In Defense of Introverts

“If I were in high school today, I would hate every minute of it.”

A friend and fellow teen librarian said this to me a few days ago at an after-work gathering at the bar and I have never agreed with anything more in my life. We burst into conversation about how much we would have hated the current educational models put to use in high schools, while another co-worker looked on, her brow furrowed in confusion.

Recently three things happened within 10 days of each other. I went to a big Education conference, I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and I had a day long training for all the teen librarians in my district to start planning our summer programming. And by the end of yet another improvisational game designed to “get me out of my comfort zone,” followed by another “group brainstorming session,” and another “hands on workshop,” to plan a full summer of workshops for teens that were actively engaging  I wanted to crawl into a hole and never interact with another living creature except my cat ever ever again.

The current workplace – and thus also education – model is that everything be hands on and collaborative, and teen librarianship is no exception. We are encouraged, to put it mildly, to provide meaningful experiential programming for teens over the summer so they can spend their off-school time honing skills, pursuing interests and continuing to actively learn.

And, like, theoretically I am on board with that. I like learning and pursuing interests and I like helping my teens do this too. But in a world that is increasingly obsessed with extroverted personalities, I find myself more and more defensive of the introverts among us.

Clarification:

Think of your will to human as a battery.  Some activities charge our batteries and some activities drain our batteries.

Extroverts charge their batteries by being around and interacting with people. Being alone drains their batteries.

Introverts charge their batteries by being alone. Being around people drains their batteries.

Extraverts are like dogs – always happy to be around you.

Introverts are like cats – they want to be pet every once in a while, but are mostly totally chill with just existing in the same room without making eye contact.

This is a general simplification, but it’s a start for this conversation.

Most people don’t believe me when I say that I’m an introvert because I’m friendly, enjoy performing and giving presentations, and I have a strong personality. I will gladly hang out with the teens and have long conversations about DC vs Marvel… for about four hours. After that, I’m done. I can’t interact with people anymore and if you try and make me I will totally disconnect. I need about an hour alone, not being around anyone, to recharge my batteries and be ready to resume the debate. And after my work day is done, I need to go home and be alone for at least another few hours or I won’t have enough battery charge to make it through the next day.

When I have multiple days in a row where I don’t get enough charge on my batteries (sleeping doesn’t count) I start to seriously shut down, much like a toy with low batteries. I will try to keep spinning and singing the song, but it comes out slow and garbled and no one wants to listen to it. The longer I go without getting a full battery charge, the longer it will take me to get back up to 100%.

All this group  work, the impov games, the brainstorm sessions, drain my batteries quickly and a lot. Where this type of work invigorates some people, it completely exhausts me. And if I have to do it all day I totally want to die at the end of it.

*Sidenote: I also fundamentally disagree with labeling things like ‘improv games’ or ‘team building exercises’ as getting people out of their comfort zone. Because that phrase is never applied to asking someone to read a thing and then write a thing, but that is outside many people’s comfort zones. So by labeling one and not the other you are saying that my comfort zone is bad and I should get out of it, but someone who likes improv games’s comfort zone is good. And that’s dumb.

Also I disagree with the idea that being out of your comfort zone is fundamentally a good thing. I like my comfort zone. I’m an adult who has earned the right not to make a total moron of myself in front of others if I don’t want to. I like to challenge myself, I like to grow. But miming being a ninja in front of a roomful of my colleagues does neither of those things, it just makes me angry. I’m totally willing to go out of my way to introduce myself to a new person on my team I don’t know. I am not willing to pretend to drive a car around the room. *

So being who I am, and knowing what I know about current educational models – where everything is hands on/interactive/in a group – I agree with my friend that if I were in high school now as opposed to the model of lectures and independent work and reading and writing papers that was the general norm in my high school days, I would hate every fucking minute of it.

I would be begging my teachers to let me do projects on my own, to write papers instead of performing skits, to give me time alone with my thoughts to process and create rather than ‘spinning’ ideas off my fellow group members.

I honestly process information the best by reading/listening and then writing/creating a thing INDEPENDENTLY. I need large chunks of time with my thoughts. It’s how I produce anything worthwhile.

And there are plenty of teens like me.

There are plenty of teens who need time to process information before formulating an answer, who can’t speak up in brainstorm sessions because they’re paralyzed by all the activity around them.

There are plenty of teens who would be more productive if we gave them a topic and let them sit alone for hours at a time to read/explore/process/create on their own.

There are plenty of teens who need to get used to a space and to a face before they feel comfortable interacting at all.

And. That. Is. Fine.

It’s okay for teens to come to the library to sit in a corner and never participate in a workshop. That same teen might rather you left out some coloring pages that they complete on their own and will blow you away with how stunning they are.

It’s okay for teens to feel after an entire day of intense collaborative work at school that they just want to play video games for a few hours because their brains are still buffering the information that was downloaded in during school and if you try to make their brain open one more application the whole system will crash.

It’s okay for teens to only say “hi” and “bye” 36 times and then be ready to tell me about their day on the 37th.

Susan Cain’s book articulates wonderfully how our culture is becoming increasingly obsessed with extroverted personality traits to the exclusion of everything else. And that the world needs the people who go into their garage alone for hours at a time. That’s how we got Apple computers. That’s how we got Hamilton. That’s how we got the Mona Lisa.

So I worry. A lot. That our current obsession with all things collaborative in school, work, and in the library, is leaving a lot of teens behind.

Do they need some group work? Absolutely. Should we strive to provide opportunities for enriching, engaging programming? For Sure! Should we view a day where the teens in our library want to chill rather than learn how to build a speaker as a failure? Fuck no.

Especially in an education culture that doesn’t value introverts learning style or cater to their way of processing information, I think it’s more important than ever for those teens to have a place where they can come and recharge their batteries. Where they can sit in the corner and not talk to anyone and know that that’s okay. That is a totally valid choice and I will not interfere. I will not try to guilt them into interacting, or withhold computers until they participate in workshops. I will say to them – you are valid. Your social interaction needs are valid. Your boundaries are valid. Your learning style is valid.

There is nothing wrong with you, teen introverts. And if anyone tries to tell you otherwise just watch me go all mama bear on their ass.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of Introverts

  1. I always hated any kind of group work in school. And amen about how the extroverts are never asked to “get out of their comfort zone.” Even if they do have to, it’s never framed in that way. Words mean things!

  2. Yes to all of this. As a former middle and high school teacher, I always made my group projects say something like “one or more people equals a group.” Many kids chose to work in groups, but some did not, and I respected that.

    Also, we had a “teambuilding” activity at my library that involved tossing an invisible ball to each other. Yes, really. Ask my sarcastic introverted self how much I enjoy tossing an invisible ball to my coworkers. Sigh.

  3. Agreed with all of this. Society puts far too much praise on extroverted personalities when introverts are the ones who make the world go round. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, just both need to be appreciated.

    I’m more okay with collaborating now than I was in school, but the style tends to be more of an interpersonal check in with another person to make sure everything’s on track, then going back to working independently. I think if we were all more aware of what works best for people in education and in the workplace, a lot of things would run more smoothly 🙂

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