When one of my editors emailed me in early 2012, asking if I’d like to interview Susan Cain, I was willing (and grateful for the work) but not terribly excited. After all, we’d be talking about her then-new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
And I’m a card-carrying extrovert.
So I envisioned a conversation where Cain would tell me that my kind is a hindrance to her kind, meaning that we, the outspoken, take up more than our fair share of the communicative bandwidth. And though our conversation did touch on that fact (yes, I said it; guilty as charged) reading her book and having the opportunity to visit with her about it was life changing for me.
How did a book about introverts give me a better understanding of myself? For starters, for the first time in my life it dawned on me that I grew up as the only extrovert in a family of introverts. I was often told to tone it down, that I was being too loud, talking too much, or embarrassing my family by sending my food back because it wasn’t what I ordered. In hindsight, I can see that to some degree I’ve felt fundamentally flawed because I could never see my own reflection in the mirror of my family. The familial introvert/extrovert imbalance wasn’t good or bad; it just was. And since I was the odd (wo)man out, I always just assumed something was wrong with me.
These are the kinds of epiphanies that have been happening in my fifties. They’re little “a-ha” moments that have helped me put one more piece of my identity puzzle into place. In my twenties, thirties and forties, I was so focused on my children, my husband, and all of the epic responsibility that comes with those relationships, I was rarely tuned in to myself. But as I approached fifty, I found myself in a clearing of sorts. My psychic airwaves don’t have as much static as they used to, and as a result I’ve been able to hear frequencies that have long been inaudible to me (if they were ever audible at all.)
And so, as often happens in my line of work, when I interviewed Susan Cain I got some unexpected wisdom from a place I never would’ve thought to look. When I read about the “sensitive” personality in her book, for example, it finally made sense to me why I am so affected by violence and loud noises and bright lights. I thought those were things I just needed to get over, that I should stop wearing my heart on my sleeve, or letting myself be bothered by intense stimuli. But I learned from Cain that “sensitivity” is an inherent trait, just like extroversion and introversion are. There’s a reason I am this way; it’s part of who I am.
What does it mean if a person is “sensitive?” I asked Cain.
“It means that your nervous system and your cognition are open to taking in all experience, whether it’s good or bad,” she said. “Going back to evolution: the reason that a certain portion of humans evolved to be sensitive in this way is that sensitivity is just a different strategy for survival. It’s basically a strategy of looking before you leap and paying close attention to things. You can adopt that particular strategy in all kinds of ways.”
I told Cain that it seemed to me that sensitivity is more of an introverted trait, and that I felt like somehow I didn’t have right to claim it since I’m an extrovert.
“Dr. Elaine Aron has done meticulous research [that indicates] that 30% of sensitive people are extroverts,” said Cain. “She has all kinds of theories about why that might be true.”
Aron, a prominent psychologist and researcher, has written a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Person, which offers extensive scientific evidence that sensitivity is something you’re born with.
In light of this information, a couple of things dawned on me: First, that I am among the 30% of sensitive people who are extroverts. In similar fashion, when it became clear that I was the lone extrovert in my family of origin, I realized that I spent most of my childhood judging myself for not exhibiting more introvert-ish behavior. I could never have measured up to the introvert standard because I wasn’t one. But I thought I was supposed to be.
These fundamental changes in perspective caused a huge shift in both my understanding and acceptance of myself. Today I can see that my expressive, outgoing temperament is probably responsible for much of my career success (I’ve always found it easy to banter with people I’m interviewing or photographing.) And my sensitivity has made it near impossible for me to skim the surface of the deeper questions in life. An incessant need to plumb the depths of things has fueled some of my best writing. It has also driven many of my friends and loved ones crazy.
Last but certainly not least: Cain’s book and my subsequent conversation with her shattered some common misconceptions about introverts, namely that they’re shy (some are, some aren’t); that they’re hermits (Cain, a self-professed introvert, wrote most of her New York Times Bestseller in a café in New York, surrounded by people); and that they don’t enjoy the company of other people (they do; they just get their fill sooner than us extroverts do.)
