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Going It Alone, and Happy For It

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

The New York Times had an article this past weekend that addressed how spending time alone is out of fashion. Everyone seems to be constantly interacting and wired to each other. Businesses encourage working groups and often have open floor plans to facilitate communication. And schools have become enamored of the benefits of collaboration. As the article points out, this strong group focus has an unfortunate, unintended consequence: it fails to recognize that the most creative thinking is generated from solitary, uninterrupted time.

By encouraging groupthink, our culture has also elevated the status of extraverts.

Along with enjoying the company of others, extraversion (one of the Big Five traits used to describe personality) is associated with being positive, self-confident, assertive, and successful in life. It brings to mind people like Steve Jobs, part of the inspiration for the above-referenced New York Times article.

A byproduct of prizing collaboration and extraversion is that introverts – who tend to prefer working alone – are frequently seen in less than flattering ways. Often, introverts are perceived as depressed, anxious or aloof. Their introversion is confused with neuroticism, another of the Big Five personality traits. People high in neuroticism are emotionally unstable and frequently experience negative emotions. However, introverts are often as happy and active as extraverted people; they are just not as social and are less interested in influencing or controlling others. In addition, for them, time spent alone – which encourages creative thinking – is something they treasure.

We will all be better off if our culture (and we as individuals) can begin to value the benefits of time spent alone, as well as with others. Working well together can, metaphorically speaking, move mountains. For evidence of this, just look to the accomplishments of Steve Jobs or the legacy of the collaborative efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. On the other hand, independent creative thinking has certainly changed the world – think Steve Wozniak (the engineer behind the Apple personal computer) and Albert Einstein.

Most people are not geniuses. Still, they have strengths in their introversion or extraversion that can be nurtured.  And their combined talents can be harnessed for great success.

That said, like any change in society, developing a culture of respect for both styles must start with individual people. How do you think of yourself? Are you more of an introvert or extravert? Can you see the value in this? And can you see the value of the other style? Finally, how can you help (or how have you helped) to support or enhance these benefits in yourself and others?

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.

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