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How I Rewired My Brain to Be Ultra-Social

Duncan Riach, Ph.D.
May 25 · 9 min read

I’ve always been an introvert. As a kid, I spent many solitary hours taking things apart to figure out how they worked, making things with the limited resources that were available (like legos, sticks, and pieces of string), or programming computers. I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t particularly need them.

I was able to get along with people okay, but I often felt very anxious about meeting someone new or being in a large group in which I didn’t know everyone very well. Because I can be playful and entertaining, having even gone through a relatively successful stint as a standup comedian, as an adult I didn’t realize for a long time that I was an introvert.

I’ve come to understand, viscerally, that the basis of all business, all work, all technology development is relationship.

According to Quiet, one of the most significant characteristics of introversion is the need to recharge after being with people. In contrast, extroverts desire to be around people to get energized and inspired. The anxiety I felt around others, and the automatic concern about what they might be thinking of me, was actually pretty exhausting. On the other hand, I definitely didn’t crave to be with others and I could spend long periods happily alone.

But spending time with other people is very important for humans. As you may have heard by now, human babies that are not physically held and nurtured enough are much more likely to die than those that are held, or at least to have impaired cognitive development. In adults, perceived social isolation, also known as loneliness, is associated with depression. Before depression takes hold, ostracism, which is externally-imposed social isolation, can even be experienced as pain. According to a 2009 paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences,

Loneliness … is a risk factor, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, poorer executive functioning, increased negativity and depressive cognition, heightened sensitivity to social threats, a confirmatory bias in social cognition that is self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating, heightened anthropomorphism, and contagion that threatens social cohesion. These differences in attention and cognition [have an] impact on emotions, decisions, behaviors, and interpersonal interactions that can contribute to the associations between loneliness and cognitive decline and between loneliness and morbidity in general.

In 2007, I left my well-paid engineering job in a technology company to study for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. It was only much later that I realized that, even though I’m an introvert, one of the factors that led to me leaving was a feeling of isolation. I was working from home, remote from my colleagues, so my day was spent mostly interacting with a computer. Since I had separated from my wife, and having moved to a new area, I had very few social interactions. It felt like everything was wrong about my life, but perhaps a big part of what was missing was simply human connection. In my Ph.D. program, every day was spent with my tightly-knit cohort of therapists-in-training; it was very fulfilling.

When I decided to return to engineering work in 2017, to the same company that I had left, it was clear that I had to be working alongside colleagues, and I made a concerted effort to reach out to people and get to know them. I remember, early on, looking around my neighboring cubicles and realizing that I didn’t know most of the people. So I started to invite people for lunch. I would just walk up to someone’s cubicle and say, “Hi, I’m Duncan. I sit over there, you sit over here, and we don’t know each other. So, how about we schedule lunch?” Invariably this other person would be pleasantly surprised and would agree. I would then send a calendar invitation, and we would meet and become friends.

There’s a principal engineer at work whom I enjoyed watching present at a recent technology conference. After seeing him talk, I wanted to have lunch with him, but it didn’t feel right to just message him out of the blue. So, one day, as I happened to walk past him as he was working on his laptop in one of the company’s cafés, I approached him and said, “Hi, I’m Duncan Riach [reaches out and shakes hand]. Do you mind if I sit down with you for a minute? [He says okay]. I really enjoyed your talk at the conference and I wanted to have lunch with you, but I had never met you. So now we’ve met, how about we have lunch?” So now we’re scheduled to have lunch. By the way, I do also sometimes email or Slack-message people out of the blue to invite them to lunch, and they almost always happily accept.

Recently, I had lunch with a retired ex-colleague in which he told me about how, as the startup he joined had morphed into a large corporation, he had missed the sense of knowing everyone. After a while, he was surrounded by strangers and no longer felt a sense of belonging. I remembered feeling the same way, missing the familiarity long before I left in 2007. But I then told him about how, even though there are now ten times the number of employees as when he and I left, I feel at home there. As I walk around the office, I’m continually making eye contact with people I know, people I’ve spent quality time with. We nod to each other, or wave, or say hi. Frequently, I stop and talk for five or ten minutes with someone I know.

Over the past two years I’ve been having lunch with a different person almost every day. My lunch slots are fully booked until the middle of September, which is about four months from now. On top of that, I have list of dozens of people to invite as the empty slots approach. The people I meet with are extremely diverse, including people I used to work with, people I interact with in work-related meetings, and people I hear about from others. I talk with people at all levels of corporate seniority and from all departments in the company. I also increasingly meet with people outside the company. For example, every few weeks I spend a day working from San Francisco so that I can meet people there.

