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Which Are You, Introvert or Extravert?

Quiet people have the loudest minds.” Stephen Hawking

Ever since I started writing seriously, with an intent to share my work, I’ve heard or read from fellow writers that writers tend to be introverts, that we prefer our solitude, to labor alone, preferably somewhere quiet, that we’re prone to brooding. So much so, in fact, that this idea works its way into popular media, such as this scene from the movie “A Walk in the Woods”:

Sometime during this movie, about two hikers tackling the Appalachian Trail in their later years, Robert Redford’s character is drawn into a conversation with his doctor about dying. He responds with something like, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m a writer. We either drink ourselves to death or blow our brains out.”

Pretty startling line, especially if you’re considering a career in anything creative! But statistics do point to the predilection to introversion being predictive of depression and suicide. So I began to wonder if this notion of introvert vs. extravert and its relationship to creativity had anything interesting in the conclusion department.

Clearly, some of us on Earth are what society would call introverted: we choose to observe rather than participate, we’re comfortable, and even relish being alone, we’re great deep and long thinkers, and we listen to others like nobody’s business. We don’t like small talk, it seems useless to us, so that’s something we need to learn and practice to get good at it. We make plans to get together with people, then secretly celebrate when those plans fall through. We freak out when salespeople offer to “help” us find what we’re looking for. We take another way to get to where we’re going if we see someone we don’t want to run into (again, the dreaded small talk). 

As children, we introverts really take it on the chin. The show offs and bullies and class clowns get all the attention, and we’re left wondering if we’ll ever amount to anything in a world full of noise. To even be challenged to try to simulate extravert behavior (assertiveness, need for social attention, talkative, love for a crowd) makes us want to go find a nice, quiet park bench so we can watch the world go by incognito.

But if we get too much into our own heads and withdraw from interactions with others, that’s when we can get into trouble. I’ve been there, and have witnessed myself talk my psyche into all kinds of nonsense, making me believe that my life is much worse than it actually is. As an introvert, I’m mostly experiencing and listening to my inner dialog, and that can be wrong about a lot of stuff. Thankfully for me, I married an extravert, and he regularly drags me out of the mire I’ve got myself stuck in. However, this inner exploration comes in very handy when writing about someone else’s inner life.

Extraverts like him, on the other hand, are out there gathering experience and information by interacting with other people. They live for that interaction and company, but often aren’t especially good listeners, because their brain is way ahead of what’s going on in the present. They love new adventures and seek out meeting new people, and this is where they get a lot of their creative ideas. And for writers, this means being in contact with a wide range of personality types which can also be handy when concocting characters in a story.

So what does all this say about our ability to create? If your writing (or music/painting/sculpting/etc.) skills are solid, you could be intro- or extra- and you would probably get good results. The same is true of any artistic endeavor you choose to follow, skill and lots of focused time will add up to competence in your chosen field. One of the most astonishing creators of all time, Mozart was a known extravert who loved a party, while stunning painters such as Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh liked to keep to themselves. Then we have an artist like Freddie Mercury who loved to show off at concerts, but was famously reclusive in his private life, so a well-documented bothie. (He himself said he thought his performance persona was something of a monster!)

But depending on which way you lean (and it’s helpful to remember that these labels exist on a spectrum, where we all have some of both), your creative results may be significantly different than someone from the opposite persuasion. This is what gives any field of creation its vibrancy: the many voices demonstrate an almost inconceivable range of human range and output, and they’re all valid.

It’s likely that a lot of the way we are, the person we develop into, is genetic. But when it comes to introversion and extraversion, it’s also been shown that some of it is learned, and can be measured by brain activity. One Harvard study found that adult introverts' brains work differently, and have thicker gray matter compared to extroverts. In people who are strongly extroverted, gray matter was consistently thinner. (It will take a lot more brain research to discover why these differences exist.) Introverts also showed more activity in the frontal lobes, where analysis and rational thought take place, and this makes sense, since introverts are known to spend a lot of time pondering.

The bottom line, whichever “vert” you are, is embrace it, and use it to be your best creative self. We need both, and we need you to be an authentic version of you. Take this quote by Franz Kafka (probably an introvert, but the advice is sound for everyone, as long as extraverts can take a moment to focus) to heart when struggling to define who you are:

“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

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