious blogger and social media consultant whose Facebook page reads “Online extrovert, offline introvert. It’s complicated.”)
None of this exempts creators from old-fashioned, in-person appearances, of course. But online social media helps to ease the path toward live interactions. You can break the ice with strangers online, and feel as if you already know them when you meet “IRL.”
3. Coffee is magic. It gets you up and excited about new ideas, and helps you ignore the chorus of judgers inside your head. I’ve found it to be so potent that I allow myself to drink it only when I’m working, so as to preserve its magical powers. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way about caffeine: there’s a saying among the number-crunching crowd that “a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” Johann Sebastian Bach loved caffeine so much that he wrote a Coffee Cantata. Balzac, Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire all swore by their cups of Joe.
4. Train yourself, a la Pavlov, to associate creative work with pleasure. In addition to my daily latte, I usually work in a sunny café window and indulge in a nice warm slice of banana-chocolate bread. I would probably be five pounds lighter without this habit, but it’s worth it. By now I so associate writing with pleasure, that I love it even when when I don’t have a picture window or slice of cake handy.
5. Work alone (or “alone together” – for example, sitting by yourself in a coffee shop or library). There’s a lot of nonsense floating around these days about how creativity is a fundamentally social act. Ignore this. Yes, creativity is social in the sense that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us; and, yes, collaboration is a powerful and beautiful thing (think Lennon and McCartney, or any mother-and-child pair bond.)
But for many people, the hard, sleeves-rolled-up creative thinking process is a solo act. As William Whyte put it in his 1956 classic, The Organization Man, “The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle… People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create.”
Working alone also frees you from the fear of judgment. Forty years of studies have shown that individual brainstormers produce far better ideas than those who brainstorm in groups, and researchers believe that one major reason is that the “evaluation apprehension” people experience in groups stifles creativity.
Studies also suggest that the most spectacularly creative people are introverts or have introverted streaks. Why is this? Do introverts possess some magical quality that aids creativity? Maybe, but the more likely answer is that introverts like to work alone. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck once observed, introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, if you’re in the backyard sitting under a tree while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, you’re more likely to have an apple fall on your head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts. William Wordsworth described him as ‘A mind forever/Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone.’).
6. Work at night when your cortisol levels are lower. When I was a kid in summer camp, I noticed a strange pattern. I was horribly homesick first thing in the morning – I would lie in my bed waiting for the bugle to blow signaling the start of the camp day, and would be wracked with longing for my mother’s kitchen table. As the day wore on, the homesickness faded. By nighttime, I was having a grand time and could think of the family kitchen without a pang.
I was sure I’d wake up the next morning feeling just as strong. But the homesickness always came back.
Back then I couldn’t explain this pattern, but I can now. Cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it peaks in the morning and steadily dissipates throughout the day.
So while you probably think most clearly first thing in the morning, you may be at your least inhibited at night. I’ve noticed that interesting turns of phrase and associative leaps come much more easily in the evening hours. And indeed creativity researchers believe that a relaxed brain, a brain that is not in the grip of anxiety or blocked by other psychological barriers, is a more creative brain.
7. Strengthen your backbone, and therefore your confidence, in small steps. Get in the habit of asking yourself where you stand on various questions. When you have firm opinions or a strong sense right or wrong on a given question, savor the feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of question – it can be how to organize the silverware drawer, or who should run for City Council.
The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center, and operating from it. Then, produce your creative work from this same place. You’ll still have doubts about your execution, of course – is this any good? Does it make sense? Will people like it? That’s normal. But you need to have confidence about the underlying purpose of your undertaking.
(This post was inspired by my friend Jonathan Fields’ influential SXSW talk on “Fear and the Art of Creation,” co-presented with Chris Guillebeau of the blog, The Art of NonConformity. You can visit Jonathan’s and Chris’ excellent websites here and here. Jonathan has a big book on creativity due out this Fall.)
Good words and a great list.
I do not feel very creative these days, maybe I am finally mildewing from so much rain!!!
Rather I think I am reconsidering my life and how I live it. One of my first thoughts after my mother died was that now I could write a book and get it published. Before nearly every time I sang or gave a speech, my Mother would say something about no one likes to be embarrassed by a speaker. I always thought that was because what I said embarrassed her – which much of it did.
I like writing because when someone responds I can see how my words intrigued a different idea in them and I can respond to that difference. When I am in general conversation people often can not understand what I am trying to say…
and after pushing a bit then they can free themselves from what I am saying. I often say the very tough things. People feel free to cut me off or tell me I am being negative…I can not tell you how many people after my sermons have said, “I could not hear you”.
I like twitter and facebook because it helps me share in smaller bites
Thank you for your good words here
I had no idea that cortisol levels tend to be lower at night. I wonder if that has anything to do with those of us who tend to be night owls even when we try not to be. Hmmm…methinks I must research that little tidbit. Thanks! Another fascinating and insightful article!
