Powers and pitfalls of introvert researchers

A Ted talk by Susan Cain on the power of introverts got me thinking about finding a balance between the power and pitfalls of introversion as a researcher. Cain argues passionately that valuable deep thought and truly creative and innovative ideas can only bubble to the surface if given enough quietness and solitude. Yet, she points out our society is increasingly organized to promote a more extrovert approach to cooperation, group work and outgoing interaction. The academic environment traditionally respects and fosters quiet contemplation, especially for PhD candidates and postdocs, but even here pressure increases to go public with your ideas: to publish, to participate in conferences, and to valorize their knowledge by reaching out to the general public and cooperate with many organizations.

This can feel very uncomfortable if you are an introvert researcher — and I am strongly inclined to assume that many, if not most, PhD’s and PostDocs are on the introvert side of the spectrum. Voicing your deep thoughts to a critical audience of scientists and intellectuals may not come natural to you at all. However, being stimulated to sometimes reach out and speak up is not inherently bad. As Susan Cain mentions, the pure introvert does not exist, and if he did he would be a lunatic. This is encouraging because it implies that even the most introverted researcher somehow has the capacity to overcome his reticence to open up in public.

In concluding her talk Cain dares introverts to speak dangerously and to softly voice their deep thoughts for the benefit of humanity. I would add that this is also for your own benefit as an introvert. Seeking quiet solitude is fine as long as you do not get caught in webs of silent loneliness. I often encounter young researchers who started out happy to explore the deepest thoughts they can imagine, only to get trapped in the world of their minds somewhere along the way. By the time they realize they are no longer happy they are so paralyzed that they can hardly imagine feeling confident and relaxed in interacting with other people without forcing themselves to play a role.

I know that opening up to others and discuss your own ideas about your subject may take a lot of courage and is not something done easily, on an everyday basis, with just anyone. I am not even talking about sharing your inner feelings about the process of thinking in solitude. Honestly showing our inner thoughts makes us feel vulnerable and a certain guardedness seems prudent. However, if you manage to step out of your introvert comfort zone, you may be surprised to find that others will often perceive you as strong and inspiring. I have written more about how this works and why this is the case in this blogpost on courage.

Of course, you do not gain trust and confidence in presenting your thoughts to the world, or even just your colleagues and supervisor, overnight. A very useful strategy is to be mindful of the small steps leading up towards your goal. Start looking for the smallest examples of moments where you showed a glimpse of what goes on in the privacy of your mind to a trusted friend and collect them for instance in a nice notebook. Review weekly and see if you can find a way to take you one step further the next week. Do not expect instant results and get impatient or discouraged if at first you notice little progress. Change will come, in a month, or two, or three, and you can grow from there.

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