I can clearly remember the look of shock and disbelief on the faces of the six other students that I shared my studio with as they walked through the door in the morning. I had stayed late to work the night before; the quiet hours were when I came alive and most of my work was done.
During the day when the studio was teeming with other students, tutors, friends and even on a few occasions, inquisitive members of the public, I couldn’t concentrate. The busy environment was too distracting. This open environment was put in place to help the transfer and trade of ideas between artists but all it did to me was stop me in my tracks. So I took steps to maximise my efficiency and to give me a haven within the studio. I literally built walls around my desk. I made a mini-studio, with a space for a door. I walled myself off from the other students.
Thinking back over my life, I was able to find many instances where this isolationist behaviour had manifested. There was a time in primary school when I asked if I could sit at the solitary desk behind my teacher to get my work done when I couldn’t concentrate sitting facing five of my peers; or the times in high school when I would go to the library for quiet solace to work. There are times when, as an adult, I have willingly left the fray of a party to sit alone somewhere to let my mind settle.
Having explained this behaviour I’m sure many of you will be diagnosing me with a whole myriad of mental illnesses, and believe me, over the years I might have worried you were right. I have often thought there was something wrong with me to need as much alone time as I do to function in the real world, but don’t worry, I’m just as sane as all of you. I just happen to be one of those people who make up between a third to a half of the population, depending on which study you believe.
I’m an introvert.
Now in case anyone doesn't understand what I mean by that, psychologists tend to agree that people are on a spectrum of how they process and interact with the world around them, it’s different from shyness. Shyness is a fear of social judgement. It’s really all about stimulation.
Extroverts react really well to stimulation, so things like background noise and things going on around them energise them, whereas people like me, the introverts, are easily over-stimulated and get easily distracted by the same things which energise extroverts. Experimental psychologists have actually done studies where they gave introverts and extroverts maths problems to solve while background music was playing and, as you would expect, the introverts performed better when the music was at a quieter level and vice versa for extroverts.
Now imagine today’s average working environment. We work in open plan offices where you can hear everything everyone is doing around you. Phones ring constantly, people walk to and fro, and Jenny at the other end of the office is having a particularly energetic conversation with Steve about the problems she’s having with the latest spreadsheet. We work in loud, obtrusive environments which are meant to foster creativity, inspiration and cross team working, but in actuality the inverse is true.
Open plan workplaces have been shown to decrease productivity, colleague engagement, increase absence rates and cause higher staff turnover. Looking at the statistics, a manager would have to be crazy to want to implement a working environment like that, and yet in workplaces across the world it is the norm, failing to get the best work out of at least a third of the working population. Wouldn’t it be better to have workplaces that valued privacy and solitude as much as this obsessive group work that we engage in now? We could have areas where introverts can work alone, while preserving the water-cooler-style interactions which actually benefit all personality types.
Another problem with today’s obsession with the extrovert ideal is something author Susan Cain has described as 'The New Groupthink', highlighting the problems that spring from the belief that all creativity and the best ideas come from this almost psychotic gregariousness. Again studies have shown that when people are forced to 'brainstorm' and to participate in group activities to generate creativity, the quality and quantity of ideas actually diminishes and people are actually less creative and have fewer quality ideas. The extroverts of the group tend to drive group discussions, and any dissenting voices fade into the background, afraid of the judgement from the group. When workplaces have enforced teamwork sessions, or meetings on top of meetings it can lead to a brain-drain that affects introverts in a really measurable way.
Contrast this experience with some of the most creative and inspirational geniuses of the past. Charles Darwin would take long walks alone in the woods and turn down dinner party invites, children’s author Dr Seuss would work alone in an office and was actually afraid to meet the many American children who read his books, for fear of disappointing them. Steve Wozniak, the creator of the first Apple computer, even said he would not have been as much of an expert as he was, if he was not too introverted to leave the house when he was younger.
Now I’m not claiming that introverts are better than extroverts, and I’m not prejudiced against them either; In fact I would probably say some of my friends are extroverts, but what I do believe we need is a rebalancing of contemporary culture, a balance of the yin and yang. And there are no quick fixes, or even set answers. Psychologists now know it’s impossible for anyone to be in a group and to not start mirroring the opinions of the others around them, even over visceral things like core beliefs or who people find attractive. Most often we will find ourselves agreeing with the most charismatic people in the room, whether they have the best ideas or not.
Why leave something like that to chance? Why not have everyone go off and generate their best ideas, and then come together to share them? Periods of isolation and research have always had an integral part in the creative process. Believe me, I studied it for years. The evidence to the contrary is, honestly, pretty flimsy.
We need to get away from our working culture where charisma and magnetism are seen as pillars of success; the latest evidence from Adam Grant at the Wharton School shows that introverts actually perform better than extroverts in leadership roles as they are more likely to let their teams take the intuitive leaps needed to get solutions. We need to find the value in people who don’t act like the celebrities in our reality shows – because for every Kim Kardashian we have, we need a Kate Bush. We are living in a world where we value style over substance, and it has led to Donald Trump being seen as a valid candidate for the American presidency and Joey Essex is a role model.
And we also need to accept that some introverts, like me, are more than willing to give a speech to a room of strangers they’ve never met, given the opportunity to try.
This piece by Josh Moir of NHS Tayside was first delivered as a speech to a recent Young Scotland Programme