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Read Susan's #1 most-emailed New York Times article
on the value of shyness and introversion.

Are You Shy, Introverted, Both, or Neither (and Why Does it Matter)?

galen humors Are You Shy, Introverted, Both, or Neither (and Why Does it Matter)?Bill Gates is quiet and bookish, but apparently unfazed by others’ opinions of him: he’s an introvert, but not shy.

Barbra Streisand has an outgoing, larger than life personality, but a paralyzing case of stage fright: she’s a shy extrovert.

Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments. Some psychologists map the two tendencies on vertical and horizontal axes, with the introvert-extrovert spectrum on the horizontal axis, and the anxious-stable spectrum on the vertical. With this model, you end up with four quadrants of personality types: calm extroverts, anxious (or impulsive) extroverts, calm introverts, and anxious introverts.

Interestingly, this view of human nature is echoed all the way back in ancient Greece. The physicians Hippocrates and Galen famously proposed that our temperaments – and destinies – were a function of bodily fluids. Extra blood made people sanguine (calmly extroverted), yellow bile made them choleric (impulsively extroverted), phlegm made them phlegmatic (calmly introverted), and black bile made them melancholic (anxiously introverted.)

But if shyness and introversion are so different, why do we often link them, especially in the popular media?

The most important answer is that there’s a shared bias in our society against both traits. The mental state of a shy extrovert sitting quietly in a business meeting may be very different from that of a calm introvert – the shy person is afraid to speak up, while the introvert is simply overstimulated – but to the outside world, the two appear to be the same,  and neither type is welcome. Studies show that we rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likable, and even smarter than slow ones.

Galen aside, poets and philosophers throughout history, like John Milton and Arthur Schopenhauer, have associated shyness with introversion. As the anthropologist C.A. Valentine once wrote,

“Western cultural traditions include a conception of individual variability which appears to be old, widespread, and persistent.  In popular form this is the familiar notion of the man of action, practical man, realist, or sociable person as opposed to the thinker, dreamer, idealist, or shy individual.  The most widely used labels associated with this tradition are the type designations extrovert and introvert.”

Were these sages flat out wrong? No. Psychologists have found that shyness and introversion do overlap (meaning that many shy people are introverted, and vice versa), though they debate to what degree. There are several reasons for this overlap. For one thing, some people are born with “high-reactive” temperaments that predispose them to both shyness and introversion. Also, a shy person may become more introverted over time; since social life is painful, she is motivated to discover the pleasures of solitude and other minimally social environments. And an introvert may become shy after continually receiving the message that there’s something wrong with him.

But shyness and introversion don’t overlap completely, or even predominately. Recently, I published an op-ed in the New York Times on the value of these two characteristics. It touched a chord in a readership hungry for this message. It quickly became the #1 most e-mailed article, and I received over a thousand heartfelt notes of thanks.

But some letter writers felt that the article conflated introversion with shyness and, as such, had misrepresented them. Though I did make a clear distinction in the piece between the two, these writers were correct that I moved on quickly, perhaps too quickly, to other subjects. I did this because of space constraints – if I had tried to explain everything I just outlined above (and even this post only scratches the surface of a highly complex topic) I would never have gotten to the real point  – the importance of shyness and introversion in a society that disdains them.

Still, I understand why non-anxious introverts feel so frustrated when people treat them as if they’re shy. It’s inherently annoying to be misunderstood, to be told that you’re something that you’re not. Anyone who has walked down the street deep in thought and been instructed by a stranger to smile – as if he were depressed, rather than mentally engaged – knows how maddening this is.

Also, shyness implies submissiveness. And in a competitive culture that reveres alpha dogs, one-downsmanship is probably the most damning trait of all.

Yet this is where the shy and the introverted, for all their differences, have in common something profound. Neither type is perceived by society as alpha, and this gives both types the vision to see how alpha status is overrated, and how our reverence for it blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise. For very different reasons, shy and introverted people might choose to spend their days in behind-the-scenes or “passive” pursuits like inventing, or studying, or holding the hands of the dying. These are not alpha roles, but the people who play them are role models all the same.



