We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He or she favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong; works well in teams and socialises in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who is comfortable “putting himself out there”. Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.
Many of the most important institutions of contemporary life are designed for those who enjoy group projects and high levels of stimulation. As children, our classroom desks are increasingly arranged in pods, the better to foster group learning, and research suggests that the vast majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert. As adults, many of us work for organisations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly. The scientists whose research gets funded often have confident, perhaps overconfident, personalities. The artists whose work adorns the walls of contemporary museums strike impressive poses at gallery openings. The authors whose books get published – once a reclusive breed – are now vetted by publicists to make sure they’re talk-show ready.