In recent weeks, a story about Naomi Osaka, the women’s number two tennis player, has been making headlines after she withdrew from the French Open following her decision not to participate in the tournament’s media obligations.
She said: “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We are often asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.” Her decision saw her threatened with fines and cumulative action that might have led to her being barred from future grand slam tournaments. Having withdrawn from the competition, she shared further details regarding suffering from depression and the contributory role of media obligations. We also know that Osaka is a self-confessed introvert, whose discomfort at being interviewed was apparent as her career took off.
BBC’s Newsnight picked up the story and debated whether media obligations should be essential for someone to be a top-flight tennis player or indeed any other sport personality. Some members of the panel and audience argued that she had always known this was part of the career she had chosen; others suggested there should be some flexibility and that expectations should take account of the welfare and personality of different players. I don’t intend to discuss the pros and cons of different business models to support professional athletes, but I am interested in considering — more broadly — Naomi’s self-description as an introvert.
Susan Cain’s book — Quiet — draws together extensive research to explore how introvert and extrovert personality traits affect us. There are many definitions of what constitutes an introvert / extrovert, but introverts are not necessarily shy or anti-social, any more than extroverts are all show-offs. Famous examples of introverts include JK Rowling and Barack Obama. There is a spectrum of personality types, from extreme introvert to extreme extrovert, and we all sit somewhere upon it. More introverted people tend to enjoy small group or one-to-one social interactions, may crave some time out after frenetic social occasions, appreciate time alone, and enjoy focussing intently on individual activities. In contrast, extroverts are energised by social occasions, relish a rich social life, are happy to think on their feet and ‘out loud’, and are easily bored in quiet environments. From reading those general descriptions, you may already be thinking about which most resembles your own personality.
As she pulls together research, Cain suggests that an ‘extrovert ideal’ has taken hold in much of Western society. The result of this shift over several decades has seen institutions — from businesses to schools — designed to suit extroverted personalities, with the implicit expectation that people will mould themselves to fit. While there are lots of brilliant outcomes attached to extrovert behaviours, most settings need a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts: symbiotic relationships that allow individuals to play to their respective strengths can deliver the best outcomes in social and work environments.
Cain explores the apparent contradictions that as teamwork and ‘brainstorming’ took off as the most popular approach to generating ideas, evidence shows that from Einstein to Steve Wozniak there are countless examples of solitude (and more introverted behaviour) being a catalyst for innovation and creativity. And she cites research that has identified how those at the top of their fields — elite individuals in fields as diverse as music and sport — share a common trait of spending significantly more time working on their own than people of average or medium ability. They exhibit the individualised process of ‘deliberate practice’ that is essential in developing elite ability because it focusses specifically on the areas they need to improve.
Whichever group you think you fall into, it is important to recognise that we also have the capacity to act against our default type. Extroverts can learn to adopt useful introvert behaviours such as working individually and adopting deliberate practice, while introverts can embrace typically extrovert traits such as contributing to group discussions and trying new activities. Back to Naomi Osaka and we can probably imagine that her talent, in combination with her introverted personality, allowed her to focus an unusual amount of time and energy in deliberate practice to become the elite athlete that she is. During her career, she also developed the ability to act in a more extrovert manner as an internationally recognised athlete who has given countless media interviews.
Ultimately, maybe that environment did not do enough to recognise that not everyone is equally comfortable in all situations. Within school classes, workplaces, social groups and throughout our lives, we will have friends, peers and colleagues who sit all along the introvert / extrovert spectrum. Keeping that in mind might help you to create a space in the conversation for the person who is quieter, or understand why a friend always wants to be doing something while you are happy to stay in and relax. And maybe having an awareness of this can give us all a greater insight into the different members of our St John’s community and appreciate that we are richer for not all being the same.
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, 2013