It was with a marvellous amount of serendipity that I managed to trip upon a TED talk, this week, that seemed to be addressing the very thoughts that I’ve been struggling to process about my own – somewhat limiting, as I still saw it – ‘personality type’ within the context of my chosen career path. After all, being an artist is meant to demand of you (demand?) that you be outgoing, extrovert, ever-eager to tout your work to others and to hook into a dynamic community of other creative-types that collectively knows how to hone in upon all the best galleries, art groups, venues, sponsors and more – in other words, the requirement is to ‘get yourself out there’. These, by the way, are all aspects of being an artist that I’ve struggled with, preferring to – well – spend my time quietly painting. Not surprising really, given that I’m a classic introvert – as I used to imagine to be the case for most painterly types – yet, these days the whole art community seems to be teeming with personalities in possession of far more pizzazz than a typical contestant on the X-Factor and, frankly, if that’s a prerequisite for success as an artist, I’ve ‘had it’ as showmanship just isn’t my style. So, what if you’re an artist on a mission to be much more than a hobbyist yet prefer the solitary, quiet life (a question I’ve been asking myself for some time)?
The TED video that caught my eye was entitled ‘The Power of Introverts’ and is a presentation given by Susan Cain, a self-confessed introvert and none too typical giver of talks (although she does it very well and has already received in excess of 4 million viewings). The bestselling book that she has written on this topic goes by the title “Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking” and has now, unsurprisingly, found its way onto my reading list as she has already helped me to identify, and so celebrate, the advantages (yes, there are many) of introversion and how these have been quite pivotal to ‘all that I am’ along the way of my life journey thus far.
I often enjoy dipping into the TED archives but I particularly loved this presentation because it felt like she was talking ‘for’ me, and for the lifetime that I have spent so far as an introvert feeling that introversion was, somehow, something that I should be apologising for. Importantly, and in a way that grabbed my attention from the start, she makes a clear distinction between ‘introversion’ and ‘shyness’, the affliction that I was so often labelled with from as young as just four or five, and with which I so often lumped the (far more applicable, in my case) definition of introversion as though they were both one and the same ‘problem’ that I should strive to be rid of. No, she explains, shyness is “a fear of social judgement” whereas introversion is more about “how do you respond to stimulation…including social stimulation” because extroverts crave more stimulation whereas “introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on, their most capable when they’re in quieter or more low-key environments”. Perhaps testament to how prone I had become (over the forty or so years of living under its label) to regard introversion as an entirely negative trait, I found that I was already warming to this woman’s words like a cat unwinding to a friendly stroke…and so I settled down with my pot of tea to listen to the rest.
I was reminded that introversion is a natural compunction to spend time alone, to connect with source your own way…in a private place where you can trust you won’t be unwittingly knocked off track by the ideas, the energy, the manifesto of others. The impact of others being in our space can come directly, in the form of ‘stronger’ extrovert personalities taking over a group activity with their sheer energy, enthusiasm and (often) compulsion to compete with those around them, or it can come indirectly as a result of the fact that – as beings who are far more interconnected than most of us realise – we tend to absorb, be influenced by and, ultimately, mirror the mindset and attitudes of others around us just by being in proximity to them (this brings to mind an excellent book I read last year entitled ‘The Bond: Connecting Through The Space Between Us”, written by Lynne McTaggart, which deals with this phenomenon in some detail). Whichever way it happens, introverts can find this all so much radio-interference in terms of their ability to ‘tune in’ to their own thought processes and personal connection to the very source of their creativity.
This intersects seamlessly with where I’ve arrived in my own personal-development journey, as I’ve come to realise (in tandem with my experience of connecting with source through meditation) that an ability to interpret or express what comes from – or, rather, through – me, as an individual, a soul if you like, relies on a connection being made with source in such a way that I become a sort of conduit for inspiration, a device that delivers content. This is something that I do – assuming there are no distractions of the kind that result in losing my thread – by interpreting that inspiration through the medium of paint, words or whatever seems most fitting to the task. By its very nature, this method of creating is not one that is easily adapted to a team-situation and whilst there is a functionality to team-work (a spirit of ‘let’s put our heads together, pool ideas and get this thing done’) that can be useful and even necessary in certain circumstances where collaboration and group consensus are called for, this is not the same as this drawing-down of something that relies on the purity of its deliverance to the world to ensure the potency of its impact.
For all that it is out-of-vogue as a concept of where inspiration comes from, I know what I have described here would resonate with a great many artists, writers, composers, scientists, mathematicians even, since it is very much the classic viewpoint of how inspiration occurs. Perhaps this is also a viewpoint of inspiration that has become less popular as people, en masse, have thrown out the supposed ‘religious’ connotations behind such a process…and yet, in an age of much broader acceptance of the fact that we live in a vibrational universe and that there are considerably more forces at work than are apparent at the physical level through the means of our five senses, surely we are ready to embrace the fact that bashing around cognitive ideas in groups is not the pinnacle of where great creativity comes from. Is it not more acceptable to those who cringe at the merest suggestion that inspiration is delivered to us from an external ‘being’ that, perhaps, it is the universe of which we are a member, a fragment – and importantly, an expression – that is communicating to us in the vibrational language that we are all capable of ‘hearing’ and interpreting and yet which we tend to drown out with all the noise and chitter-chatter of the external world?
Moreover, its not called in-spiration for nothing; this act calls upon the individual to go inside of themselves, not to seek the kind of outside validation and ‘bouncing of ideas off each other’ (resulting in a sort of hybrid product made up of the best, or most assertive aspects, of the totality) that group discussion – group creation – is all about. We have now entered into an age where oneness and unity are the buzz-phrases of an enlightening world and yet this is not in contradiction, but rather in affirmation, of the need to freshly embrace the sovereign ‘self’ within that oneness since it can only be through each of us fully realising and expressing our distinct flavour of self that we can achieve the kind of oneness of which we are capable as a whole!
In my case, inspiration comes in on waves when I disengage my analytical left-brain as far as possible and reach a state of void (which also feels, somewhat ironically, like a state of total connection with everything that there is, yet in its pure state, not the ‘all’ of the outside world which can seem so muddled by variance of human interpretation) and this cannot be done, for me, when in direct communion with, or even in the same space as, others. For heaven’s sake, I even struggle when there’s someone else in the house with me, albeit in a different room and regardless of how quiet they are being, and I could never share studio space as art is not a social activity in my book. During the school holidays, and as much as I love parenthood, I go into a pining state for the few daily hours of being all alone that I’m accustomed to and crave in order to keep balanced and sane. Just as large public spaces – shopping malls, cinemas, bars – can at times feel overwhelming to me, like a bombardment of converging human energy and intentions, a sort of screaming white noise of divergent vibrations, I find that sharing a space with others when I create can cause tremendous interference ‘on the line’ as I download the very inspiration that I work with. Yet when it happens – which is only when all distraction is stilled – it is much like the point in meditation when the mind is finally quieted, that moment when you realise flow has been established because it comes as something akin to a steady stream of (how to describe it?) energy…vibration…radiance…channelling easiest inspiration direct to pen or brush.
As I listened to Susan’s description of the summer camp where she was made to call out the daily mantra “r-o-w-d-i-e, that’s the way we spell rowdy, rowdy, rowdy…” along with her nine year-old peers, then the continuing onslaught upon her introversion as she grew into a young adult, along with the impact this had on her adult life and career choice, I found myself mentally scanning the similar pattern of my own life. Like Susan, I had basked in the halcyon days of an early childhood typified by solo-pursuits that included a great deal of reading, creating and being ‘lost’ in the world of my own imagination – my happiest times being, by far, those that were spent with a book in my hands. As I heard her say how repeatedly she then “got the message…that my quiet and introverted way of being was not necessarily the way to go and that I should be trying to be more of an extrovert”, I found myself nodding sagely from my own experiences right up to, and including, some of my most recent interactions with the ‘outside world’. Failed and uncomfortable attempts to be bold and assertive have littered my own life story for as many years as I can remember, when a quieter way would have been more akin to what my soul was calling for me to select…yet I was all-too-thoroughly consumed by the supposed imperative to ‘fit in’ with what seemed like a world full of successful extroverts. She refers to years of self-negating choices that she hardly even noticed she was making as they cropped-up along the way and, again, this sounded oh-so familiar. I recalled how willingly I’d surrendered the contentedly self-contained pursuits of my early years in favour of ‘fitting in’ with my outgoing teenage friends. Then the ‘failure’ that I deemed myself to be at university because I remained tongue-tied, panic-stricken and ‘stupid looking’ in group seminars for three long years, in spite of receiving accolades for my written work and exam performance. Next came the horror of my alcohol-fuelled twenties that were meant to assimilate me with all the other rowdy socialites from amidst whom I hoped to draw the loyal friends and life-partner that I longed for, never realising that, by and large, I was looking in all the wrong places and passing myself off as someone that I wasn’t, mimicking bravado that wasn’t mine.
It’s been some time now since the epiphany hit me that the almost total denial of the ‘self’ that longed to be left to its own gentler ways, to read quietly, connect with nature and to spend a great deal of time alone amounted to a negation, disconnection and total abandonment of the very ‘me’ that was able to draw inspiration from anywhere….and for all those many years, I was quite literally lost, uninspired and steadily becoming more and more ‘unwell’, blighted with all the physical markers of a soul that had lost its way. At the peak of my ‘unwellness’, I was struggling to exist in a corporate environment – those monstrous entities within which excellence at ‘teamwork’ and group-functioning has been made the be-all-and-end-all – and so hardly any wonder that (akin with countless other introverted souls that I witnessed steadily wilting at their desks) I was anything but thriving!
Yet it was this health-crisis (which turned out to be the very best thing that could have happened to me, a solution flung from the heart of the problem, as is so often the way…) that released me back into all the unspeakable joy of the solitary pursuits that I had missed since childhood and which were suddenly HERE again and available for me to pursue to my heart’s content within the safe circle and ‘animal warmth’ (quote Susan Cain) of my family. The clouds began to clear. I felt like a device that had been returned back to its base unit so that it could recharge and start functioning again. Almost overnight, I pulled back from everything in the outside world and this had the glorious effect of throwing me right back into connection with EVERYTHING, allowing inspiration to flow and all things to become possible. A limitless quality entered my reality that has never since left me and whereas the game of life set amidst a sea of competing extroverts seemed so very daunting, my new world in which I was the centre of my own universe and fully connected to it in a way that was direct and without need for group discussion, majority vote or any pretence at charisma seemed utterly boundless. And as I’ve heard so many others who have experienced something similar to this confirm, this ‘coming back’ to where you are meant to be, realigning with your soul’s purpose, ironing out the ‘kink in your pipe’ of the direction of your life is like opening the floodgates to more flow than you’ve every encountered before…its as though this flow is suddenly re-established with such a vengeance that it veritably gushes like a burst geyser! Since drawing ‘back’ (though the word sounds all wrong since, for me, it was all ‘forwards’) into my naturally introverted state, its as though inspiration has been stepped up to a whole new level and I have every confidence it will never stop flowing, now that I’ve come to realise the importance of safeguarding and perpetuating the precious time that I spend alone. Yet when will we start sending out the message that this is an option, an acceptable way of being, for some a preference, to our kids who are, right now, being taught that to go off alone to do anything is, frankly, anti-social and weird.
As you can tell, I’d already been playing with the ‘ins and outs’ of introversion, long before tripping upon Susan Cain and her extremely motivational TED talk. Given I’d already reached a plateau of profound appreciation for the very quality that underpins all that I am, as an individual and as an artist, a writer, a perceiver of details and maker of connections, someone who needs their own space to be all of that, I welcomed with an internal cheer this woman’s ‘three calls for action’ as we stand poised on the brink of a dramatic attitude-change where it comes to introversion and the part it plays in our world. That’s because her first request is that we drop, once and for all, the cultural obsession and endless call for “constant group work” that permeates our schools, offices and society as a whole. Such team effort might appear, at one level, to be the very epitome of dynamic creativity, as individuals clamouring for attention mimic the kind of fizz and buzz that we’ve come to expect as an indicator of something new bursting into life, the kind of sparks charging the air that imply ‘something positive is happening in here’ (be that in a classroom, boardroom or wherever) and yes, there is some truth in that, working with others can be catalytic – and yet the truly dynamic creative process can also be a much quieter and far more internal thing, a sort of quantum-level occurrence that is more light than fizz.
When creation takes place in a group sat round a large table – one of the classroom “pods of desks” that Susan Cain reminds us has become the norm in our schools – an inherent pitfall is that this group format may unwittingly extinguish some of the very brightest sparks in the room (from experience, I can’t tell you how many school lessons I sat through in a mute and fear-gripped state that left me physically incapable of sharing my ideas with the ‘group’). The extreme discomfiture experienced at being cornered into a group situation that is so atypical of how an introvert knows how to function can act to sever such individuals from the very source of inspiration that has the potential to unleash genius forces from within them – and, from my own experience, everything shuts down and all potential heads for the door and way over the far distant hills in such a scenario!
This reluctant tug towards increased extraversion, a feeling of “I must try harder, get myself ‘out there’, force myself to be seen more”, can be a lifelong cloud of doom overhanging the introvert – and shouldn’t have to be there at all. As I watched this talk to its conclusion, I acknowledged with a tangible body-sigh that I could finally let myself off the hook for being, most likely, the least participatory person in the various art groups of which I am an all-but-invisible member, something for which I have been berating myself for the longest time because – I’m sorry (yet why am I apologising?) – the merest suggestion of collaboration in a creative sense, of group discussion in an ideas-bashing-kind-of way or of working together on a shared theme makes my usually buoyant creativity drop through the floor of my stomach, I just can’t help it – it’s the way I’m made – and maybe the time has come to accept that and no apologies required. I see my immensely creative daughter struggle with the same (self-perceived) trip-wire and have long-since switched to presenting her introverted tendencies as a huge positive to her (rather than maintaining a common parental-protective impulse to train them out of her, ‘for her own good’). Importantly, I finally ‘get’ that I can let myself off the hook and celebrate my own introverted tendencies for being the very crux of all that I am.
The TED talk mentions degrees of introversion, just as there are shades of everything, and I would add that many of us introverts tend to measure how much we are managing to interact with others by the same standards that are used by extroverts and so we are only taking into account whether we feel comfortable public-speaking, being on committees or ever turn up to those work, school or social gatherings that everyone else seems to relish. What I say to you all now is, make sure you are looking at the whole picture of your life, those ‘smaller’ interactions with neighbours, those people at the checkout counter, that woman who needed the door held open to let her wheelchair through, the family members that benefitted from your advice or encouragement, the email you passed around to raise money for charity…all those things that count as interaction and make a real difference (and probably more than you’ll ever know). For my own part, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m interacting with people right now…and I interact with others every time a new painting is put out into the world, with every blog-post I write, through the social media that I use every day or when I make a difference to my family, my friends or even strangers that I meet in the park when walking my dog. Strangely (or perhaps not so) the more in touch I become with the singularity that is me, the more I seem to resonate with the people that I do encounter so that I find that really amazing and vibrant conversations are suddenly sparked off with people I meet, as happened just this afternoon whilst I was out buying dog food, or that the kind of smiles that make a difference are exchanged with strangers, that my osteopath gives me a spontaneous hug for brightening her day or that I connect with more and more wonderful people through social media than I ever thought would be possible, some of whom have quite literally altered my life. The thing is, we all do these things…its just that we have the achievement benchmark set for the extroverted personality type that only accounts for just over half the population – whereas introverts make up the other considerable portion of all the beings on this planet and tend to operate in ways that are as effective as they are subtle!
There’s also an important life-lesson to be learned from the introvert’s modus operandi for even the extroverts in our midst, and one which they will all reach sooner or later if a life in alignment with soul is what they truly crave. That life-lesson is that there comes a time when we all need to pull back from all the hubbub and combined noise emanating from the crowds of advice sharers and idea-mongers out there and to just listen to our inner guidance system because, like a single steady note cutting through the boom, it’s the purest ‘noise’ any of us will ever hear and the deliverance of ourselves into the physical world via that guidance is, necessarily, the truest interpretation of ‘self’ that we can ever hope to achieve in a particular lifetime, the one that requires no external validation and which causes the kind of smile to play around our lips that no thing, no one and no external circumstance could ever cause to fade. This is the ‘real McCoy’ and introverts, very often, know what it looks like and feels like because they spend more time, from much earlier portions of their lives, with all their senses tuned in to something other than the bells and whistles of pack approval that dominate the outside world. What introverts are highly attuned at picking up on is that knowing, at some level, that you are on the road to achieving what you really came here to do and achieving soul-mission is an intensely personal thing, something that no teamwork or group pow-wow can really bring you closer to.
For me, it’s time to accept once and for all, and without self-criticism, that to make a real contribution – albeit my own particular brand of contribution (on the premise that to bring about what we long to see in this world, our most constructive act is to concentrate on embodying that thing, becoming its expression, from within ourselves) – I need to spend copious amounts of time alone, and that’s fine! I’m not quite what you would call a recluse; I love to socialise with friends, to laugh and join in as much as the next introvert(!) but the desire to step outwards is in a constant state of see-saw with the opposite urge to draw inwards and I accept that about myself at last. Instinctively, I know – have always known – when it’s time to step ‘out there’ or to withdraw and I intend to listen to those rhythms without apology from this point forwards. I would hazard a guess that I’m far from the first – amongst a long list of artists, writers, composers, scientists, mathematicians, Nobel-prize-winners… to reach this conclusion and run with it; sadly, it feels like yet another of those all-pervasive modern-day fads that the prefer-to-work-alone introvert is made to feel that they are in need of corrective training, socialisation or therapy!
In conclusion, introverts are not faulty extroverts – something I realise I’ve been thinking for most of my life. As Susan Cain points out, that two-part process of going off alone to gain inspiration, clarity or a download of some kind and then delivering that insight to the wider public using whatever medium serves best – be it words, paint or mathematical formulae – is the very same one used by some of the real change-makers of our times, from Jesus, to Gandhi to Einstein. None of these individuals was what you could call a typical ‘group-participating extrovert’ – in fact, the signs are that they all preferred and even revered their solitary existence, surrendering it only when they felt utterly compelled to in the interests of the greater good. The time is ripe to stop marginalising but, rather, to put value on the introverted way of being when it occurs because – as a group, as the whole – we really need “what introverts do best” and the kind of inspiration that such individuals are equipped to share in their rather quiet and unassuming way.
- TED talk Susan Cain “The Power of Introverts”.
- “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Cant Stop Talking” Susan Cain.
- Susan Cain – Author’s Website.
- Secrets of a Super Successful Introvert: How to (Quietly) Get Your Way
- The Introvert List (lettersfromyonder.com)
- Introverts and Extroverts: Different Approaches to Life (lmeccleston.wordpress.com)
- Misunderstood Introverts (thecognitivelife.com)
- 7 Success Tips for Introverts (psychologytoday.com)