the art of being an introvert creative (forced to cope with social media)
I’m giving a workshop on blogging/social media at the Southern California Writer’s Conference in San Diego in February.
I asked people on Facebook if there were particular questions that I should address.
Canadian novelist Adrian Kelly made this point:
….I’d like to hear less about the end of the book, and more about how we still need to make room for the book, for deep, attentive reading and writing, even as we explore the benefits of blogging and social media. Good writing, good reading, takes time and silence and solitude, three things that blogging and social media, used injudiciously, erode.
My first response was, I always take this as a given. And because we tend to project ourselves on the world – we think that other people think like we do (except, of course, when they don’t, which can be so annoying) – I assumed that other people did as well.
Meanwhile, over on his wildly popular blog, Chris Brogan ran a post called 97 Ideas for Building a Valuable Platform in which he urged people to “keep everything brief” because
We are in a consumption society. People can barely read a tweet.
I can read a tweet, and I sure as hell know that you can. But Brogan is playing into this extremely familiar idea that we live in an ADD culture, chasing after shiny objects, constantly on the move, so keep your content bite-sized. People can’t pay attention.
Chris Brogan, whom I would tag as an extrovert, and Adrian Kelly, whom I would not, seem to live in different worlds.
(I just flashed on an image of a Brogan vs Kelly smackdown, but no matter.)
Here’s the thing. I do have ADD – I was diagnosed with it as an adult – and I am very capable of long, sustained attention when I am interested in the matter at hand. (ADD isn’t about a failure of attention so much as a failure to modulate it appropriately, which means I’m just as likely to hyper-focus on my Kindle as I am to forget my car keys. Or my car.)
It’s true that I don’t finish reading a lot of the stuff that I start, especially online. I am distractible. But maybe that’s not because of some basic inability. Maybe that’s because a lot of stuff is crap, or starts out strong and then turns into crap. Maybe it loses my attention because it’s no longer worth my attention, which is limited and valuable and, like a flashlight, can only shine in one direction at a time.
Maybe I’m not the only one who feels this way.
What keeps my attention is this:
For all the stuff that flies at us in the course of any given day, all the messages and TV shows and blog posts and movies and news and ads and commercials and Oscar announcements, how much of it is stuff we truly care about? How much of it actually means something?
This, according to author and game designer Jane McGonigal, is why “ reality is trivial” – at least compared with the high stakes, feedback loops and epic questing of computer games. My seven year old son can barely get through his ten minutes of math homework, but if I let him he can sit cross-legged on the floor and play a newly downloaded game on my Asus Transformer for hours.
Jane writes in her book REALITY IS BROKEN (bold italics are mine):
Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.
She stresses the word epic, defining it as something “that far surpasses the ordinary, especially in size, scale and intensity.” Epic is awe-inspiring, and awe, according to neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall, is “the orgasm of positive emotions.”
Awe is what we feel when we recognize that we’re in the presence of something bigger than otherselves. It’s closely linked with feelings of spirituality, love, and gratitude – and, more importantly, a desire to serve…
And then she quotes Dacher Keltner, who wrote the book BORN TO BE GOOD:
…It is about finding your place in the larger scheme of things. It is about quieting the press of self-interest. It is about folding into social collectives. It is about feeling reverential toward participating in some expansive process that unites us all and that enobles our life’s endeavors.
(Awe makes us feel good. It also inspires us to do good. That’s cool.)
Our ability to feel awe in the form of chills, goose bumps, or choking up serves as a kind of emotional radar for detecting meaningful activity. Whenever we feel awe, we know we’ve found a potential source of meaning. We’ve discovered a real opportunity to be of service, to band together, to contribute to a larger cause.
In short, awe is a call to collective action.
Jane believes that if we can design our reality like we design our games – including “to always connect the individual to something bigger” – the depth and quality of our collective attention will expand accordingly.
Which reminds me of a study that agent Donald Maass refers to in a post on Writer Unboxed, in which researchers studied the articles in the New York Times that people emailed the most. In other words, they were looking for the quality that inspires word-of-mouth.
A feeling of awe.
These researchers defined awe as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” Stories that inspire awe have two important dimensions: 1) Their scale is large, and 2) they require of readers “mental accommodation”, meaning they force the reader to view the world in a different way.
Show me a tweet that can do that, and I’ll show you an attentive reader.
Perhaps the problem isn’t (just) that we live in what Brogan calls a ‘consumption culture’. American culture is an extremely extroverted culture. In her book QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS, Susan Cain discusses how introverts and extroverts
…work differently. Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking. They enjoy “the thrill of the chase” for rewards like money and status.
Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They are
…drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling…extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves.
Cain observes what she calls the “rise of the extrovert ideal”, which started with the Industrial Age and the migration to the cities. Cut off from the traditional networks of family and community, people had to differentiate themselves from the masses and win the trust and admiration of others through the force of their personal charisma. This created the Culture of Personality:
The new economy called for a new kind of man – a salesman, a social operator, someone with a ready smile, a masterful handshake, and the ability to get along with colleagues while simultaneously outshining them.