If nothing else, Quiet will give you a better understanding of the introverts you’re surrounded by. And it may also convince you, as it did me, that introverts are often misunderstood. A quick search on thesaurus.com produced multiple possible synonyms for the word introvert: brooder, egotist, loner, narcissist and wallflower, to name a few. Honestly, I was pretty shocked at the negative connotations of those descriptors. Synonyms for extroverts include gregarious, character, exhibitionist and life-of-the-party. If that small semantic comparison doesn’t convince you that our society is extrovert-centric, I don’t know what will.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I highly recommend Cain’s book—regardless of your personality persuasion. It’s incredibly insightful, and I’m so very grateful that my editor gave me this assignment. Otherwise, I’m pretty certain I never would’ve picked up the book.
To read my original Q & A with Cain in 2012, click here.
The internet is a wonderful place to travel. A few gems from our week. Enjoy!
How did we ever take our eyes off Yoko? In the “surprising but delighted” finds, her collaborative website, My mommy is beautiful. And she is.
Do you follow The Reconstructionists? It’s a fantastic collaboration between illustrator Lisa Congdon and writer Maria Popova. They celebrate the remarkable women— artists, writers, and scientists, and some unsung heroes— who have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture. One of our favorite rest stops to refuel for the journey ahead!
In praise of scarves, not that we’ll admit to trading in belts for a scarf and statement earrings (perhaps we just did).
Power up! Have you seen the trailer for, A Girl Named Elastika from Guillaume Blanchet? “She’s young, dreamy and fearless, she drives cars way too fast, she’s also a yamakasi. She likes adventure, fireworks and unrelenting seas.”
Last week I was on my afternoon walk, working up a too-soon-for-summer-sweat and wondering where the magic was. It’s spring, and it’s already hot. I forgot my sunscreen. I am not ready for sleeveless. It wasn’t the mind clearing, creatively nurturing excursion I had hoped for.
At the park, there were two young men practicing their balancing skills on colorful tightropes, which were attached to the trees.
The ropes weren’t high off the ground, only a few feet. They took turns jumping up, taking a few steps, bouncing, wobbling, waving their arms, and jumping down. One encouraged the other, and they traded places and did it again. They didn’t seem to be restricted by the same rules of gravitational force that kept me grounded.
For a quick moment I imagined asking for a turn. In reality, I knew that wouldn’t end well, so I settled for watching.
I wasn’t the only one. A few children wandered over from the playground to join me. We all watched with more than just a little awe.
Jump up, step, bounce, wobble, wave, bounce, jump down.
After a few cycles, it occurred to me that they actually used the bounce. In fact, they initiated the bounce.
As if it were part of the plan. Part of their practice. They bounced to get the momentum to propel themselves forward.
So they could practice balancing. Wow. Weird.
The bounce that would turn unto a wobble, then the wave, and another bounce, and then the jump down. And repeat.
As they each got stronger, they added more bounces. Higher bounces. Until there were more bounces than wobbles. The bounces seemed to add to their confidence, and to their stability.
I kept on walking, but perhaps with a very quiet, very small, almost imperceptible, bounce in my own step. Wondering, what intentional bouncing might look like in my own life?
PS. Curious? I was too, so I poked around on this tightrope thing, which is really called a slackline. Check out Faith Dickey, aka That Slackline Girl and this beautiful video of her, balancing through nature. Really, take four minutes.
There’s a popular writing prompt called Six-Word Memoirs that’s making the rounds on blogs and magazines. Life in the Boomer Lane, AARP, and NPR have all published pieces encouraging us to craft our own. They are clever and succinct—a story in six well-chosen, magical words. Hemingway did it first, and probably best (though the authenticity of this is in some doubt): “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
I love the idea and have attempted to conjure six word stories for years, with nothing to show for it. My trouble is that I can’t edit down to only six words. I write, I am happy, and every time, I have exceeded my word count. To play by the rules means giving up one or more of my favorites. Listen, I don’t leave food on my plate, or extra wine in my glass, and I certainly don’t leave words that I love behind. While I wish I could be disciplined, it’s just not in my nature.
So I did what any undisciplined, creative person would do… I made my own rules. One line, as many words as needed. Enough to start a story, before it’s time to stop. My memoirs, my rules.
Here are my midlife memoirs. Tell me yours in the comments section. And you have permission to use as many words as you like!
Gray hair, hiding in the browns, pretending to be a wayward blond in low light.
I think it might be too late to get a tattoo, or climb Kilimanjaro or hang at Burning Man. Then again.
I never imagined this, or you. You showed up, connected the dots, and filled in the blank spaces. What it was like for you?
Nothing bad has ever happened. At least not yet. At least not to her.
She dreams of sleeping all day, mostly when she is awake all night.
I wonder if these earrings will make my butt look smaller?
Were we ever parents of two young children? Sometimes I can barely remember that moment.
I am fifty-six. I should be able to read the words “black-tie optional” without having a panic attack.
All those possibilities and potential in one full life. It’s easier to manage the overwhelm when I realize it’s not actually about me.
I may never learn how to cook a proper roast, cast off my knitting, or use an ATM. And yet, they call me a grown up.
On the ski trip she decided that marriage was worthwhile, if only to have someone to tell you that you haven’t rubbed in the sunscreen and there’s a leftover bit in your ear.
Would it be so wrong to eat a handful of cough drops and call it dessert?
There were times when the dog loved her most. His greeting alone made it all worthwhile.
She raised them to be independent—so they made their own lives, in new places. Perhaps she overshot.
Fear is a great motivator. However, as I get older, I fear less. Once you’ve accepted elastic waistbands, humiliation doesn’t hold the same power.
Just so you know, that was a very funny story when I told it to myself. With my outside voice, not so much.
Elves and an eight-day week, he said. That’s all you need to get it done. Finally, a realistic solution to my work/life/sleep/creative crisis.
How did my mother’s hands become my own? When did that happen, and what was I so engrossed in that I didn’t notice the transformation?
I pretend like we’re in midlife. But that’s only if we live to 112. It’s 66.8%, if I am lucky, and if I were the type to count my life by numbers.
P.S. I have another set of one liners on my personal blog, Tour of No Regrets, this week. Those are a less memoir, more in-the-moment. Come visit!
We’ve been wandering around the internet, so you don’t have to. All sorts of goodness out there to explore, my friends.
Dear beauty industry, I’m not buying it Beth Berry’s take on beauty–the part we already own–is spot on.
You don’t look your age and other myths by Lorraine Ladish at Viva 50! Love this line: No matter what you’ve gone through in life, or where you stand now, dare to wear your age well–no matter whether you’re 25 or 70, with pride, joy and especially gratitude!
Of course we’re not too old for the Hipster Hobby Generator. Now to choose between the recycled typewriter museum or crocheted chalkboard placemats.
Some serious reading about Tina Fey/Liz Lemon, from Linda Mizejewski at Salon. “Liz Lemonism, I would argue, satirizes both feminist hypocrisy and postfeminist bourgeois angst.” Worth the read.
Finally, a badge of optimism to wear into the weekend. We’ll take a dozen, please. Can always use a little extra.
The internet is a wild and wonderful place, and the midlife ecosystem is full of life. A few gems for your weekend:
Happy Birthday Gloria Steinem, and thanks for the life lessons.
Fine Lines, a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on learning to re-parent by Lisa Carpenter.
Tracy Chapman turned 50 this week. Remember the first time you heard her?
Work Stew: Because as much as we’d like to imagine it, retirement is NOT just around the corner.
Don’t dress your age. Six fabulous fashionistas say no to drab.
For the summer book list, Whatever You Are, Be a Good One by Lisa Congdon. Love Lisa’s work, and exuberant inspiration is a just right summer activity, don’t you think?
This is love, and HoneyMaid will forever be my brand of graham cracker. Have you seen their awesome response, filled with love?
