Monday, March 13, 2017

Understanding Introversion (and Other Personality Features)

So, I recently finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Amazon link). I found this book to be very interesting and relevant to me. And it actually gave some names to things that I've noticed in myself.

I really wish that I had read this book sooner. I bought a copy of it last June (the receipt was still inside the book), but I didn't start reading it until last month.

I'm not really here to review the book, just point out some things that I found interesting. And I found a lot of things interesting. Here's a picture of all the markers that I dropped:

There is a bit of "Yay, Introverts!", but it's understandable. One very interesting observation is how the U.S. culture changed as more and more people moved into the cities.

The Extrovert Ideal
When people lived in small towns and rural areas, we knew all of our neighbors and the people that we interacted with. This meant that our judgments of other people were based on experience and reputation (although that's not always a great thing).

As people moved into the cities, now we are interacting with strangers on a regular basis. Who do we choose to do business with? Who do we choose for friends? Rather than relying on experience, we now have to make snap judgments based on first impressions. Now having an outgoing personality and winning smile is considered essential.

Introverts and Extroverts
I won't talk about the differences in being an introvert or extrovert because I've talked about that before: Becoming a Social Developer: A Guide for Introverts. The short version is that introverts get their energy internally while extroverts get their energy externally.

Insight: I'm Pretty Introverted
Cain presents a list of 20 (admittedly unscientific) questions to try to figure out how introverted or extroverted you are. I found that I answered all 20 toward the introversion side. This is not anything new to me. I know that I'm a pretty solitary person who enjoys the company of a few friends. I don't get bored when I'm alone. I love to read, think, and solve problems. Large gatherings and loud activities tend to exhaust me.

High-Reactives and Low-Reactives
Another thing that I was able to identify with is the idea of being a high-reactive. This stems from how people react to unfamiliar stimuli. A high-reactive person will tend to get agitated or nervous; a low-reactive will tend to stay calm.

This is not directly related to introversion and extroversion. There are high-reactive introverts and high-reactive extroverts.

Insight: I'm a High-Reactive
But this describes me pretty spot-on. When I go into a new situation or I'm doing something unfamiliar, I get extremely nervous. And it sometimes has to do with pretty ordinary things, like going to the eye doctor. This is why I can never take a polygraph test; just being tested will cause me to fail.

In addition, there's a tendency to observe things from the edges rather than just jumping in. That describes me pretty perfectly as well -- and I've written about that: High Risk vs. Low Risk. When I'm put into a conversation with people I don't know, I tend to observe and listen. I'm trying to figure out the "rules" before I join in.

Last month, I had someone point out that I was awfully quiet when she introduced me to some people that she worked with. This was because I didn't know the "rules" for interacting with that group of people. That is typical for me.

Public Speaking
Fear of public speaking is common across all people. And you would think that a high-reactive introvert would avoid it at all costs. But there are some people who enjoy it (including me). That enjoyment comes within some parameters.

Insight: I'm Fine When I'm Prepared
First, I have to be prepared. If I have time to figure out what I'm going to say in advance, I do just fine. I've confirmed the opposite. When I've been on panel discussions, I don't do very well. I'm a slow thinker, and I have trouble responding to ideas that I haven't had time to digest.

Second, I treat it like a performance. I have a role to play (more on that in a bit). If I understand that role and I'm prepared for it, I can execute on it just fine -- without falling into a panic.

Third, I have lots of repetition. I give the same technical talks over and over again. Some topics I have presented over 25 times. This means that I've heard most of the questions that people come up with, so I can answer confidently. And when I get a new question, I'm not afraid to say "I don't know. I'll need to look into that further."

All of these things combined have made me a successful public speaker even though my makeup fights against that.

A False Persona?
One thing that I've been concerned about is my stage persona. When I speak about technical topics (and some non-technical topics), I appear very extroverted. When I do this, am I still being true to myself?

Cain mentions a former psychology lecturer, Brian Little, who is an effective public speaker, quite boisterous on stage, and very entertaining. At the same time, he is an introvert who must find a quiet place to recharge between his presentations and interactions. That sounds familiar.

Little proposed the Free Trait Theory. The idea is that even though we're endowed with the trait of introversion or extroversion, we can act out of character in the service of "core personal projects", things that we care deeply about.

Insight: I Can Be Extroverted Regarding Things I'm Passionate About
So what comes out of this? It means that even though I am an introvert, I can act out of character when I'm doing work that I care deeply about. One thing that I care deeply about is helping developers learn about technology.

This is exactly what I'm seeing in my world. I'm not putting on an act. I'm still true to myself. I'm just behaving a bit differently than usual to reach a goal.

Encouraging False Behavior?
This all loops back to my work in encouraging people to be Social Developers. I've seen huge benefits from breaking out of my normal behavior to talk to strangers at developer events. Because I've seen these benefits, I want to encourage other introverted developers to try it and hopefully see some of those same benefits themselves.

It's a fine balance. I want to encourage people to try something new and scary. But I also want to make things as comfortable as possible (which is why I don't force people to talk to their neighbors in my presentations). And most of all, I want people to remain true to themselves.

Insight: A Social Developer Can Still Be True to Himself / Herself
Based on the idea that I can be extroverted about things that I'm passionate about, I don't have a problem with encouraging other people to do the same thing. Talking to strangers is outside the standard introvert behavior. But we can change our behavior for a good reason. In this case, it's expanding our knowledge, our circle of influence, our resources, and our friends.

So I don't feel like I'm encouraging people to change who they are. Instead, I'm encouraging people to change their behavior for something they care deeply about. (And hopefully I can encourage them to care deeply about it by showing the benefits I've found in my world.)

Wrap Up
I really enjoyed reading Quiet by Susan Cain. I don't know that I found out anything "new" about myself. But this definitely brought ideas into focus for me. I'm able to understand myself a bit better. I realize that who I am is normal, and there are plenty of other people out there just like me.

And with this better understanding of myself, I can better understand the people around me. I can recognize how we are the same and how we are different. That will lead to better interactions overall.

Happy Coding!

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