OMG Pat Rothfuss!

Yesterday I attended a reading, Q&A, and signing with one of my current favorite writers, Pat Rothfuss, author of the Kingkiller Chronicles. (Squeeeee! I do not often “squee,” but….squeeeee!) It was a great time. First of all, it was at my favorite local library, the Roseville library, which was awesome. Secondly, a few of my friends from Fest (namely, former Hardtack Jack members Jon and Chris, and Chris’s wife Rae) were also attending. I went to a thing! With people I know! From Fest!

There were several cool things that happened, aside from the fact that it was a reading/Q&A/signing with one of my current favorite writers. The first thing that was cool was that Pat came out about 20 minutes before he was scheduled to talk. Holding a stack of index cards, he announced that he wasn’t “officially here yet,” but that we’d be doing some Q&A, and that he realizes that “some people might be introverts.” So he passed out the index cards, for those who might want to ask a question but not shout it out in front of 300 people (and there were about 300 people there). I didn’t have a question, but I was so impressed that he addressed the introversion question head on, and took steps specifically to make the event introvert-friendly! Much appreciated, Pat!

The second cool thing that happened was that one of the questions he read was “What are your favorite words and what words do you dislike?” The word he liked was “incarnadine,” which is indeed a lovely word. But the really cool part was that the word he doesn’t like was “utilize.” He basically said it’s a synonym for “use,” and the only reason to say “utilize” instead of “use” is to sound smart/important/fancy. Ha! This was awesome because I had this conversation with someone just the other day and had come to the same conclusion. Awesome. I told him this while he was signing by book, and he seemed genuinely amused and impressed that we’d had this same thought process, which was cool.

Another cool (but sort of weird) thing that happened was this: When I entered the library and got in line to buy my copy of The Name of the Wind (having previously only owned it on Kindle), I started talking to the woman behind me. We continued talking as we went to sit down, so naturally we sat down together (also next to Chris and Rae). She told her her kids’ uncle was coming to meet her. When he showed up, his kids were with him, and I recognized his daughter right away, and subsequently, him– they used to live 2 houses down from me. Small world!

The reading and Q&A was a cool thing, too. Aside from the content itself, it was a great social activity for an introvert. I got there and chatted with like-minded people (okay, mostly people I already knew, but not entirely) for a while. We had a built-in topic of conversation. Then, we all sat together and listened to Pat read and answer questions. Then we all talked again while in line. A socially acceptable hour-long break from talking at a social activity! Fantastic!

2015 Ren Fest Recap

Another successful year at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival has come to an end. This was a really, really great year– the weather was lovely (only one really hot weekend), and internal drama (the bad sort) was virtually non-existant (and usually there is a LOT of internal drama).

It was also a great year for me. This year, after 11 years as a participant (5 of those on cast), I finally got up the courage to implement my very first idea for something to do at Fest, which was performing as a solo flautist. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the (several) other ways I’ve been part of Fest, but I really, really enjoyed doing the solo thing.

There are two was by which I measure success at Fest– audience engagement (measured partly, but not entirely, by tips) and how much I personally engage with fellow participants. I wasn’t sure how the crowds would receive a solo flautist. I honestly didn’t go into it expecting to make much in the way of tips, but I think I did fairly well. (I set a goal for myself to do a $100 hat the last weekend, and I’m proud to say I achieved that goal. That may not sound like a lot to some performers, but I was quite happy with it.) And I had many, many people indicate their appreciation in ways besides putting a tip in my basket, which is completely fine– in some instances, a kind comment or smile from a child can mean more than a tip.

The other way in which I measure a successful Fest season is how much I interact/connect with my fellow cast members and participants. It was a great year on that front, as well. One of the main reasons I had been reluctant to be a solo act in the past is that I worried that if I wasn’t part of a group, I wouldn’t talk to anyone and would just be alone all the time. And even after working/performing at Fest for 11 previous years and knowing plenty of people, I was still worried about that this year.