Today, we find ourselves in yet another new economy – call it the new new economy – where we have to create not just a personality but a charismatic personal brand. We have to hustle, promote ourselves, get our voices heard (whether or not we have anything to say), become an expert, join Toastmasters, and become productivity ninjas so we can (maybe) also have a life. We have to be go-getters who are GETTING THINGS DONE. We must AWAKEN THE GIANT WITHIN. We have to be master networkers who NEVER EAT LUNCH ALONE. We have to build platforms. We have to Be Remarkable.
In short, we have to be extroverts. And if we’re not extroverts, we have to learn to pass as extroverts, at least convincingly enough so that we won’t be regarded as weird or anti-social or “too much in our heads”. (God forbid that you be, you know, an intellectual.) We also have to pretend that many of the real extroverts, as they dominate the conversation and confidently hold forth with their faulty opinions, who will talk without thinking and rarely think to listen, don’t annoy us.
But if we’re all extroverts – if we’re all rushing into events without carving out the time and silence and solitude required to connect them, and ourselves, to a sense of meaning, much less epic meaning – who is left, then, to make that meaning for us?
Science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes:
The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither the theory of relativity nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.
(Nothing against party animals.)
The creation of meaning requires contemplation and reflection. It requires an observing, a listening, a curious and thoughtful gathering of ideas, and time for those materials to incubate in the mind before they synthesize into something new.
Time and solitude and silence.
But we have no time. We’re so interconnected through all our devices that genuine solitude is difficult to come by. And silence, in this culture, is often linked with powerlessness. It’s the person who talks the best game who is generally perceived to be the master of it – whether or not that is actually true (and many studies show that it isn’t.)
I find it rather ironic that such an extroverted culture is now exhorting the values of creativity and creative insight. Now, we don’t just talk about leadership; we talk about thought leadership. But the raw work of thinking, in this action-oriented culture, has generally belonged to the introverts. As children, they were often accused of thinking too much, or being too serious, or being bookworms or study grinds or geeks. Traits that were not exactly celebrated.
After all, people can barely read a tweet.
Except I don’t believe this, and never have. As Susan Cain points out, one out of every two or three people you know – is an introvert. If that surprises you, it might be because so many introverts have grown up learning to imitate something that they’re not, feeling pressured to manufacture a kind of rah-rah version of the self. “Some,” Cain remarks, “fool even themselves.”
And because introverts aren’t angling to dominate the conversation, because oftentimes we’d rather stay at home with a good book, the benefits of introversion get increasingly eclipsed by a story of culture as told by the extroverts (in which creativity is deemed the product of collaboration and groupthink and wildly sociable office environments).
But if we lose sight of what introversion can offer us, we stand to lose its considerable gifts.
Janet Farrall and Louise Kronberg note in Leadership Development for the Gifted and Talented:
While extroverts tend to attain leadership in public domains, introverts tend to attain leadership in theoretical and aesthetic fields. Outstanding introverted leaders, such as Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Patrick White and Arthur Boyd, who have created either new fields of thought or rearranged existing knowledge, have spent long periods of their lives in solitude. Hence leadership does not only apply in social situations, but also occurs in more solitary situations such as developing new techniques in the arts, creating new philosophies, writing profound books and making scientific breakthroughs.
Which reminds me of something my friend Jeremy Lee James recently said to me: “Writers are leaders.”
And it occurs to me that the people teaching us how to “use” social media tend to be business-oriented, or in marketing or PR. Fields which are known for “the extrovert ideal”. So the social part of social media gets emphasized; social media becomes a vehicle for networking and “relationship marketing”.
These things are valuable, no question. But what if writers and artists and other types of highly sensitive, creative people, the kind who do their best work alone (thank you very much), could reframe their use of social media in a way that promotes an introvert ideal?
If we could use social media to support the book, to make room for the book, and then guide our right people to that very room?
Cain notes that
Religious leaders from Jesus to Buddha, as well as the lesser-known saints, monks, shamans and prophets, have always gone off alone to experience the revelations they later shared with the rest of us.
Your typical writer may not be Jesus or Buddha, but it’s true that epic meaning generally isn’t found in a Facebook status update. Instead of allowing social media to erode away at our “deep, attentive reading and writing”, our “time and silence and solitude”, we should find our own rhythm of movement between working in silence and voicing the gifts that silence has brought us.
After a few sessions of an online photography course, I noticed a change in the way I perceive space. I became fascinated with negative space, how it defines the objects in the picture and presents them for contemplation. I even started visualizing my To-Do tasks this way. I see the task surrounded by the mental equivalent of negative space. This allows my ADD mind to settle and focus, instead of getting overwhelmed by everything else that is yammering at me.
When composing a scene for a shot, I focus on what to take out before I do anything else.
This seems a good way to approach the noisy tumble of social media.
If we can come to it with intention and purpose.
If we can use an introvert’s quiet strength to carve out negative space and block out the chattering static.
If we can say what we want to say and create what we need to create.
It could turn into something epic.