now i think at this point it’s important for me to say that i actually love extroverts. i always like to say some of my best friends are extroverts, including my beloved husband. and we all fall at different points, of course, along the introvert/extrovert spectrum. even carl jung, the psychologist who first popularized these terms, said that there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert. he said that such a man would be in a lunatic asylum, if he existed at all. and some people fall smack in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, and we call these people ambiverts. and i often think that they have the best of all worlds. but many of us do recognize ourselves as one type or the other.
and what i’m saying is that culturally we need a much better balance. we need more of a yin and yang between these two types. this is especially important when it comes to creativity and to productivity, because when psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them.
and this is because solitude is a crucial ingredient often to creativity. so darwin, he took long walks alone in the woods and emphatically turned down dinner party invitations. theodor geisel, better known as dr. seuss, he dreamed up many of his amazing creations in a lonely bell tower office that he had in the back of his house in la jolla, california. and he was actually afraid to meet the young children who read his books for fear that they were expecting him this kind of jolly santa claus-like figure and would be disappointed with his more reserved persona. steve wozniak invented the first apple computer sitting alone in his cubical in hewlett-packard where he was working at the time. and he says that he never would have become such an expert in the first place had he not been too introverted to leave the house when he was growing up.
now of course, this does not mean that we should all stop collaborating — and case in point, is steve wozniak famously coming together with steve jobs to start apple computer — but it does mean that solitude matters and that for some people it is the air that they breathe. and in fact, we have known for centuries about the transcendent power of solitude. it’s only recently that we’ve strangely begun to forget it. if you look at most of the world’s major religions, you will find seekers — moses, jesus, buddha, muhammad — seekers who are going off by themselves alone to the wilderness where they then have profound epiphanies and revelations that they then bring back to the rest of the community. so no wilderness, no revelations.
this is no surprise though if you look at the insights of contemporary psychology. it turns out that we can’t even be in a group of people without instinctively mirroring, mimicking their opinions. even about seemingly personal and visceral things like who you’re attracted to, you will start aping the beliefs of the people around you without even realizing that that’s what you’re doing.
and groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas — i mean zero. so … (laughter) you might be following the person with the best ideas, but you might not. and do you really want to leave it up to chance? much better for everybody to go off by themselves, generate their own ideas freed from the distortions of group dynamics, and then come together as a team to talk them through in a well-managed environment and take it from there.
now if all this is true, then why are we getting it so wrong? why are we setting up our schools this way and our workplaces? and why are we making these introverts feel so guilty about wanting to just go off by themselves some of the time? one answer lies deep in our cultural history. western societies, and in particular the u.s., have always favored the man of action over the man of contemplation and “man“ of contemplation. but in america’s early days, we lived in what historians call a culture of character, where we still, at that point, valued people for their inner selves and their moral rectitude. and if you look at the self-help books from this era, they all had titles with things like “character, the grandest thing in the world.“ and they featured role models like abraham lincoln who was praised for being modest and unassuming. ralph waldo emerson called him “a man who does not offend by superiority.“
but then we hit the 20th century and we entered a new culture that historians call the culture of personality. what happened is we had evolved an agricultural economy to a world of big business. and so suddenly people are moving from small towns to the cities. and instead of working alongside people they’ve known all their lives, now they are having to prove themselves in a crowd of strangers. so, quite understandably, qualities like magnetism and charisma suddenly come to seem really important. and sure enough, the self-help books change to meet these new needs and they start to have names like “how to win friends and influence people.“ and they feature as their role models really great salesmen. so that’s the world we’re living in today. that’s our cultural inheritance.
now none of this is to say that social skills are unimportant, and i’m also not calling for the abolishing of teamwork at all. the same religions who send their sages off to lonely mountain tops also teach us love and trust. and the problems that we are facing today in fields like science and in economics are so vast and so complex that we are going to need armies of people coming together to solve them working together. but i am saying that the more freedom that we give introverts to be themselves, the more likely that they are to come up with their own unique solutions to these problems.