The Age of the Extrovert?

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The human being is a social animal and its interconnectedness seems never more pronounced and valued than today. On the Internet a whole “Web 2.0” cares for our relationships; one has to be linked in, show ones face in a virtual book and “twitter” thoughts, to be part of at least one swarm. These days one can have a thousand friends; however, the question is whether friends in a social network are in fact friends. Fortunately one does not have to care individually about them, but nevertheless profiles have to be updated and yes, they may note if you did not have a look at their virtual pin wall for some weeks. Of course, correspondingly at work it’s all about the team. Social skills are regarded as even more important than professional expertise by many. The corner office has become the privilege for a few in a world where the majority work in “open plan offices”.
In her recent book “Solitude is out of fashion” Susan Cain summarizes, and draws attention to, a major part of our population which seems not only left out but also is close to being stigmatized by the current focus on teams and the social capabilities of a person; the introverts. Introverts are by definition people not reaching out so much being more likely to skip a party for a great book. They prefer to work alone and to concentrate more on their work than on the social life surrounding it.
However, if we look back on our technological and philosophical history, introverts contributed to the majority of the inventions and ideas lasting till today. Buddha, Ghandi and Moses took long sabbaticals from social life to find and formulate their concepts. But also science wizards like Newton, Nobel and Einstein were fairly introverted persons. Add to these groups all the artists who often spent years at their desks or in their studios to write the books and create the art which inspires us today.
Already labeled as a “loner”, the introvert often suffers some social discrimination. This label draws attention away from a major capability many individuals would like to have, the ability to concentrate on a task for a long period of time. The ability to stay focused is the strength of the introvert and for close to a hundred years psychologists have theorized that if you have an important but also boring task to accomplish give it to an introvert. In fact, what makes the extrovert look social and outgoing is a stronger need for stimulation which may support work but also frequently is nothing more than engagement in pure distraction. However, in their socializing the extroverts are visible whilst the introverts stay hidden.
Generally, extroverts connect to people and introverts connect to tasks. This can put the introverts in a disadvantaged position for a long time, or even permanently. Most regular work does not allow the introvert to produce convincing results demonstrating that all the days or years spent appear reasonable. This is the privilege of just a few successful artists or inventors and they are successful because they were able to conquer the social world during their lifetime. Also it is not uncommon to discover, only after a person has died an impressive collection of artwork known to nobody or only the closest family circle which was created over the person’s lifetime. Some great writers wrote for the drawer without the intention to ever publish their work.
To find social recognition the introverts need a little extraversion or a congenial partner to bring their work into the world. The most prominent example of the last decades could be the partnership between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. It was the tech genius Steve Wozniak who invented the Apple I all alone and wanted to give it away for free. Steve Jobs persuaded him to found a company. Wozniak, as a real introvert, left this growing company early and though he is admired by many, it is Steve Jobs who became a world famous figure.
This example leads to the question of whether or not introversion is a handicap in the tech professions. Of course, there are professions like politics and marketing in which introversion is a major handicap, if not an unsurpassable barrier. Nowadays tech companies look for team players ready to work in the open plan offices. This perspective and workplace design may however block productivity and creativity. Susan Cain cites a recent survey on the productivity of more than 600 programmers from 90 companies. Performance differences between companies were significant. Productivity was best predicted by privacy and being able to work without interruptions. 62% of the best vs. 19% of the worst performers said their workspace provided sufficient privacy and 76% of the worst vs. 38% of the best performers complained about frequent interruptions. Of course, there will probably be a lot of extroverts in this sample. The reclusive introvert is just a bit more radical in creating something which in the end everybody needs; a workplace that helps to focus attention.
Also the notion that great products are primarily the result of collaborative efforts is not generally true for this area in which teamwork is lauded so often, Google, Facebook and Twitter now have thousands of developers, but the original idea and the basic code was supplied by a very small group, or just one person.
Web 2.0 visionaries often say that people not joining the movement run the risk of becoming invisible to the world in the near future. Most likely being extroverts themselves they overlook that some introverts will not really mind as long as they have real friends and family. But for many people there is something even more important than being socially embedded in an often superficial manner, namely their work. The individuals creating great ideas and technologies to enrich our lives will always need only a modest outpost on the net.