Greg Bruce: Odd man out - on being an introvert

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Greg Bruce on the power of being an introvert.
Every morning, when I walked into my home office and pulled the door shut behind me, I felt the joy anew.
Every morning, when I walked into my home office and pulled the door shut behind me, I felt the joy anew.

In a TED talk - at 13 million views, one of the most popular in the history of that strangely cultish institution - introvert Susan Cain talks about how she felt for much of her life that she should be "trying to pass" as an extrovert. To achieve this, she did things like becoming a Wall St lawyer and spending lots of time in crowded bars: choices out of keeping with who she was and what she felt most comfortable doing; choices she described as "reflexive" and "self-negating".

Watching the talk at my dining room table, soon after its release in 2012, I felt the electric connection of unexpected communion with a kindred spirit. The talk's title, "The Power of Introverts" had attracted me precisely because being an introvert, which I am, always felt like the least powerful thing in the world. Nobody wants to be an introvert, I had always thought - they're lonely, lame, a bit pathetic, basically unemployable. Knowing all this, I too had spent much of my life agonisingly trying to pass as an extrovert.

Only a few months before watching the talk, I had quit a job in which my every working minute was focused around being the best extrovert I could be, which was the worst extrovert imaginable. Air New Zealand had hired me to be one of its first in-flight concierges, a job that required roaming the aisles of a Boeing 747 or 777 on its way to North America, trying to converse with people who were trying to watch movies.

In the middle of each flight, we would get a break of two or three hours, during which time I would climb up to the crew rest quarters, slide into my sleeping tube, pull the curtain across and fantasise about never coming out. On arrival into our hotel, I would go into my room, shut the door, breathe in the relief of my solitude and breathe out pure joy. I would spend the next day or two delightedly roaming the streets of the city by myself, avoiding almost all social contact, before facing the dilemma of whether to endure the return flight or just resign.

As dark as my dark period at Air New Zealand was - and it was dark - it was just one small and horrific example of a wider life lived self-negatingly. It seemed like every sentence in Cain's talk took me back to a moment in my life where I felt that my introversion had held me back, or I had pretended to be something other than what I was in order to reap the rewards of being the extrovert I wasn't.

Fresh out of school, having applied for entry to AUT's Bachelor of Communication Studies degree, I pretended, at my interview, to be joyfully outgoing when I was actually so overwhelmed I wanted to go home. In a class where we worked out our Myers-Briggs personality type, I lied on most of the questions because I was too embarrassed to admit to the classmates I hardly ever talked to that I was an introvert.

In every job interview I've ever had, I've lied to indicate extroversion, then spent months or years trying and failing to live up to that lie. While working at Air New Zealand, I bought and twice read the modern self-help classic Never Eat Alone, in which expert networker and probable extrovert Keith Ferrazzi makes a book-length argument for the idea already adequately expressed in the title. During that period, as an introverted single man spending a lot of time in foreign cities, I ate alone more than anyone in history. Reading the book didn't help me - it just made me feel like even more of a failure.

Greg Bruce and his daughter, Tallulah, at the top of Mt Eden in Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig
Greg Bruce and his daughter, Tallulah, at the top of Mt Eden in Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig

And now, here was Susan Cain, telling me I was powerful? This was some strange voodoo.
I DON'T want to be involved with working in a group ever again. When I hear the words "group work" there is an audible rush as all enthusiasm leaves my body. If there's a task to be done, no matter how valuable social collaboration might be to that task, I would prefer to do it on my own, preferably in a soundproofed room with no cellphone coverage.

Most modern workplaces, via their babble-inducing open plan layout, actively discourage solitary work.

Babble has its benefits, the free and uninhibited exchange of ideas being of obvious value even to someone for whom such an exchange doesn't come easy. But to be exchanged, ideas first need to come from somewhere and often those ideas come from introverts, doing solitary work.

Organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham writes that when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority, talented and motivated people should be encouraged to work alone. He says that evidence suggests organisations using brainstorming groups "must be insane".
There's plenty of other evidence that group work is not always a great idea.

When individuals take a position which is different from that of the group, for instance, it activates the part of the brain associated with the fear of rejection, triggering what neuroscientist Gregory Berns calls, "the pain of independence." In other words, the incentive to conform becomes a serious impediment to the incentive to create.

The value of working together has achieved pre-eminence in modern society. Nobody is challenging its value but we should be challenging the long-standing prejudice against people who want and need to spend much of their time by themselves.

Introverts make up between a third and a half of the population. They have more to offer than their silence at parties.

Cain's TED talk and accompanying bestselling book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking popularised much of this research in an attempt to redefine the way the world interacts with introverts. The talk finished with a call to action, suggesting that introverts should share more of themselves with the world. That's not an easy thing for an introvert to do, but if we don't speak up then the world will be shaped to the needs of extroverts, to the detriment of us all.

After three hellish years at Air New Zealand, pretending to be an extrovert, surrounded by extroverts, exhausted, I quit.

Getting into my car at the airport after my last flight, I felt the same joy that I used to feel on arriving into a foreign hotel room, multiplied into a joyful infinity in which I would never again pretend to be what I wasn't.

For the next four and a half years I worked from home as a freelance writer. Every morning, when I walked into my home office and pulled the door shut behind me, I felt the joy anew. Living a life where I no longer felt I had to pretend, the world I was interested in opened up to me and the things for which I didn't care steadily dropped away. I wouldn't say I felt powerful, but I definitely felt less powerless.

A couple of months ago, I got a job. I didn't lie at the interview and I don't pretend at work. There's hardly any group work, I can submit ideas in writing, and I can - and do - shut out the outside world for long periods. Once, I would have considered my desire for and appreciation of all these things to be a personal failing, but now I'm getting more comfortable with it. I'm an introvert and I am no longer that ashamed.

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- Canvas

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