My Mother’s Lover: Reading Ideas for the Weekend

mymotherslove 1306513994 210x280 My Mothers Lover: Reading Ideas for the Weekend

Hi everyone.

Here’s a must-read for the weekend:

My Mother’s Lover,” by David Dobbs. It’s the true story of a World War II love affair that Dobbs’ mother kept secret, until she left her kids a puzzle on her deathbed.

This is a short e-book/long story, and you have to buy it via Kindle or Ibooks. Normally I like to recommend free links, but this one is only $2-3, and it was an instant #1 hit on Kindle the day it was published.

If you recognize David Dobbs’ name, that’s because he’s the science writer who published another must-read essay that I recommended a while ago: “The Science of Success,” published in the Atlantic magazine last year. This article revealed a groundbreaking new theory of genetics, positing that most people are born to be as hardy as dandelions, while others are more like orchids: fragile and sensitive, but “capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care.”  Many shy or introverted children fall into the latter category. It’s fascinating stuff, and Dobbs is expanding it into a book, to be published in another year or two.

I’d love to know whether you enjoy these pieces. If there’s enough interest, perhaps we could invite David to join us for an interview or blog chat.  If that appeals to you, please comment below or send me a note.

Have a terrific weekend!



Seven Ideas on How to Overcome Fear and Become More Creative

creativity2 Seven Ideas on How to Overcome Fear and Become More Creative
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 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.”

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.

(*Long-time readers of this blog may recognize some of these ideas. Occasionally I’ll re-post older articles that original readers might like to review and newer readers would enjoy seeing for the first time.)

Do these ideas resonate for you? What are your tips for stoking creativity? Please share; your fellow readers will benefit.



Is President Obama an Introvert?

In yesterday’s New York Times op-ed on political leadership styles, David Brooks describes President Obama as a non-hierarchical but passive, thoughtful yet aloof leader:

“I would never have predicted he would be this sort of leader. I thought he would get into trouble via excessive self-confidence. Obama’s actual governing style emphasizes delegation and occasional passivity. Being led by Barack Obama is like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. He makes you want to sit down and discern.

But this is who Obama is, and he’s not going to change, no matter how many liberals plead for him to start acting like Howard Dean.

…If he can overcome his aloofness and work intimately with Republicans, he may be able to avert a catastrophe and establish a model for a more realistic, collegial presidency.”

This portrait of a cerebral, slightly removed person is echoed in Obama’s own book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Early in his marriage to Michelle, Obama writes, he was working on his first book and “would often spend the evening holed up in my office in the back of our railroad apartment; what I considered normal often left Michelle feeling lonely.”

Obama attributes this behavior to the demands of book-writing and to having been raised mostly as an only child, but I wonder if it’s better explained by who he is – an introvert in politics.

What do you think? Is Obama an introvert, an extrovert, or a little of both? And how does his personality work for and against him?



How to Transcend the Red-Blue Divide: Make Everyone Sit Still

When was the last time you watched a political news program whose outlook you didn’t agree with — not to make fun, or to take pleasure in criticizing, but because you sincerely wanted to learn something?

If you’re like most people, the answer is probably “never,” or thereabouts. The U.S. has famously divided into red and blue states whose citizens vote Republican or Democrat, and who have little tolerance for the other side’s point of view.

Psychologists proffer many explanations for this polarization, including “confirmation bias,” a quirk of human nature that leads us to focus on information that confirms our original beliefs, and to tune out the rest.

But recent research suggests that our action-oriented “Just do it!” culture heightens this tendency. The psychologists William Hart and Dolores Albarracin recently conducted a series of experiments showing that when people’s minds are attuned to the idea of action, they become more close-minded. They don’t slow down cognitively to consider other people’s points of view.

Here’s a description of the first of these studies, from Miller-McCune:

“72 undergraduates were asked to consider the question of whether hate speech should be banned from college campuses. They read about a specific case and then expressed their preliminary position, knowing they would have the opportunity to read more information on the subject.

