You Don’t Have to Be All Alone to Tap Into the Energizing Quiet

I’m partway through my second semester of auditing an introductory French course at a local college, “auditing” being a code word for “I’m taking the full-fledged class, but I’m paying almost nothing for it — and I don’t get graded; I can just learn for the sake of it.” It’s a beautiful arrangement, one that eliminates a great deal of the stress involved.

But not nearly all of it.

For starters, I am a shade (three decades) older than the regular, everyday undergraduates in the class. I think I fit in pretty well; in true introvert form, I simply try to blend in. To the degree that a 50-year-old, 6-foot-4-inch guy with long hair and a gray beard can pull this off, I do. But I still stick out — especially when a) I frequently remember the historical events the instructor mentions that occurred long before my classmates were born; and b) my personal brand in class has become “Le Vieil Homme Qui Déteste les Examens Orals”: “The Old Man Who Hates Oral Exams.”

Even more stressful — and therefore predictably draining — is the daily classroom culture, which by design and, really, necessity involves unending interactions where we newbies to the language do our best to talk to each other and the professor. In French, of course. “Broken French” sort of understates it, as does “Franglais.” Which is why our professor should be nominated for either sainthood or a set of noise-canceling headphones.

We students, feeding off of the professor’s remarkable supply of genuine patience and encouragement, have a healthy, we’re-all-in-this-together attitude about our classroom, um, discussions. But it’s a tough thing to do, day in and day out. Especially when you’re an introvert — like me, for example — and you have to not only think on your feet, but perform linguistic feats. In French, of course.

The other day, for example, we spent the first 30 minutes of the 70-minute session walking around the room, asking each other and responding to — in French, of course — more than 20 questions the professor had taped to the walls on little scraps of paper. It was just another day at the office. It could just as well have been one of the frequent days when we have what I can only call conjugation races: Three or four teams of us line up in the front of the room, and we race to conjugate various French verbs, writing our often creative answers on the white board — in French, of course — while frantically trying to extract them from our brains.

In Franglais, of course.

I have to concede that, in their own way, these activities are kind of fun. They put you in situations exactly like the ones you’ll be in if you’re really trying to speak French to a real French speaker in a real French-speaking setting. That’s why I signed up for this course in the first place last September, and it’s why I re-upped a few weeks ago to take a second semester.

Basically, I asked for this.

But somehow, still, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning during my drive to campus, I naively pray: “Please, God, let us just sit and learn today.”

God, though He is infallible, chuckles and responds: “Well, you will sit in your chair in class and talk to the people around you in the kind of French only a mother could love. In the process, you will learn. Prayer answered.”

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that when I go to class each day, I go not just a little early, but ridiculously early. As in 20, 25, 30 minutes early. I need to be able to just sit, in peace, and get myself into student mode. Introverted student mode. Alone.

But lately I’ve noticed something: No matter how early I myself arrive, there’s always one other guy who is either already there or who arrives at virtually the same time as I do. And for the last week or two, we’ve been joined by a young woman doing the same thing.

Perhaps this doesn’t strike you as newsworthy. But when it means, for example, that I was not alone today in arriving at 9:54 a.m. for a class that begins at 10:30 a.m., it’s not so out there to think that something’s up. Something well beyond simply not being late.

It’s a silent arms race.

Maybe I should call it a space race. The three of us students, all of us obviously similar in personality if not nearly so similar in longevity, clearly need to charge up for what’s to come. And we all would seemingly prefer to do that alone. So we all keep going to class earlier and earlier in at attempt to outflank each other.

Pretty soon we’ll be lined up outside the classroom door — or the locked academic building — at 9:54 p.m. the previous night, making sure we claim our alone time as though it’s in limited supply during a Black Friday sale.

Fortunately, though, I don’t really need to come out on top in this introverted chess match. Neither do my deux (two) fellow étudiants (students). We just share the quiet, silently confirming what’s going on and why.

And seemingly knowing that we all win.

When You’re an Introvert, You Sometimes Need to Stand (and Move) for Peace

The other night, I graciously and selflessly accepted a last-minute parental appeal to take my niece, Autumn, to her recreational gymnastics class. At 7:45 p.m. On a Wednesday. Clear across town. In bad winter weather, with little regard for my own personal safety.

Aw, it was nothing. I’m all about noble sacrifice in times of need.

Come to think of it, though–and this is mere conjecture on my part, you understand–there’s the ever so slight possibility that I was also drooling with glee over the idea.

OK, I was drooling with glee over the idea. Why? Because it was the exhausted introvert’s equivalent of finding a $20 bill on the ground. It would give me the unexpected chance to (with apologies to Timothy Leary) turn off, tune out, and drop out. Minus the drugs.

Autumn’s gymnastics class, you see, would be the last of the night, and we were in the beginnings of a pretty substantial snowstorm around here at the time. So by simply saying yes to her parents’ request–three little letters strung together and enunciated properly–I could help out my sister- and brother-in-law and secure an hour’s worth of warm, toasty peace BY MYSELF as richly deserved compensation.

Not that that would give me extra motivation.