Well, I needn’t have worried.  I’ve noticed in other situations that if I go to things (like receptions at international education conferences, for example) alone, I actually do somehow step up to the challenge and talk to people I don’t know, or don’t know as well. That proved to be the case at Fest this year, too. I talked to several people I didn’t know or know very well (Jennifer, Marco, some of the Scots, new Terps, Peter, Anita, Manna and Manna, Dennis, Saskia, Stephanie, Penn, Cornelius, random people on the Fest bus) and reconnected with lots of people I did know (Jon, Chris, “old” Terps, some Scots, Randy, the Alein’ Whalers, Too Broke Blokes, Kate, etc). Of course, it seems every year that somehow I don’t get around to seeing all the people (or shows!) I intend to–notably Jamie (I barely made it to Queen’s Gate this year!) and the Bloodwake (whom I never seem to get over to visit any more). I only made it to like 1/2 of a Four Pints Shy show this year. Doing my own thing, I feel, for some reason, a lot more pressure to be performing all the time between my scheduled sets.

This year, I took a few days off – three Sundays and Fest Friday. One of the Sundays I attended with Gerard and the brother who were visiting, and I brought the kiddo out for a couple of hours Fest Friday afternoon, but I had two Sundays completely off. I also ended up working at the Fest booth at the State Fair on the Saturday of Labor Day (because they really needed people and I can’t sit around while someone needs help that I can give), so that’s three Fest days I wasn’t there at all and 2 others I wasn’t working. Consequently, I’m not really burnt out this year. I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I probably enjoyed Fest more because I had a few days off, even though the days I was off, I missed it. But now I’m not really ready for it to be over, whereas when I’m burnt out by the end of the season, I’m really ready for it to be over for awhile. I’m not sure which is better– to want it to be over before it is, or not want it to be over when it is!

I’m already looking forward to next year, of course, which will probably be the last year on the current site. That will be bittersweet as well. There is a lot of history imbued into that site, and a lot of magic that lives in its walls. I feel a great attachment to many of the physical spaces themselves, especially the Bakery stage area where I spent my first 5 years at Fest, Mac’s Pub, and The Estate (Terp’s green room area). I will truly miss the actual, physical space when the Festival moves.

But, as many have said, it is really we who make the Festival– the performers and participants and patrons who love the Festival, who created the magic that has seeped into the Festival grounds and structures. We will create new magic and memories at the new site. And the new site brings opportunity, as well– better parking and traffic arrangements, up-to-code buildings, flush toilets (maybe), ample camping (maybe), electricity (maybe) and less dust. I will miss the current site, but I am excited about the opportunity to be a part of building and baptizing the new one.

I also look forward to bringing my son out with me more regularly next year, when I think he’ll be old enough to mind and stay near me while I perform. I often envy those who were raised at Fest (and those whose spouses are Festies, too), and I look forward to giving my son the experience of being raised in the Fest family, with the help of, literally, a village.

 

Are Introversion and Activism Compatible? (Or, The Armchair Activist)

I’m thinking today about activism. I don’t really consider myself an activist. I do my civic duty: I educate myself, I vote, I sign petitions, I donate to causes that are important to me. And I speak up, in my own way, about certain causes that speak to me. But by “speak up,” I mean write, share things on Facebook, occasionally engage in private conversations with acquaintances in the hopes of stimulating them to think critically about issues at hand, and also learning from their point of view. But I don’t really do anything, and in light of recent events (Ferguson, McKinney, Charleston…), I feel like I need to do more. Fewer words, more action. But what can I do that will be more effective than my armchair, Facebook activism? Pass out leaflets? Attend protests?

I care deeply about these issues, but I’m an introvert. And I also have a toddler. Going to protests just doesn’t seem feasible a lot of the time. Take this Saturday. I’d like to take my kid to an event (not a protest, but a community-building event), but it’s right during the time of day where if he isn’t napping, he’s not going to be in the right frame of mind to engage with anything. So that’s probably out. But when he gets a little older, that will change, and I will be able to take him to things like that, and it will be a step in the right direction.

But I’ll still have to contend with my introversion. I hate saying it like that, because it makes it sound like a mental health problem. And it’s not. I have one of those, too, and it’s not the same thing at all. So I don’t like to treat it like one. But, sometimes the reality, as much as I hate to admit it, is that introversion is something I have to “overcome.” So this thing on Saturday, even if it weren’t during naptime, I’d have to, like, talk to people there. Volunteer work usually involves a lot of personal interaction. At protests or demonstrations, I’d have to be surrounded by a bunch of strangers. I don’t know if I can do it.

