I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering the spectrum of the introversion-extroversion scale as the concepts of the sharing economy, communal living, entrepreneurial festivals for collaboration, summer camps for adults, and open office floor plans grow in popularity. The sharing economy is a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human, physical, and intellectual resources. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade, and consumption of goods and services by different people and organizations. I am a huge fan of the foundational building blocks of this system; however, I find that they tend to more naturally fall into the lifestyle choices for individuals who identify as extroverts.
Now, let me be clear: I am not here to write an article that encourages personality labelling or putting oneself inside of a box. In my eyes, neither one of these labels are good, nor bad. However, I am interested in unpacking some of the ways that we still set up our society to meet the needs of individuals who are more externally social by nature. In my experience, I have noticed that these situations can lead those who do not fit into this mold to experience feelings of insecurity and self-comparison.
Merriam-Webster defines introversion as the following:
- The act of directing one’s attention toward or getting gratification from one’s own interests, thoughts, and feelings.
- The state or tendency toward being wholly or predominately concerned with and interested in one’s mental life—compare extroversion.
This definition not only skews the meaning of introversion by equating it to self-centeredness, but when you read between the lines and compare it to the definition of extrovert, an introvert seems to be someone who is outside of the norm.
I recently attended a Radically Alive Leadership workshop at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. To be totally transparent, I was slightly naive as to what I was getting myself into. I had no idea that the week would involve an intense exploration of personal trauma with participant reenactment and storytelling of one’s core wounds. Over the course of the week, I witnessed many people work through some of their deepest pains by channelling their energy into a punching bag, towel, or tennis racket. One of the aspects that I found most interesting about this process was the way that different individuals demonstrated their style of leadership. In front of a group of 35 people, many were loud, strong, and confrontational. And yet, there were a handful of individuals who may not have been as obvious in their impact, but held the space with full aliveness through active listening, soft compassion, and an innate sense of openness.
When the entire group got into a heated argument over what defines a true “leader,” the room was sharply divided between those who thought you must lead by doing and those who thought you must lead by being. The facilitator powerfully pointed out that there is no “right” way to lead; leadership comes in a myriad of forms and you simply have to be receptive enough to know which one makes your heart sing. In a world that loves to cling and grasp for certainty, many of us desire the leader that feels steadfast in their knowing. However, all that we actually know is that we don’t know much, so why are we relying on someone else to tell us our own truths?
On the scale of introversion-extroversion, I seem to fall somewhere in the middle. In Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, she defines this person occupying the middle space as the “ambivert,” or the person who is “equally happy to see a meeting in their work calendar as to see a space for writing a report.” This definition is true for me and I am absolutely certain that I recharge my energy alone. After my week at Esalen, I needed the entire weekend to recover the depletion that I felt from being around others every moment of every day. In Cain’s exploration of the topic of introvert vs. extrovert, she describes the challenge of being an introvert in today’s extroverted society:
Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.
Over the past several months I have been working with an incredibly intelligent client who holds a prestigious position at a fast-growing startup in San Francisco. This company lives and breathes the values of the sharing economy, yet in a community that preaches collaboration and outgoing inclusivity, she has expressed time and time again how challenging she finds it to fit in. She is contemplative and soft spoken by nature, yet her eloquence and capacity to lead are undeniably present. In our past time together, she was trying to figure out how to radically change her personality to feel like she belonged. I suggested she consider the following:
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“A square peg will never fit inside of a round hole. In a world filled with round holes, we desperately need those square pegs to demonstrate a different type of leadership—a leadership that so many others are craving to follow because it feels true to who they are and what they want out of life.”
After I spoke, her entire disposition changed. It was almost as if she felt for the first time she could be herself and that she was enough exactly as she is. I often think that we have set ourselves up as a society to need someone else’s permission to access our own power, even though it has always been there, anxiously waiting for us to share it with the world.
Consultant, author, and lecturer Jim Collins conducted a landmark study to examine how various organizations progress from good to great. He determined that one of the key drivers of that success was a leader who was not necessarily charismatic or outgoing, but one who possessed a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will. According to Collins, these types of leaders are “timid and ferocious, shy and fearless. They are rare and unstoppable.”
Reflecting back on the ever-present opportunity we have in our modern society to sleep on a stranger’s couch or rent out a room in someone’s home while travelling, I smile. Knowingly I relax in the fact that there is no right or wrong way to be in this world and to lead in this world. Nothing is inherently good or bad. An introvert can thrive at a summer camp for adults and an extrovert can feel fulfilled reading a book in the quiet comfort of his own home. As Cain says, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.” That lighting may be in a large loud crowd or it may be in complete silence.
As long as you stay true to your own unique needs, whatever they may be, your leadership is bound to shine. And when you are ready, we are all here waiting with open anticipation for what gifts you have to share with the world.
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