The Tyranny of the Extroverts

The Tyranny of the Extroverts

by Allen B. Downey
Fall 2003

Society rewards extroverts. They get the job, the money, the girl (or boy), and the front page. Fortune 500 companies are run by 499 extroverts, plus Bill Gates. There are 435 extroverts in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate, two from each state. In fact, the only introvert in the District of Columbia is David Souter.

Olin College rewards extroverts, too. Our admissions criteria, and the structure of Candidate's Weekend, tend to select for extroversion, and our emphasis on collaborative, active learning tends to encourage it.

This is not an accident. The current draft of the Olin College Strategic Plan explains that one of the goals of the college is to address "the need for change to enable engineers to be more effective in their careers."

The Plan cites two studies that try to identify the skills engineers need to be more effective. The top three priorities of the American Society for Engineering Education are (1) team skills, (2) communication skills, and (3) leadership. The National Science Foundation agrees; engineers need, "communication and interpersonal skills, better teamwork skills, [etc.]"

At first reading, this is motherhood and apple pie. Of course these skills would help. Everyone needs communications skills, right?

Maybe, but I think there is a danger in placing too much emphasis on skills that are so tightly linked with personality traits. Sitting alone in the dining hall? No interpersonal skills! No good at schmoozing? Communication skills! You did your homework by yourself? You need teamwork skills!

If "interpersonal skills" really means skills, then I can't object, but I'm afraid that in the wrong hands it means something more like "interpersonal style", and in particular it means the style of extroverts. I have the same concern about "communication skills." People have different styles; if my style isn't the same as yours, does that mean I lack skills?

As for teamwork, well, I'm sure there are some problems that are best solved with collaborative, active learning, but I am equally sure that there are problems you can't solve with your mouth open.

I shouldn't have to say this, but there is a place in the world for introverts. Show me the ten most innovative minds of the 20th Century and I will show you ten introverts. From Einstein to Wittgenstein, not one of them could carry a conversation if you put handles on it. I wouldn't want to eat dinner with any of them, but I'm grateful they lived and died before the psychopharmaceutical industry had the chance to fix them.

In "The Math Gene", Keith Devlin gives the best description I have seen of what it is like to do mathematics: "As a mathematician, I create a symbolic world in my mind and then enter that world."

Andrew Wiles spent seven years in that world, and he came back with a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. When an interviewer from NOVA asked him how he did it, he said, "I carried this problem around in my head basically the whole time. I would wake up with it first thing in the morning, I would be thinking about it all day, and I would be thinking about it when I went to sleep. Without distraction, I would have the same thing going round and round in my mind." (

There's nothing wrong with taking time to think.

Engineers come in all flavors, so I am not going to generalize, but is it possible that some people are attracted to engineering because they find that, at least generally, things are more interesting than people? Can we agree that many of the people who like math and science are also people who like reading, and thinking about things, and programming, and designing things, and puzzles, and solving problems? And can we stipulate that at least some of these people are awkward in social situations, or struggle with the challenges of public speaking?

If these people exist (and who are we kidding) then the question is, what are we going to do with them? Instead of changing the more introverted engineers to make them fit into the world of extroverts, maybe we should be looking for ways to take advantage of the particular styles and abilities of introverts. And instead of trying to fix them, maybe we should be making sure that smart, interesting people who happen to be introverts get the same respect and recognition as their extroverted counterparts.

I hope that Olin gives students the opportunity to develop interpersonal, communication and leadership skills, but I also hope we find a way to value those skills without disparaging people who don't come to them naturally. And I hope we value and develop other skills, like independence, focus, persistence, deep thought and careful reflection, which might not be as natural for extroverts.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, just as not everyone wants to be an engineer. In general, your personality and talents make you well suited for some jobs and ill suited for others. Fortunately, you only have to do one job well, not all of them, to be successful.

A friend of mine was at my house the other day when one of my cats jumped in his lap. "I love cats," he said, "I just wish they would come when you call them." I said, "They have those. They're called dogs."

Update (February 2005): I'm not the only one who has noticed these things. Jonathan Rauch wrote an article in The Atlantic that actually preceded mine (but I hadn't read it when I wrote mine). His article also cites this book.