Being “Quiet” Pt II: A Final Word

Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

– Susan Cain, Quiet

Read Pt I here.

It’s occurred to me that my last post might have sounded a bit too self-centered, and it was, but you’ll have to indulge me as I complete my thoughts on this book. There’s a reason I (perhaps ironically) can’t stop talking about it. It’s really changed everything for me.

This is me at around 3 years old.

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Doing dishes is something I’ve kind of always loved.  When my parents had dinner parties, I would jump up and start washing the china and loading the dishwasher after everyone was finished. At a Thanksgiving we spent at a family friend’s house, I started doing dishes after dessert was put out. In fact, cleaning in general was always a bit of a hobby – I took over my family’s laundry duties in high school, and was known to spend a lazy summer day completely reorganizing our spice cabinet and tupperware drawers. I always assumed it was because I have some OCD tendencies and cleaning has always given me a sense of efficiency, that wonderful feeling of checking something off a to-do list while helping to relieve the stress of others.

What this book has brought me to realize is that, for better or worse, my propensity for cleaning is not primarily driven by selflessness. Doing these chores that no one else wants to do almost always translates into getting alone time with my thoughts. While the dinner party chatter continued in the dining room, I could be escaping from the overwhelming stimulation of having to be “on,” answering our guests’ questions about school, making small talk. I liked sitting at the “adults’ table” because I usually just listened, but after a while the multiple simultaneous conversations and the small talk got exhausting, and the kitchen sink was my escape. It’s a chore than no one wants to do, so I was generally left alone…and it was heaven. Plus, I was rewarded with plenty of praise and gratitude; it was a win-win.

I could give a million other examples like this. And this is a quality of which I’ve always been proud; I figured out pretty quickly that being “different” could frequently be used as leverage that impressed others. And maybe it was that, my ridiculous love for washing dishes, that gave me the strength to quietly rebel against other norms.

I don’t wear jeans. I just don’t. I pretty much never have. From 4th through 7th grade my closet almost exclusively contained the flowy rayon patterned pants that my mother wore to her corporate office job. We could even share clothes during the brief months that we were the same height. During 8th grade, yoga hit yuppie America hard and Old Navy started making yoga pants, and it was over. I wear them every.single.day. They are comfortable, quite flattering on me, and can even be dressed up when needed.

As you can imagine, being the single human being in a classroom not wearing blue jeans (teacher included) could have had some dire effects on my social status. And I got plenty of questions and weird looks about it, even in college. But I’ve never changed. I wear jeans like I wear make-up – when I’m going somewhere for a short period of time where tight, breath-restricting clothes are for whatever reason necessary (i.e., dance clubs or Halloween). Being different was hard as it always is, and perhaps even more so as a highly sensitive person who reacts to every look and tone around her, but for some reason I never let it change my style. And that, I think, says more about who I am than anything else ever could.

Quiet showed me that maybe I wasn’t as “different” as I thought. There are others – a third to a half of the world’s population – that could tell similar stories. People who became researchers because they craved the solitude and intellectual engagement, musicians who love most of all to play in the pit orchestra because they’re out of the spotlight, and maybe even a fellow happy dishwasher or two. Reading this book was like someone finally handing me a license to be who I am, to follow my natural instincts and know that it was okay to do so.  I don’t think there are words that can really fully explain just how huge that is – and trust me, I’ve looked.

I feel like I’ve been fighting against our extroverted culture my whole life. I know that sounds quite angsty and maybe a little grandiose, but I also know that I’m not the only one who would say the same thing about themselves. When you grow up in a culture that forces group work on you from preschool on, that only listens to the loudest ideas instead of the most thoughtful, and that tells you that being a socially-well-adjusted person means turning 21 and drinking your liver into a coma to the thumping beat of music in a crowded bar at 3 in the morning…it’s hard to tell yourself that you’re not weird for disagreeing with those things. I can still feel my stomach sinking when a teacher announced the next project would be in a group, or when someone would tell me they “don’t do email” and I’ll have to call them on the phone (the latter, as you can imagine, still happens). It wasn’t until I read Cain’s book, however, that I learned that I shouldn’t feel guilty when my stomach sinks at the prospect of personal interaction. It’s what I imagine a woman in the 60s would have felt reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

No one who knows me would have any trouble believing that I am an extreme introvert. I need a LOT of alone time, and as uncomfortable and guilt-ridden as it can feel, I’ve always been pretty insistent that I get it. That often translated into getting myself out of parties after a long week at school and spending much of my summers alone. I probably wouldn’t have survived college if I hadn’t been blessed with a wonderful roommate & best friend who is not only a wonderfully easy person to get along with, but was also gone on most weekends. College was an enormous challenge for me – I was 1000 miles away from home, being intellectually challenged more than ever, and was almost constantly surrounded by people. I made it through, and even thrived while I was there (and miss it terribly!) – but I also spent my three months of summer vacation mostly by myself. My [mostly extroverted] parents were always worried that I was doing myself major psychological harm, but I knew it was what I needed to get through the next year. Of course, there is danger in being alone too much, but I’ve learned that there are some signs my body will give me when that happens, and I do actively work to keep myself engaged – hence, I am currently working 2 internships at 42 hours a week and bounce all over the entire Bay Area via public transportation every week.

I don’t hate being around others. In fact, I crave conversation as much as anyone; the difference for most introverts is that we crave deep, meaningful conversation about topics that we’re very passionate about, and small talk exhausts the hell out of us. If you met me at a party, you wouldn’t necessarily know I’m an introvert, because I am perfectly sociable and I learned that the key to social interaction is asking people about themselves. Nope, you’d have no idea I wasn’t having a great time, because you wouldn’t see me go home afterwards and watch some tv or listen to music while reading blogs for hours to “come down” from all that stimulation. No one is purely introverted or extroverted (because, as Jung himself said, that person would be in an asylum), and part of becoming comfortable with who you are is figuring out how to keep a balance between the two.

As you probably know, three weeks ago I moved from my home in Massachusetts to Berkeley, California for an internship. I’ve said that I wish I’d had this book four years ago, because college would have been such a different experience for me, but I’m relieved beyond words that it came out just before this move happened because I know it has been the most helpful tool I could possibly have armed myself with during this huge transition. The power that this book gave me to honor my introverted self has made the turbulence of the last 3 weeks bearable and, at times, even enjoyable. And that is why I’ve talked your ears eyes off about this book – because, far-reaching and cliché as it may sound, reading it actually did change my life. It’s hard to shut up about something with that kind of an impact.

The author, Susan Cain, recently gave a TED Talk on her work, which you can watch here. She’s a great speaker. She was also interviewed by Arianna Huffington – who, it may surprise you to know, is an introvert – and it was a really fascinating conversation. Whether or not you’ve read the book, they’re definitely worth a watch (for extroverts, too!). Susan Cain’s site is also host to her own blog and a really cool forum, if you’re interested.

I hope these posts haven’t been interpreted as me whining about how hard it is to be an introvert; there has definitely been some of that, but my purposes were really more to share my own story because in reading this book I connected with so many of her subjects’ stories, and it felt wonderful to know I wasn’t alone. So if you stopped reading 800 words ago, that’s okay. But if you read it all…

Thank you for listening.

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