I struggle with the conflicting ideas that I should put myself out of my comfort zone to support initiatives to fight racism, homophobia, etc. That, as a white, straight, cis woman, the least I can do is be a little uncomfortable around strangers for a little while. And I can do that. I do, every now and then. But it’s not a sustainable way, for me, to engage with the issue.

So I’m back to square one. I’m back to writing stuff, holding private conversations, and sharing facts or stories or words of wisdom from others, usually from behind the screen of social media. I’m not a coward—I’ve never been afraid to say that awkward thing that no one else wants to say—but in-person interaction is just so exhausting. And I do feel like writing things, talking to people, and sharing information and facts and stories are important. Of course it’s important. But is it enough? I don’t know. Probably not.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people in my social sphere who (I believe) could use to think critically about some of their beliefs, so why do I need to go out and engage with strangers to try to convince them to think differently, when I can encourage people I actually know to examine their beliefs and biases? When I can do so with a message of, “You are my friend/family member/acquaintance, and I don’t think you’re a bad person. But let’s talk about this. Or here’s something you might not have considered.” When these people know me, maybe even respect me, and maybe think it’s worth listening to what I have to say, even if they still may not agree. That seems like a better starting point than making a big speech to a bunch of people who don’t know me from Adam, or holding up a clever, quippy sign. Not to disparage those efforts, but are they the only way? Or even the best? Who decided that? I wouldn’t be writing this post if someone (an extrovert, probably) somewhere a long time ago hadn’t decided that the “right” way to effect social change is loudly: by demonstrating, protesting, making speeches, and arguing.

I don’t like to think of introverts as being “oppressed” or “disadvantaged” in the same way that some groups are oppressed or disadvantaged, but it’s also true that the world, or at least the US, caters toward extroverts. There is such a thing as extrovert privilege. I don’t like to frame it in those terms, because it in no way compares to white privilege or straight privilege or cis privilege or male privilege. But it’s there.

Extroverts have the privilege of not having people assume they are boring, dull, stupid, or uninterested because they listen more than talk in a conversation. Extroverts have the privilege of not having people assume they are stuck up or aloof because they are not good at small talk. They have the privilege of “class participation”—in other words, talking—coming naturally to them, when active listening, which comes naturally to many introverts, is just as important a part of learning as speaking up in class, and indeed perhaps even more of a rarity, but seems to be much less valued in our educational system. They have the privilege of finding energy in networking or social gatherings, whereas introverts have to push themselves to participate in these activities which often make or break hugely important parts of life, like one’s career or finding a suitable romantic partner (thank goodness for internet dating!).

I don’t mean to make this blog post a cry against extrovert privilege. There is a time and a place for that (maybe), but it’s not here. This post is about what I, as an introvert, can do to use my other privilege (white, cis, straight) to help bring down a system in which that privilege exists. What I can do that is true to myself, but also recognizes and honors the struggle others go through every day that is so much greater than my own.

I believe that education is the most important tool for social change. By profession and by nature, I’m an educator. I educate students every day about cultural difference, about respect, about examining their own biases and going into a new culture with an open mind. I do my best to educate my son about racism, privilege, and human rights (as much as one can educate a 15-month old about such things). I do my best to educate myself. I share my thoughts, knowledge, and opinions with friends and acquaintances, with the aim of encouraging thought, and growth, and introspection, and exploration.

I also believe that we’re approaching a place where more physical, radical action may be required. I know I won’t be the person to lead that. I may not even be a person who participates. I don’t even harbor the illusion that I will inspire someone to be the leader of such a movement. But maybe my contribution is that I can help prepare even just a few minds to be receptive to this movement when and if it comes to fruition.

Maybe that’s not enough. Maybe it’s a cop out. But it comes from a place of knowing myself and recognizing my own limitations, and knowing that the world is complex, that these issues are complex, and that there are no easy answers. It comes from a place of not knowing all the answers and knowing I will make mistakes, but doing the best I can do be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. And that, I believe, is that place at which all conversations—and action—around such complex issues must begin.

