Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain (2012)
Part IV. HOW TO LOVE, HOW TO WORK
Chapter 9. WHEN SHOULD YOU ACT MORE EXTROVERTED THAN YOU REALLY ARE?
A man has as many social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups.
Meet Professor Brian Little, former Harvard University psychology lecturer and winner of the 3M Teaching Fellowship, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of university teaching. Short, sturdy, bespectacled, and endearing, Professor Little has a booming baritone, a habit of breaking into song and twirling about onstage, and an old-school actor’s way of emphasizing consonants and elongating vowels. He’s been described as a cross between Robin Williams and Albert Einstein, and when he makes a joke that pleases his audience, which happens a lot, he looks even more delighted than they do. His classes at Harvard were always oversubscribed and often ended with standing ovations.
In contrast, the man I’m about to describe seems a very different breed: he lives with his wife in a tucked-away house on more than two acres of remote Canadian woods, visited occasionally by his children and grandchildren, but otherwise keeping to himself. He spends his free time scoring music, reading and writing books and articles, and e-mailing friends long notes he calls “e-pistles.” When he does socialize, he favors one-on-one encounters. At parties, he pairs off into quiet conversations as soon as he can or excuses himself “for a breath of fresh air.” When he’s forced to spend too much time out and about or in any situation involving conflict, he can literally become ill.
Would you be surprised if I told you that the vaudevillean professor and the recluse who prefers a life of the mind are one and the same man? Maybe not, when you consider that we all behave differently depending on the situation. But if we’re capable of such flexibility, does it even make sense to chart the differences between introverts and extroverts? Is the very notion of introversion-extroversion too pat a dichotomy: the introvert as sage philosopher, the extrovert as fearless leader? The introvert as poet or science nerd, the extrovert as jock or cheerleader? Aren’t we all a little of both?
Psychologists call this the “person-situation” debate: Do fixed personality traits really exist, or do they shift according to the situation in which people find themselves? If you talk to Professor Little, he’ll tell you that despite his public persona and his teaching accolades, he’s a true blue, off-the-charts introvert, not only behaviorally but also neurophysiologically (he took the lemon juice test I described in chapter 4 and salivated right on cue). This would seem to place him squarely on the “person” side of the debate: Little believes that personality traits exist, that they shape our lives in profound ways, that they’re based on physiological mechanisms, and that they’re relatively stable across a lifespan. Those who take this view stand on broad shoulders: Hippocrates, Milton, Schopenhauer, Jung, and more recently the prophets of fMRI machines and skin conductance tests.
On the other side of the debate are a group of psychologists known as the Situationists. Situationism posits that our generalizations about people, including the words we use to describe one another—shy, aggressive, conscientious, agreeable—are misleading. There is no core self; there are only the various selves of Situations X, Y, and Z. The Situationist view rose to prominence in 1968 when the psychologist Walter Mischel published Personality and Assessment, challenging the idea of fixed personality traits. Mischel argued that situational factors predict the behavior of people like Brian Little much better than supposed personality traits.
For the next few decades, Situationism prevailed. The postmodern view of self that emerged around this time, influenced by theorists like Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, suggested that social life is performance and social masks are our true selves. Many researchers doubted whether personality traits even existed in any meaningful sense. Personality researchers had trouble finding jobs.
But just as the nature-nurture debate was replaced with interactionism—the insight that both factors contribute to who we are, and indeed influence each other—so has the person-situation debate been superseded by a more nuanced understanding. Personality psychologists acknowledge that we can feel sociable at 6:00 p.m. and solitary at 10:00 p.m., and that these fluctuations are real and situation-dependent. But they also emphasize how much evidence has emerged to support the premise that notwithstanding these variations, there truly is such a thing as a fixed personality.
These days, even Mischel admits that personality traits exist, but he believes they tend to occur in patterns. For example, some people are aggressive with peers and subordinates but docile with authority figures; others are just the opposite. People who are “rejection-sensitive” are warm and loving when they feel secure, hostile and controlling when they feel rejected.
