Can silence speak?
Just like a typical introvert, I walk around within my own personal bubble. When people get too close for comfort, I have to resist the urge to push them out. Once in a blue moon, though, someone—a stranger—would come along and burst through the bubble… And to my utter horror, I would actually enjoy it.
One sunny Sunday, after two consecutive weekends of staying in, I decided to take myself on a day out. As usual, I had my sunglasses and headphones on as if I was creating a physical barrier between the surroundings and myself. While I was waiting for the train, my eyes caught sight of an acquaintance. I immediately hoped he would not see me or approach me. It had nothing to do with him, he is a nice guy—but at that moment, all I really wanted was to enjoy my music during the one-and-a-half-hour train ride instead of talking to someone, to anyone. So I did my best to hide among the people between us, and I succeeded. When the train came, I made sure he got on the train first before I got onto a different carriage.
I got a seat by the window on a two-person seat, with the seats opposite me empty.
I am in New South Wales, Australia, where the trains have seats that you could ‘flip’ to change the direction the seats are facing, whether it’s forward or backward. It also means that if you do not want to sit facing another stranger, you could flip the seat and end up having the row to yourself.
At the next stop, a cute blonde girl boarded the train. She paused by my seat, quickly scanned the rest of the train, then smiled at me and sat right opposite of me, taking me by a huge surprise. Most people would have flipped the seat to sit with their backs toward a stranger instead of having to face the stranger. But not this girl. Not only that, she also could have sat by the aisle, but again, she amazed me by scooting towards the window seat. Now, we were directly opposite each other. Our legs bumped, and we had to cross our legs strategically to make space for one another.
In most instances, I would have been outraged by the proximity, especially when there were other empty seats. Not today though. Not her. There was something about this girl that made her presence non-intrusive. It did not feel like my space was being invaded at all. It felt nice. It felt comfortable.
My self-deprecating mind then wondered why she had chosen to sit with me. I wondered if she would regret her decision and move to another seat the next chance she got. But no, she only made herself more comfortable, resting her jacket on her lap. Next, she took out a textbook from her bag and began reading and highlighting it.
At one point during the ride, I removed my sunglasses. Somehow, I did not want to hide behind them anymore. Even though at times the sun’s glare bothered me, I kept my sunglasses off. So there I was, sitting on a train, listening to my favorite playlist with the girl opposite me, who was listening to her own music through her earphones while reading and highlighting her textbook.
It was as if we were both in our own worlds, yet the borders of our worlds intertwined a little. It was beautiful. We sat like that throughout my whole ride, our legs touching comfortably. When the train reached my stop, I looked at her, feeling dread. We both nodded—me signaling her that I was leaving, and her moving her legs to make space for me to walk out.
That is my story about a girl on a train who crashed into my bubble and somehow magically made it more graceful with her presence. How could a stranger have such a profound effect on an introvert without saying a single word?
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I work in advertising—a highly creative, collaborative, and extroverted environment that puts my introversion center stage every single day.
I get invited to creative brainstorming sessions all the time with many strong and loud personalities. Once, I was in such a session with 15 other people, who pitched awesome ideas with such confidence and ease that I couldn’t keep up. My energy started to drop, and I couldn’t focus on my own thoughts. As an introvert, I don’t shine in these situations, nor do I say things for the sake of saying things. I like to participate with purpose.
Too overwhelmed and self-conscious to say anything, I sat there and took notes while listening to everyone else. On my way out of that meeting, my lack of participation was made painfully obvious when someone turned around and said to me, “Oh, hey Sandra! You were in that meeting? I didn’t see you; I didn’t even notice you were there.”
That comment stuck with me, and I replayed it over and over again in my head. It made me question my place in a creative industry. Was this the wrong career choice for my personality type? Do I belong here? Am I even creative enough to work here?
When the going gets tough, the introvert gets thoughtful. I interviewed industry leaders, creative writers, and designers in the very place I work—and they also happen to be introverts. These are the introverts I like to call A Perfectly Calculated Creative Force.
I learned a lot and gained valuable feedback from them, which has helped me throughout my career. I’ve turned that feedback and insight into nine tools to help other introverts bring their own perfectly calculated creative force to the mix. My hope is that if you’re in a similar situation, you’ll find some of these tools helpful as well.
1. Express your work style. Share what you need, what happens behind the scenes, and the value of working autonomously. If big group meetings or brainstorms freak you out, offer to moderate or structure the meeting so you can be actively engaged in the process.
2. Ask open-ended questions. In a brainstorm, you don’t always have to speak up with an original idea, but you can start asking open-ended questions that generate discussion and guide the conversation.
3. Follow up. Take time to process and send a follow up. If big meetings are overwhelming and you need time to process, take that time. Just make sure you follow up with an email or one-on-one meeting to share your valuable thoughts.
4. Allow yourself to pause. Take a minute (or two) when someone puts you on the spot. Pausing before you speak allows you to collect your thoughts and provide an informed answer. This will also help you separate emotion and impulse and present a voice of reason.
5. Actively listen. Show you’re actively engaged and listening with non-verbal signals such as eye contact, posture, nodding, and mirroring others. Since you’re always thinking, you need to show people you’re listening and engaged.
6. Connect the dots. Take the pressure off yourself and summarize what others are saying in a different way. Focus on the commonalities between two opposing camps rather than the differences. Be intentional when focusing on others’ ideas, and be a connector of ideas.