I did end up helping my sister- and brother-in-law all right. Alli got to go to the concert she’d been invited to earlier in the day, and Chad didn’t have to miss his bowling league match. Mission accomplished.

But peace? Peace in my time? Well, peace had no chance.

Until I stood up for it–and learned that any of us introverts has the power to do the same.

 

Face the Music

Things were looking–sounding–good as Autumn’s session got under way. The usually bustling gymnastics facility was practically empty, and I’d grabbed a chair in a quiet corner of the balcony so I could read and stare into space, stare into space and read. You know: introvert ping-pong.

Autumn and the other girls had already started their usual warmup activities. On my lap was a stack of articles on, ironically enough, introverts and introversion. (Hey, it’s what I do.) So I settled in and settled down, cup of tea and trusty highlighter in hand, promising myself I’d glance up once in a while and actually pay attention to what Autumn was doing.

Ahhh. Blissful, heavenly quiet. Now I can …

RACKET RACKET RACKET THUMP BLARE BLARE BLARE THUMP RACKET BLARE RACKET BLARE!

(Why, yes, that is the grating sound of the 2006 “Hannah Montana” soundtrack album. How did you know?)

For some reason, Autumn’s coaches decided to blast, um, music through the PA system. The preteen girls stretching out on the mats below undoubtedly viewed it as a welcome change from the typical warmup routine. I, on the other hand, viewed it like a normal person would: as a felony, assault with a deadly weapon. So I did what lots of people do during a crime in progress.

I prayed:

Dear God,

Dear God, God!

What did I do?!

What did I not do?!

I’m sorry, God. I don’t mean to yell. I’m just wiped out, and I was expecting something else here tonight. Craving it, actually. Something relaxing and soothing. Remember that $20 bill bit?

Let’s be reasonable about this, God. Everything is on the table.

I’ll do whatever you ask, whenever you ask, for whomever you ask, if you will simply do me the teensy, tiniest favor–right now–of sending a mammoth power surge through that outlet down there and … well, I know this is asking a lot, God, but can you please make the CD player burst into flames?

Safely, of course. There are kids down there, God, as you know. And coaches. Insane coaches, but coaches nonetheless.

Thank you for your time and consideration, God.

Amen.

P.S. I realize that you receive many prayers each day, most of them far more pressing than this one. But I think you’d have to agree that the fact we’re talking about Miley Cyrus should move my request up on your priority list. Thanks again!

 

Oh, the Noise, Noise, Noise!

God must not have heard me over all the commotion, because the first song on the album played all the way through and then the second one began.

But then, to my amazement … the CD player burst into flames!

No, it didn’t. Though it did in my mind, introvert that I am.

The music did stop. Eventually. Mercifully. Miley and her accomplices had gotten away with their actions, but at least it was quiet again.

So I settled in and settled down, cup of tea and trusty highlighter in hand, promising myself I’d glance up once in a while and actually pay attention to what Autumn was doing.

Ahhh. Blissful, heavenly quiet. (Am I having déjà vu?) Now I can …

BLAB BLAB BLAB BLAB BLAB BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAB BLAB BLAH BLAB BLAH.

Forty feet of near-empty balcony space where we can watch the kids, and 60 feet more just a few steps in the other direction, yet some woman on her phone strolls up and has to plunk herself down in the chair right next to me.

Um, God … I silently begin.

But it’s no use.

As auditory flashbacks of Charlie Brown’s teacher flood what’s left of my mind, I hear (BLAB BLAB BLAB) all about how the woman’s relatives are coming in from out of town, and how she never (BLAH BLAH BLAH) sees her sister anymore, and how, oh, she’s going to try (BLAB BLAB BLAB) a new recipe while everyone’s here! And she hopes (BLAH BLAH BLAH) everyone likes it. She’s so wiped out, though (BLAB BLAB BLAB), because she’s been working 12-hour days for (BLAH BLAH BLAH) seven days straight and (BLAB BLAB BLAH) she’s getting tired of it. And, oh my gosh, now she’s so nervous, because her daughter on the mat below can’t (BLAB BLAB BLAB) keep her legs together on one of the tumbling tricks, so the coach (BLAH BLAH BLAH) is having her put a little strap around her ankles to keep her legs together. What if (BLAB BLAB BLAB) she falls (the daughter, I presume, not the coach)?

Sigh.

Enough with the prayers; God helps those who help themselves, I think to myself. Only to remember a split-second later that this phrase never actually appears in the Bible.

Still, it sounds like a good strategy. But what can I do, really? I can’t just grab my stuff and walk away from this woman. She’ll know what’s going on, and she’ll see what I’m doing and be offended or hurt or both. Especially since there’s no one else here to provide cover.

Besides: She’s not really doing anything wrong to begin with. It’s annoying to me, but it’s her world too. We can’t always expect the quiet to come sit by us.

No. But as introverts, we can surely go and sit by the quiet. Whenever we want to. And especially whenever we need to.

So that’s what I did. I somehow overruled the incessant voices in my head (desperation is an excellent motivator), gathered my things, walked to the other side of the balcony, and sat down for an extra re-energizing game of introvert ping-pong.

