I loved the movie The Omega Man when I was a kid. Charlton Heston is seemingly the only man left in the world. He spends his days scavenging the city for goods (sometimes really good goods), and every night he barricades himself inside his fancy house to protect himself from the apocalyptic mutants known as The Family that ravage the Earth. He’s safe outside in the daytime because the mutants cannot tolerate bright light, and at night he lights up his urban castle with klieg lights to keep them away.
I felt like that was a pretty sweet deal. Sure the homicidal monsters outside the fortress walls were a nuisance, but it seemed like a small price to pay to not have to ever deal with other people. It was the ultimate version of locking yourself in your bedroom and putting on headphones when your relatives or parents’ friends came over.
During breakfast, I used to build a less robust fortress around me made out of cereal boxes to block out anyone who might dare try interacting with me during the most miserable meal of the day.
I know what you’re thinking: Sounds like you were a real loser as a kid. But I can assure you, I still am.
I felt the same way about Tom Hanks in Castaway many years later, when I was ostensibly a grown-up. It just goes to show you, I thought, even after a horrible tragedy like that plane crash, something good can happen like being stranded on a deserted island. And your sole companion, Wilson, is so refreshingly unencumbered by speech.
Some people have a hard time interacting with other people and prefer being alone with their thoughts. They are often referred to as introverts when their backs are not turned. Lately they have been getting a fair amount of favorable attention partly, I think, because of the popular book Quiet, and also because of the Internet. (It’s a lovely medium for introverts. You can just scream into the ether then run away and hide.) And while I am all for people extolling the virtues of my people, one should be cautious about excusing away one’s behavior with “That’s just the way I am.” Yes, find the strength in who you are, but beware of complacency.
Growth is hard. It comes from forcing yourself to be uncomfortable. This is true if you want to be really good at math, writing, painting, or making small-talk at a cocktail party. Some people may have an earlier head start with certain disciplines, so it seems to come easily to them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t develop it because it doesn’t come naturally to you. If you want (or need) to be good at something, you have got to put in the time and effort. You’ve got to work at it and build up the skill. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches us, as your skill increases with highly challenging activities, your anxiety decreases and arousal and even joy (or “flow”) increases.
Building a coalition, creating a supportive social network, meeting likeminded and not-likeminded people, even casual interactions are incredibly important not only for professional growth but the human experience in general. It’s comforting behind those cereal boxes, but sometimes being comfortable is not the best thing for us. Believe it or not, generally we all feel better when we’ve had some level of social interaction. It’s important to make the effort to have an exchange of ideas or present your own thoughts and discoveries for the same reason it’s important to grow in other disciplines that will help you make a positive impact and have a fuller life.
The same holds true for extroverts. Although some may not see their aversion to introversion as a shortcoming, it certainly can be. An introvert’s opportunities to develop social acuity are abundant and painfully clear. Extraversion, on the other hand, is often assumed to be everyone’s aspiration. Introversion is perceived as lacking something while extroversion is an abundance of that same thing. What is there to develop when you are what everyone else wants to become? But of course one can just as easily rely too heavily on extraversion: flitting from one meeting to the next, booking lunches every day, constantly being on the phone with someone, and never taking a beat to just stop and think (or not think) on one’s own. There is power and goodness in solitude.
For a kid growing up in Minnesota with dozens of cousins who were talented performers and gregarious (shall we say) orators anxious to bring me into the fold, The Family in The Omega Man resonated with me. After a few decades of perspective, I can see now that while I still may not want to be one of the mutants, there is good in them and putting up barriers (made out of klieg lights and razor wire, cereal boxes and books, or iPhones and video games) is not productive. Reach out. Talk to other people who are not like you. There is life out there to live (on your own and with others).