April 4, 2008

Introversion and extroversion are often referred to as “preferences” or “attitudes,” but such terms misleadingly suggest that either characteristic is merely a matter of choice. In fact, being an introvert is much like being left-handed: even though you may have another fully functional hand that you could use, you didn’t choose for your left hand to be dominant and therefore the one you can use more naturally, comfortably, and effectively. Although the influence of nature versus nurture in the development of introversion or extroversion has been much debated, research strongly suggests that introversion is in some sense “hard-wired” in the brain. Once a person has developed one tendency or the other, it’s as difficult to conceive of changing it as changing one’s dominant hand.

In decades past, left-handed people (like my grandfather) were forced, sometimes violently, to write with their right hands, based on the belief that right was right and left was abnormal and therefore wrong. Today, even though lefties are still very much in the minority, most people think such attitudes are ridiculous and even offensive. But comparable enlightenment about introverts is dawning more slowly. I routinely hear people talk about introversion as a problem that needs fixing or as a trait that one should actively try to suppress and change. True enough, extroverts tend to be the movers and shakers, the squeaky wheels, and the stars. On the other hand, many introverts have famously risen to positions of wealth, influence, and authority – both in the real world (Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Julia Roberts, Barbara Walters) and in fiction (Batman, Jane Eyre, Dr. Jean Gray, Harry Potter, Mr. Spock). The point is: there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, and this characteristic need not keep anyone from success or happiness. Introverts can learn to work with this trait rather than against it, while extroverts would benefit from understanding introverts better and in some cases making accommodations to interact with them more effectively.

– From Instant Messaging for Introverts

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