With any important question, definitions are important. If we use Encarta Dictionaries, introversion is “the tendency to be self-absorbed and uninterested in other people and the world around”. Culturally, our definition is similar. We commonly refer to introverts as “shy”, “anti-social” or “not team players”. Under that definition, the answer is, “none. Having the lights on just makes people come and visit.”
Societally, we consistently prize the gregarious and charismatic extrovert over the quiet and reflective introvert. This preference can be seen in our schools, where rows of desks have been replaced by groups of desks and work that was previously done autonomously, such as creative writing and math, is now done in committee format. Offices, such as Bloomberg, Google and Square have begun to embrace the open concept floor plan where employees constantly mingle throughout the day. The extroverted bias can even be seen within Christianity. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writes, “Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme…If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.” The message is painfully clear. Introverts must take on extroverted qualities to be successful in school, work and religious life.
This pressure to succumb to the personality traits that society deems preferable is troubling. Introverts make up one-third to one-half of the population and bring a unique skill set to the table. The solitude that introverts crave is crucial to their creativity. For example, many religious leaders, including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, went off by themselves to seek the truth. Only after spending time in solitude were they able to bring back profound revelations to the people. Other introverted leaders and innovators include Bill Gates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi and Steve Woznick.
Carl Jung, the psychologist who popularized the terms “introversion” and “extroversion”, once said, “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” Under this logic, the first step to pushing back the extroverted bias is to understand and accept the true definitions of introversion and extroversion. Introverts are those who draw their energy from time spent in solitude, while extroverts are those who draw their energy from time spent socializing. Under this definition, I think the answer to “How many introverts does it take to change a lightbulb?” is “One. Why does everything have to be a group project?”
We need to, as Cain puts it, “stop the madness for constant group work”. This does not mean that teamwork or collaboration should be eliminated or assume a place of diminished importance. Instead, it means allowing the time and space for individuals to work autonomously. Time should be scheduled for everyone to brainstorm independently prior to a meeting, both to prevent groupthink and to allow for the most creative, deep, and reflective ideas to rise to the surface. Allowing individuals the space for autonomous work does not mean scrapping the open office floor plan entirely. Susan Cain has recently partnered with a furniture company to design office layouts that embrace the open floor concept while also providing rooms where introverts can go to quietly reflect.
The third step is embracing our introversion or our extroversion without shame or fear. This can come into play when making relatively minor decisions, like whether or not to go out on a Friday evening, or when making major decisions, like which career path to follow. In order to make the greatest impact on the world, we must first begin with an understanding and respect for who we are. As Cain writes, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamp lit desk.” So introverts, go ahead and change the light bulb. Just make sure it is the right wattage.
Contact contributor Lauren Onestak at email@example.com