The Need for Different Strokes

Turning Point

I recently read an article on CNN.com by Susan Cain. It was titled “Introverts Run the World—Quietly.” I read it with some interest because as a writer I am surrounded by introverted colleagues.

So as a certified extrovert I am constantly questioning, “What is wrong with me?” Why do I find holing myself up behind a closed door stultifying while my peers are content to only grudgingly get out of their chairs for bathroom breaks, and then scurry back to their lair for further contemplation on the task at hand?

Why do my best ideas come from corralling one of these colleagues en route to have a conversation about what I’m dreaming up at the moment or wandering from cube to cube just chatting with people as my mind/mouth thinks? Over time, I and my colleagues have come to recognize and explore our differences to the advantage of us all.

One of the first things we learned about each other is that “extrovert” does not mean gregarious or flamboyant any more than “introvert” means shy or reclusive. In fact, the terms are much more interesting than that because they actually explain the thought process of each.

An extrovert tends to think about a thing verbally, through conversation. An introvert tends to, as the word implies, internalize his or her thought process. Unlike my group, which tends to say many things in pursuit of something relevant, introverts tend to speak up only after formulating in their minds something relevant to say.

When I first got into this editorial gig 20 years ago, I found the introverts around me strange. In my previous job many of the people I interfaced with were marketing/sales types and mostly fellow extroverts. Back then, I didn’t understand the nature of extroversion. These people just seemed to be more fun to be with.

In my first year as an editor my boss was an introvert. He is a great person, but strange to me. As I later found out, I was equally strange to him.

We discovered this after taking the Myers-Briggs personality test. We did this company wide, and among editor-types, my score in the introvert/extrovert column skewed majorly toward the extrovert.

My boss at the time scored in the introvert part of the chart as did my other colleagues. All I can say is we are who we are, and even though the extrovert part of my personality didn’t fit the mold, it’s proven useful in my 20-year career so far.

What we all took away from the exercise was a better understanding of each other. The more detailed explanation of extrovert and introvert as thought processes, equally valid, helped me understand these strange internally processing people, and they better understood my need to verbalize what I’m thinking to help formulate something useful.

My former boss recalls: “Before we understood what was going on, Chris would come into to my office and run through a series of ideas he had. They might be story ideas or angles for a story he was working on. More often than not, I’d ask him a couple of questions about his idea, which often revealed an aspect he had not considered. He’d go back to his office and incorporate what I’d asked and come back with a better suggestion. We might repeat this process several times. At the time I had no idea why we needed to do this sparring.”

After the test it became clear to my boss and me that, like spaghetti, I needed to throw many ideas against a wall to see what might stick. It wasn’t that the ideas were bad; they simply were not well thought out. It was the process that turned “half-baked” into properly cooked.

Armed with that self knowledge and my colleague’s better understanding of me, we have successfully turned a mystery into a positive. I now work much harder to better prepare my ideas or suggestions with more forethought.

Obviously, we are all an admixture of both extrovert and introvert. Pure extroverts would probably drive themselves and those around them crazy. Likewise, a pure introvert would more than likely go nuts in perennial solitude.

The take away for me and my colleagues that have played out through our years together is that I’ve become more introverted, and they have become more extroverted. One of those colleagues said once he learned from me that extrovert could be used as a verb as in “let me extrovert for a minute,” it really smoothed our formally divergent personality paths.

It’s often about style versus substance. We’ve learned they are not mutually exclusive.