Have you seen these stunning photos of twins over 50?
In the category of “wish we were there” Team Yoko shows us all how to live a little more creatively.
By Kim Tackett
To my daughters, who with their ages combined, are 46. Though not without their own brand of youthful wisdom, here are few things I’ve learned and believe to be true, at fifty and then some:
1. At fifty, you know who your friends are. I have a theory about “friends of the road and friends of the heart.” Friends of the road show up with purpose for a time and place. They are our situational friends. Friends of the heart may come and go, but they are forever friends. If you are lucky, you will have a handful of friends of the heart at the end of your journey. At fifty, you start to know who they are.
2. We live on a continuum of peace to fear. Where we sit on that scale, in each moment, defines how compassionate and loving we are able to be. Bully behavior is born of fear and represents the person who is cornered. This isn’t always about others—it’s also about myself. When I am mean-spirited, lazy, or frustrated, there is always a component of fear hiding in the shadows. Find it, tame it, and then head over to the path of peace for a little lovin’.
3. Everyone just wants to be heard. They don’t need answers, and they sure don’t need excuses. But they need to know that you care enough to listen to them, to see them. This one also works in reverse: I don’t always need you to fix me, just to hear me.
4. Disagree and commit. These three words have kept me married, employed, and connected to the passionate people, and even the places, I love. One of our clients, a Fortune 100 company (number 54, last time I looked) posts this in their conference rooms. It works in business and in personal relationships. It’s also my go-to political statement when I am upset with the way my government is behaving, but I want to commit to the greater good of our country. At home we literally declare “disagree and commit” when an argument has worn out its welcome and it’s time to move on.
5. Showing up is good enough. I have always struggled with knowing how to do the right thing, say the right words, look the right way, and be the right person. I mess up a lot. I am awkward, I spill stuff, I say things I didn’t intend to say (and forget what I was practicing). But what I have seen demonstrated over and over again, is that just being present is enough. Sure it would be great if I could show up with a perfect peach pie and wrinkle-free, but since that isn’t likely to happen, this is my awesome alternative.
6. The mistake will become irrelevant, the recovery is everything. I learned this in my business, and always appreciate it when a colleague responds quickly to a mistake. Mistakes are actually opportunities for us to learn how to work together. Recovery is the gracious gift of a do-over and it is what helps, heals, changes and inspires.
7. We are each climbing our own mountain. And everyone is pushing a big boulder. No one has it easy, even if it appears otherwise. Sometimes we believe we’re singled out and special because we have a bigger boulder and a steeper mountain than everyone else does. Some are better at hiding it, or pushing when no one is looking, but we all share the boulders and the mountains.
8. Don’t underestimate the power of practicality. In a spiffy notebook, lists are an instrument for peace rather than a force of evil (really). Don’t skimp on quality with olive oil or coffee. If in doubt, bring a cheese plate. Say yes as often as you can, but no is also a complete sentence. Don’t go without snacks. Bring a book. Take notes. Give yourself an extra ten minutes. Buy yourself flowers—weekly. Breakfast for dinner is always a good idea, especially on Thursday nights. Travel trumps almost everything. If you are stuck, go outside. If you are sad, remember your spiritual practice. And if you are feeling sorry for yourself, serve others. Let people celebrate your birthdays: you get presents and free cake. You deserve nice things. Just not things that break or stain easily. When you can’t go fast enough, go slower. And when in doubt, call your mother. You know where to find me.
By Laura Jenkins
My memory is pretty sketchy, but I do know this: I had childhood friends that collected things. I don’t really remember what they collected; I just recall being more than a little envious that I didn’t have a “thing” when my friends were amassing hordes of, say, angels, or dolphins or Coca-Cola memorabilia. You don’t just pull a “thing” out of thin air (or at least that didn’t seem right to me.) It has to mean something, and I suppose that the truth is, for a large portion of my life I wasn’t awake to such things.
And then I went through a profound loss. Several, in fact.