I went through a brief period where I let the queue drain to empty, and I didn’t have these lunches for a couple of weeks. That led to a negative impact in my mood because it felt like I was just going to work to crank out results using a computer and that the only interaction with other humans was to achieve business outcomes. I felt restricted, limited, and trapped. Even though it takes courage and persistence, I realized again how important it is to actively and consistently nurture social connections.

This intense socialization has been a form of exposure therapy for my social anxiety. Early on, nearly every lunch I would have would be proceeded by anxiety. Then the meeting with a relative stranger would sometimes be a little awkward. But what I discovered is that most of the time these meetings are fun and deeply fulfilling. So I learned, from extensive experience, that social interactions usually turn out really well.

Now I don’t get anxious at all, and I’ve learned how to quell the anxiety of the those I meet with. One sign of anxiety is when they ask me via Slack what the agenda is. I tell them, “There’s no agenda. I just want to get to know you.” Sometimes during the first few minutes, there is a palpable awkwardness, which I’ve learned to name and normalize: “Sometimes it seems awkward when you’re talking to someone totally new, but before long we’ll be best of friends.” And that’s exactly what happens.

In my previous group, I joined a social pairing system called the Virtual Water Cooler, where I meet with a different person from that group each week. When I moved to my current group, I created a larger and more automated system called the Social Dojo. Because all of my lunch slots are taken, I meet people that I’m paired with through those two systems at other times in the day, including between five and seven pm when the company bar is serving drinks.

I’m also frequently approached by people wanting to meet with me through LinkedIn, Facebook, and my website. Early in the morning and on weekends I’m often on calls with people in places like Germany, Canada, and various parts of the US. I have come to love meeting with people.

I also end up coaching or mentoring some of these people. For example, I’m supporting an engineering manager in Mexico in leaving his unsatisfying job to join Amazon or Uber. Recently, on a second call with a guy who’s working on getting a seed round for his startup, he gingerly revealed to me that he wants to pay me to regularly coach and mentor him. I was totally surprised because I had simply been enjoying spending time with him.

I’ve come to understand, viscerally, that the basis of all business, all work, all technology development is relationship. It’s impossible to effectively manage others, for example, if there isn’t mutual trust and open communication. Effective collaboration with peers or with customers also requires deep rapport and a foundation of familiarity. Friendship is the basis of effortless and record-breaking sales.

I used to rush past people, not even noticing them, as I headed back to my desk, back to the “real work.” But the real work, the hard work, the fulfilling work, is the slow and impossible-to-measure process of developing the relationships upon which the measurable outcomes are effortlessly crafted with joy.

When I don’t understand something, I know exactly who to contact for clarity. I’m able to promote the work of others and to connect people who can help each other. I increasingly see the high-level organizational and strategic picture, and I’m able to make informed recommendations at the level of the whole company. A satisfying side-effect is also that the technical work that I’m doing gets more visibility as others get to know me. When I actually meet with any individual, I intentionally don’t do it with these benefits in mind, but they seem to be a natural consequence of enjoying people.

I have also become increasingly customer-facing, proactively scheduling and presenting to meetings with large groups of unknown people in other companies. While this used to be scary for me, I now find it a pleasure. It’s exciting to see how things will pan out while playing this unpredictable social game.

I still prefer to interact with people one-on-one than to meet with groups, but I find myself anticipating and savoring all social time. After a while of consciously curating these social interactions, I’ve been finding that others have been increasingly reaching out to me and that more opportunities for connection have been naturally arising.

This prolonged program of intense and fearless socialization has had a profound effect on me. It’s not only led to me feeling much more connected, secure, and inspired, but it’s also opened my mind to all the possibilities available to me. I’m part of a rich and complex web of social connections that feeds me and into which I am able to pour my creativity and value. I’m extremely happy about how this is unfolding and I wanted to share it with you so that you can benefit too.

When you’re not physically strong, when you can’t lift much weight and what you can lift is very uncomfortable, you can go to a gym and develop your muscles through practice. Us introverts tend to believe that we shouldn’t socialize because we’re not very good at it, that it’s uncomfortable, and that we don’t like it, but I have discovered that it’s possible to develop strong and flexible social muscles through purposeful practice. I believe that social mastery is possible for everyone.

Together, let’s usher in the age of the ultra-social introvert.

Duncan Riach, Ph.D.

Written by

An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives |