In the comments section of my recent post, "On discussing grad school with interested students", an individual commenting under the pseudonym 'postdoc' wrote:
On[e] [sic] thing no one ever told me which I wish they did is that philosophical ability is only part of it. There are of course exceptions but for the most part if you want to be successful in philosophy you need to be a good networker. So, if you're shy, introverted, and don't enjoy conferences, then don't bother.
In response, I wrote,
Hi postdoc: Shyness and introversion are not destiny. I score incredibly high on shyness and introversion measures, but I have worked very hard to overcome these tendencies. Socializing may not come naturally to a shy or introverted person (it doesn't come naturally to me!), but one can always choose to put oneself out there and interact with others. At the very least, I would contest the idea that shy, introverted people "shouldn't bother" attempting to enter academic philosophy for the reasons you mention.
Since I suspect there are other early-career shy, introverted philosophers out there like 'postdoc' and myself, I thought it might be helpful if I opened up a discussion on these issues. If one is shy and/or introverted, are these impediments to professional success? Are they things one should aim to "overcome"? If so, how? I don't pretend to have "the answers" to these questions--but what I can do is offer up my own experience, and encourage readers to offer thoughts of their own.
It might come as a surprise to readers that I am a shy, introverted person (given that I blog publicly), but it's true! If you look carefully at how shyness and introversion are understood in empirical psychology, you will see that they both have to do with social encounters:
"Shyness is the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people. Severely shy people may have physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, a pounding heart or upset stomach; negative feelings about themselves; worries about how others view them; and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions." (http://www.apa.org/topics/shyness/ )
"Introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits." (https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/introversion )
I don't have any problem sitting behind a computer blogging, as it's a solitary process (here I am in my living room!). However, when it comes to social situations, I do feel (and can come across as) awkward, worried, and tense--and yes, social situations tend to drain me. I've taken some online introversion and shyness measures, and I score incredibly high on both of them. I've also been told by many, many other people that I have both properties--so I'm pretty sure I do. No, I'm not ashamed of it, nor am I proud of it. It's just "who I am." And indeed, if science is to be believed, shyness and introversion are nothing to be ashamed of. For instance, there is empirical research showing that introversion can be more advantageous than extraversion for academic performance, and linking introversion to scientific and artistic creativity. Similarly, there is research indicating that shy people tend to be greater perfectionists, which can be a blessing, at least if one is not so much of a perfectionist that it paralyzes oneself.
Anyway, what I would like to do now is briefly present some of the challenges I've found shyness and introversion can present in academic philosophy (though I don't pretend these challenges are universal), and then provide some things I think I've learned. My hope is that other shy and/or introverted philosophers might find the remarks, and (hopefully!) a discussion of these issues, helpful.
1. Shyness and/or introversion can present challenges
As I mentioned above, I am not ashamed of being shy and introverted. I don't think there is anything wrong with these traits. They in no way make one a bad person, and in my view, are nothing to be ashamed of. That being said, my experience has been that they can present challenges--particularly in academic philosophy. First, as the above commenter's remarks indicate, academic philosophy is very much a social affair. It's not just "networking", though that is part of it (many of the most successful people I know in the discipline are, indeed, good "networkers"). The simple fact is, it is hard to do good philosophy without a strong network--of people to bounce ideas off of, receive feedback from, and so on. It's also hard, or so I've found, to enjoy philosophy without a good social network. Indeed, empirical psychology has found the negative effects of social isolation to be profound. Since shy, introverted people have natural proclivities to avoid social interactions--removing themselves from social milieu--being shy and/or introverted can, at least in my experience, have negative effects not only on one's career prospects, but also on one's philosophical work (including teaching), as well as have negative psychological effects. I know this from experience. Early in my career, especially in graduate school--and especially when I was struggling--I tended to retreat from social interactions, disengaging from fellow grad students and grad school faculty. This not only appeared to lead to negative perceptions (as though I was disinterested, etc.); it really held me back from developing as a philosopher.
2. Shyness/introversion are not destiny
There are, of course, some severe psychological disorders--such as social anxiety disorder--that call for medical treatment. Ordinary shyness and introversion are not disorders, however, and in my experience they can be surmounted. Although I still to this day uncomfortable in social settings, I have found that one can work hard to act less shy/introverted, and engage people. Among other things, I have found that making a concerted effort to try to "connect" with others, both online and offline, can work! Again, these things may not come naturally to shy, introverted people, but the fact that something doesn't come naturally doesn't make it "destiny." It just means one has to work at it.
Should one have to "work at it"? Early in my career, I felt like trying to be more open and social compromised who I was. I didn't want to "put on a face" and act outgoing when, in my heart, I felt the opposite. However, while this is of course a choice one can make, I think it is a mistake. There are all kinds of things we "have to do" that do not come naturally to us, both in friendships, marriages and other relationships, and yes, the workplace--at least if we want those things to go well. For example, some of us are more inclined to behave selfishly than others--and yet, if you want to have good friendships and relationships, you generally have to act less selfish than you may be inclined to. Similarly, some people are jerks--but, if you are working in customer service, that probably won't work well in terms of your career.
Now, of course, if, as I am suggesting a "good, happy career" in academic philosophy may require shy, introverted people to "act more outgoing", might this be reason to think that the above commenter is right: that one should avoid academic philosophy? Perhaps--but I have a sneaking suspicion that shyness and introversion present similar challenges in most careers. It is well-known in empirical psychology, for instance, that people tend to find extroverts more likable than introverts. And, in many/most careers, it seems as though people tend to hire and promote people they like. So, I'm not sure the best thing for shy introverts to do is to avoid philosophy. Far from it. As a shy introvert, I think in many ways it is an ideal career for someone like me: I spend the vast majority of my time alone in front of a computer, or in a classroom, which I don't find to be a "social setting" (an aside: for some reason, I'm much more comfortable in a classroom, in my role as a teacher, than in ordinary settings).
3. Some ways to overcome the challenges of shyness/introversion, while remaining authentic
"Connecting" with others, and "networking" may not come naturally to shy, introverted people. And indeed, as I mentioned earlier (and have mentioned before on this blog), I used to look negatively towards "networking" in particular--as it always seemed to me a rather "careerist" way to approach both work and life. One of the first things I think I learned, however, to help me become a bit more social is this:
Suggestion 1: Learn to look at "connecting" with other people not in a "careerist" way, but as something one needs to do to (A) better enjoy life (it is lonely being a "lone wolf" philosopher!), (B) develop genuine friendships, and (C) improve as a philosopher.
Before, when I looked negatively at "networking", it was because--as a naturally shy, introverted person--I though that's "all it is." Sure, some people are just out to network, and developing friendships can, in the end, have benefits of "networking." But, or so I learned, one does not have to give up one's sense of integrity or authenticity to better connect with other people in the discipline. One merely has to learn that developing friendships and good working relationships with others can be an intrinsically good part of life, as well as something that improve you as a philosopher and person, and make philosophy fun.
Suggestion 2: Make a concerted effort to reach out and "connect" with people--by email, on social media, coffee dates, etc.
As a naturally shy, introverted person, I've found one challenge to be simply doing small, "pro-social" things that seem to come naturally to more extroverted people, but which simply don't naturally occur to me: among them, sending people I haven't spoken with in a while a brief email to just say hello and catch up, set up a meeting for coffee, start a conversation on social media, etc. While these seem like very simple things, if one is a shy introvert, one may have to make a concerted effort to do these things. Which brings me to,
Suggestion 3: Find a more extroverted "buddy" to push/guide you.
I was fortunate to marry an extrovert. Being married to my spouse has revealed to me many things I didn't know before--among them, just how different extroverts and introverts can truly be, and how helpful it can be to have an extrovert around to gently "push you" (or, rather, persuade you) to do things that might initially make you uncomfortable--again, things as simple as simply sending someone an email to say hello, reach out to set up a coffee date prior to conference, etc. Although at many points I've resisted my spouse's suggestions, I have truly found her help as an extrovert to be wonderful. As happy as I am being a shy introvert, I have to confess that it is rather nice to reach out to people, cultivate friendships, etc.
Anyway, these are just a few musings, about things I have found to be helpful, and positive, as someone inclined to shyness and introversion. Perhaps readers of the Cocoon who aren't shy/introverts may find some of these musings odd--but that is not exactly unexpected: introverts are notoriously misunderstood. Still, I don't think we shy introverts should hide these aspects of our personality. If anything, or so I hope, being open about shyness and introversion may help those of us with these traits become a little bit more well-understood. And, at any rate, I hope any shy, introverted readers of the Cocoon find these remarks helpful, and I'm more than happy to continue the discussion! :)