Social Life

I have been quite the social butterfly this weekend. Last night, I went to karaoke with Karlie, Amy, and hostess Jaime. It’s always a fun time, though I felt especially off my game last night because of globus, PLUS there were lots of singers there, and most of them were really good, so I felt even worse in comparison. 😀 But that’s fine, it is always fun! Sleep-wise, it was nice that it was on a Friday night– usually Jaime hosts karaoke on Thursdays– but actually I think I prefer the Thursday nights. Fewer people, higher ratio of people I know to strangers, and generally more mediocre singers like myself than stellar voices like on Friday. 🙂

Today I had plans to go to a Geeks Who Drink themed pub quiz, and the theme was… Star Trek!!! Awesome! It was a great time. My awesome sister-in-law came to babysit (since the quiz started before the spouse got home from work), I put on my red shirt and communicator badge (my Jadzia Dax uniform, I discovered, doesn’t fit as well post-baby), and headed out to the Chatterbox Pub in St Paul, which also just happens to be one of my favorite watering holes, in my very own St Paul. Good times! There I met up with my friend Natasha and our other teammates, whom I didn’t know before (except one by sight from Fest), but who were all very nice people. My brother and sister-in-law were playing as well in Vegas. Wish we could have all played together, but alas. My team did rock, though. We called our team the “Spock Stars.” There were some hard questions. Some of them I knew, some I did not but others did, and some, none of us did. After the first 3 rounds, we had only got 2 wrong and were in 3rd place, but by the end we ended up in 6th place (out of 14 teams). But, as one person put it, we won, because we were hanging out together having fun! And it was a very fun time indeed.

Tonight I was invited to go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show with some Festies, but decided to decline because the show doesn’t start until 11, and sine the spouse is on day shift, I have to be up when the baby wakes up (usually between 6-7am). But it would have been a good time I’m sure!

Tomorrow I have plans to meet my BFF Kelly and her son (my godson), who is about 6 months older than my son. We’re gonna let the boys have a little play date and catch up.

So many social activities for this introvert! It helps that Friday I worked from home, so I had some good, solid alone time while the kiddo was at daycare. Yes, I was working, but I was still alone, and that is very refreshing. There were even a good couple hours of complete silence around me, except the sound of my work on the computer, while the dogs were napping. Lovely!

Also, as it turns out, I realized that recently I’ve been hanging out with Festies outside of Fest. Like socially, not just at Fest-related things like band or Terp practice. This is the first time I can really say that, and it’s kind of cool.

Mama Alone Time

This evening, my son is at my sister-in-law’s. My spouse is at work. What am I doing? Whatever I damn well please!

Don’t get me wrong, I love my family more than anything. Being a mom is awesome. For the most part, it turns out that being a mom supersedes being an introvert (of course it does), and it is not difficult to put my child’s needs before my own. And I do sort of get alone time on the evenings when the spouse is working 2nd shift, because L goes to bed at 7pm. So I have some down time to my self. But I’m not totally free– I can’t leave the house. So every now and then, I start to get a bit twitchy for some real alone time, when I can really do whatever I want. Even if what I want is just to sit at home, anyway.

 

2014 Ren Fest Recap

Fest has come and gone, without so much as one blog post on the topic for me. Time for a recap!

Overall, it was a pretty good year at Fest. There was a little bit more strife within the band than last year, due in part to the fact that we had made the decision, prior to Fest opening, that this would be our last year together as Hardtack Jack. It was an amicable decision, no hurt feelings or anything, but I the fact that we knew we wouldn’t be together as a group next year led to, I think, a bit of apathy and lack of musical energy, as well as some conflict and tension around people feeling out options for next year. But all in all, we still got along fairly well, and I had a pretty good season.

It’s hard to write about Fest in retrospect, especially almost a month after closing weekend. There were some huge parking snafus due to increased mining. I didn’t get caught in the worst of them, and the lesser snafus don’t seem important now. I do worry for what will happen next year, as a lot of patrons were genuinely and understandably pissed off about the parking this year. My understanding is that next year they plan to work with a trained traffic specialist to get things organized better. If they do that, I think things will be fine.

Next year may be the last year on the current site. We’ll see. While I would be really sad to see the current site go, as I have lots of good memories of the space and structures themselves, it would be nice to have a fresh start on a new site where they could plan for things like parking, building to code, etc.

