Are introverts misunderstood? Wildly. That, it appears, is our lot in life.
It is estimated that between one third and one half of the general population are introverts, and the ratio is likely higher still among so-called “creative types.” If you’re not an introvert yourself, you probably know some introverts, and it’s quite possible that some people you may believe are extraverted, are in fact misunderstood introverts, or introverts who may believe that in order to be successful they must pretend to be extraverts (or at least force themselves to act more social than they are in fact comfortable being).
Being on the extreme end of introversion, I spend the majority of my time alone, both when I’m in the field and when I’m in my office, and I almost never miss the company of people. When in public, even if I enjoy my time among people, I always look forward to returning to the peace of solitude. This may seem anathema to those who consider socializing, teamwork, and/or some tribal affiliation, as core aspects of their lives and personalities, so perhaps it’s best that I start by explaining what introversion is, and what it is not.
In contrast to extraverts, whose primary interests are generally outside themselves and who are energized by social interactions, introverts easily become overstimulated after spending too much time with other people (“too much” being different for each of us), and our main preoccupation is our own inner life. As the expression goes, we live inside our heads. While extraverts thrive on such things as lively conversations, competition, popularity, collaboration, and any opportunity to hang out with others, introverts need frequent and prolonged quiet times to ourselves.
Although introversion and shyness often overlap, they are not the same thing. Introverted people can be every bit as outgoing, talkative, and self-confident in social situations, as extraverts. It’s just that at some point, no matter how good the company, we become “peopled-out,” feel emotionally drained, and need solitary time to recharge before we’re ready to spend time with people again. Shy people, on the other hand, avoid social interaction not necessarily because they want to be alone, but for fear of judgment or disapproval. Although less common, some extraverts can also be shy, and some introverts can be gregarious, “Type-A” people; we just can’t sustain it for very long.
How important is introversion/extraversion as a personality trait? According to Susan Cain, author of, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “the single most important aspect of personality—the ‘north and south of temperament’ […]—is where we fall on the introvert-extravert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them.”
Introverts and extraverts often have a hard time understanding each other, sometimes resulting in unfortunate perceptions. Extraverts may regard introverts’ penchant to withdraw from social activities as arrogant or aloof, while introverts may regard extraverts as vain, insensitive, or lacking in depth. Extraverts tend to assume implicitly that everyone enjoys socializing, collaboration, competition, and vigorous conversation, like they do, and rarely even consider the possibility that another person may not relish such activities as much (or at all) as they do. Introverts, on the other hand, often fail to understand why extraverts feel the incessant need to talk so much, not realizing that talking is part of the way extraverts think: throwing ideas out even if not fully considered, so they can hash them with others and leverage them as conversation pieces (as opposed to introverts who tend to first consider, and sometimes to over-think, their ideas carefully before expressing them).
Just as extraverts may find it difficult to understand how introverts can spend the majority of their time alone in quiet contemplation, introverts may find it hard to believe the results of a 2014 study in which one quarter of women, and two-thirds of men (obviously on the extreme end of extraversion), preferred receiving electric shocks to spending even just a few minutes alone with their thoughts.
There’s no lack of evidence that our society is generally biased in favor of extraverts. Studies show that people who are more talkative generally are perceived by others to be smarter, more interesting, more likeable, better leaders, and even better-looking. Extraverts also tend to be happier than introverts (introverts’ tendency to ruminate and to over-think, while giving us an advantage in such things as creativity and academic performance, comes at a cost in terms of emotional wellbeing).
Social media culture seems to exacerbate the discrepancy, not only rewarding and promoting such things as popularity, competition, self-promotion, and volume over substance, but also creating the appearance that being good at such things is essential to being “successful.” Those who spend considerable time on social sites, may end up losing sight of the much-greater world of opportunities and rewards that exists outside of them, and may even come to believe that the social media bubble is all there is, and that therefore one must play by its rules of competition and influence. Understandably, this (mistaken) perception may cause great anxiety to any introvert who happens to believe it, or who feels obligated to yield to peer pressure.
A word of advice to introverts: it’s futile for you to attempt to compete with extraverts in areas such as popularity and self-promotion. Not only do extraverts have the home-court advantage and take great pleasure in such things, but even if you do manage to compete successfully, the experience is not likely to be enjoyable to you and may lead to frustration and anxiety. Rest assured, there are many of us introverts who are doing just fine, both as professionals and as hobbyists, both in the social media world and outside of it. The key to finding fulfillment in any endeavor is, as the saying goes, to play for the love of the game, and we don’t all have to play the same game.