But this comfortable compromise raises a variation on the problem of free will that we explored in chapter 5. We know that there are physiological limits on who we are and how we act. But should we attempt to manipulate our behavior within the range available to us, or should we simply be true to ourselves? At what point does controlling our behavior become futile, or exhausting?
If you’re an introvert in corporate America, should you try to save your true self for quiet weekends and spend your weekdays striving to “get out there, mix, speak more often, and connect with your team and others, deploying all the energy and personality you can muster,” as Jack Welch advised in a BusinessWeek online column? If you’re an extroverted university student, should you save your true self for rowdy weekends and spend your weekdays focusing and studying? Can people fine-tune their own personalities this way?
The only good answer I’ve heard to these questions comes from Professor Brian Little.
On the morning of October 12, 1979, Little visited the Royal Military College Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River, forty kilometers south of Montreal, to address a group of senior military officers. As an introvert might be expected to do, he’d prepared thoroughly for the speech, not only rehearsing his remarks but also making sure he could cite the latest research. Even while delivering his talk, he was in what he calls classic introvert mode, continually scanning the room for audience displeasure and making adjustments as needed—a statistical reference here, a dollop of humor there.
The speech was a success (so much so that he would be invited to make it every year). But the next invitation the college extended horrified him: to join the top brass for lunch. Little had to deliver another lecture that afternoon, and he knew that making small talk for an hour and a half would wipe him out. He needed to recharge for his afternoon performance.
Thinking quickly, he announced that he had a passion for ship design and asked his hosts if he might instead take the opportunity of his visit to admire the boats passing by on the Richelieu River. He then spent his lunch hour strolling up and down the river pathway with an appreciative expression on his face.
For years Little returned to lecture at the college, and for years, at lunchtime, he walked the banks of the Richelieu River indulging his imaginary hobby—until the day the college moved its campus to a landlocked location. Stripped of his cover story, Professor Little resorted to the only escape hatch he could find—the men’s room. After each lecture, he would race to the restroom and hide inside a stall. One time, a military man spotted Little’s shoes under the door and began a hearty conversation, so Little took to keeping his feet propped up on the bathroom walls, where they would be hidden from view. (Taking shelter in bathrooms is a surprisingly common phenomenon, as you probably know if you’re an introvert. “After a talk, I’m in bathroom stall number nine,” Little once told Peter Gzowski, one of Canada’s most eminent talk-show hosts. “After a show, I’m in stall number eight,” replied Gzowski, not missing a beat.)
You might wonder how a strong introvert like Professor Little manages to speak in public so effectively. The answer, he says, is simple, and it has to do with a new field of psychology that he created almost singlehandedly, called Free Trait Theory. Little believes that fixed traits and free traits coexist. According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits—introversion, for example—but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”
In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly. Free Trait Theory explains why an introvert might throw his extroverted wife a surprise party or join the PTA at his daughter’s school. It explains how it’s possible for an extroverted scientist to behave with reserve in her laboratory, for an agreeable person to act hard-nosed during a business negotiation, and for a cantankerous uncle to treat his niece tenderly when he takes her out for ice cream. As these examples suggest, Free Trait Theory applies in many different contexts, but it’s especially relevant for introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal.
According to Little, our lives are dramatically enhanced when we’re involved in core personal projects that we consider meaningful, manageable, and not unduly stressful, and that are supported by others. When someone asks us “How are things?” we may give a throwaway answer, but our true response is a function of how well our core personal projects are going.
That’s why Professor Little, the consummate introvert, lectures with such passion. Like a modern-day Socrates, he loves his students deeply; opening their minds and attending to their well-being are two of his core personal projects. When Little held office hours at Harvard, the students lined up in the hallway as if he were giving out free tickets to a rock concert. For more than twenty years his students asked him to write several hundred letters of recommendation a year. “Brian Little is the most engaging, entertaining, and caring professor I have ever encountered,” wrote one student about him. “I cannot even begin to explain the myriad ways in which he has positively affected my life.” So, for Brian Little, the additional effort required to stretch his natural boundaries is justified by seeing his core personal project—igniting all those minds—come to fruition.
At first blush, Free Trait Theory seems to run counter to a cherished piece of our cultural heritage. Shakespeare’s oft-quoted advice, “To thine own self be true,” runs deep in our philosophical DNA. Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of taking on a “false” persona for any length of time. And if we act out of character by convincing ourselves that our pseudo-self is real, we can eventually burn out without even knowing why. The genius of Little’s theory is how neatly it resolves this discomfort. Yes, we are only pretending to be extroverts, and yes, such inauthenticity can be morally ambiguous (not to mention exhausting), but if it’s in the service of love or a professional calling, then we’re doing just as Shakespeare advised.
When people are skilled at adopting free traits, it can be hard to believe that they’re acting out of character. Professor Little’s students are usually incredulous when he claims to be an introvert. But Little is far from unique; many people, especially those in leadership roles, engage in a certain level of pretend-extroversion. Consider, for example, my friend Alex, the socially adept head of a financial services company, who agreed to give a candid interview on the condition of sealed-in-blood anonymity. Alex told me that pretend-extroversion was something he taught himself in the seventh grade, when he decided that other kids were taking advantage of him.
“I was the nicest person you’d ever want to know,” Alex recalls, “but the world wasn’t that way. The problem was that if you were just a nice person, you’d get crushed. I refused to live a life where people could do that stuff to me. I was like, OK, what’s the policy prescription here? And there really was only one. I needed to have every person in my pocket. If I wanted to be a nice person, I needed to run the school.”
But how to get from A to B? “I studied social dynamics, I guarantee more than anyone you’ve ever met,” Alex told me. He observed the way people talked, the way they walked—especially male dominance poses. He adjusted his own persona, which allowed him to go on being a fundamentally shy, sweet kid, but without being taken advantage of. “Any hard thing where you can get crushed, I was like, ‘I need to learn how to do this.’ So by now I’m built for war. Because then people don’t screw you.”
Alex also took advantage of his natural strengths. “I learned that boys basically do only one thing: they chase girls. They get them, they lose them, they talk about them. I was like, ‘That’s completely circuitous. I really like girls.’ That’s where intimacy comes from. So rather than sitting around and talking about girls, I got to know them. I used having relationships with girls, plus being good at sports, to have the guys in my pocket. Oh, and every once in a while, you have to punch people. I did that, too.”
Today Alex has a folksy, affable, whistle-while-you-work demeanor. I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. But you’ll see his self-taught bellicose side if you ever try to cross him in a negotiation. And you’ll see his introverted self if you ever try to make dinner plans with him.
“I could literally go years without having any friends except for my wife and kids,” he says. “Look at you and me. You’re one of my best friends, and how many times do we actually talk—when you call me! I don’t like socializing. My dream is to live off the land on a thousand acres with my family. You never see a team of friends in that dream. So notwithstanding whatever you might see in my public persona, I am an introvert. I think that fundamentally I’m the same person I always was. Massively shy, but I compensate for it.”
But how many of us are really capable of acting out of character to this degree (putting aside, for the moment, the question of whether we want to)? Professor Little happens to be a great performer, and so are many CEOs. What about the rest of us?
Some years ago, a research psychologist named Richard Lippa set out to answer this question. He called a group of introverts to his lab and asked them to act like extroverts while pretending to teach a math class. Then he and his team, video cameras in hand, measured the length of their strides, the amount of eye contact they made with their “students,” the percentage of time they spent talking, the pace and volume of their speech, and the total length of each teaching session. They also rated how generally extroverted the subjects appeared, based on their recorded voices and body language.
Then Lippa did the same thing with actual extroverts and compared the results. He found that although the latter group came across as more extroverted, some of the pseudo-extroverts were surprisingly convincing. It seems that most of us know how to fake it to some extent. Whether or not we’re aware that the length of our strides and the amount of time we spend talking and smiling mark us as introverts and extroverts, we know it unconsciously.
Still, there’s a limit to how much we can control our self-presentation. This is partly because of a phenomenon called behavioral leakage, in which our true selves seep out via unconscious body language: a subtle look away at a moment when an extrovert would have made eye contact, or a skillful turn of the conversation by a lecturer that places the burden of talking on the audience when an extroverted speaker would have held the floor a little longer.
How was it that some of Lippa’s pseudo-extroverts came so close to the scores of true extroverts? It turned out that the introverts who were especially good at acting like extroverts tended to score high for a trait that psychologists call “self-monitoring.” Self-monitors are highly skilled at modifying their behavior to the social demands of a situation. They look for cues to tell them how to act. When in Rome, they do as the Romans do, according to the psychologist Mark Snyder, author of Public Appearances, Private Realities, and creator of the Self-Monitoring Scale.
One of the most effective self-monitors I’ve ever met is a man named Edgar, a well-known and much-beloved fixture on the New York social circuit. He and his wife host or attend fund-raisers and other social events seemingly every weeknight. He’s the kind of enfant terrible whose latest antics are a favorite topic of conversation. But Edgar is an avowed introvert. “I’d much rather sit and read and think about things than talk to people,” he says.
Yet talk to people he does. Edgar was raised in a highly social family that expected him to self-monitor, and he’s motivated to do so. “I love politics,” he says. “I love policy, I love making things happen, I want to change the world in my own way. So I do stuff that’s artificial. I don’t really like being the guest at someone else’s party, because then I have to be entertaining. But I’ll host parties because it puts you at the center of things without actually being a social person.”
When he does find himself at other people’s parties, Edgar goes to great lengths to play his role. “All through college, and recently even, before I ever went to a dinner or cocktail party, I would have an index card with three to five relevant, amusing anecdotes. I’d come up with them during the day—if something struck me I’d jot it down. Then, at dinner, I’d wait for the right opening and launch in. Sometimes I’d have to go to the bathroom and pull out my cards to remember what my little stories were.”
Over time, though, Edgar stopped bringing index cards to dinner parties. He still considers himself an introvert, but he grew so deeply into his extroverted role that telling anecdotes started to come naturally to him. Indeed, the highest self-monitors not only tend to be good at producing the desired effect and emotion in a given social situation—they also experience less stress while doing so.
In contrast to the Edgars of the world, low self-monitors base their behavior on their own internal compass. They have a smaller repertoire of social behaviors and masks at their disposal. They’re less sensitive to situational cues, like how many anecdotes you’re expected to share at a dinner party, and less interested in role-playing, even when they know what the cues are. It’s as if low self-monitors (LSMs) and high self-monitors (HSMs) play to different audiences, Snyder has said: one inner, the other outer.
If you want to know how strong a self-monitor you are, here are a few questions from Snyder’s Self-Monitoring Scale:
· When you’re uncertain how to act in a social situation, do you look to the behavior of others for cues?
· Do you often seek the advice of your friends to choose movies, books, or music?
· In different situations and with different people, do you often act like very different people?
· Do you find it easy to imitate other people?
· Can you look someone in the eye and tell a lie with a straight face if for a right end?
· Do you ever deceive people by being friendly when really you dislike them?
· Do you put on a show to impress or entertain people?
· Do you sometimes appear to others to be experiencing deeper emotions than you actually are?
The more times you answered “yes” to these questions, the more of a high self-monitor you are.
Now ask yourself these questions:
· Is your behavior usually an expression of your true inner feelings, attitudes, and beliefs?
· Do you find that you can only argue for ideas that you already believe?
· Would you refuse to change your opinions, or the way you do things, in order to please someone else or win their favor?
· Do you dislike games like charades or improvisational acting?
· Do you have trouble changing your behavior to suit different people and different situations?
The more you tended to answer “yes” to this second set of questions, the more of a low self-monitor you are.
When Professor Little introduced the concept of self-monitoring to his personality psychology classes, some students got very worked up about whether it was ethical to be a high self-monitor. A few “mixed” couples—HSMs and LSMs in love—even broke up over it, he was told. To high self-monitors, low self-monitors can seem rigid and socially awkward. To low self-monitors, high self-monitors can come across as conformist and deceptive—“more pragmatic than principled,” in Mark Snyder’s words. Indeed, HSMs have been found to be better liars than LSMs, which would seem to support the moralistic stance taken by low self-monitors.
But Little, an ethical and sympathetic man who happens to be an extremely high self-monitor, sees things differently. He views self-monitoring as an act of modesty. It’s about accommodating oneself to situational norms, rather than “grinding down everything to one’s own needs and concerns.” Not all self-monitoring is based on acting, he says, or on working the room. A more introverted version may be less concerned with spotlight-seeking and more with the avoidance of social faux pas. When Professor Little makes a great speech, it’s partly because he’s self-monitoring every moment, continually checking his audience for subtle signs of pleasure or boredom and adjusting his presentation to meet its needs.
So if you can fake it, if you master the acting skills, the attention to social nuance, and the willingness to submit to social norms that self-monitoring requires, should you? The answer is that a Free Trait strategy can be effective when used judiciously, but disastrous if overdone.
Recently I spoke on a panel at Harvard Law School. The occasion was the fifty-fifth anniversary of women being admitted to the law school. Alumnae from all over the country gathered on campus to celebrate. The subject of the panel was “In a Different Voice: Strategies for Powerful Self-Presentation.” There were four speakers: a trial lawyer, a judge, a public-speaking coach, and me. I’d prepared my remarks carefully; I knew the role I wanted to play.
The public-speaking coach went first. She talked about how to give a talk that knocks people’s socks off. The judge, who happened to be Korean-American, spoke of how frustrating it is when people assume that all Asians are quiet and studious when in fact she’s outgoing and assertive. The litigator, who was petite and blond and feisty as hell, talked about the time she conducted a cross-examination only to be admonished by a judge to “Back down, tiger!”
When my turn came, I aimed my remarks at the women in the audience who didn’t see themselves as tigers, myth-busters, or sock-knocker-offers. I said that the ability to negotiate is not inborn, like blond hair or straight teeth, and it does not belong exclusively to the table-pounders of the world. Anyone can be a great negotiator, I told them, and in fact it often pays to be quiet and gracious, to listen more than talk, and to have an instinct for harmony rather than conflict. With this style, you can take aggressive positions without inflaming your counterpart’s ego. And by listening, you can learn what’s truly motivating the person you’re negotiating with and come up with creative solutions that satisfy both parties.
I also shared some psychological tricks for feeling calm and secure during intimidating situations, such as paying attention to how your face and body arrange themselves when you’re feeling genuinely confident, and adopting those same positions when it comes time to fake it. Studies show that taking simple physical steps—like smiling—makes us feel stronger and happier, while frowning makes us feel worse.
Naturally, when the panel was over and the audience member came around to chat with the panelists, it was the introverts and pseudo-extroverts who sought me out. Two of those women stand out in my mind.
The first was Alison, a trial lawyer. Alison was slim and meticulously groomed, but her face was pale, pinched, and unhappy-looking. She’d been a litigator at the same corporate law firm for over a decade. Now she was applying for general counsel positions at various companies, which seemed a logical next step, except that her heart clearly wasn’t in it. And sure enough, she hadn’t gotten a single job offer. On the strength of her credentials, she was advancing to the final round of interviews, only to be weeded out at the last minute. And she knew why, because the head-hunter who’d coordinated her interviews gave the same feedback each time: she lacked the right personality for the job. Alison, a self-described introvert, looked pained as she related this damning judgment.
The second alumna, Jillian, held a senior position at an environmental advocacy organization that she loved. Jillian came across as kind, cheerful, and down-to-earth. She was fortunate to spend much of her time researching and writing policy papers on topics she cared about. Sometimes, though, she had to chair meetings and make presentations. Although she felt deep satisfaction after these meetings, she didn’t enjoy the spotlight, and wanted my advice on staying cool when she felt scared.
So what was the difference between Alison and Jillian? Both were pseudo-extroverts, and you might say that Alison was trying and failing where Jillian was succeeding. But Alison’s problem was actually that she was acting out of character in the service of a project she didn’t care about. She didn’t love the law. She’d chosen to become a Wall Street litigator because it seemed to her that this was what powerful and successful lawyers did, so her pseudo-extroversion was not supported by deeper values. She was not telling herself, I’m doing this to advance work I care about deeply, and when the work is done I’ll settle back into my true self. Instead, her interior monologue was The route to success is to be the sort of person I am not. This is not self-monitoring; it is self-negation. Where Jillian acts out of character for the sake of worthy tasks that temporarily require a different orientation, Alison believes that there is something fundamentally wrong with who she is.
It’s not always so easy, it turns out, to identify your core personal projects. And it can be especially tough for introverts, who have spent so much of their lives conforming to extroverted norms that by the time they choose a career, or a calling, it feels perfectly normal to ignore their own preferences. They may be uncomfortable in law school or nursing school or in the marketing department, but no more so than they were back in middle school or summer camp.
I, too, was once in this position. I enjoyed practicing corporate law, and for a while I convinced myself that I was an attorney at heart. I badly wanted to believe it, since I had already invested years in law school and on-the-job training, and much about Wall Street law was alluring. My colleagues were intellectual, kind, and considerate (mostly). I made a good living. I had an office on the forty-second floor of a skyscraper with views of the Statue of Liberty. I enjoyed the idea that I could flourish in such a high-powered environment. And I was pretty good at asking the “but” and “what if” questions that are central to the thought processes of most lawyers.
It took me almost a decade to understand that the law was never my personal project, not even close. Today I can tell you unhesitatingly what is: my husband and sons; writing; promoting the values of this book. Once I realized this, I had to make a change. I look back on my years as a Wall Street lawyer as time spent in a foreign country. It was absorbing, it was exciting, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people whom I never would have known otherwise. But I was always an expatriate.
Having spent so much time navigating my own career transition and counseling others through theirs, I have found that there are three key steps to identifying your own core personal projects.
First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child. How did you answer the question of what you wanted to be when you grew up? The specific answer you gave may have been off the mark, but the underlying impulse was not. If you wanted to be a fireman, what did a fireman mean to you? A good man who rescued people in distress? A daredevil? Or the simple pleasure of operating a truck? If you wanted to be a dancer, was it because you got to wear a costume, or because you craved applause, or was it the pure joy of twirling around at lightning speed? You may have known more about who you were then than you do now.
Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to. At my law firm I never once volunteered to take on an extra corporate legal assignment, but I did spend a lot of time doing pro bono work for a nonprofit women’s leadership organization. I also sat on several law firm committees dedicated to mentoring, training, and personal development for young lawyers in the firm. Now, as you can probably tell from this book, I am not the committee type. But the goals of those committees lit me up, so that’s what I did.
Finally, pay attention to what you envy. Jealousy is an ugly emotion, but it tells the truth. You mostly envy those who have what you desire. I met my own envy after some of my former law school classmates got together and compared notes on alumni career tracks. They spoke with admiration and, yes, jealousy, of a classmate who argued regularly before the Supreme Court. At first I felt critical. More power to that classmate! I thought, congratulating myself on my magnanimity. Then I realized that my largesse came cheap, because I didn’t aspire to argue a case before the Supreme Court, or to any of the other accolades of lawyering. When I asked myself whom I did envy, the answer came back instantly. My college classmates who’d grown up to be writers or psychologists. Today I’m pursuing my own version of both those roles.
But even if you’re stretching yourself in the service of a core personal project, you don’t want to act out of character too much, or for too long. Remember those trips Professor Little made to the restroom in between speeches? Those hideout sessions tell us that, paradoxically, the best way to act out of character is to stay as true to yourself as you possibly can—starting by creating as many “restorative niches” as possible in your daily life.
“Restorative niche” is Professor Little’s term for the place you go when you want to return to your true self. It can be a physical place, like the path beside the Richelieu River, or a temporal one, like the quiet breaks you plan between sales calls. It can mean canceling your social plans on the weekend before a big meeting at work, practicing yoga or meditation, or choosing e-mail over an in-person meeting. (Even Victorian ladies, whose job effectively was to be available to friends and family, were expected to withdraw for a rest each afternoon.)