As to what I’ll do next year, I have had a couple of offers to join different musical groups, but I think I am going to audition as a solo flute player. That will allow me to be part time– like only Saturdays– and also to rehearse on my own time. Both of those things will make Fest a lot more compatible with parenthood. And while I really, really had fun being with a band, I kind of miss being able to play more flutey things instead of mainly fairly simple breaks and intros and the like. I will miss singing, and I do worry that, being a solo act and an introvert, I’ll be lonely and won’t feel like a part of the community. But I think (I hope) that being with groups for the last 5 years has given me enough of a foundation that I know enough people in the community well enough to feel a part of it without my own little “family” to belong to.

Some memorable moments from this year’s run:

-Getting to know a few people a bit at Fest Friends. I joined because I needed somewhere private to pump (joy of joys), but it had the added perks of: somewhere to stow my crap besides the upstairs of Bad Manor, free lemonade and sometimes treats, a lovely privy with a FAN in it (awesome on hot days!) and a warm-water sink, and oh yeah, camaraderie.

-When the Musical Blades came over after their show opposite us on Treetop Stage, and sang “Until We Meet Again” on our stage during our show.

-Being a part of the morning Queen’s Gate musician brigade. We always have fun. If next year there are still 2 gates, I would like to play with those folks again even though I won’t be in a band.

-Playing “Hanging With the Bard.” I’ve always thought that game/act was super clever, so finally I went and played the game. It was quite fun.

-Musician’s Jam at Troubador Stage, and even leading a song (“Raglan Road”) on my brand new wooden flute. (Though really only Gabe played along; it’s hard to jam to instrumental-led pieces.)

-Meeting/getting to know some Festies that I didn’t previously know.

-Dancing and playing with Terpsichory a few times.

-Playing for a rained-in crowd at Folkstone Pub about 6 times in the first 5 weeks (and playing at Folkstone in general).

But my favorite memory of all was bringing my son out on Fest Friday. I took the day off of work and since our band hadn’t committed to performing on Friday, I entered on a ticket and just hung out. L and I listened to some of my friends jamming at the wine booth, then played along with Allen-a-Dale with a maraca. L was fascinated by the guys playing guitar, etc. He was more interested in putting the maraca in his mouth than shaking it. 😀 Then we went and saw the elephants, petted goats and looked at other animals, then hung out in Irish Cottage for a bit. Then we found a nice shady spot to just chill for awhile, then ate lunch (me, then him) and then he fell asleep and slept in his stroller while I hung out at Fest Friends. We watched SkyVault Theater’s full show, wandered around a bit more, and then headed out. Great day! It was so fun hanging out with him at one of my favorite places in the world, that means so much to me, and showing it all to him for the first time.

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Ye Olde Selfie

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Cutest baby at the Festival

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Photo by Larry Edwards

On Being an Introverted Momma

The day I found out I was pregnant with my son was one of the happiest of my life. I was so excited to be a mom. I was ready for pregnancy discomforts, poopy diapers, and big changes to my husband’s and my lifestyle. Even labor didn’t sound so bad. I was ready to go through all of those things that would transform me into a mother.

But I had some worries as well. Of course, I had the typical “big” worries– what if I miscarry? What if my baby’s not healthy? But I have to say, a bit to my surprise given my history of anxiety and being a worry wart, I was generally a pretty calm mom-to-be. The “worries” that were on my mind most often were minute compared to the “big” worries, and much less scary, but still I found myself thinking about them a lot. I just wasn’t sure how I’d handle them.

One of these concerns was sleep. I love my sleep! How was I going to deal with the sleepless nights, no more sleeping in, etc? The answer is, the same way all new parents handle it– just by getting by day to day, and eventually you (kind of) get used to it. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

The other thing I was worried about was my precious “I time”– my name for the alone time I needed to recharge my introvert self. (Get it, like “me time,” but “I” for introvert?) I found myself getting titchy after a couple of weeks with limited “I time.” How was I possibly going to get by when I was NEVER alone? When the time my spouse was at work, that used to be my time to recharge, alone in the house, would become the time when I had to care for the baby on my own? Strangely enough, that hasn’t really been an issue at all. It helps that the baby goes to sleep usually by 6 or 6:30, so I still have evenings to get my down time in. But that never would have been enough for my pre-mom self. Somehow now, it just is. It’s amazing how motherhood changes you in ways you never would have imagined.