The woman never even saw me; she’s probably still sitting there talking. But I got the peace I so craved.

How? By simply standing up for myself, and out of my chair and walking away. Without explanation. Without justification. And from now on, without reservation or hesitation.

The Magic of Working Alone with Somebody Else–the Right Somebody Else

“I drink alone,” rocker George Thorogood snarled in his hit song of the same name.

Well, good for you, George. I’m not sure how to respond other than to say that I don’t share your philosophy on the consumption of adult beverages.

But your song on the radio this morning reminded me of something, of a similar declaration of independence that I have made repeatedly, throughout my life:

I work alone.

Like many introverts (insert bluesy, guitar-driven background music here)

I work alone, yeah.

With nobody else.

I work alone, yeah.

With nobody else.

You know when I work alone,

I prefer to be by myself.

I do in fact work alone most of the time. With nobody else. And when I work alone, I do indeed prefer to be by myself. It’s almost a badge of honor.

But just as Mr. Thorogood probably drinks with other people from time to time, by necessity or by choice, I work with other people from time to time. Usually by necessity. Occasionally by choice.

A few weeks ago, out of the necessity driven by my role as David lost in a Goliath-like wilderness, I chose to work with Kate McMillan of Outbox Online Design Studio in Portland, Oregon, some 1,500 miles from my home office here in the tundra of Moorhead, Minnesota.

Kate is helping me redesign my Introvert Insights website. By “helping” I mean doing it for me. And by “redesign” I mean revamp, refresh, reinvigorate. Make that resuscitate. It’s CPR. In fact, my website needed not just new life but life to begin with, especially visually. And, well, I’m a word guy.

So I did something many of us introverts hate doing—particularly those of us blessed with that pesky Y chromosome.

I asked for help.

Kicking and screaming, I asked for help. I chose to be part of a collaborative team effort with Kate McMillan, who I’ve never met in person and likely never will.

I chose wisely.

Robert Frost once famously wrote, in his poem “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Working with Kate these past few weeks has made all the difference, but I say that with only a small nod to my new website. What has mattered to me more than anything—and this is a common “introvert thing”—is not so much what Kate and I have done together, but how we have done it.

Kate, I don’t know if you’re an introvert yourself. I suspect you might be, but it hardly matters. All I can say is this: You sure work like an introvert. Me too. And that has made all the difference on this road I so rarely travel by.

Here’s just a small sampling of the introvert-friendly way that Kate and I have collaborated together since I first approached her about six weeks ago:

We’ve communicated almost exclusively via email. We introverts hate being interrupted, and we hate interrupting others. So when email came along in the early 1990s, it was a godsend—a godsend we have latched on to and will likely never relinquish.

Kate and I have been “talking” back and forth via email for the most part. We’ve had two phone calls as well—including one marathon session—but we arranged both of them ahead of time. Via email. Thus the calls were expected, and we could both prepare for them in advance (which we did). Minimal chitchat. Maximum productivity. But still plenty of laughs and sharing and getting to know each other.

We’ve implicitly demonstrated along the way that we don’t want or need the other person to respond to our emails instantaneously. Again, it’s all about disrupting—or, more accurately, not disrupting someone when they’re in the middle of something. I email Kate. She emails me. I don’t expect her to be sitting by her email inbox, dying to hear from me. She doesn’t expect me to be obsessing by my inbox, either. Our email communications are calm, “chill” as the kids like to say today. Professional always, but almost completely devoid of stress or demand.

We’ve been detailed in the emails we’ve written to each other, and we’ve demonstrated that we’ve done our respective homework assignments beforehand. I researched Kate pretty thoroughly before contacting her, and when I did contact her I was very thorough in responding to her questions about my wants/needs for the new website. She, in turn, was thorough when she wrote back to me. And during our phone calls especially, she was unbelievably thorough in covering the ground we needed to cover—visuals, content, technical aspects, you name it—efficiently but thoughtfully.

We’ve been organized. We’ve worked from a schedule, one that Kate laid out and we both committed to. After our lengthy planning meeting on the phone, Kate sent me a detailed summary within hours—a summary that included a handy checklist of all the things I needed to do, both editorially and technically. She gave me an exact batting order of how to proceed. It took none of the work away, but it took virtually all of the stress away.

We’ve listened well to each other. Kate has somehow gotten into my head and my heart through this process, largely because she’s an exceptionally good listener but also because she actually reads the responses to the questions on her forms. I listen carefully to Kate, too. What I know for sure is that she quickly seemed to understand me and where I’m coming from on this passion of mine—this calling to teach the world about introverts and introversion. She also seems to understand that on my website in particular, I want to be genuine. I told her early on:

“I can’t have my website communicate the exact opposite of the message I’m trying to spread about introverts and introversion. I need my website to project calm. To be calm. I need it to be welcoming, and to align with the laid-back person I really am.”

Kate has not only listened to me; she’s heard me. Is there anything an introvert wants more?

I will always want to work alone, as most introverts do. But there is magic in working alone with the right somebody else—somebody who gets how introverts work and offers the best of both worlds: independence and interdependence.

So thanks, Kate, for reminding me of the value of collaboration. Introvert style.