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The pandemic is also a time-out from our usual extrovert-dominated culture. We should make the best of that.
Quarantine during a pandemic can be traumatic, it goes without saying. But like all difficult times, it’s not equally harrowing for everybody, and potentially even liberating for some. That includes many in the large minority of the population who happen to be introverts.
The modern world in normal times — that is, without pandemics and quarantines — belongs indubitably to extroverts. In a buzzing economy, the outgoing salesperson is seen to be doing better than the reclusive boffin. In our open-plan offices, the butterfly who “brainstorms” in the pantry is regarded as a better team player than the taciturn steppenwolf punching at his keyboard. And so forth.
But introverts have in recent years begun a campaign to change that narrative: not to seize power from the extroverts, mind you, but simply to be accepted as also having something valuable to offer. Because they do. The campaign started with a now classic essay by my former Economist colleague Jonathan Rauch. It continued with a bestseller and TED talk by the author Susan Cain.
There’s a lot of confusion about what introversion and extroversion are. The definitions of these personality types, which originated in the work of Carl Jung, have nothing to do with being shy or being a leader (introverts may or may not be, just like anybody else). Instead, the difference lies in what, cognitively, somebody finds stimulating as opposed to exhausting.
Extroverts need other people and their chitchat to get energy. When they’re alone they soon feel deflated or isolated. Solitude easily becomes loneliness.
Introverts are the opposite. They’re drained by the random noise of small talk, fatigued by the fluid kinetics of a cocktail party, dazed by people speaking before they think in allegedly creative brainstorming sessions. To recharge their batteries, introverts need to be alone, or with a few people whom they know intimately. They like thinking, reading, tinkering or discussing something in depth. And good things can be found when going deep.
Now what is the essence of quarantine? “Social distancing,” of course. To an extrovert, that’s an oxymoron. To an introvert, it’s the ideal state. To put it flippantly, it’s the near-complete cessation of small talk, and a rare opportunity to concentrate. Moreover, social distancing doesn’t necessarily mean disconnection, certainly not in the age of Zoom. But unlike an open-plan office, Zoom can be turned off.
Introverts in quarantine are thus less likely than extroverts to feel deflated, isolated or bored, and more likely to be energized, perhaps welcoming the lack of distraction to go deep into, well, whatever. Solitude can make people creative.
Take John Keats, one of England’s greatest poets. Apparently an introvert, he was already sick from tuberculosis in 1820 at the age of 24, when during a trip to Naples typhoid broke out. Keats was quarantined on a boat offshore for 10 days. He spent the time writing moving letters and a memoir of his childhood.
Or consider another introvert, Isaac Newton (who later in life rarely mingled with students, or anybody). He was at Cambridge University when, in 1665-66, the bubonic plague broke out. Like schoolsand universities today, Cambridge closed and sent its students home. Newton was stuck on his family estate in rural Lincolnshire.
Except that “stuck” isn’t the word. “Liberated” seems more like it. Young Newton spent endless hours alone in nature, in pensive absorption. Once he saw an apple fall from a tree, and realized that it responded to the same force as the moon orbiting the earth, which led him to a theory of gravity. He also observed light in its many colors and began thinking about optics. And he applied his logic to nature in a way that led him to pioneer calculus. What was actually a quarantine historians now call Newton’s annus mirabilis, or miracle year.
Mind you, I’m not planning to discover new branches of physics or math in this anxious time of Covid-19. Being introverted, unfortunately, doesn’t also mean being a genius. Nonetheless, I suspect that during these lockdowns across the world, there’s an introvert here and there who’s right now applying her undivided attention, creativity and productivity to composing a symphony, conceiving an algorithm, painting a canvas or writing a book. Or simply spending uninterrupted time with a child or spouse.
Better yet, extroverts can be doing the same thing, for as Jung always emphasized, nobody is purely one type or the other. At some point — the sooner the better — the coronavirus will recede, leaving all of us, introverts and extroverts, in peace again to mingle. Until then, we might as well assume that something good may yet come out of this time.