Thursday, March 14, 2013
“…Magic can’t happen unless you’re in the mix. . . ”
This post’s title comes from a Wall Street Journal article by Eric Hellweg of the Harvard Business Review, who urged those attending the recent SXSW conferences and festivals to load up on networking magic and expect to stay up until 2-3 am (saying “you can sleep when you’re dead”). Being “in the mix” might be an extrovert’s paradise, but I was exhausted just reading Hellweg’s breathless commentary.
This made me reflect on how Etmooc’s stated and implied support for connectedness, sharing, collaboration, project-based learning, and even openness, might be related to a western cultural preference for extroversion—to “being in the mix” as the expected norm. I thought even more about this after browsing a link posted by Alec Couros on Twitter that explicitly challenged the assumed effectiveness of collaboration for creative practice.
So I watched When Collaboration Kills Creativity by dwlFilms and serendipitously noticed to the right of the screen a link to a TED talk by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. A short RSA animate presentation The Power of Quiet summarizes her claim (that we need, and need to value, both approaches). These presentations on the importance of solitude for creativity and the neglected power of introversion led me to think about my own journey and what we have been exploring in Etmooc.
The introverted facilitator
Beginning in the early 1980’s, after volunteering to organize and help manage meetings of the religious and citizen action groups to which I belonged, I received requests to assist other groups in a professional capacity—to facilitate non-profit organizations’ annual meetings , spiritual retreats, leadership and team building events, anti-nuclear protests—even musical groups seeking an outside perspective in managing conflict. I took advantage of all the professional development opportunities I could find, gamely filled out personality inventories, and came to identify myself as a strongly introverted, intuitive type. I believe my preference for listening, and “checking out” with members what seemed to be transpiring in the groups, contributed much to my success as a facilitator.
Group facilitators face the challenge of ensuring all voices are heard. The extroverts claim as much space as they can (asserting, sharing, risking, imagining out loud), and the introverts hold back (reflecting, silently questioning or affirming,not sharing partly-formed ideas, often ready to speak when the extroverts have moved on). Referencing the interaction norms agreed upon at the outset of an event, I would gently but clearly interrupt a dominant talker, and let the silence leave space for others. I remember one loquacious church leader (who appeared to have agreed to the norms) objecting when I asked that he not speak again until any others wishing to speak had a chance. (Perhaps he thought that, as the leader, he was exempt). I reminded him of the agreement and he retreated with tightly folded arms.
Speaking to think vs. thinking to speak
As I recall the Myers-Briggs type-indicator, for introverts, the most real and important spaces are interior, and when considering a new problem or question the preference is to explore in private (sometimes for a long time) before presenting a well-prepared product (or more finely tuned question) to the wider world. As the saying goes, the introvert “thinks in order to speak.” This interior work is not visible to others, and thus is often not acknowledged (or may be labeled negatively as “withholding” or “being unwilling to risk”). For the extrovert, in contrast, the most real and important spaces tend to be exterior. Energized by an audience, they “speak in order to think”—testing out their theories quickly, preferring to share whatever comes to mind without needing a “finished product.” They are sometimes labeled negatively as pushing half-baked ideas on others or acting without thinking things through. Extroverts do take risks by “putting their ideas out there, “ and can face more challenges, but sometimes, if they keep talking, there may be little space for the more reflective types to even voice a challenge or reservation—with sometimes terrible consequences.
The video When Collaboration Kills Creativity critiques a version of “group think” --the negative consequences of a western cultural preference for extroverted participation--and the exaggerated (or even false)expectations for creative results to emerge from a primarily social space. Even a situation that seems to reinforce a more introverted norm can actually show how much extroverted engagement tends to be valued over more introverted reflection and quiet.
Sociologist Michael Schwalbe, author of a fine little book titled The Sociologically Examined Life, explores the power of context to shape human interaction using the example of people listening to a speaker in a large lecture hall. At the end of the presentation, the speaker asks: “Does anyone have a question?” The question is met with an uncomfortable silence (until one or two extroverts jump in). Any of us who has delivered a lecture (or attended one) has likely had a similar experience. Schwalbe asks us to consider the ludicrous explanation that everyone in the audience could be afflicted with the disorder of hyperquietism. Why else, he wonders, would the usually loud or assertive extrovert hold back? Drawing attention to an observed pattern in lecture halls, Schwalbe suggests we might find that “people sit quietly when they feel that they are being evaluated for their intelligence, are not participating as equals, and feel that by asking a question, they risk appearing foolish” (p.101).
I thought of Schwalbe’s assessment when listening to the presentation on collaboration killing creativity, in which the dwlFilms narrator identifies “evaluation apprehension” as one of the reasons why such practices as group brainstorming seldom produce quality results. This reminds me too, of some of the synchronous Blackboard Collaborate sessions in Etmooc, where the presenter asks for participation after sharing some content, and almost all of us resist “taking the mic.” We can’t all be introverts (even if 1/3-1/2 of the people queried identify as such). Could all these talented and confident professionals be filled with “evaluation apprehension”? (Several did list some form of this as a reason for not sharing their ideas more publicly). After a “Don’t be shy” exhortation (or two) someone usually does weigh in with a thoughtful observation or question and I imagine the rest of us are relieved (I am). Meanwhile, some lively backchannel chats continue, and we anonymously fill up the white board space rapidly when encouraged to do so—-sometimes without even waiting for directions. Etmooc session leaders have offered wonderful resources, and none present in a “know it all” kind of way. But still we listener/participants resist taking up “air space.” This suggests that we need better ways to engage the energy of listeners following presentations, especially as the speaker/presenter model remains a dominant way to transmit content (and often skills as well).
Context matters. Learning preferences matter. Engage the energy.
Reflecting here on extroversion/introversion in the context of connected learning convinces me of the importance of making space /time for independent reflection and engagement (for example, following any content presentation). More importantly, as I ask my students to commit to an educational adventure where “the community is the curriculum,” it is essential to really value quiet reflection and individual exploration within the framework of community. Little will be gained if teacher-focused individual student performance is exchanged for the expectation of “always being on” and required to continually participate in peer-focused group activities and performances. If extroverts’ outward-focused energies were often untapped in the former, introverts’ energies will certainly be exhausted in the latter.
time for solitary exploration
time for open connection
discipline (from “disciple” -- “to follow”)
to follow what?
a big idea, a nagging question
a provocation that makes your blood boil
Gives new meaning to the magic
that can’t happen
unless you’re in the mix.