Talking to Pharaoh

Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk

Susan Cain wrote a cool piece in the New York Times yesterday on all the ways - in addition to sometimes feeling like a specimen - that introverts are different from the majority of the population.

The majority of the population doesn't always appreciate it.

Though the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual] did not set out to pathologize shyness, it risks doing so, and has twice come close to identifying introversion as a disorder, too. (Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shy people fear negative judgment; introverts simply prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments.)

But shyness and introversion share an undervalued status in a world that prizes extroversion....

Yet shy and introverted people have been part of our species for a very long time, often in leadership positions. We find them in the Bible ('Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?' asked Moses, whom the Book of Numbers describes as 'very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.') We find them in recent history, in figures like Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein, and, in contemporary times: think of Google’s Larry Page, or Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling.

In the science journalist Winifred Gallagher’s words: 'The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.'

Steve Wozniak, who spoke at IdeaFestival in 2007, is also mentioned:

THE psychologist Gregory Feist found that many of the most creative people in a range of fields are introverts who are comfortable working in solitary conditions in which they can focus attention inward. Steve Wozniak, the engineer who founded Apple with Steve Jobs, is a prime example: Mr. Wozniak describes his creative process as an exercise in solitude. 'Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,' he writes in 'iWoz,' his autobiography. 'They’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone ... Not on a committee. Not on a team.'

Like the eremitic Daniel Tammet, who said last year at the IdeaFestival that "the world needs every kind of mind," I was happy to read Cain's piece because it accurately describes how I've felt as someone who often prefers books to people, and who has come to understand a bit more about himself in the past few years by taking some calculated risks in his life. But having decided that I no longer wanted to be a schmo, I've found that unless I'm aggressively speaking up I won't be heard. It's both a familiar and an odd place to be. When I don't answer a question immediately - when I don't share what's on my mind - when I don't reflexively dial the next number - the response, should anyone notice, is not one of curiosity. It's bewilderment. What's wrong?

Nothing, really. As Cain points out, "everyone shines given the right lighting." Yet I've heard that question so many times that the Housemartins' song, "The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death" now instantly comes to mind. I'm sorry about that.

But creating something new in the wood shop, teaching myself physical computing, reading by lamplight, turning out the lights to watch the Milky Way pivot around Polaris, feeling a particularly moving piece of music wash past my skin - it's "stopping to consider the stimuli rather than rushing to engage it" where I find pleasure and energy. And from the seasonal energies in the Mennonite and Amish traditions, to the modern slow food movement, to the The Long Now Foundation's oh-so creative appreciation of extended reflection, I think the world, or at least the part of the world I inhabit, is beginning to appreciate what's left unsaid.

I hope you'll allow yourself extended reflection at this year's IdeaFestival. There's value in that.

The quote at the very top of the page is from Susan Cain's blog. Her forthcoming book, "Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking," has been pre-ordered on my Kindle.