7. Prepare and research. Information will help with confidence, so be proactive with meeting invites. Ask why you’re invited or ask for objectives. Don’t aim to be right, but, rather, aim to provide your unique point of view.
8. Build a trust circle. Find an extrovert you can connect with and make him/her your ally. Form a strategic alliance so you can help each other be successful. Create stronger relationships by setting up one-on-one conversations and follow-up meetings.
9. Be yourself, and own it. Learn more about yourself as an introvert, your inclinations, and your preferences at work. Don’t apologize for being an introvert, but seek a mutual understanding of your ways of working with others.
While we may live in an extroverted world, you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to have the most impactful voice.
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Two years ago, I decided to change the direction of my life—quite drastically. Upon arriving at college, I had declared my major in Exercise Physiology in hopes to go into physical therapy. For years, I had dreamt about making a difference in the lives of others by going into medicine. As more time went by, I found I was dissatisfied with the future I had envisioned for myself. I couldn’t find satisfaction in the goals I made for my life. I had come to a crossroads.
At this make-it-or-break-it point, I had to choose my major. This major had to allow me to:
1. make a living, and
2. make my life meaningful through helping society/people progress.
I looked into other careers and majors I thought would be interesting and where I felt I could make a difference. Psychology, International Studies, and English were among the areas of study I considered, but none of those felt like the right choice.
I remember quite clearly the day everything clicked. I was at home with my roommates, and we were all sitting in our living room, doing homework. In that small, poorly lit apartment, I felt like the heavens had opened.
My roommate was a Communications major at the time and had been talking about an assignment for a class for which she was a Teacher’s Assistant. I had observed what she had done to prepare and how she was changed because of that class. It truly was incredible to see, and I wanted to have the same experience badly. The depth of progression, writing, learning, and self-discovery I saw in that one glimpse made me crave that class and the whole major that came along with it.
Within three months of my “major crisis,” I officially changed my major to Communications with an emphasis on Public Relations. At that point, I thought I had figured it all out and everything was going to be smooth from there on. I was enormously wrong. Choosing my major was only a battle; the following two years would be the war.
In the quiet of the night, I had to be honest with myself because this new major would be a total change of terrain for a self-declared introvert. I wouldn’t be surrounded by like-minded introverts I was used to in Exercise Physiology. I was now surrounded by, what I consider to be, some of the loudest extroverts and opinionated people on campus. For the next three years, five days a week, I would be among peers who feed off public speaking, public forum, and high-paced competition to be the best. But surprisingly, in what is generally known as a department where extroverts thrive, I have been able to find a place among those that differ in abilities, personalities, and temperament.
This major has allowed me to be creative and to think for myself. I have been able to discover my strong skills as well as my areas of weakness, where I can improve.
Going through this journey is truly indescribable. I come prepared with my work, my ideas, and my paradigm. I collaborate one-on-one, where I am most comfortable, and my collaborators are able to feed off my creativity while I feed off theirs. Although I am still in the process of assimilating and becoming more comfortable in an extrovert-dominant major, it is wonderful to see that extroverts can learn from me and I from them.
I’ve also discovered that balance truly is the strategy for winning the battle and staying my own course. Balance in work. Balance in school. Balance in life.
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I love spending time alone with no one to rush me, nowhere to be, and no one to worry about. There’s something wonderful about sitting in a cafe with a notebook, watching with amusement as confused tourists and daily commuters rush by. Something in the soft music of a nearby street performer could lull me to sleep.
I came alone to Rennes, France, at age 17 to study abroad for my junior year of college. I had always been independent, and I was able to thrive in France even being away from my parents, friends, and community. But as my year abroad came to an end, I realized that although I’d been “on my own,” I’d always been surrounded by other foreign students and had never taken the chance to completely immerse myself into the local environment. So, I decided to go solo. I biked one morning to the local gare routiere (bus station) and bought a ticket to a little Breton town called Josselin.
This is what I learned:
1. When you are alone, you have complete freedom to surrender to the moment. Strolling solo through a century-old town is an intimate experience. The details of your surroundings are magnified, intensified: the smoke rising from quaint wood-carved homes, the soft light passing through delicate stained-glass windows of a cathedral, the colorful street music, the crossing of a bridge overlooking a rushing river.
2. When you are alone, you have control of your wanderings. You’re free to follow the slightest whim down a picturesque narrow street or a path along a winding river. You don’t have to see all the tourist attractions on your best friend’s list or all the famous museums. Follow your own list, or—better—don’t even write one. Do what suits you in the moment, and have that surprise you.
3. When you are alone, you go at your own pace. Let a table of French cheeses lure you from your stroll. Stop in as many bookstores as you desire, maybe even decide to settle in with a cup of coffee and a good novel (I finally started The Great Gatsby). Stroll through a local market; wander the streets, pretending to be Audrey Hepburn; hum “La Vie en Rose” under your breath. Pause for a pastry, a crispy croissant, or a tangy tarte au citron. Treat yourself, and savor that which you do for yourself and yourself alone.
4. When you are alone, you can leave your comfort zone. Even being an introvert, I struck up a conversation with a street guitar player who, it turns out, shared a love of my favorite composer. I would never have considered the interaction in the comfort of my friends. Joining a crowd watching Celtic street dancers, I was suddenly pulled into the fray by a tall blond man. Embarrassing? Extremely. I can’t dance, and I would never do so in front of others. But luckily, nobody knew me, and nobody there would ever see me again. And in the moment, I completely let go of my fears and came away beaming with joy (and sweat).
Traveling alone isn’t a sign of social isolation, but rather a liberating embrace of everything a city has to offer. I don’t know whether I’ll ever come back there again, but I know I’ll want to experience this kind of “alone time” travel again. I’ll lean back against the plush bus seat, turn up my music, and watch the world fly by at high speed.
My father was an avid reader, and our house was full of books. His taste was good and his reading lists impressive. Every evening or so, his close banker friends would surround him on the pretext of some pending work chores, but I could see that the discussions almost always went towards books, philosophy, and psychology. Politics, I am so proud to say, never sustained a presence there. These settings had their small but permanent mark on my developing mind.
I was lucky enough that even after the premature death of my father at an age of 52, my education at age 18 continued on the back of whatever finance was available to my young widowed mother. The decision we took together to decline a clerical job offered to me under a scheme called “deceased quota” by my late father’s employer turned out to be a good one. I enrolled in the premier engineering university of Pakistan in the Electrical Engineering department for my graduate education.
Something weird happened at the engineering school. I had developed a taste for books, reading, and thinking in solitude already. The engineering university exposed me to a very high standard of curriculum, authored by top North American technical authors. I was drawn towards the technicalities being discussed, the quality of the authorship, and the big picture concepts. I was sucked in by the abstract sections of the various subjects these books were discussing. Sometimes, I would re-read the paragraphs or pages or even entire chapters—not for the lack of understanding them but for giving me the delight of reading them again and again.
In 1995, I was among the few dozen people in the city of Karachi (with a population of well over 10 million) for whom the “Internet happened.” From a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) funded arrangement, we used store-and-forward dial-up Internet to send and receive emails from Karachi to New York, US. But around 1996, the Internet became much more accessible to all in Pakistan, and the information floodgates opened.
Unlike youngsters today, who consider the Internet a utility just like gas, electricity, or water, I had seen the Internet bloom from a very young state to a solid presence it has become today. Much of the unique closeness I experience from having seen the Internet blossom into what it is today has to do with the fact that it has allowed me to learn so much about myself and my introvert personality. From pop culture to serious research articles and audio/video content on introversion, the Internet has given me more than what I could’ve asked for.
When I entered a professional career, I got successive jobs in telecommunication companies of Pakistan, where my work invariably revolved around the Internet. In the past 19 years, I climbed the corporate ladder to eventually achieve the top slot of a network technologist in an important telecoms operation. As I look back at the work done, teams developed, and business conducted, I become more and more conscious of the introvert nature I have carried all along.
The works by leading introverts, their books and blogs, and accompanying research have handed me a mixed bag of charms and chills. From the personal to the professional, the advent of the Internet, much like the books of my youth, has changed my life in many ways and made me who I am today.
“I am like a rusty gate. Even if you find the key, you’ll have to work hard to open me up to find out what secrets are behind my door.” ~ 10-year-old me
When I was 10, my 5th grade teacher had our class write a poem. She wanted it to be titled “I Am.” We had the freedom to write whatever we wanted as long as each sentence started with “I Am.” I was excited to write this poem—to share my words on paper with my favorite teacher and let her know from my heart who I was. I loved writing and wanted to get it just right, erasing, writing, and erasing my words again. Then and now, words float around my head like butterflies, and when I want to share them, I have to capture them and arrange them just so.
A few days later, she asked me to read my poem to my class, and I flushed with embarrassment. The 10-year-old me was no different from who I am today: reserved to a fault. An introvert. And painfully shy. I remembered shuffling to the front of the classroom, never once looking at my classmates because that would have been too painful. As I read my poem, my eyes never left my paper. When I finished, I looked up and saw that Mrs. Ripley had tears in her eyes. And I knew—I knew—she understood my words. She understood me.
It was then, at 10 years old, I was given the first glimpse of my voice. But just as I noticed her tears of understanding, I heard a snicker from a classmate. And then a laugh from another while she teased: “A rusty gate? I don’t get it! Why would you call yourself a rusty gate?” And then more laughter.
At that moment, I heard something inside me yell:
And so I did.
I retreated back inside myself and forgot all about Mrs. Ripley’s tears as she shushed the class and looked at me apologetically. And I turned away from writing. I wouldn’t write like that again for a very long time.
I’m an observer. A listener. So soft-spoken that when I finally do decide to speak, people often don’t even hear my words. And although I’d like to repeat myself, I lose my courage to say it louder because that feels like shouting to my ears.
For a long time, I thought because of my quiet ways, it meant I had nothing of value to share. But what Mrs. Ripley’s tears taught me so many years ago was that I did. I do.
I have a voice.
It took what felt like a lifetime to find it. I started writing again after I became a mother, sharing pieces of my heart with the world. No longer able to contain those words that were like butterflies—catch and release. When I finally found my voice with writing, it felt like I was shouting but in a way that was comfortable for me. And when people would write back telling me they felt similarly, it was the most magical feeling of all—being heard and understood and connecting with people in a way I couldn’t in person with my wallflower ways.
I will never be the social butterfly. Instead, I’m the quiet butterfly catcher.
This is my revolutionary story. I have gone from being a painfully “tongue-tied” child when meeting new people to an adult happy in her own skin but delicately balancing base introversion with essential extroversion.
I have transitioned from facing a large giggling derisive group to being able to hold the rapt attention of an audience for more than two hours at a stretch.
Four years ago, I left a well-paying corporate job to start my own practice as a Chartered Accountant. I did not advertise. I did not ask to be referred. I dreaded the networking word. I went ahead with zero marketing, almost ostrich-like.
I’ve been told I have been doing it all wrong. I’ve been rebuked. I’ve seen shocked faces. I’ve been told by seniors in the profession that I won’t survive unless I attach myself to a larger, more visible firm. I have been told that as a woman professional, I shouldn’t be doing it all alone for the sake of a future balancing act. I was told I was too young to be on my own.
But I went ahead quietly and stubbornly. Four years later, I am still here and doing decently well.
Yes, I am here because of my technical skills, because of my determination and drive to fight all odds. But I am also struck by the amount of trust I hold in my clients’ hearts. It’s the power of empathy, confidentiality, and quality service. It’s the power of me listening when they speak and observing and understanding what they need from a financial advisor rather than forcing my opinion of what I think they should or should not do.
And somewhere, I also feel, it’s the power of not putting myself “out there” and instead doing things in a way that felt comfortable to me.
I link all of this to the power of my introversion. There are days when I feel like quitting. But most days, I remember an old quote,
“People may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
And this, I believe, is the strength of my quiet perseverance—be it with my clients or my students.
As long as I can remember, I have enjoyed the company of people. I love public speaking, meeting new people, and having meaningful conversations with random strangers at a park, a conference, or even an airplane. I am not shy, and as long as I feel emotionally safe, I have no trouble expressing myself.
And yet, I dread large crowded spaces. I’d rather be in an empty train than a loud, fully crowded one. Please do not invite me to an indoor musical concert. Friday night dinners in a bustling downtown have never been my idea of an ideal beginning of the weekend activity. I’ve always preferred a restorative yoga class to wrap up my week instead. And I’d rather spend a few days in a secluded cabin than at a hustling, bustling resort. But still, I somehow kept trying to go for another networking event, another happy hour, another loud birthday party only to find myself incredibly drained and exhausted, but I kept at it because I wrongly believed that’s what I needed to do to fit into this world.
However, it wasn’t until I became a mom that I realized how much I valued quiet time, soft music, one-on-one conversations, and simple walks with the stroller. Being around a toddler, who is always asking questions, instantly goes from one activity to another, and has a million needs in a day means that my quiet self needs even more nurturing to have the headspace and emotional energy to be present to, loving toward, and accepting of my child.
Have I cracked the perfect code? Not really. There are times I wish we could all have five minutes of silence in our house, and I have been trying various tricks with my toddler, but I haven’t quite mastered it yet. That said, here are a few other things that help me thrive as an introverted parent:
1) Genuine Acceptance. This is the foundation for me. I need to accept, love, and respect myself for who I am—and not compare myself to the people who can spend a Saturday going from one social engagement to another and feel energized at the end of the day. Those parents are beautiful in their own way, but I am not one of them, and I need to make choices that honor who I am.
2) Prioritize Nature. I’ll always pick a few hours at a park over a crowded indoor museum. I have even done professional meetings on a Saturday morning at a park while my son plays in the sand. Family vacations typically mean cabins and tents or spending time at a national park.
3) Long Bed Times. My husband and I love bedtime with our son. It’s peaceful, and we’re all together in our bed. We keep this time long, rich, and full of hugs, cuddles, stories, singing, and quiet time. It’s something I look forward to every night, and it’s my most precious time with my son.
4) No to Crowds. I have learned to politely decline (most) invitations to loud, crowded parties and express my love and gratitude in other ways. Sometimes, I politely suggest we do something one-on-one on a different weekend, or I send a handmade birthday card.
5) Time Alone. Most importantly, I have learned to prioritize, schedule, and appreciate quiet time. That’s time alone in the car without turning on NPR, solo walks around my house, or blocked calendars to work in silence at my office. It means waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to write in silence or to attend a meditation class. It means connecting with myself so that I can have a richer and more purposeful connection with the outside world.
Are you an introverted parent? If so, what are some of your unique ways of nourishing yourself?
The Twelve Wild Geese is an old Irish myth from the oral tradition. It has been told and retold in many different voices. This is my memory of it:
In Ireland, long ago, there was a queen who had twelve fine sons but regretted the lack of a daughter. One careless morning she spoke a whim out loud. “I’d give my twelve sons for a raven-haired blue-eyed daughter.” Immediately, her belly was filled. But as the girl was born, the sons were turned into wild geese. Years passed, and the girl heard of her brothers’ curse. She made an oath to an old witch that she would be silent for five years so that her brothers could be freed. She suffered all manner of joy, hardship, and sorrow in those five years, but she never spoke once. On the first morning of the sixth year, the wild geese flew towards her. As they landed, they turned into handsome men, and all of the ills the girl had suffered were put to rights.
The Irish tradition, as it is usually told on the world stage, centers around “the gift of the gab,” drinking, partying, and “the craic.” That narrative is not false, but it is theater. It sells well. At times, and in small doses, I love it, but it is the peaceful, quiet earthiness of Irish tradition, which grounds me.
I remember an Irish teacher in school smiling knowingly when I said that I loved the Romantics. She had something more in store for me. It was her mission, I think, to turn me from a fanciful teenager to a solid woman, and she did so with old Irish poetry.
She was also the catalyst who made me see what my mother had been nurturing me with for years. At home, we were taught to love all kinds of literature. John Irving and John Updike references were regularly thrown into ordinary everyday chat. But it was with the gentle, wise quiet of Irish mythology and of our writers—John McGahern and Mary Lavin; Molly Keane and Frank O’Connor; Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, and Yeats—that we were cradled.
It does not pay in Irish legends to be “boastful or careless in your words.” Loudmouths are considered fools or, like the queen in the Twelve Wild Geese, dangerous. In the Táin Bó Cúailgne, an epic from early Irish mythology, the spontaneous, arrogant pillow-talk of Queen Medb and her husband Ailill brings years of war to Ireland. In another episode of the Táin, “The Birth Pangs of Ulster,” Ulster’s safety is jeopardized for nine years when, as punishment for boasting about their women, the men of Ulster are cursed with nine months of birth-pains at every moment of adversity. The heroes of Irish mythology think, seek guidance, and are slow to speak: the great king Conchobar “never gave a judgment until it was ripe, for fear it might be wrong.”
In the 5th and 6th centuries, our monks spread quiet reflection, education, harmony, and prayer across a dark, tortured, tumultuous Europe. Irish writers seem to work their craft to the same end: disempower cruel, angry, divisive isolation and honor gentle, liberating quiet and the steadiness of the relationships that grow in it.
Quiet in Irish literature is honored, but the dark side of Irish silence is not whitewashed. It can be brutal and threatening: the “punishing silence” of John McGahern’s father in his black moods; the guilty isolation of the Protestant upper class, symbolized by Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the cruelty of novelist’s Patrick McCabe’s small-minded towns. In the poem “Limbo,” Seamus Heaney shames the deadly silence of an oppressive church. Poet Patrick Kavanagh will not allow solitude to be romanticized uncritically. In the poem “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” he writes, “I have what every poet hates in spite of all the solemn talk of contemplation.”
Quiet in the Irish literary tradition is nurturing, maternal.
Mary Lavin starts a short story with, “Mother had a lot to say. This does not mean she was always talking but that we children felt the wells she drew upon were deep, deep, deep.”
John McGahern walks the lanes of Leitrim with his mother, briefly freed from the too frequent episodes of violence he experienced as a little boy.
Seamus Heaney quietly peels potatoes with his mother, not a word exchanged between them, feeling “never closer the whole rest of our lives.”
Quiet is observant. It watches. It notices. It thinks.
Joyce—inside the minds of Dublin people always watching, always thinking, always existing more in their own chaotic and unclear minds than in the world around them—reassures me that my thoughts need not always be ordered or pretty and that I am not the only one wandering through the day in a private world.
Quiet is a tool to protect a delicate and precious wonder.
In Austin Clarke’s poem, “The Planter’s Daughter,” grace and beauty are measured by the quiet used to honor it: “The men who had seen her drank deep and were silent.”
Quiet is a luxury.
These writers recognize that quiet is often not understood till it is lost. When the freedom the city promised him proves only to be noise, confusion, and “binibshaoirse” (barbed-freedom), poet Séan Ó Ríordáin aches for the quiet relief of his remote rural home. Christy Moore, the ballad-maker, rejects the constant “remote-control” stimulation that leaves no room for imagination: “I’m going away for ten years, I’m going to wander among the Wicklow hills.”
They know quiet is elusive. It is a fleeting, hard-won luxury. Yeats writes:
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
I am grateful they crave the elusive quiet—these writers, these poets. Because they thirst for it, they create it. They gift it to us through their words. Their words are my quiet home, my rising sun. My oasis.
When I was growing up, there was one school subject I hated more than anything: Physical Education. I was a good student in my academic classes, and I loved participating in music and performing arts, but I always dreaded having to take Phys. Ed.
As someone who prefers more quiet settings, I found Phys. Ed. confusing and intimidating. The classes consisted of screaming kids frantically running around with flying projectiles in a loud, enclosed space. And as far as I could tell, athleticism did not come naturally to me. My only good memories of the class come from my senior year of high school, when my teacher let me walk the track by myself while my classmates played inside. Some kids may have seen this as punishment, but as a non-athletic introvert, I was happy to get some fresh air while listening to music on my Sony Walkman.
When I graduated from high school, I was overjoyed to be free of Phys. Ed. I went to a college with no Phys. Ed class requirements, and after that, I entered the working world. I also started spending most of my days sitting down, either working at a computer, commuting in a car, or watching TV. I joined a great, friendly aerobics class, but it only met once per week. I tried going to the local gym, but something about it felt just as intimidating as Phys. Ed class—struggling with fitness equipment in a loud room full of strangers just didn’t appeal to me. As the years passed, I realized that I didn’t have the level of physical fitness I wanted and that it wasn’t going to get any easier to get fitter.
I knew I had to make a change and that I couldn’t do it by myself. That’s why two months ago, I hired a personal trainer. Fortunately, there is a small fitness room in my townhouse complex, so I go there with my trainer twice a week for our one-hour training sessions. She teaches me new exercises, then coaches me on my technique using weights that are just heavy enough to stretch my limits safely. In between sessions, I also go to the fitness room by myself to walk the treadmill and practice the exercises she taught me. During this time, I can watch TV, listen to podcasts, or just have a quiet workout. Even when another person comes into the fitness room, we give each other space and do our individual workouts.
Despite my childhood aversion to Physical Education, I have discovered my new identity as a “gym-trovert”: an introvert who is comfortable and motivated while working out in the gym. With one-on-one personal training, my solitary workouts, and some physical social activities with friends (walking in the park and aerobics class), I’ve found a nice mix of activities that helps me balance my energy while moving me towards my fitness goals. I’ve lost a few pounds already, and overall I feel stronger and healthier.
I learned from my trainer that everyone has to find a physical routine that works for them. If you don’t enjoy it or it’s too disruptive, it’s really challenging to stick to it. I have a while to go before I reach my fitness goals, but I’m happy to have found a routine that works for me. I also learned that I am physically capable of more than I ever expected, and I have a new sense of confidence and strength.
It doesn’t matter if you’re introverted or extroverted, or how athletic you believe you are—there are many paths to a goal, and with time and commitment, you can find the path that works for you.
Five years ago, I went to India with my friends for a week, and we were lucky enough to stay there for free, courtesy of our lecturer who was a General Secretary of an international organization based in New Delhi.
As part of our time there, we had a discussion on recent issues the country was facing. Everyone was busy talking and sharing their opinions, except for one person: me.
I sat there amazed at everyone’s ability to talk relentlessly, but I kept quiet until our lecturer interrupted and directed the attention at me: “You are silent throughout the discussion. Why? Don’t you have something to say about this topic?’’
I shivered and gave a short reply: “Well, I’m listening.” Satisfied, everyone turned their attention away from me and continued talking.
The next day, we had a dinner together, and another conversation on recent issues took place. This time, the atmosphere was totally tense, and I decided not to stir up the discussion. Hence, I did what I knew best: I listened to each argument while enjoying my drink at the same time, knowing that our lecturer really wanted me to contribute something to the conversation.
During our last day in India, the lecturer and I had a conversation regarding my attitude during the previous discussions. “You didn’t look interested with the two discussions we had before,’’ he said. “I hope it’s not a sign of arrogance or ignorance.’’ I kept quiet. I honestly didn’t expect that kind of reaction from him. Somehow, I did manage to reply to him. “I’m sorry, professor,” I said. “I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know that I should say something.’’
I know it sounds naïve. Everyone should say something, I told myself. After all, it’s a discussion! I kept up my mental conversation with myself, telling myself those moments should be the times when I should show who I am and what my brains are made of. I knew what to say about the topic, and I had something to say. And, I thought, I know people would be impressed with my opinion. But I just couldn’t. I didn’t feel comfortable at all. I knew it would be great to show off how good my brain is and that I am not ignorant, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk. “I don’t like it,” I told myself again.
In that moment, I realized this is what makes me, an introvert, different from my more extroverted friends and colleagues. They can say anything and everything with great confidence just to make sure their opinions are heard. In my case, although I have my opinions and ideas on just about any issue, I can’t just throw them around—it takes some time for me to get comfortable with them. I will sit down, grab a pencil and paper, and write down all the things I should say. And, of course, I’d summarize others’ opinions so that I can respond to them in a good way as well.
I ended up going back to India for a second time, but this time, I decided to write about my experiences there in a journal. Later, I turned those notes into a self-introspection and philosophical novel. The novel was published last year, and to my surprise, I received a lot of feedback from readers who felt connected to the story and enjoyed picking up life lessons from my experiences. I feel relieved I found a way to share my feelings, my thoughts, and ideas through writing.
It’s good to know whether you are an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert as you are able to focus on your strengths and embrace your weaknesses. But for me, it is a blessing to know that, as an introvert in the midst of extroverted situations, I can use my superpower to impact the lives of others as well as my own.
A tree’s future lies in its roots.
Roots that are shaped over many years by the constant search and struggle for sustenance.
It’s not about how tall the tree is—nor is it about the number of branches it has, the size of its leaves, or the beauty of its blossoms.
It’s about its roots.
The tree’s roots give it the ability to endure droughts and weather storms, but most of all — when the conditions are right — its roots allow the tree to offer the sweetest of fruit.
If I were a tree, I think I would be a baobab.
The baobab is not a pretty tree, but if you wandered upon one in the arid African bushland or the Australian outback, you would be glad to see it for the water, food, medicine, and shelter it would offer you.
You might also be reassured by markings on the tree it has long held the company of humans for shelter and for special occasions.
Looking around, you would notice that the baobab isn’t in close company of many other baobabs. There may be a few nearby, but you will never find a forest of baobabs.
As a friend, the baobab plays home to an eclectic assortment of birds, bats, reptiles, and insects, and it graciously hosts baboons and warthogs — or in Australia, kangaroos, wallabies, and camels—who drop by to dine on its seedpods.
The baobab’s success lies in its ability to endure conditions other trees cannot, but life for a baobab is never easy.
The dry and the wet each bring their own struggle for the baobab. In their thirst for the baobab’s moist bark, the biggest of animals — the elephant — may condemn it to a slow death. And when it’s wet, the smallest of spores — the black fungus — can infect its bark with lethal consequences.
Unlike to many other trees, humans have posed little threat to the baobab over the centuries. The baobab’s spongy bark and soft fiber make it impervious to axes in search of wood. Instead, often centuries-old, baobabs have been regarded as sacred—places where a people’s stories and memories are passed down the generations.
That the baobab is so unlike so many trees makes it an outsider (like me), but its proudly unique appearance and way of life is, for me, beautiful and noble.
If you were a tree, what would you be?
I remember the words well. “You must push yourself forward and speak up, or you’ll get trampled on.”
They were spoken by my primary school teacher, who was at the time trying to console me after I’d burst into tears in her class. The reason? I’d written a short story that my teacher had liked so much that she’d asked me to come to the front of the class and read it out loud to everyone. What my teacher thought of as a great honour had absolutely terrified my 8-year-old self.
My teacher’s words echoed through my head 30 years later as I sat in a draughty hall with 26 other people, all of us wearing name tags. I had recently started working for myself, and to find extra work, I’d decided to join a networking group. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Being part of a group of 27 people—all jostling for attention—wasn’t ever going to work for me. My energy drained away, and I could feel my palms sweating and my throat drying up as the moment for each of us to stand up and give a minute-long description of our business to the rest of the group neared.
My heart threatened to leap out of my chest as my turn came, and I scraped back my chair and stood up. My words came out shakily, but I got through it. But after the meeting, I went home, shut the door, and sighed. Surely, there had to be a better way to start business relationships!
Like a great deal of introverted people, I really don’t thrive in group environments, and I like to make meaningful connections that go deeper than a brief chat about the weather.
And so my “better way” involved finding my own tribe of people to connect with. I did this by making a list of the types of people who might become my customers and then setting out to find them in my own way. I gave my business cards to my friends and family and requested that they pass them along. I searched online networking sites for people with relevant job titles, and I sent them personal messages, asking if they would be interested in working with me. I researched companies I thought would be a good fit for my work and messaged the people at the top, asking if they could possibly spare me some time.
Building connections online and through friends meant I could create a personal first impression my way: in writing or through somebody I already knew. This meant that when I met them in person, it was on an individual basis—an environment in which I could thrive. I found that people were flattered, too, to receive a personally tailored message—it showed that I had taken the time to understand who they were and what they might want from me.
My business is doing well these days, and when I look back, I suppose I did follow my teacher’s advice to “push myself forward and speak up”—just in my own, quiet, way.
For 29 years, I considered myself pretty quiet and reserved. I only open up once I’m comfortable with someone, and if I am comfortable with you, I’m excited to share really engaging and insightful conversations. I’ve always been the kind of person who had one or two close friends, and that was it. I never had the personality to want to be part of a large friend circle. It always seemed too overwhelming to me. I never realized what that really said about me…until recently.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. I’ve spent a lot of time in solitude, be it in my apartment or in my solo travels. At first, it was merely exciting to go off on my own, seek adventures, and see what happens. The more time passed, the more I realized how much I valued solitude. I can’t remember the exact day or how it happened, but somewhere along the way, it dawned on me: I am an introvert. It was like being hit over the head with the most obvious thought ever.
I’d always valued my alone time, but never had so much of it until the past year. There are certain situations I look back on and realize my actions were solely because of who I am fundamentally. For example, in past relationships, I can vividly recall numerous parties where socializing for an entire Saturday drained me and I would be eager to get home at nightfall. Because I hadn’t realized why I reacted this way, I couldn’t have expected my then-boyfriend to understand why I wanted to leave. It would simply cause fights. “Why are you in such a rush to leave?” he would ask every single time. I never had a “good answer” other than I’m tired. It’s been a long day. I’d like to go home and rest.
It sounds so incredibly simple, but this revelation blows my mind. Now that I’m aware of this, I feel like I have a cheat sheet to give to whomever I date next:
Dear Future Boyfriend:
Look, I’m an introvert. Because of this, please understand I need a lot of time to myself to recharge. I value deep conversations as opposed to small talk. I hate confrontation. I need to collect my thoughts, and I need you to be patient with me while I do so. I will want to go out and socialize in a big group every so often, but I am not the type of person who wants or needs that level of stimulation every night. If we do have plans, I will want to know all the details prior to going: how many people, who, where, etc. This helps me mentally prepare myself to have a good time. If I feel bombarded or overwhelmed, I will want to retreat immediately, and that won’t be fun for either of us. If you can respect this about me, we will get along swimmingly. Thank you in advance for your understanding.
Sincerely, a true introvert,
The great thing about coming to this realization is that now I’m able to be upfront with people I know. I enjoy telling them what I’ve learned about myself over the past year, and I truly appreciate it when they are understanding. The downside is having to explain myself to people who don’t know me well and question me: I’m not anti-social. I’m not in a bad mood. I can’t just as easily be an extrovert, nor would I want to be.
What I hope to gain from being upfront about my introverted side in my next relationship is respect and understanding. I think a fundamental piece to a strong, long-lasting relationship is when both people know who they are at the core, as individuals, and therefore can work together and can compromise whenever needed to make each other happy. If I’m honest about my wants and needs (and he is as well), I think it’ll make a relationship a lot easier and more enjoyable. I look forward to that one day. In the meantime, I appreciate and value being self-aware and confident and having the comfort that comes with being transparent about who I am and what I want.
For the most part of my 23 years of my introverted life, I have been happy to enjoy my own company but still eager to relish the company of a select few people with whom I feel comfortable. Wider, more unfamiliar social interaction, however, has always irritated and terrified me. It got to the point where I would wake up, heart pounding, from bad dreams about being spoken to by a complete, albeit imaginary, stranger. People, or specifically the art of interacting with them, have always been something I couldn’t quite grasp. I have always viewed this trait as a detriment to my public life. My career has required assertive and confident individuals, so it has suffered as a result. Forming and maintaining relationships has always been a long and exhausting process, one which my mind very rarely deems to be worthwhile.
Earlier this year, my girlfriend and I were blessed with our son. The greatest responsibility in the world—a human life—had fallen upon our unsuspecting shoulders, and we could not have been happier or more eager to take it upon ourselves.
After many sleepless but wonderful nights, I found myself staring incredulously at this remarkable bundle and wondering how on earth my girlfriend had carried such a thing for so long (he weighed just under twelve pounds at birth). I wondered who he would grow up to be, and I heard my inner voice ask nobody in particular: “Please, don’t let him be like me. Don’t let him be the way I am.” This was the moment I believe when everything started to make sense for me, when I realized I was carrying a glass-half-full mentality about elements of my introversion.
As introverts, we have a tendency to overthink, for better or worse, and this thought in particular had stayed with me for a while. Why was I so concerned that my son would inherit my introverted personality? Certainly, it has denied me some opportunities over the years, but it has also offered me so many more.
I can and do enjoy socializing and have developed friendships of a quality (not a quantity) that have lasted for most of my life thus far. I may not be likely to rocket to the top of my career ladder any time soon, but I can find ways to enjoy work that others might not. I can rejoice in ideas and imaginings that grant me unquenchable passions for the things in life that I love. I can dream and hope, and find a strength of character that I’d never know was there—I just don’t need to shout it from the rooftops. It is simply there, if and when I need it. I am myself, and I am pretty happy about that. Why should my son ever need to be anything other than who he is? Extrovert, introvert, or otherwise?
I now firmly believe (and see) that to be an introvert is to simply have a different perspective and approach to life. It is no better or worse than being an extrovert, and it is as much a part of a person as the color of their eyes or the sound of their voice. Introverts are simply the other, quieter side of the human coin.
As a father, and as an example to my son, I cannot do anything other than to nurture and encourage my son’s true nature, whether he chooses to grab the world with both hands or is content to sit back—to capture or to define it. If he becomes an introvert and sees the world as I and others like me do, I will be grateful for the chance to share it with him in that way. I will always remind him that to be quiet can also be powerful so long as his silence and innermost thoughts bring him joy. If he were to become an extrovert, I can rejoice in how much he will teach me as he learns, without him even knowing. I can help him grow in a way I never could or had.
Either way, whether he turns out to be quiet or assertive, I can and will be utterly and always proud of him. Having him become his true self—and be happy as himself—is all a parent, introverted or not, could ever really ask for.
It’s a Thursday afternoon at the splash pad. The air is thick and humid and filled with the joyful screeching of toddlers and big kids as they chase after each other, getting sprayed with streams of ice-cold water at every turn.
I’m hiding under my floppy sunhat, sweating and silently wishing we were running around with them. Instead, my 18-month-old daughter and I are crouched down on the gravel path nearby, inspecting tiny rocks and creating tiny piles. She’s completely focused on her task. She has a vision in her head, and, left to her own devices, she’ll spend the next half hour working diligently to bring it to life.
I am learning to follow her lead as she pulls me towards rocks and flowers, away from crowds of children instead of towards them. The alternative, picking her up, putting her in the place I want her to be—and watching as she turns and runs in the opposite direction—is not exactly effective.
My mother tells me my daughter is exactly the same as I, a card-carrying introvert, was as a toddler. She’s miserable in crowds, happiest surrounded by family, and shows absolutely no interest in other kids, aside from a strange mix of horror and fascination as she watches them from afar.
Part of me is thrilled at having created another being like myself. Now, at age 27, I think I’m pretty great. But a much bigger part of me is terrified that she’ll have to go through what I went through to get here—years of bullying (“What’s wrong with you? Can’t you talk?”) that culminated in some seriously awful self-hatred that persisted into my early twenties.
Introvert shame. It’s a thing, and it starts early. At 18 months old, she already hears people say, “Wow! She’s so quiet.” (She’s not. You should hear her screech “Yay!” when I tell her we’re en route to Grandma’s house. You’re just a complete stranger, and you’re standing way too close.) I lurked on a mommy message board one day and saw a post that read—I kid you not—“My 1-year-old son doesn’t like playing with other kids. Do you think he’ll grow up to be a social outcast? A loner?!”
Loner. When I was a kid, it was the most terrifying label you could get. By middle school, the taunt “Can’t you talk?” began to follow me wherever I went. Class after class was group projects, oral presentations, picking partners for gym, and desperately wishing I could stay in the library and read at recess instead of milling about with groups of other pre-teens.
It was hell. And you know what? Aside from the fact that I’d rather read than kick a ball, I was a pretty normal kid. I always had exactly two close friends, so while I skirted along the edge of loner-dom, I never quite fell in. There were plenty who had it far worse than me, and still do.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’m an adult now and rapidly getting too old for angst. Maybe it’s that I’ve carved out a life for myself that celebrates the core of who I am, facilitating writing workshops filled with other introverts. Whatever the reason, when my extroverted husband gets home from work, I happily declare that it’s introvert time and let him take care of our kid while I hide in the bedroom for half an hour and read. And I feel zero guilt, zero self-hatred—only relief.
But still, I’m scared. Scared that while the media may have caught up with the rise of introverts, the school system may not have. Scared that my kid will someday feel torn in two directions between the thing she actually wants to do and the thing she’s expected to want to do. Scared that someday she’ll be standing in a crowd of teenagers, trying to figure out what the hell everybody’s talking about, and someone will sneer and ask her, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so quiet?”
I don’t know if my daughter will end up being an introvert. But if she does, I hope more than anything that she can be the kind who’s proud of herself. I hope she can grow up in an environment where she’s valued for who she is, and not held up against some outdated expectation of how all kids are supposed to be.
And if she ever gets asked why she’s so quiet, I hope she can come up with a witty answer. Lord knows I’ve never been able to.
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