The students were then instructed to complete a simple word test during what they were told was a “brief break” from their experiment. All were presented 12 words with missing letters; they were asked to fill in the letters and complete the word.

For half the students, eight of the words were action-oriented, including “motivation,” “doing” and “active.” For the other half, eight connoted inaction, including “still,” “pause” and “calm.”

Participants were then asked how strongly they held their beliefs on the hate speech issue. Afterward, they were given a chance to consider new, relevant information, in the form of 12 thesis statements that either supported or opposed their viewpoint.

The researchers found the participants with action concepts on their minds held firmer beliefs and were more likely than the others to choose statements that were consistent with their own opinions. Those who completed the words connoting passivity were also prone to this bias but to a significantly lesser degree.”

We live in a society that regards passivity as a moral failing. But if sitting still opens minds and promotes bipartisanship, then we could all use a little less action and a little more contemplation.


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Why Reading Makes You Self-Confident

library1 Why Reading Makes You Self ConfidentOne of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was being born into a family that elevated reading to a religious activity. The weekly trip to the library was a form of Sabbath observance in our house. Then there was the yearly pilgrimage to London, which we visited with an empty suitcase reserved for gorgeously written children’s books unavailable in the U.S. I remember the names of the bookstores we loved:  Hatchards, Foyles, Blackwells — they were like temples to us.

This was great luck for the obvious reasons: reading is fun, reading is illuminating. Reading fiction even makes people more empathic, according to research I wrote about here.

But lately I’ve been thinking that there’s another reason I was blessed to land in a family of book-lovers: self-esteem. Many writers of children’s books are introverts, or sensitive, or both — and so are their protagonists.  My children’s books were filled with quiet, intellectual types, and they were usually endowed with magical, artistic, or observatory powers.

A classic example is A Wrinkle in Time, whose protagonist Meg Murray is self-conscious, cerebral, and amazed by her younger brothers’ easy popularity. Children naturally esteem central characters, so I was in the fortunate position of respecting someone who was very much like me. But it wasn’t like I thought: here is an admirable fictional person who, like me, is out of the mainstream. Characters like Meg were the mainstream in my books, so I assumed I was too. It took me years to understand that this was incorrect, and by then it was too late — my self-esteem was (more or less) in place.

Books, especially children’s books, are one of the few media to portray introverts as intellectually and emotionally aflame, as opposed to aloof, flawed, or dull. This is especially important for children, who seem to read only for plot but are actually forming their view of the world — and of their places in it.

I think this is true of grown-up books too, even non-fiction. Books require readers to be slow and contemplative as opposed to fast and active. They are not for the frenetic of heart. The same goes for writers — plenty of my author friends are extroverts, but many more are not, and even the extroverts have to slow down and think carefully if they want to generate 100,ooo+ coherent words.

What do you think of this theory?  I wonder if gaming plays this role for some kids today. Also curious which books meant a lot to you as children and who their protagonists were.




“Shyness — An Evolutionary Tactic?” Read the New York Times Article, and Join the Conversation Here!

SHYNESS popup Shyness    An Evolutionary Tactic? Read the New York Times Article, and Join the Conversation Here!Today, the New York Times debuts the inaugural issue of a new section called The Sunday Review — including a piece  I wrote on the importance of shyness and introversion. It’s available here.

I’m optimistic that the Times‘ interest in this subject signals a turning point in our culture — that people are ready to see the value of introversion as well as extroversion, shyness as well as boldness, quiet as well as loud. I sense that a paradigm-shift is underway.

And I’m thrilled that readers of this blog are a part of it. Please join the conversation by reading the article and commenting below. I’ll be participating actively along with you.

Looking forward to a great conversation!

(*I’m excited to report that the article is now the #1 most e-mailed piece in the entire Sunday Times.  The Quiet Revolution has begun.)





Quiet: The Book
"Mark my words, this book will be a bestseller."

- Guy Kawasaki on QUIET, forthcoming from Crown Publishers in 2012.

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16 Things I Believe

1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16.“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi