Introvert Challenge: Work Conference

There was a certain research technique I’d been wanting to learn.  Our lab had been paying someone else thousands of dollars to do it for us, but the technique seemed simple enough to learn, and my boss thought it would be useful to have someone in our lab able to do it…and potentially charge other labs thousands of dollars to do it for them, too!

Some Googling revealed a 4-day workshop in Bar Harbor, Maine, where I could get hands-on experience with not only that technique but a whole range of useful procedures.  I proposed it to my boss, who approved it as a good use of our precious grant dollars, and with the help of our wonderful secretary I was soon registered and booked on flights.

In the days leading up to my trip, the only thing in my head was: What the Hell Was I Thinking?

I was faced with the prospect of four days in close quarters with complete strangers, including at least one social event of the type that I like to call “mandatory fun.”  And I got to kick it off by sitting for hours on a plane next another stranger, who would probably want to tell me about her grandchildren or something (best case scenario).

QuietIn the years since I’ve read Susan Cain’s book Quiet, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with the side of my personality I now know as “introvert.”  I am happy to report that having a haircut is no longer a crisis for me, as now have a regular stylist that I can chat with easily (or not! silence is good, too).

Acknowledging and working with my introversion has reduced my anxiety (another side of my personality) in social situations.  During my work trip, I worked actively to get the most out of the conference while not getting overwhelmed.  I want to share some techniques I used and some revelations I had.

Introvert Survival Tips for Business Travel

  • Get a Kindle

Or some kind of e-reader.  Introverts tend to be readers, and I always take books when I travel, but it has never been more convenient to bring lots of reading material with you than with the current capability and ubiquity of e-readers.  I read four books during this week-long trip!

You can use e-readers on your flights as long as they’re in “airplane mode,” and nothing politely says “don’t talk to me” better than your nose in a Kindle.  We had all of our evenings free during the workshop, so heading to bed early and reading for several hours was a wonderful way to recharge after a busy day.

  • Make a good first impression

First impressions are important.  I know your flight was delayed two hours, and you fell asleep in the cab to the conference center, but pull it together!  Being polite and friendly at the outset will buy you goodwill later.  People will still think of you as nice instead of standoffish when you skip the nightly social events.

Keep a reserve of conversation topics for mingling; remember you are there for work, after all, so you can always talk shop.  At our welcome reception, I discovered another participant was actually from the same Ohio town as I am!  We got to be friends over the week and even shared a ride back to the airport.

  • Find the other introverts

You are not alone!  According to Cain, around one third to one half of people are introverts, and there are bound to be some at your event.  The best lunchtime I had at the workshop was actually not eating alone, but at a small table with 3 other researchers where we got have an hour-long, in-depth discussion of our various research projects, and how we hoped the techniques we were learning would benefit us.

Later in the week, I took a spontaneous trip into the downtown of Bar Harbor with this small group; we wandered together for a while, then apart for a bit, then reconvened for a stop at the ice cream shop before heading back to the conference center for dinner.  Bar Harbor is an adorable town and I might have missed seeing it if I hadn’t gone with a group.

Bar Harbor
  • You can always try again

So you don’t feel like going to the bar with your colleagues one night.  That’s fine!  They are (probably) not judging you.  Tomorrow they might go somewhere different, and you will join them.  Skipping one (or a few) social events to read in your room does not mean you are barred from socializing for the rest of the conference.  Networking is important, so do some schmoozing when you can, and don’t feel guilty when you need a break.

I’d love to hear more from readers about other ideas for dealing with business travel as an introvert. Leave a comment and we’ll have a nice, in-depth introvert discussion.

I am happy to say I had a wonderful trip.  I learned what I went to learn, and had a great time doing it.  Of course I did.  I don’t know why I was so worried.

(You can check out some pretty pictures from the trip here.)

Spreading the Quiet Revolution

Over the weekend two signed copies of Quiet (by Susan Cain) arrived on my doorstep.  I am an introvert, and this book was fundamental for me in coming to terms with that aspect of my personality.  It’s a great starting place if you are trying to understand introversion for whatever reason.

These books are for my dad and my sister, both of whom share some of my introversion.  And they also read a lot.  (Mom, I’d love for you to read it, too!)    It’s my way of spreading the Quiet Revolution, which is Susan Cain’s current initiative to empower introverts all over the world.

You, too, can get an autographed copy of Quiet, courtesy of Pickwick Bookshop.  Yes, that’s right: to order a book about introverts, you must call a store on the phone.  Bwahahaha.  It’s kind of like a sick joke.  Or maybe it’s just a good opportunity to stretch our extrovert muscles.  In fact, I had to call the store twice because they lost my order the first time.  Just chalk it up as another Introvert Challenge.


Famous Introvert-Extrovert Pairs

One of the best points of Quiet is how much introverts and extroverts can benefit from each other, and how they often work well together in teams.  I personally have found myself most successful in leadership roles when I am paired with an extrovert.  The book brings up several examples of famous introvert-extrovert pairs.  Let’s keep in mind that it can be difficult to tell if someone is really an introvert unless they specifically declare it.  I am more concerned here about the “introvert characteristics” that they display.

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs
Since many introverts, like myself, are nerds or geeks, this pair–the founders of Apple Computer–will really hit home.  To the public, Steve Jobs is synonymous with Apple; even after his death he is the face of the company.  He is the classic extrovert salesman.  Steve Wozniak, on the other hand, is the “nerd soul” of Apple, and his 2006 autobiography details how he built the first PC–namely, alone.  He sees solitude as an integral part of innovation: “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee.”  Without either half of this partnership, the world would certainly be different today.  Without Jobs, there certainly would be no Apple, and without Woz, PCs as we know them today might not exist.

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Stepping back in time a little, this pair changed America during the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.  Parks showed her “quiet strength” when she refused to give up her seat to a white man and precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott.  She was a private person, worked as a seamstress and secretary, and her serene dignity engendered respect.  Dr. King was a born preacher who also believed in nonviolent civil disobedience.  He saw Parks as a “catalyst,” and used her example along with his impressive speeches to bring the topic of racial discrimination and civil rights activism to the forefront of our national conscience.  Dr. King was one of my childhood heroes, but nowadays I am more focused on emulating Rosa Parks’s quiet strength.

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most admired women (ever!), yet she was painfully shy as a young woman and never really enjoyed small talk.  She occasionally suffered from dark “Griselda moods” that drove her to solitude.  It was her empathy for others and her passion for social justice that drove her to push past that.  FDR, in contrast, was vivacious and charming, and while their marriage was not romantically a success, their partnership as a political team was unparalleled (see also, Hillary and Bill Clinton). Eleanor served as Franklin’s conscience, reminding him of issues important to the Americans, bringing him the true condition of the country’s people as she toured during the Great Depression.  And FDR was then able to use his political talents to make the country a better place as the longest-serving president in US history.

Moses and Aaron
This one seems more dubious, as the introvert-extrovert labels rely on details translated from centuries-old documents; the Bible is not really meant for psychological analysis of its characters.  When God appears to Moses as a burning bush, Moses has been working as a shepherd, a quintessential introvert job.  He is meek and uncertain and describes himself as “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10, NRSV).  He is only convinced to go to Egypt when God says that he brother Aaron should go with him to “serve as a mouth” for him (Exodus 4:16, NRSV).  Essentially, Moses will handle the content and Aaron the presentation.  And between the two of them, they convince the Pharaoh to free the Israelites.

It is possible to find introverts as literary protagonists as well. Jane Austen, from the Regency “Culture of Character,” has a particular talent for writing developed characters, many with positive introvert characteristics.  Probably an introvert herself, she is a keen observer of the human psyche.  She has several introvert protagonists, notably Fanny Price of Mansfield Park (whom I can’t stand) and Anne Elliot of Persuasion (who is my favorite of all her protagonists).  Her most famous book, Pride and Prejudice, has some excellent examples of relationships between introverts and extroverts.

Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley
Jane’s quiet nature and empathy for others (even Mr. Wickham!) are introvert characteristics that balance nicely with Mr. Bingley’s clear extroversion.  He is always with friends, rushing off here or there in pursuit of some amusement.  They conclude with a happy ending together (although Mr. Bennet is sure that they will be “cheated assiduously” by their servants.)

Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet
I see Lizzy as being more in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.  True that she likes long solitary walks and observes others closely, but she has key extrovert qualities as well.  It is her vivacity and ease in society that mesh so well with Mr. Darcy’s introverted reserve and gravity.  Elizabeth herself comprehends this:

“She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.” (Chapter 50)

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet
For a twist, here is an introvert-extrovert pair that never learned how to communicate with each other and suffered for it.  Mr. Bennet likes to read alone in his library, rarely goes to parties, and doesn’t want to call on his neighbors for introductory small talk.  Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, is “quite unable to sit alone.”  But neither can see the other’s virtues, only their deficits, so they have no appreciation for each other, and whatever attraction they had at the beginning of their relationship is not enough to keep it happy.  It is important to remember that introversion-extroversion is but one facet of a personality and cannot be used to explain everything about a person or a relationship.

Book Review: Quiet

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is one of those books that has the power to change your worldview.  No matter who you are, introvert or extrovert, you will come away knowing yourself better.  The book looks at introversion from a sociological perspective, not a psychological one.  (Cain also talks a lot about traits that are correlated with introversion, such as high sensitivity and high reactivity.)  The breadth of the book is impressive; you could even read just one or two chapters and still come away with a feeling of having learned a lot.

I admit, the ideas in Quiet were a minor epiphany for me (I interrupted my husband’s bedtime reading many times by exclaiming over something I just read).  I have always assumed that my quiet nature was weird, that it could only hinder me.  My lack of ambition would prevent me from turning a job into a career, and my penchant for reading instead of partying would preclude close friendships and dates.

Quiet postulates that I had these ideas in my head partly because society put them there.  The book begins by setting the stage with current (often unwitting) attitudes toward introversion.  Contemporary American society adheres to the Extrovert Ideal, venerating the assertive and outgoing.  We idolize movie stars and strive to be smooth-talking salesmen.  We live in the cult of Personality–instead of the cult of Character that previously held sway.  We now read self-help guides about how to appear confident and energetic, while a century and a half ago we would have to looked to books like “The Pilgrim’s Progress” for guidance. It is not surprising that introverts (a third to a half of society) can feel marginalized and discounted.

Quiet then goes on to discuss why this is a problem.  Our workplaces and schools are built around extroversion—open office plans, group brainstorming, team projects, etc. Because these circumstances favor extroverts, the ideas of introverts often get overlooked.  Studies have shown that extroverts are not smarter, nor do they have better ideas.  They are not always even better leaders.  So if we want to fully use all the resources available to increase workplace creativity and productivity, etc., we need to learn to work with introverts.  Introverts, likewise, need to learn how to cope in an extrovert world while staying true to ourselves.

As a scientist, one of the most fascinating parts of the book was the discussion of the genetic, neurobiological, and psychological bases of introversion.   I am not sure if others will find it too technical; I found it very readable.  All the studies are cited in the back of the book as well.  Cain tries to not get hung up on terminology and technical distinctions so that we can appreciate her overall ideas.  Some points that stood out to me: introversion has both innate and learned components; other animals display introversion-extroversion; introverts tend to be more intrinsically motivated and less reward-seeking—this segues into the chapter theorizing that our current recession was precipitated by the extroverts of Big Business who didn’t know how to check themselves.

The last part of the book delves a little more into the “self-help” realm, but the tone of the book doesn’t change at all, so it doesn’t feel preachy or fake-cheerful.  Cain suggests that introverts can act like extroverts, but at a price—it saps our energy, so we should try to build breaks into our day to recharge ourselves.  Sometimes, it behooves us to be more extroverted, but our listening and empathetic abilities can also be powerful tools.  We can also begin to encourage our introverted children to be the best they can be, in a way that they can relate to.  We can avoid labeling them with the stigma of “shy” and give their teachers tools to help them learn in their own way.

I wish I could mention every point that was novel or personally relevant to me from this book, but that would be a book in and of itself!  Just go get it from your library, and get through what you can with whatever time you have.  You don’t even have to read through it like a novel, just start with a section that sounds interesting to you.  Quiet is not a quick read, but it is engaging, and it will be highly rewarding.


  • Rating: 4.5/5
  • Recommended for: introverts and those who love them
  • Not recommended for:

–people already very comfortable with their introversion
–people looking for self-help
–psychologists/people wanting clear definition of psychological terms, or those who dispute the works of Jung, Kagan, or Aron