I've been thinking about writing a little on introversion every since I did my talk on the subject at this year's Ace! Conference. The wonderful book, "Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that won't stop talking", opened my eyes to something I'd always known; I'm quite introverted.
To anyone that knows me, especially professionally, then that might come as a bit of a shock. "He does public speaking!", "He's always tweeting and blowing!", "How can you be introverted and be so confident with people?". I've had all of those comments made to and around me whenever I broach the subject, so I thought it might be useful to clarify what being introverted means to me.
First up, as the title of this post states, introversion is not a disease or something that needs to be fixed. It's not a mental health 'issue'. It's a deep-seated part of your character. In most enlightened societies we wouldn't dream of telling someone who was homosexual to just 'try and be not gay'. Homosexuality is a good, natural and deep-seated part of a person's identity that should be, and often is, celebrated. The same is true of introversion.
You can't tell an introvert to 'just try to be more of an extrovert', it's not something you have a say in. I'm always wary when I hear someone say "I used to be an introvert, but I got over it". It's not something to be gotten over, it's not a problem. Also what is more likely the case is that you're still an introvert but you've found some strategies that help you integrate better in a world that can be very unaccepting of introversion. Nothing wrong with that, but if you really were introverted in some sense, then you've not magically changed or been 'fixed'; you've just got strategies.
Also introversion is not a 'state'. It's just not the case that you're an introvert or an extrovert. You're somewhere on a scale between them both. I'm not painfully introverted, but I need to turn the volume down and have some alone-time in order to recharge.
At the heart of the misunderstanding is what actually being introverted looks like. I can't speak for other introverts, or about introversion from a professional point of view, but I can describe how my own introversion looks and feels like.
Firstly I'm far from shy. Shyness has nothing to do with introversion.
Introversion for me takes the form of how much I enjoy certain situations. The best example I have is of how I am at a party. Given a large gathering of people, some in big groups with a lot of chattering going on and others where two or three have paired up for a conversation, I'm in the groups of two to three. This is the first indicator of my introversion, I don't like conversation in large groups; I feel swamped with noise and interaction and it makes me very anxious. I naturally gravitate to one-to-one conversations if I can because the volume of the interaction (of which I'm sensitive) is turned way down.
So as an introvert I'm sensitive to too much interaction with loads of people, it's exhausting!
And that's it really. I can mix in large groups, but not for too long. After a while I need to take a break and recharge. I get that recharging from being alone or, maybe, being with one or two others.
I'm sure my skeptical readers will now be busting to point out the flaw in my argument. That flaw is: how do I do public speaking? How do I go about speaking to a roomful of people for days on end on one of my courses? The badly-kept secret is I have strategies to help me.
I've spoken to rooms of up to 3000 people and you'd think that would be the ultimate in exhausting for someone introverted. Even extroverted folks will pale at the thought. I don't though, and here's why...
I talk to one person.
Yes, I know there are potentially thousands of people there, but I can't talk to thousands of people because it would really freak me out. But I can talk to 1, and I'm more comfortable if I am. So that's what I do.
You'll notice as I of my talks that I am looking from one person to another in the audience. That's not actually a speaking technique as such, although it is taught by public speaking coaches. For me it's survival. I move eye contact from one person to another in the room, from side-to-side, so that I can speak to them. Just them. 1-to-1. That's what I'm doing.
If I'm speaking and I'm looking at you, I'm talking to just you. That's how I cope.
I also tend to flee the stage after a talk and head for some time alone, but that's not always possible and I'd hate my audience to not feel they can approach me after a talk. The one-to-one conversations I have after my talks are often the best bit of the whole experience, so please still come up and chat to me. Just realise I'm probably a little tired as I've just been fighting my natural urge to flee for 45 minutes and we'll be just fine.
So that's it really, what introversion means to me and what it looks like. Hopefully that helps people understand it a little better, especially considering the fact that I believe an unusually high percentage of people in our software development industry are introverted in some sense.
Remember that next time that you mandate pair programming 100% of the time to your team members. For the extroverts that amount of interaction is a blessing; for an introvert (and we're likely in the majority) it's torture!
So be kind to your introverts; there's nothing wrong with us and we might just be the best members of your team once you realise that we need that time apart as well.