the art of being an introvert creative (forced to cope with social media)

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1

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.

Well.

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.

2

What keeps my attention is this:

Meaning.

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?

Not enough.

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.”

Jane writes:

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.

Their conclusion?

A feeling of awe.

Notes Maass:

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.

3

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.

Etcetera.

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.)

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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.

5

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.

Jan 30, 2012
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22 comments · Add Yours

I am a confirmed introvert ~ thanks for the awe-inspiring post. You may want to check out a recent article in the NYTimes that speaks to this subject as well. http://nyti.ms/wMG0as ~

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THANK YOU! I’ve been feeling restless for the past few weeks, and I thought it was because I needed to do more things, hang out with more people, be more productive, etc. What you’ve just helped me realize is that I’m restless for solitude and silence. I’ve got all this unnecessary energy built up in me that hasn’t been dealt with, and I just need to calm, focus, centre in on something I absolutely love and lose track of time for a few hours. Gah. I don’t know how extroverts do it without that regular quietness.

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I’m kind of a weird one with this – I’m 50-50 extrovert/introvert, leaning towards extroverted. I need company; I can’t deal with isolation well. And I thrive on multitasking and being busy. Yet I don’t like anything that seems like busywork for the sake of busywork, or anything that isn’t meaningful. I find hustling (and all the other stuff you mention in that paragraph) difficult because I’d rather create something meaningful with people based on what we both need. I need company but I don’t always need to be interacting with them – I’m happiest when I get to work at my own pace *with* the company of other people also doing their own thing, talking occasionally but not as a necessity.

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Lawz, I can’t tell you how affirming this is for me. I have always been an introvert trying to pretend otherwise, and although I’ve always been aware of that fact I’ve never really thought in terms of how it affects my creativity when I go ‘kicking against the goads.’ This has been particularly so over the past year or so, as I’ve been attempting to follow the Brogan model and write ‘more succinctly,’ but have actually written less than ever. I could still be more economical with my words, but I realize now that I don’t need to keep beating myself up for it when I’m not; I just need to freaking WRITE.

Thanks Justine. I now realize why your posts speak so well to me. Seriously, thanks.

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You nailed it! It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one feeling bombarded, overwhelmed, pissed, etc., by the social media hype. Yeah, I know it’s a great marketing tool, but at times, I let it dominate my writing life too much.

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Thank you! I am contemplating launching myself and my creative endeavors into the world in the next year or two, but the very idea of dealing with the ‘social media’ aspect is enough to make me climb back under a rock, thank you very much. I’ve been known to disappear from Facebook for months – not because I was trying to avoid it, but merely because I couldn’t muster any interest in the inane chatter. I’ve never even looked at Twitter. It’s the same old conundrum of being the introvert at the cocktail party – I crave connection and meaning and end up feeling lonely and isolated even while surrounded by people.

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This one hit home with me on so many levels, Justine… It really made my heart soar. I feel understood and encouraged!

“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.”

I am so in awe. And so thankful.

Thank you for sharing your observations & revelations! Thank you times a million!

xo,
Allyssa

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Oh Justine, this is wonderful!!! The same thoughts and questions have swirled in my head, and I’m so glad to see them clearly expressed and discussed here. Introspection is highly underrated but SO important. I needed this reminder to forget about making waves on social media and to just focus on what I have to say, on what is bursting to be told. Thank you! :)

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Wonderful post, Justine. You’ve articulated so many great points about social media and the ‘celebrity syndrome.’ Thank you for sharing your revelations with us.

As long as (and it has been a very long time – like 1980′s long) I’ve been a digital strategist I’ve always felt out of step, being an introvert and all… Meaning is ‘my thing’ and I need it as much as I need water to drink and air to breath. I will share that my retreat around social media has been to sociology, anthropology, game design and architecture to think about, find meaning in, social media. I “step back” from social media in order to observe it, an not to be consumed by it. I want to figure out how it impacts people, our culture and the ways we think about ourselves. All this does translate into helping my clients and far more (I believe) than how many followers I have. That does not “buy” me the most airtime (today’s sign of success), but it does give me sanity and confidence in my work.

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Blown away by the comments. Thank you so much. So glad I could share this.

@Jill Rowe Thanks for the link. Cain’s book was just released so I assume — and hope — it will get a lot of attention (I think there was also an article about it in Forbes.)

@Thea I don’t know either. I can come off as relatively outgoing (as well as the opposite), but when I need to leave the party, I really need to leave the party. It’s a physical sense of being overloaded with stimuli, and I get edgy and bitchy. Quiet and solitude help me re-calibrate, and I need periods of both on a daily basis. It was a good thing to learn about myself. @Creatrix Tiara You might be like me — the Myers Briggs test showed me as an ENFP, which is basically an extroverted introvert (or an introverted extrovert, depending). Which might be the perfect type to take to social media, now that I think of it — you’re being social, yet you’re doing it in solitude, in a way that was never possible before. I think ENFPs make up about 5 percent of the population, which might account for why you feel “weird”, in that you’re not the norm. But weird is good. :)

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@AJ in Nashville Keep in mind that Brogan has been blogging for a very long time, and he gives the advice that has worked best for him. Also, most bloggers tend not to be actual writers, and their emphasis is on solving a specific problem or delivering a specific piece of information. But there does seem to be a trend toward blogging less, but longer and more deeply. Corbett Barr (another blogging guru) advises people to “write epic shit” and Social Media Examiner requires guest posts to be at least 1000 words. The idea here is that people are so bombarded, now, with blog posts that they don’t actually *want* overly frequent posting; and that a key way to differentiate yourself is to bring a depth and quality of writing to your posts that demands thought, effort and time (and often a lot of reading) on the part of the blogger, which isn’t possible to do five times a week unless you’re superhuman. In the end, you just have to figure out what works best for you. I tend to blog long, as you might have noticed, because I like to connect different ideas. Although I do make an effort to be succinct and highly readable, I’ve also accepted that that’s just my style. And my number of unique visits per month has more than quadrupled within the last year, so I haven’t exactly been discouraged. So I think there’s room out there for all kinds of approaches.

So yeah. Just write, and see what happens, and adapt accordingly. So much of it is trial and error anyway, and learning as you go — since *no one* can teach you your own specific voice and style.

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@J.E. Lowder @Lainey @Allyssa @Otiti @LInda Zimmer Thing is, I do think there’s a real hunger on the Web for substance and meaning. Maybe it won’t pull in the masses, but that just means you’re HBO instead of NBC (and that is not a bad thing). So if that’s what you do best, do *more* of that, and let your audience slowly find you over time. I always think the absolute best thing you can do is to write whatever it is that *you* want to read but can’t find. Because chances are you’re not alone, and there are others out there who want exactly what you do.

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Very interesting, as usual.

Years ago I learned I was ENFP, but now I suspect I’m much more on the introverted side. I can spend entire weekends alone and it’s mostly a good thing. I LIKE people, but sometimes they feel like interruptions. I work in an office all week, too, so come the weekend I guess it’s normal I’d want downtime. The people I CHOOSE to spend time with bring me meaning. This probably explains why I loathe parties in general, but especially those where I know few people. I can’t do the small talk thing for hours.

Me, me, me! Some day my narcissism will be the end of…me!

In terms of awe, I (me) rarely find that in books or art or media or people. It is definitely a spiritual experience that usually involves silence. (Well, there was that one time I was driving home after dark and I looked over at the ocean and the bright moon was reflecting off it and a certain song came on the iPod, and I broke down and cried. But we guys don’t talk about that stuff.)

And yes, Yes, YES to this: “I always think the absolute best thing you can do is to write whatever it is that *you* want to read but can’t find. Because chances are you’re not alone, and there are others out there who want exactly what you do.”

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I’ve got to add in another “Thank You!” here. I’m definitely an introvert and can relate to so much of what you’re saying. Lot of great thoughts to remember here…..

For one thing, I’m tired of trying to compete with that “culture of personality”, because that’s really not me. Not that I can’t be social (I can), but my best, most creative moments are born in the quiet, not in the crowd. And, as you noted for yourself, because of the way I analyze and tie things together, brevity doesn’t cut it, particularly in relation to blog posts. (I very rarely get a post done with less than 1000 words.)

Thanks again, Justine. Good stuff here….

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thank you for another thoughtful post. i’m weird, anti-social and enjoy the life of my brain more than “real life” at times. ;) i’m an introvert on the more extreme side of the scale, but i really do like social media like twitter, pinterest and instagram. these are places i look to for inspiration, where i seek out art and ideas and don’t need to be “friends” or know someone in real life in order to follow people. i gain energy from social networking in a way that i rarely do in real life relationships. but my version of social media is more based on ideas than the people themselves, so that’s why it works for me. i also find it inspiring that people gain power through social networking and can connect to defeat things like SOPA. facebook seems like a ridiculous waste of time to me though, a much more extrovert-centered shallow world. i doubt the quiet, thoughtful introvert will ever be socially accepted and celebrated and i kind of like it like that. who wants to run with the masses and be just like everyone else?

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Thank you for this. I love how you draw things together. I’ve been visiting here for a while, soaking up courage and insight, and thought it might be good to speak up and let you know. (Seems especially appropriate to do it in response to a post about introverts.)

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@erica I was at a conference the other day and sitting at a table with four other people. During the break three of them started networking with each other (one guy aggressive about it) and the (cute) guy to my right and I focused on our assignments for a while before starting to talk to each other. We skipped the introductory small talk and went for the deep stuff, the ideas we were learning, and once we’d formed an initial bond over that we relaxed and did the introductory small talk. Afterwards, thinking about it, I realized that was textbook introversion: bonding over *ideas*. And you can and do bond with people through ideas — it’s one of the great delights of existence — and social media is actually ideal for that when you use it for that intention. And you’re right. Who wants to run with the masses? Extroverts are fun and wonderful, but they need people like us to point out the cliff they’re about to run over.

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@Karen thank you for speaking up. it’s great to know you’re around. :)

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Justine, yes yes yes! My boyfriend sent me a link to the introverted article from Cain and I was nodding the whole time. I’m so happy to have read your take on it, because I also read Chris Brogan’s post, and I too felt that there should be space for creative expression that goes deeper than 140 characters.

I think that’s why there are so many successful introverts on the web: this is our space. We can work by ourselves, create great stuff, and then put it out there for others to see and connect with. :)

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One of the MANY reasons I love you, Justine, is that you’re one of the FEW women I can talk to, will listen, and can engage in meaningful conversation with. So sad that my “best” friends know nothing about me because they only care about themselves.

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The idea of being a writer has changed dramatically over the past decade, plus a few. Before Y2K, the idea of author was “bestselling writer” like Mailer, Updike, Oates, Beattie, etc. As it became easier to go “indie,” thanks in large part to technology, the image of the tweedy, pipe smoking author went up in smoke (pardon the pun). Also, the mood in the lit world, struck perhaps most significantly by Dave Eggers and his McSweeney’s “concern” fostered a sort of lit-is-fun/sideshow atmosphere that actually brought a lot of literary introverts out to play. This cohort was made up of both burgeoning writers themselves and readers, who may have never been to a reading before, but now attended McSweeney’s’ and other’s events that offered a sense of community for the introvert demographic (for lack of a better term). On the face of it, the trend seems to have been a good thing, although if it had any real impact on creative introverts as a group would be hard, though perhaps worthwhile, to try to discover.

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