All those years as a kid…thinking I was odd because all I ever wanted to do was be alone and think
Again, you’ve given us such an insightful and helpful post. Resounding with me is ‘work at night’. Many ask me ‘why are you up so late??’. Because I’m calm and relaxed; I can hear myself better. Social media has given me a lot of courage to share thoughts … but I often find it, too, has its challenges. What do you think of the idea that, in some ways, social media can serve to create greater isolation? Love your mind so very interested in your thoughts on that.
Tobey, your phrase, “calm and relaxed; I can hear myself better,” grabbed me. Now, do you suppose that is because the rest of the world is mostly asleep or because of the cortisol level that Susan mentioned?
I meandered my way into a career (as a U.S. Senate transcriber) in which I work from home, something I really love. I work mostly at night, because I feel more awake and aware and clear-headed. Now I’m going to have to research whether that’s related more to cortisol levels or simply fewer phones ringing and fewer airwaves jammed with invisible noise floating through our heads.
I’ve even wondered whether it’s because I can sleep during the day, when perhaps, and presumably, I should be doing other things, things that I really hate doing, like paying bills, cleaning closets, or — gak! — exercising!
Now that I’ve added my website fun to the mix (purely because I enjoy it), I’m even more fully loaded at night, and I’m loving it!
Avoidance or cortisol or biorhythms or the night sky? Hmmmm…
So hard to know. It could be an infinite number of things I suppose…the sound of crickets at night, the moonglow, etc. Tobtest whether it’s partly avoidance, though, you could ask yourself whether you’re nocturnal even when daytime consists of activities you truly love — not bill-paying or closet-cleaning, which really would be hard for anyone to wake up for!
Test complete…whenever I have attempted to keep a daytime schedule for work (and I love my work), I have absolutely no rhythm and am mostly unproductive, even when I’ve allowed myself time to adjust to the new “time zone.” I have never worked well during the daytime. One of my brothers and both of my children are exactly the same. Go figger.
Anyway, regarding social isolation, which I failed to address when I replied to Tobey’s comment, although he was asking for your thoughts, not mine (grin), I have felt more socially connected since starting up my Website and getting on Facebook than I ever felt before. I am definitely an introvert, and I am definitely distracted and often stressed by the “physical feedback” I get when I’m with other people in person, even people I knew well — interpreting body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on.
And I have stumbled across more interesting people on the Internet, people like Susan, than I might ever have the opportunity to get to know and interact with in person, particularly given that most of my days are spent in the privacy of my own home. But, it’s also made keeping in touch with family and friends much more constant and comprehensive. I’m actually witnessing, and chatting with and about, the daily lives of people I used to only communicate with every Christmas in a summary letter and a single photo. Now I’m watching the kids grow and listening to tales about who experienced what during the tornadoes and so forth.
So, I’m not sure social isolation is really a result of social media. In my case, it hasn’t been. It’s made me feel more connected, so I then take the initiative to get together more frequently in person and we actually have more to talk about.
Depending on how you use the various forms of social media, this IS real life.
Did that help?
Hi Tobey! I think that social media is great yet dangerous. It could easily take up 24 hours a day if one lets it. For me, the two ways to guard against this are (a) limit myself to a couple hours a day — and withstand the feelings of itchy fingers when I don’t get to reply to as many blog comments as I’d like, and (b) periodically meet my fellow social media people IRL. One of the best aspects of social media culture is its friendliness, and so far I’ve found that this extends to real life connections too. What is your experience?
The time isn’t so much the issue for me (although you’re right! It can eat up a week if you let it). It’s navigating the sincerity and the authenticity of others. As an introvert, I think deeply about pretty much everything LOL … I should say I ‘consider’ deeply. When I do put myself out there, it is actually ‘me’.
I’ve often been told that I’m open, friendly, and giving (which is wonderful because that’s my intention!) Yet, I’ll often second-guess myself and that can sometimes isolate me from engaging further. I think there has to be a certain laissez-faire attitude that accompanies social media … what do you think?
Tobey, I thought you might be interested in a clip I heard in a video that I’ll be posting on my Website shortly regarding whether relationships formed via social networks are real. If you are interested in viewing the video, it’s posted in the Talks & Documentaries category and it’s called “How a Community Defines Itself.” The speaker addresses this very issue at marker 2:19 of the video.
Janet – thank you (this slipped right by me); how kind for you to share this. I will definitely check this out. many thanks
My pleasure, Tobey. Just remember that you can find quacks anywhere, even in person. Be who you are, and people will be who they are, and if they are quacks, they will eventually fall through the cracks.
This is a great article, introverts are still much misunderstood! Very useful and helpful list too!
Only semi-related, but this line:
>The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center, and operating from it.
reminds me of a bit from one of my favorite poems:
your indestructible core;
leaving it alone.