You choose a restorative niche when you close the door to your private office (if you’re lucky enough to have one) in between meetings. You can even create a restorative niche during a meeting, by carefully selecting where you sit, and when and how you participate. In his memoir In an Uncertain World, Robert Rubin, the treasury secretary under President Clinton, describes how he “always liked to be away from the center, whether in the Oval Office or the chief of staff’s office, where my regular seat became the foot of the table. That little bit of physical distance felt more comfortable to me, and let me read the room and comment from a perspective ever so slightly removed. I didn’t worry about being overlooked. No matter how far away you were sitting or standing, you could always just say, ‘Mr. President, I think this, that, or the other.’ ”
We would all be better off if, before accepting a new job, we evaluated the presence or absence of restorative niches as carefully as we consider the family leave policy or health insurance plans. Introverts should ask themselves: Will this job allow me to spend time on in-character activities like, for example, reading, strategizing, writing, and researching? Will I have a private workspace or be subject to the constant demands of an open office plan? If the job doesn’t give me enough restorative niches, will I have enough free time on evenings and weekends to grant them to myself?
Extroverts will want to look for restorative niches, too. Does the job involve talking, traveling, and meeting new people? Is the office space stimulating enough? If the job isn’t a perfect fit, are the hours flexible enough that I can blow off steam after work? Think through the job description carefully. One highly extroverted woman I interviewed was excited about a position as the “community organizer” for a parenting website, until she realized that she’d be sitting by herself behind a computer every day from nine to five.
Sometimes people find restorative niches in professions where you’d least expect them. One of my former colleagues is a trial lawyer who spends most of her time in splendid solitude, researching and writing legal briefs. Because most of her cases settle, she goes to court rarely enough that she doesn’t mind exercising her pseudo-extroversion skills when she has to. An introverted administrative assistant I interviewed parlayed her office experience into a work-from-home Internet business that serves as a clearinghouse and coaching service for “virtual assistants.” And in the next chapter we’ll meet a superstar salesman who broke his company’s sales records year after year by insisting on staying true to his introverted self. All three of these people have taken decidedly extroverted fields and reinvented them in their own image, so that they’re acting in character most of the time, effectively turning their workdays into one giant restorative niche.
Finding restorative niches isn’t always easy. You might want to read quietly by the fire on Saturday nights, but if your spouse wishes you’d spend those evenings out with her large circle of friends, then what? You might want to retreat to the oasis of your private office in between sales calls, but what if your company just switched over to an open office plan? If you plan to exercise free traits, you’ll need the help of friends, family, and colleagues. Which is why Professor Little calls, with great passion, for each of us to enter into “a Free Trait Agreement.”
This is the final piece of Free Trait Theory. A Free Trait Agreement acknowledges that we’ll each act out of character some of the time—in exchange for being ourselves the rest of the time. It’s a Free Trait Agreement when a wife who wants to go out every Saturday night and a husband who wants to relax by the fire work out a schedule: half the time we’ll go out, and half the time we’ll stay home. It’s a Free Trait Agreement when you attend your extroverted best friend’s wedding shower, engagement celebration, and bachelorette party, but she understands when you skip out on the three days’ worth of group activities leading up to the wedding itself.
It’s often possible to negotiate Free Trait Agreements with friends and lovers, whom you want to please and who love your true, in-character self. Your work life is a little trickier, since most businesses still don’t think in these terms. For now, you may have to proceed indirectly. Career counselor Shoya Zichy told me the story of one of her clients, an introverted financial analyst who worked in an environment where she was either presenting to clients or talking to colleagues who continually cycled in and out of her office. She was so burned out that she planned to quit her job—until Zichy suggested that she negotiate for downtime.
Now, this woman worked for a Wall Street bank, not a culture conducive to a frank discussion about the needs of the highly introverted. So she carefully considered how to frame her request. She told her boss that the very nature of her work—strategic analysis—required quiet time in which to concentrate. Once she made her case empirically, it was easier to ask for what she needed psychologically: two days a week of working from home. Her boss said yes.
But the person with whom you can best strike a Free Trait Agreement—after overcoming his or her resistance—is yourself.
Let’s say you’re single. You dislike the bar scene, but you crave intimacy, and you want to be in a long-term relationship in which you can share cozy evenings and long conversations with your partner and a small circle of friends. In order to achieve this goal, you make an agreement with yourself that you will push yourself to go to social events, because only in this way can you hope to meet a mate and reduce the number of gatherings you attend over the long term. But while you pursue this goal, you will attend only as many events as you can comfortably stand. You decide in advance what that amount is—once a week, once a month, once a quarter. And once you’ve met your quota, you’ve earned the right to stay home without feeling guilty.
Or perhaps you’ve always dreamed of building your own small company, working from home so you can spend more time with your spouse and children. You know you’ll need to do a certain amount of networking, so you make the following Free Trait Agreement with yourself: you will go to one schmooze-fest per week. At each event you will have at least one genuine conversation (since this comes easier to you than “working the room”) and follow up with that person the next day. After that, you get to go home and not feel bad when you turn down other networking opportunities that come your way.
Professor Little knows all too well what happens when you lack a Free Trait Agreement with yourself. Apart from occasional excursions to the Richelieu River or the restroom, he once followed a schedule that combined the most energy-zapping elements of both introversion and extroversion. On the extroverted side, his days consisted of nonstop lectures, meetings with students, monitoring a student discussion group, and writing all those letters of recommendation. On the introverted side, he took those responsibilities very, very seriously.
“One way of looking at this,” he says now, “is to say that I was heavily engaged in extrovert-like behaviors, but, of course, had I been a real extrovert I would have done quicker, less nuanced letters of recommendation, would not have invested the time in preparation of lectures, and the social events would not have drained me.” He also suffered from a certain amount of what he calls “reputational confusion,” in which he became known for being over-the-top effervescent, and the reputation fed on itself. This was the persona that others knew, so it was the persona he felt obliged to serve up.
Naturally, Professor Little started to burn out, not only mentally but also physically. Never mind. He loved his students, he loved his field, he loved it all. Until the day that he ended up in the doctor’s office with a case of double pneumonia that he’d been too busy to notice. His wife had dragged him there against his will, and a good thing too. According to the doctors, if she had waited much longer, he would have died.
Double pneumonia and an overscheduled life can happen to anyone, of course, but for Little, it was the result of acting out of character for too long and without enough restorative niches. When your conscientiousness impels you to take on more than you can handle, you begin to lose interest, even in tasks that normally engage you. You also risk your physical health. “Emotional labor,” which is the effort we make to control and change our own emotions, is associated with stress, burnout, and even physical symptoms like an increase in cardiovascular disease. Professor Little believes that prolonged acting out of character may also increase autonomic nervous system activity, which can, in turn, compromise immune functioning.
One noteworthy study suggests that people who suppress negative emotions tend to leak those emotions later in unexpected ways. The psychologist Judith Grob asked people to hide their emotions as she showed them disgusting images. She even had them hold pens in their mouths to prevent them from frowning. She found that this group reported feeling less disgusted by the pictures than did those who’d been allowed to react naturally. Later, however, the people who hid their emotions suffered side effects. Their memory was impaired, and the negative emotions they’d suppressed seemed to color their outlook. When Grob had them fill in the missing letter to the word “gr_ss,” for example, they were more likely than others to offer “gross” rather than “grass.” “People who tend to [suppress their negative emotions] regularly,” concludes Grob, “might start to see the world in a more negative light.”
That’s why these days Professor Little is in restorative mode, retired from the university and reveling in his wife’s company in their house in the Canadian countryside. Little says that his wife, Sue Phillips, the director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University, is so much like him that they don’t need a Free Trait Agreement to govern their relationship. But his Free Trait Agreement with himself provides that he do his remaining “scholarly and professional deeds with good grace,” but not “hang around longer than necessary.”
Then he goes home and snuggles by the fire with Sue.