Sunday, February 26, 2012

This blog is now all about things that make you stupid. Apparently.

Last post we talked about a flurry of studies that confirm what anyone who works in an office already knows -- that meetings make people stupid. Actually, I think some people believe everyone in the meeting is stupid except them, but they've probably been in too many meetings.*

Then last week I ran across this little gem. Apparently, being interrupted by a cellphone ringing will also interfere with mental processes, and its worse if the ringtone is a song you know. They use BeyoncĂ©’s "Single Ladies" as an example, but in that case the biggest distraction for me would probably be the pain from trying to scratch my eardrums with a pencil.

Again, this is no surprise, but it does say something about what drives our society, and possibly about what's important to employers. There was a time when making a personal phone call, or interrupting an important meeting with trivia, could get one fired. Or at least on the boss' shit list. But the last business luncheon I attended featured a former colleague talking for 20 minutes on the best ways to use Twitter at the office. People not only expect cellphones to ring in meetings, they seem to expect people to answer them.

This all reminds me of a quote from a Japanese industrialist I heard a couple of decades ago. He said, "In Japan, we make things. In America, you used to make things. Now you just push money around." Except now it's information we are pushing around. One person somewhere has an original thought and 80 million people try to disseminate it as fast as they can. I suppose there is value there, but it seems hollow somehow, and at least for me, unsatisfying.

I'm sure the hive mind will prove to be more productive than the individual in the long run. And people won't feel the same sense of disquiet about the constantly connected world that I do, any more than I could share my grandfather's distrust of airplanes. But I am built for quiet contemplation, and it's not the world for me.

* I wonder if it's some sort of natural selection that has created the current "anti-meeting" culture in higher education. There are a thousand committees, but they rarely meet. And when they do, the only people who attend are those who absolutely required.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Reach for the shy

It looks like 2012 might be the year when the shy, introverted, and maybe even the meek get their fifteen minutes of fame. Which would be no surprise, since it's the last year ever. Not that the quieter types want the attention, but it's good to be appreciated as long as no one is speaking directly to you.

Time's cover story last week on "The Power of Shyness" builds on the growing success of Susan Cain's, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking to make the case that America's obsession with "go-getters" is costing us more than we think. Or don't think, as the case may be. Which really seems to be the root of the problem. The extroverts are all running around telling anyone who will listen how useful they are, while the introverted and shy are sitting at home with wine and chocolate watching movies and doing online genealogy research.*

People who know about such things -- most notably the shy or introverted -- will be quick to tell you that these two terms are not synonyms. Introverts are people who prefer less social stimulation, while shy people experience anxiety at the prospect of new or unfamiliar interactions. If you prefer a small party at someone's home to a rave or concert, you're probably more introverted. If your heart pounds at the thought of meeting the people at either kind of party, you're shy. Not surprisingly, these are not what the math people (speaking of shy and introverted) would call independent variables.

Of course, it's not that simple talking about real people. I love a loud and crowded bar as much as anyone, and I will probably make a random comment or two to the person whose ass I'm kicking at pool.**  But more days than not I would prefer to talk to between zero and five people, and then not for long. While I have grown relatively comfortable speaking to small or medium sized groups, I still get really anxious and talk too fast and never say exactly what I had planned and oh time's up already thanks for coming. I have to give a 40 minute talk in a week, and I'm already starting to sweat.

Everyone knows my favorite vacations involve me, Biscuit and some nature. The big resort is definitely not my idea of relaxation. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty damned introverted. I like going to the movies, but I intentionally pick the times when the theater will be the emptiest. And very few things make me happier than being alone in the car on an empty highway, as long as the car is moving.

Anyway, the point of all of this was supposed to be that introverts tend to be reflective thinkers. It turns out that it's hard to do much deep thinking in a room full of people. Two recent studies, one at Indiana University and another performed by the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute make a compelling case that meetings make us stupider.  It seems whatever else comes from collaborative work, it isn't brainpower.

As Cain says in the second point of her Manifesto, "our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our 'heed-takers' more than ever." If any of this resonates with you, I would encourage you to get out there and do something about it. Or at least, go to a quiet room and think about it really hard.

* Just to pull an example out of the air.
**I don't talk shit when I'm losing, because that's just stupid.