The Power of Introverts

Written by: Jeff Sowards, Lakewood High School

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I was terrified.  For some reason I had said yes to something I had, as an adult, avoided for more than 30 years.  I agreed to give a short “tuck in”or evening speech to the entire delegation at one of Washington’s premier leadership conferences.  Although I had been a member of the staff of the conference for more than three decades, I had always worked with small groups, served behind the scenes, collaborated with my peers, but never had I shared the stage with just a microphone.  What was I thinking!

I knew what I wanted to say, but how does an introvert stand on stage in front 300 of the brightest young adults in the state and profess to have some insight into the nature of introverts and extroverts?  So, I did a bit of research, wrote, re-wrote, re-wrote again, then practiced countless times what I would say that night, all while trying to convince myself that this discomfort was what growth was all about. The delegates were most accommodating, the speech went off without a hitch, and several delegates even came up to me afterwards and thanked me for connecting with them.  Whew!  What a euphoric relief.

It is important that as educators we remember that many of our students rue the day we announce that group work will occur, or that presentations are coming soon, or that everyone will be graded on participation marked by how often they contribute to the discussion.  Anxiety rises, panic ensues, careful planning happens, delivery starts, presentations are cut short, emotions take over….you’ve seen it.  We are, as educators, encouraged to create learning environments that often times terrify some of our students.  And yet, if we are intentionally creating a culture of love in our classrooms, then the stage becomes a safer place to fail, yes fail.  Through that failure/struggle, and with our careful guidance, the introvert finds the impossible possible, the terrifying rewarding.  

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I hope, that as the first semester ends, and the second begins, that you will take a moment to reflect on your students.  Be intentional in getting to know them, their personalities, and their character.  Carefully craft opportunities for them all to grow, being always mindful that that "quiet kid" might just take more time to get on stage.

 

That speech mentioned above is here with a few minor edits from the original:

In 1979, a brief 34 years ago, I was sitting exactly where you are sitting; soaking up everything.  I remember the speakers, a bit of their message, the props they used….little did I know, then, how life changing Mt. Adams would be.  Mt. Adams was also a little discomforting for me.  Not harmfully so, but it seemed that all the people were extroverts…and I was the quiet kid who was always thinking about what was going on or being discussed, but who rarely would offer anything unless asked.  Don’t get me wrong.  Being uncomfortable; being challenged is often where great growth occurs.  I was an athlete, and now I coach Cross Country and Track, and the discomfort I’m describing is a bit like your practice in preparation for competition.  It is uncomfortable so that we can get better, in order to give our best when it counts.  So this week, I hope the seeds for your growth as leaders and people are well-sown like they were for me 34 years ago.  

You’ve been learning about each other in council and in your school groups. You’ve learned a bit about each other’s personality traits.  You’ve learned a bit about the love languages. We are a lot alike in many regards, and yet we are all very unique as well. The psychologist Carl Jung said that we tend to fall into two general groups: Extroverts and introverts.  Extroverts are more gregarious, outgoing, and out there.  Introverts are more quiet, contemplative and sometimes shy.  I suspect that if I asked you to raise your hand if you were an extrovert, you would have no problem doing so if that was you. But I know that if I asked you to raise your hand if you were an introvert some of you would find it challenging.  Tonight I’d like to challenge both of you.

Our society celebrates extroverts and even expects us to see them as the leader:

When was the last time you saw an NBA player sink a tremendous shot at the end of a game and not celebrate their accomplishment?  Or a soccer player after she scored a goal who doesn’t run around the field?  Don’t get me wrong, celebration of such an accomplishment is spontaneous and perfectly expected.  But compare the image you have of those two with these:  What picture and feelings do you have of the student who sits in the corner of your classes, who rarely speaks, when she is called upon gives an awkward but correct answer, and often gets the highest score in the class.  Or the student who would rather work on his own when a group project is given?  As a society we often celebrate the traits of the extrovert and marginalize the traits of the introvert.

The strong speaker; the person who easily strikes up a conversation; the person who easily works the room at a gathering, are all often naturally seen as a leader and afforded the attention and admiration of others.  Yet, research shows that clearly 1/3 of us in this room consider ourselves introverts.  Some of us sometimes even put on the trappings of extroversion because it seems most acceptable; even the ideal in our society.  

Think for a moment about leaders who might act in these ways:

1)  taking action vs contemplating

2)  taking risks vs taking heed

3)  working in teams vs working alone

We may naturally have a tendency toward the former as opposed to the latter.  What might be more ideal is to seek a balance between the two.  In fact the two may need each other in order to produce the better result.  

Introverts, and their extroverted friends, have brought us things like:  the theory of gravity; 1984 and Animal Farm; Cat in the Hat; the movie Schindler’s List; Google; Windows; Harry Potter…and the list goes on and on.  The introverts achieved these things not in spite of their introversion but because of it.

In concluding her book Quiet, Susan Cain leaves us with three challenges 1) We need to balance group work with individual work  2) She says we need to on occasion “go to the wilderness”, unplug, and be reflective and contemplative; because this allows all of us the chance for deep creative thought  3) and she challenges extroverts to continue to share their personalities and passions with us, because we need you!; and introverts she reminds us that we need to develop the courage to share what we have because we need you equally.

Finally, here is my challenge to you introverts:  when called upon, you must and I confidently know you can lead!  I suspect that you when it happens you will be well-prepared, quiet but firm, creative and constructive, and you may just surprise those around you.  Extroverts, I challenge you to be patient with us introverts, and continue to challenge us, but you never know, it just might take us 34 years to get on stage!  Thank you.


About the Author: Jeff Sowards is a 31 year veteran Social Studies Teacher at Lakewood High School where he teaches U.S. History, Honors/AP U.S. History, Honors/AP U.S. Government and Politics, Honors/AP U.S. Comparative Government and Politics, and Principles of Leadership.  He is also the head Cross Country, and Track and Field Coach.  He was the WIAA 2A State Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2010.  He served for more than 30 years on the staff of Mt. Adams Leadership Conference.  Jeff is passionate about guiding students in their discovery and application of Love as a verb in the classroom, athletics, and their personal lives.