Extraverts thrive on attention and competition. They play to “win,” meaning they are focused on the end-result: how popular it makes them and how their work measures up to others’ by public opinion. Give extraverts a copious dose of social media likes, awards, “epic” compositions, or tips on how to make their images more impactful, more popular, quicker to capture, process, and post, or more likely to sell, and they can be entirely happy and satisfied with their work and the attention it garners them. In photography, this means that the ideal “game” for extraverts is competing for attention and sharing the experience with as many other people as possible: making photographs that are as popular and eye-catching as they can, striving to win awards and recognition, and engaging in prolonged exchanges with fellow photographers.
On the other hand, introverts who prefer solitude and quiet contemplation, tend to value not only the end-results of our work, but also the quality of our inner experience when working. Give us quiet time in a beautiful place, a private setting to process our work in, slowly and meticulously, perhaps listening to quiet music and slowly savoring a glass of wine, and we spend hours doing it without even realizing how much time has passed. Our images may ultimately be less impactful, but that’s because we value them not only based on how others respond to them, but also on how creative, intimate, personal, unique, or expressive, they are, how challenging they were to make, and the private memories they arouse. While we certainly enjoy positive feedback from others, we don’t crave it to a point where it’s worth giving up our deeper, slower, more contemplative experiences just to gain a bump in popularity. In photography, the ideal “game” for an introvert, is not necessarily competition or popularity, but one that focuses as much, or more, attention on the process of making photographs, rather than on how others may respond to them once they are done and made public.
To an extravert, a missed photo opportunity may seem like a net-loss, gaining them nothing in terms of social value. An introvert, on the other hand, may have a wonderful time experimenting, tinkering, and contemplating photographic possibilities, even if nobody knows what they were up to, and even if ultimately unsuccessful.
A chatty extravert may talk your ear off about the latest, greatest, rootinest, tootinest, shootinest camera, lens, drone, or other kit they use. Don’t bother them with such pointless questions as whether or why they have a practical need for it. It’s something to talk about, to socialize about, to brag about, to proselytize about, to compete about, to argue about. Indulge them. If they come back from an outing with an impressive “great shot” that has the potential to “go viral,” it matters little to them whether it’s creative, expressive, original, or a cover version. On the opposite end, as a quiet introvert, just give me some device that can capture sufficiently good images, no matter its brand, price tag, age, or any other technical trivia, and leave me alone to commune with nature, to contemplate ways of expressing my thoughts and emotions in creative compositions, to experiment, to savor my experience in peace, and to forget for a while that other people even exist, and it matters much less to me whether other people will like, or even understand, my photographs.
To an extravert, a good photograph is the goal; to an introvert, a good photograph is the byproduct of a good photographic experience. Whether you are introverted or extraverted, pretending, or convincing yourself, that you must try to adopt a goal that does not accord with your personality, is a sure way to frustration. Surprisingly, this works in both directions: an introvert trying to compete for attention or volume at the cost of giving up their quiet time, likely will become anxious; and an extravert trying to force themselves to seek some deeper meaning in prolonged solitary meditation, will likely become bored. Don’t try to play the other team’s game. Sometimes it’s more enjoyable to play, and sometimes it’s more fun to be a spectator.
An extravert may spend hours happily and passionately engaged in online conversations, arguments, and discussions, no matter the topic, so long as there are other people to interact with. To an introvert, the same time may be far more enjoyable if spent in a quiet setting, reading, daydreaming, studying, or just lost in thought. The point is this: we’re all mortals, and we each only have so much time. Use your time in ways that are most rewarding to you, not ways you may think you should because some authority figure says so. A football player may believe they have your best interest in mind when they tell you that improving your running speed will make you a better player. But that advice is entirely useless if your game is chess.
