I had to learn to love conferences and collaboration. Other people have to learn to love solitude.

On being introverted in academia

I don’t really like people. I don’t mean that I’m a misanthrope (people can be a wonderful force for good, but that’s a different blog post! ), I just don’t really like being around them. I don’t like having to think about what I’m going to say, think about how I’m being heard, think about how I’m being seen, or think about how I want to be seen. For the extroverts in the world, it might seem odd to talk about all of this thinking — why can’t I just be? — but that’s just how it is for me. Being with other people, aside from those I’m really close to, is an effortful activity.

Being in academia, therefore, offers some interesting benefits. If I plan right, there can be entire days, sometimes multiple days in a row, where I talk to no one. It’s glorious: me, my thoughts, and others’ thoughts in written form are a blissful freedom from social engagement. Solitude is a conversation I can steer in whatever direction I want. Eventually, I crave a bit of connection, but usually a meal with my wife or my daughter is more than enough. Or maybe just a conversation with a street cat.

Of course, on most days, this isn’t how it works out. On most days, I might spend an hour on email, an hour on writing, an hour or peer review or other service. But that’s all the solitude I get. The rest of my days are teaching anywhere from 35 to 200 students, hallway encounters with faculty, staff, and students, meetings with collaborators, faculty meetings, and countless 1 on 1 meetings with students about their research, their lives, their careers, and the fears behind all of this. Most days are 6–7 hours of communication, collaboration, and coordination.

And it’s not that I don’t like these things — in fact, I love most of these in small doses — I just find them exhausting. And I find that a few hours of quiet at home and a night’s sleep isn’t quite enough to restore me. I usually need an entire weekend of quiet to feel ready for another week. And strangely, a day of isolated weekend work is just as restorative as a day of playing video games or doing nothing. The key ingredient is not interacting with anyone.

But all of this is just typical academic life. The truly exceptional tax on my limited social energy comes when I attend conferences. Now, just like I love the social aspects of my job for the opportunities to teach, mentor, and connect around I ideas, I love conferences for the rare opportunity they offer to talk about a lot ideas — to share them, dissect them, debate them, and create them. And I love doing these things with other people. I very much look forward to attending 3–4 conferences a year, spending all of that social energy I’ve saved up to have a couple hundred riveting, impactful discussions with my community.

But I don’t look forward to four or five 12 hour days of it. That’s not to say that conferences are incompatible with introversion. Trust me, there are tons of near empty rooms with bad speakers giving bad talks where one can zone out and disconnect. And there’s always the hotel room. The conflict I have is that I want all of the social connections a conference has to offer. I wake up, get clean, and rush to breakfast to find someone to chat with. I avoid talks and instead wander the halls to reconnect with old friends about new ideas. I attend every reception, every happy hour, ever private gathering, ever impromptu adventure. I do these things not because I have the energy for it, but because they are the substrate for new thoughts, new perspectives, and new directions in my public and private intellectual worlds.

But after three or four days of that, I am well beyond ready to put on some noise canceling headphones, catch some quiet public transit to the airport, and not talk to anyone for a week. Instead, I talk to myself by writing. I reflect on what I learned, I elaborate on new ideas, I write trip reports, I send follow up emails, I generate tasks. My most restorative silent decompression is synthesis of everything I’ve learned.

Because I’ve been through this cycle so many times — both the daily exhaustion of communication and the bimonthly exhaustion of conference travel — I’ve discovered many little life hacks that help me make the most of my limited chat chit charge:

  • Before a big day of talking I have a day of not talking.
  • I try to checkerboard my work days, with breaks of solitude between highly social events.
  • I try to be very aware of the comings and goings of energy vampires. If I need to interact with them (for example, if they’re a collaborator, a student, or a staff member), I put strict budgets on how long I do (5 minutes of energy vampire max!)
  • I never talk on planes. They’re a key time for restorative isolation, bookended by the last day of a meeting and a usually social welcome home.
  • I liberally use my noise canceling headphones to strongly signal when I do not want to be spoken to. Oddly, I don’t use my office door in the same way, because when I’m on campus, most of my job is connecting, and a door is too strong a signal.

In our extraverted western culture, there are some unfortunate consequences of the above tactics. Early on in my career as a professor, one of my faculty mentors told me I was “aloof”. That bothered me for about five years until I realized he was just saying that I was introverted, which I already knew. Even then, the rest of society is constantly shaming introverts like me, so I have to remind myself daily that being alone most of the time is not an inherently bad thing. Only I know best about what I need.

Oddly enough, in computing fields like mine, this perception of aloofness is rarely a problem, as a majority of people are exceptionally introverted. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most of the people in my academic communities probably view me as one of the more extraverted academics they know. And this makes sense: I save up all my social energy just for them! They don’t see the long periods I spend with no one because… I’m alone.

The weird irony of this is that in academic social contexts, I’m actually the energy vampire to other people. I’m the one talking, seeking conversation, probing, and demanding communication from them. And I’m really bad at realizing I’m sucking the energy of more introverted people, because I’m so primed and prepared to connect.

I have realized over time though that by being the most extraverted person in a group of computing researchers, I have a lot of power over where a conversation goes, who’s included, and who gets something from the conversation. That’s an important responsibility that I wish people more extraverted than me would take seriously.

If you’re introverted in academia, how do you manage your time with other people? And if you’re extraverted in academia, how do I you manage your solitude? And what do you think we could do in academic workplaces and conferences to make our lives mutually better?