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My little guy seems very extroverted so far. Sure doesn’t get that from me!

In-home Medical Treatments

Well, here I am at almost 37 weeks pregnant. I kind of can’t believe that in about 3 weeks, our son will be born and I’ll have my body back to myself. But I can’t wait!! Aside from finally meeting our baby, I am so excited to be able to tie my shoes, wear my wedding rings again, wear normal clothes, not snore, eat sushi, drink wine, and be comfortable when I sleep. 

Between now and then, though, I’m getting iron treatments by IV to get my ferritin (iron stores) up. My doctor informed me that they were extremely low, and I was taking about the maximum amount of iron by oral supplement that a person can possibly absorb in a day. And my body apparently wasn’t absorbing it well enough. Therefore, the IV infusions. I have to get 5 infusions over the course of 14 days– two are done already. I’m actually glad to be doing it, because I was having a hard time taking all that iron (it’s hard on the stomach), and I was feeling pretty drained a lot of the time and having crazy restless legs. After 2 treatments, I already feel more energetic, and the restless legs seem to be a bit better too.

The thing I don’t care for about the IV infusions is that for some reason the nurse comes to my house to do it. I don’t know why– I’m certainly not homebound, and I would actually prefer to go to the clinic, but I wasn’t given another option. So a stranger comes to my house, brings a bunch of medical equipment, and puts an IV in my arm. 

Now, getting the IV isn’t exactly pleasant. The first time, I almost passed out. I think because she first had to take 2 vials of blood, and well, being anemic already, that made me a bit light headed. Once I got over that, the treatment was fine. My second treatment was better– she didn’t have to take blood and I didn’t almost pass out. She had to put it in my wrist because the doctor had just taken blood from the inside of my elbow that morning, and the IV hurt a bit more in the wrist than in the arm. But even the IV isn’t the most unpleasant part of this treatment.

The worst part is having a stranger in my house, making my dogs crazy, spreading her shit out everywhere, and requiring me to make small talk while the IV drips. Ugh. The first treatment was especially bad, because my spouse was sleeping, so I had to try to keep the dogs quiet… which didn’t work. For my second treatment, my husband was home and he took the dogs with him to the basement, which was much better. Also the first treatment was longer, due to my almost fainting and the fact that she had to do a bunch of paperwork for me. Finally, she brought all the stuff over on the first visit, and there was medical shit eeeevvverywhere. I did not care for that. Especially because she evidently dropped/lost a bag of caps or something that go to the IV. My husband found it and threw it away, but what if the dogs had found it first? And what if it was needles!!

Luckily, the second treatment went much better. The dogs were less annoying with my husband there. It wasn’t nearly as long of a visit, which meant less small talk. And we didn’t have to small talk the whole time, because she was doing some work on her computer while I was being infused. And she’d left all the pertinent medical crap at our house, so it was all contained in this one bag and wasn’t spread out everywhere. So as far as having a stranger in my house for an extended amount of time goes, it wasn’t so bad. But still. I’ll be glad when the next 3 treatments are done!

I Can Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound

Everyone has a preconceived notion of who you are. They’re never right. No one knows you. You are your own mystery. Tell them. Scream it. Make them believe you could leap tall buildings in a single bound if the thought occurred to you.
-Reid Peifer

This quote is from an essay entitled “Passion” that was printed in Violent Gusts of Wind, a kind of journal published in my high school as a sort of alternative to our official school paper, Breezes. When I first read this essay, it really spoke to me, and I’ve thought about it a lot ever since.

As I got older and learned a little bit about the MBTI/typology, I realized that this quote is especially relevant for introverts, and even more so for me and my fellow INFJs, as one attribute of that type is that we are often enigmatic and hard to get to know. Just the other day a friend posted a link to this Buzzfeed article, in which the author assigns a sort of spirit animal to each personality type. The animal she chose for INFJs was the wolf, with the following description:

INFJs are value-driven individuals who tend to remain mysterious and complex even after you’ve become close to one. They are often creative and inspired individuals. They are good at perceiving emotions and are sensitive to the feelings of others, but they are not very prone to revealing much of themselves until they trust someone completely. That said, they are intensely interested in the well-being of others and are often seen as protectors as well as natural leaders.

This is a pretty simple explanation of an INFJ, but it really resonates with me, at least with the first part. I’ve had many people tell me that I’m a complex individual, that just when they think they’ve got me “figured out,” I do something that doesn’t fit with their perception of who I am. Usually, I think of this as a great compliment. Everyone has their own preconceived notion of who I am. They’re never right.
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“When Collaboration Kills Creativity”

I’m finally getting around to blogging about chapter 3 of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.  This chapter, entitled “When Collaboration Kills Creativity,” talks about the phenomenon that Cain calls “the New Groupthink.” This phenomenon, Cain explains, “elevates teamwork above all else” (75). It is responsible for the fact that, according to a recent survey, 91% of high-level managers think teamwork is the key to success. It is responsible for the transformation of workplaces to open floor plans, in which 70% of today’s employees toil. It is responsible for the “pod” model in elementary schools, consisting of pushing desks together to form little groups. It is, in short, responsible for many of the things that make an introvert’s school days and professional lives miserable.

Cain theorizes that although the ideals New Groupthink had been on the rise for quite some time, the catalyst that led to its crystallization was, ironically, that introvert refuge, the Internet. The Internet produced the likes of Linux, Wikipedia, MoveOn.org, and other such collectives endeavors that were “exponentially greater than the sum of their parts [and] were so awe-inspiring that we came to revere the hive mind” (78). But, Cain points out, “if you had gathered the same people who created Linux, installed them in a giant conference room for a year, and asked them to devise a new operating system, it’s doubtful that anything so revolutionary would have occurred” (80). In short, many of the things that make online collaboration so fruitful—asynchronicity, anonymity, isolation, flexibility—are lost when the same type of collaboration is attempted on a face-to-face basis.

Indeed, working in solitude is an important skill, and often more effective than working in a group. A well-known study by research psychologist Anders Ericsson found that musicians who spend time practicing alone, rather than in a group, are more likely to become elite musical performers. This principle carries over into other fields, from chess players to elite athletes. Ericsson theorizes that practice time alone is so powerful because it is the only time one can engage in “Deliberate Practice,” which, according to his research, is the key to exceptional achievement. In Deliberate Practice, Ericsson contends, “you identify tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly” (81). Since these things are largely individual, it makes sense that Deliberate Practice is best done as a solitary activity.

Cain points out, however, that “exceptional performance depends not only on the groundwork we lay through Deliberate Practice; it also requires the right working conditions” (83). And these working conditions may not be those favored by the New Groupthink. In fact, there is significant evidence suggesting that independent work is more fruitful than teamwork. A study called the Coding War Games sought to determine the effect that social interaction, such as in a workplace with an open floor plan, affected productivity. In this study, designed to discover what differentiates the best computer programmers from the worst, over 600 developers from 92 companies were assigned to develop a program working in his or her normal office space. Each developer was to work independently.

The study revealed that the best developers were 10 times better than the worst developers. Factors that one might assume would account for this huge performance gap, such as years of experience, salary, time spent working, did not explain the outcome. It turns out that the majority of the top performers worked for companies that “gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the top performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38% of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly” (84).

Allow me to repeat those statistics, as I find them amazing:

62% of the top performers said they had adequate privacy at work, compared to only 19% of the worst performers.

76% of the worst performers said people often interrupt them needlessly at work, compared to only 38% of the top performers.

These statistics make it hard to see what’s attractive about an open-plan office—especially given that another study identified interruption as one of the biggest barriers to productivity! And there are even more reasons that open floor plans are a bad idea. People working in open-plan offices are exposed to more germs, which leads to more sick days and the more frequent misery of not feeling well. They are exposed to more noise, which raises cortisol and activates the body’s fight-or-flight mode. Not only do open-plan offices reduce productivity, but they also “make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure” (84). No wonder they are also associated with high staff turnover!

The chapter goes on to discuss other ways in which collaboration decreases productivity, such as group brainstorming, which, evidence suggests, doesn’t actually work. But the section on privacy and quiet in the workplace was of most interest to me, since this is something I struggle with a lot at work. I wrote before about Working From Home, so I won’t rehash that here, but suffice it to say that conditions at home make me much more likely to be among the “top performers” than conditions in my office.