Photography offers many games to choose from, and one is not necessarily more “right” than another just because it happens to be more popular or glamorous. We are each free to practice photography in a manner that best fits our own individual personality, for whatever reasons and rewards are most meaningful to us. Certainly, there may also be broad areas of overlapping interests for both introverts and extraverts. Undoubtedly, many of us share a love for places and things we feature in our work, and an appreciation for natural beauty. Most of us find some value in sharing our work, albeit perhaps not to the same extent; but just because many of us refer to ourselves as landscape photographers, wildlife photographers, or any other kind of photographers, doesn’t mean that in adopting some label we cease to be unique—and often very different—individuals. All of us photograph because we love something about the photographic endeavor, but that something doesn’t have to be the same for everyone. Only a fool would practice photography, or any other pursuit engaged in by choice, in a manner that fails to satisfy their reasons for doing it in the first place.
Gear talk, popularity, even sales, are just some of the games of photography, but if you don’t enjoy them, you don’t have to play them. If you’re a social butterfly, you may thrive on drawing attention and accolades; if you’re a reader, you may enjoy gaining expertise in the history of the medium, or studying the philosophies of great photographers, or the science and art of visual expression. If you’re a writer, you may find your niche in authoring articles or books; if you’re an avid hiker, the camera can be a faithful companion on your explorations. You can be a celebrity, or a great teacher, or a scholar, or an artist, if such things fit your temperament, but you don’t have to be any of these things and still find at least some aspects of photography deeply satisfying. You don’t have to do it all.
Competition is one of the more common games in photography. If you’re an extrovert who thrives on “winning,” by all means compete. But if you’re an introvert who doesn’t enjoy competition, then don’t bother with it. You’ll be no worse for it. In the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, “The challenges of competition can be stimulating and enjoyable. But when beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.” For me, competition is not fun and doesn’t motivate me. I am not, and feel no need to promote myself as, an “award-winning” photographer.
As an introvert, photography has always appealed to me in great part because it’s not a team sport—it’s something I can do by myself, in places and times of my choosing, and for no other reason than to satisfy my own sensibilities. Impressing others, in itself, has never been my goal. If that’s all I was after, I could “shoot” a couple of dozen beautiful images almost any day, within minutes of my home. But there’s a reason why I sometimes come back from even multi-day trips without any photographs to show for it. There’s a reason I don’t bother carrying an ultra-wide lens in my kit. There’s a reason you will not find iconic compositions in my portfolios (that is, other than those compositions that have become iconic because of me). There’s a reason I don’t have social media apps on my phone and don’t spend much time trying to market myself to win fans. That reason is that just making “epic” photographs, without deeper meaning and a deeper experience, is boring to me. Without deeper, solitary, contemplative, experiences—the things that satisfy my introverted nature—there would be little to motivate me to photograph at all.
No doubt you’ve heard from extraverted influencers about the importance (to them) of playing the popularity game: being vocal, visible, and busy. If those things make you anxious, or just don’t fit your personality, allow me to share with you my game. Being introverted and reclusive, I find more reward in the challenges of making creative (i.e., original) work than in how many people like my work. Most of the time other people spend building an online following, I spend outside in my favorite places, doing my favorite things: experiencing the natural world in peace and solitude. If I return from an outing with no images, I still cherish the things I’ve seen and felt, and can leverage them in my work by writing about them. To me, time spent thinking, hiking, camping, studying, reading, and writing about photography, is more profitable—literally and figuratively—than any photograph I might make. At this point in my photographic journey, I find pride and pleasure not in convincing anyone that I’m a “good” photographer, but in being an artist, exploring the boundaries of visual expression in photography, and gathering experiences and thoughts I find worth expressing. Of course, none of this means that what is rewarding to me, will also be rewarding to you, or vice versa. It does mean that there is more than one game in town, and that you are free to explore and to find your own, or even to create one for yourself.
After publishing the article, several people (including Matt Payne and Max Waugh below) commented about this sentence, which in hindsight I agree I did not phrase very well:
“To an extravert, a good photograph is the goal; to an introvert, a good photograph is the byproduct of a good photographic experience.”
I have no doubt that extraverts do very much value their experiences—both those that fit their social temperament, and those we all share as photographers and naturalists—and that many such experiences can ensue out of practicing photography and interacting with fellow photographers. Perhaps a better way to express what I meant is this: those who place greater value on the end-product, the photograph, as a means to popularity and social interactions may be content with a good photograph even if the experience of making it was not rewarding in itself. Contrasting this with my own feelings: a photograph that was not enjoyable for me to make is not one I will consider pursuing or sharing with others, no matter how pleasing it may be in any other way. I would gladly trade the opportunity to make such a photograph for a more meaningful experience even if resulting in a lesser photograph, or no photographs at all.