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Archive for the ‘extroversion’ Category

In the last couple of generations, modern industrial culture has seriously reduced the range of acceptable emotions. Certain emotions are not only unpleasant, the conventional wisdom goes, but should be avoided at all costs. However, the older I grow, the more I become convinced that this attitude is not only wrong, but actively harmful.

One of the most obvious examples of this attitude is the insistence on extroversion. Today, the model of the well-adjusted person has become an outgoing optimist who lives and works in groups, and feels uncomfortable alone. Not only are projects in schools and businesses increasingly done in teams, but even yoga and meditation, originally intended for private reflection, is done primarily in groups. By contrast, anyone with a preference for occasional privacy is seen as maladjusted at best, and at worst a potential perpetrator of another campus shooting.

This either-or distinction is a distortion of Carl Jung’s original concept, which described two poles of behavior, and was never intended to label people. Nor did Jung intend to condemn either extreme. Equating introversion with maladjustment is as accurate as it would be to condemn extroverts for being irresponsible and unable to focus; both extremes might include such behaviors, but actually cover a far broader ranger of behavior.

More importantly, as Anthony Storr points out in Solitude, many forms of creativity and original thought seem to require extended periods of introverted behavior. For that matter, the most successful forms of collaboration tend to be like the one used in free software, in which people work alone in the initial stages of their works, then collaborate for peer review and tweaking. By devaluing introversion, we are probably also undermining creativity – which may explain why movies with three or more names on the script rarely produce anything memorable.

Similarly, certain states of mind, such as depression and anger, are seen not only to be unpleasant, but to be avoided and medicated as quickly as possible. More – any decisions or conclusions reached in these undesirable states are questioned, or excused as being the indication of an unsound mind.

In some cases, that might be so. But always? Probably not. Depression and anger are natural reactions to events like the death of someone close, or being treated unfairly.. While dwelling endlessly on such things is unhealthy, accepting them for a certain amount of time is probably necessary for coming to terms with them. Denying this need, or trying to shorten the time in which such emotions are indulged may be as mentally unhealthy as removing a cast before a bone has had time to knit back together is unhealthy physically.

As for these emotions offering a skewed version of reality, why do we assume that the optimism that we believe is typical of a well-adjusted person is any more accurate of a perception? Personally, I have seen more projects – and companies – spiral downward because of decisions made by an optimist who was unable to admit when something was going wrong. A depressed person might at least anticipate problems so they could be countered, or admit problems when actually faced with them. In the same way, an angry person might drive themselves harder for success. Instead of accepting only one attitude as realistic, I suspect that we need to accept a much wider range of emotions as sometimes offering useful perceptions.

Yet another example is the nervousness and anxiety typical of someone who moves into a new job or set of responsibilities. When you stop to think (and even when you don’t), there are valid reasons for feeling uneasy. There are many things you can’t know about your new position, and you want to prove yourself to colleagues and ultimately become a success.

Many athletes and performers recognize such feelings – actors call them “flop sweat.” But rather than pretending that these feelings don’t exist, they worry when that not having such feelings will lead to a flat and uninspired performance. The trick, they will tell you, is to control these feelings, to channel them into the performance. If you can do that, you will have the extra edge that leads to outstanding performance.

However, we don’t admit that flop sweat is natural, let alone teach people how to cope with it. Instead, we give it a name like Impostor Syndrome, elevating it to a psychiatric condition – which except in a small minority of cases, it usually is not – giving the sufferers one more thing to worry about and elevating the feelings into some vast, impersonal force. Instead of teaching them how to reduce the anxiety by practice or planning, we encourage the sufferers to give themselves affirmations, or seek the approval of others. We encourage them to look for placebos rather than solutions that are known to work, and, as we do so, we are probably both preventing the development of competence and encouraging mediocrity.

I am not the sort of Puritan who believes that suffering is necessary for success, or needs to be sought out. But I do believe that it must be confronted directly, not avoided. Too often, in our panic to avoid the least unpleasantness, we limit ourselves and short-circuit the processes that are necessary for accomplishment and competence. We mean well, but in enforcing extroversion and pleasantness, we may also be suppressing necessary and useful emotions.

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The Geek Feminist Blog, which is always a source of intelligent reading as I start my daily routine, recently posted an answer to question about how to maintain self-confidence. The poster responded with suggestions, several of which were about how to boost self-esteem – for instance, talk to supportive friends, celebrate your accomplishments, and “don’t forget to be awesome,” which apparently means to feel good about yourself and what you do. However, what neither the poster nor most of the commenters on the entry ever seemed to consider is that self-doubt might have any advantages, or, at the very least, be preferable to self-esteem.

One of the peculiarities of North American culture is that it emphasizes the extrovert. In the popular conception, to be confident and outgoing is to be successful – and not just at one end of a personality perspective.

By contrast, to be diffident and private is nearly synonymous with sociopathy. Geeky high school kids, for example, are widely viewed as the ones most likely to gun down their classmates.

Yet, when you stop to think, both these views fall far short of reality.

Confidence is based on experience, on having gained an understanding of a situation or the ability to handle a situation. But the problem is that North America favors the appearance of confidence – especially in men – and is careless about whether it is real or not. The result is a culture in which, all too often, criticism is ignored and those who argue risk being branded “not a team player.” The dangers of risk-taking are ignored, because to doubt is to show a lack of of confidence and to reveal yourself as being less than leadership material.

Sometimes, the result pays off, because audacity can take people by surprise. But, if you look around business, more often the result is rash, ill-considered, or just plain wrong decisions whose shortcomings a moment’s reflection would have revealed.

For instance, I once worked for a company that brought in a CEO armed with the latest managerial theories. His inevitable response to any company financial crisis was to purge the staff. He would protect his officer team, but otherwise his purges were random. Frequently, he fired key employees who were the only ones who understood major parts of the software that the company was producing. Not that he meant to fire key employees, but the problem was he couldn’t recognize them and was just as likely to fire them as anybody else.

The result? Survivors were demoralized, because not even the jobs of key players were safe. Often, a few months later, the key players were hired back at the more expensive rates of consultants. Other times, the company blundered on alone, trying to recover the lost knowledge instead of doing original development. Four purges and two years later, the company sold its resources and ceased business. What looked like bold and decisive action to the board of directors in the long-term destroyed the company because it was uninformed.

By contrast, self-doubt carried to extremes causes indecision. But what few people seem to consider is that, kept within reasonable limits, self-doubt can be a healthy and creative attitude. Where the artificially confident plunge unthinkingly ahead, the self-doubter looks for information and considers alternatives. Afraid they have left something out, they ask for feedback from other people. Before they act, they double-check, and try to allow some flexibility. While they may miss opportunities that require immediate response, the self-doubters are far less likely than the self-confident to do something wrong – or, if they do, they may have a plan to correct or mitigate the problem.

In other words, doubting yourself can be a source of creativity and painstaking. In fact, of all the accomplished writers and artists I have known, and of all the entrepreneurs I have known who were successful over a period of years or decades, not one of them fell into the category of the artificially self-confident. They might have a facade of confidence, especially the entrepreneurs and especially the men, yet talk to them in private and you would be in no doubt that they were self-doubters. Some of them were not the most naturally gifted, yet they succeeded because their self-doubts drove them to compensate for their perceived deficiencies.

What I have suggested seems a paradox: those who appear most likely to succeed aren’t. Yet I think this paradox is central to creativity and planning.

Robert Graves expressed the paradox elegantly in his poem, “Broken Images:”

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

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