The most earth shattering was the end of my 25-year marriage. I spent years and years trying to salvage things, but eventually I had to admit defeat. Throw in the towel. It felt like the biggest failure of my life, and even though deep down I knew that it wasn’t all up to me, I was bent over with grief and shame. There was fallout from that situation that’s way too long to go in to here, but I can say that it involved profound financial ruin and chronic fear and self doubt. Around the same time, my mother got ovarian cancer. My father got prostate cancer. I started completely over at age 44, financially speaking, which involved re-enrolling in college and switching careers. I carried so much defeat over the fact that I was middle-aged and everything I’d worked for had seemingly gone up in smoke. I was way behind the curve in terms of where I was certain I should be. I felt helpless to lessen the pain of my children, who were reeling as a result of the obliteration of our family. I fractured my ankle twice in four months, and had to wear a freaking boot for more weeks than I can remember (I refused to sit in the “handicapped” section when my oldest daughter graduated from college, because the vantage point wasn’t good for photos. As a result, I scooted up the stadium stairs on my butt while everyone watched and probably wondered what the hell I was doing.) I left the neighborhood I had lived in for 25 years, my beloved neighbors, my longtime home, and ended up moving four times in four years. I was experiencing empty nest. My children were graduating from high school and college. One of my daughters got married. I began to feel very uncomfortable with the church I was attending, which caused me to wrestle with spiritual issues of epic proportions.
And I was pissed.
Was there even ONE area of my life that could remain familiar and constant?
I had psychic whiplash from all of the changes in my life. It was death after death after death… or so it seemed. Life, as I knew it, had died.
On my 45th birthday two of my children and a dear friend came over, and we made margaritas and fajitas. I have no recollection of how the conversation turned to tattoos, but the next thing I knew I was at the tattoo parlor. And somehow, I finally knew beyond any doubt what my “thing” was: butterflies. What better symbol of hope for someone who has suffered profound loss? Butterflies tell a story of death and rebirth. Butterflies say, “What I thought was the end was really the beginning.” I couldn’t see even one frame of what my new life was going to look like, but I decided to believe that it would be good, so much so, that I got a butterfly indelibly inked on my ribcage (and one of my girls got the same tattoo in the same place, which will forever be special to me.)
So the rest of the story is for another blog post, but the Cliff Notes version is that I did experience profound renewal, and so far it’s been more wonderful than I’d ever imagined. That doesn’t negate the losses by any means, and for the record I’m still climbing out of that rubble in many ways. Like a butterfly, I’ve emerged from it all––stronger, more colorful, and (here’s the kicker) sometimes I feel like I can fly.
When I was in the cocoon, when I was in the dark and felt smothered by the grief that was wound tightly around me, it was a massive temptation to prematurely cut my way out of the silky envelope that was transforming me. I wanted certainty. I wanted to get on with my life. I wanted to just pick some butterfly colors, paint myself, and — by god if I had to hobble away, I was prepared to do so. I was like the disillusioned teen standing by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Anywhere but here.” I am loath to cite an overused reverse pop-psych quote, but I think it really does apply here: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Of course when you’re sitting there, you’re beside yourself with the fear that you’ll never be okay again. But you will. Contrary to all the voices in my head, the only thing I had to do was surrender and wait. And though the dust has cleared enough for me to have a little bit of faith in that process, I still wrestle with surrendering and waiting every single day of my life.
Last month, I got the opportunity to take one of our granddaughters to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston. These creatures continue to inspire me in so many ways. If you’re someone who happens to be looking for hope, read up on butterflies. The parallels between your journey and theirs might just blow your mind.
Post Script: Today I was reminded of how very little I thought I contributed to my children’s comfort and healing when our family blew up. And then I thought of the song my oldest daughter, Amy, wrote for me on my 50th birthday — a mere six years later. I was so shocked at how they perceived it vs. how I thought it went down. So I thought I’d share it here. It’s not a great recording… I made her put it down in Garage Band before she left town on my birthday. But if you listen closely you’ll be able to make out the words (headphones help.)