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Monday, October 24, 2016

It’s not just a women’s issue.

Granted, that’s how many of us are framing last month’s decision by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! Inc., to end telecommuting and require all employees to report to the office. It ignited a firestorm of controversy over whether Mayer, a working mother herself, has backstabbed the sisterhood. Columnist Kathleen Parker called it the latest iteration of the “mommy war.”

But there’s another reason we should be debating Mayer’s policy: Some people simply work better alone.

My colleagues are rolling their eyes now, so let me rush to provide full disclosure. I’ve worked mainly from home for more than 20 years, going into the office just enough that they don’t give my desk away. I don’t do it because it’s more convenient. I don’t do it because I hate the commute. I do it because I’m an introvert.

The word is not a synonym for “shy,” though as a boy, I was that, too. But where shyness is an outsized fear of other people’s disapproval or of social embarrassment, to be an introvert is to be inward turning, more at home in small, intimate groups than large, boisterous ones. It is to prefer the quiet to the loud, reflection to exhortation, solitude to socializing.

For years, I struggled with that, wondered why I prefer the rainy afternoon spent watching old movies or reading a book to the sunny afternoon at a backyard barbecue watching people do the Electric Slide. Then, last year, I chanced upon a book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It was the first time anyone had ever explained me to me. Turns out I’m not the only one. Turns out introversion is perfectly normal.

Except that our culture is biased toward extroverts. It’s a bias reflected both in Mayer’s decision and in the attagirls she has received from the likes of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. He argues, as she did, that collaboration — “synergy” is the buzzword — produces the best results. This is conventional wisdom in American business. Indeed, Cain notes that per person square footage in offices has shrunk by over half since the ’70s in the belief that “open space” floor plans that force people together facilitate teamwork and, thus, productivity.

For some of us, it probably does. But not for all. The savvy CEO will understand this, will realize that the alone space is where introverts find the stuff that powers their best work and will — wherever practical — accommodate that.

And, as Cain points out, quiet people, left to their own devices, have produced rather significant moments in culture, science and politics. Her list of their contributions includes: the theory of relativity; 1984, Schindler’s List, Charlie Brown, Google and the Montgomery bus boycott.

All that said, I have a sinking fear that after this column, I’ll never be invited to another backyard barbecue again. Good friends, please invite me; I’ll even bring the banana pudding. But at the same time, please forgive me if I leave early.

As Cain notes, it is not that the introvert doesn’t enjoy the company of others. Rather, it’s that after a certain point, it leaves him feeling physically drained. That’s who I am — less Bill Clinton than Al Gore — and I’ve given myself permission to stop fighting it.

Marissa Mayer may or may not be a traitor to modern mommyhood. But she has certainly bought into the one-size-fits-all mentality that says productivity and creativity are found when colleagues meet at the water cooler — and only there. She is wrong and I am proof.

This week, I’ll go into the office to make sure my desk is still there. I’ll kibitz with my friends. But when it’s time to get down to work I’ll slip on the noise-canceling headphones, block out the world and seek what people like me always, instinctively seek: a quiet and alone inner space where it is possible to simply, finally…


(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])

Photo: Eirick Solheim/Wikimedia Commons

  • sigrid28

    Mr. Pitts, I’m one of your fans, and I too am a writer who prefers to work in solitude and silence, though I’m still nominally working on my writing, even pushing a noisy cart around the grocery store (Could I make soy milk ice cream at home?), or emptying the dryer (Can I live without a dryer?), or discussing twin theory with a dad I meet at the doctor’s office with one year-old twin in his arms, going to see the pediatrician again for an ear infection–and the other never gets one (Is there really always a weaker twin and a stronger? My grandmother was a twin, or is it “is” a twin?): The difference between writing at my laptop and working on whatever I’m writing that day while out in the world is DISTRACTION.

    Oddly enough, when I’m working at my laptop in total solitude and silence, it seems very noisy, but that’s just the phrases knocking around in my head. If I were a surgeon, I would not be able to operate with music playing–well, maybe Stevie Wonder. See what I mean. Too distractable. No one would LET somebody like me be a surgeon–but I might be able to knock out the screen play for an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” if I had solitude enough and time.

    I’m convinced that the move to dislodge individuals who work from home and deny them a place in the corporate environment has more to do with conformity than “synergy.” For a CEO, with her own private office and adjacent nursery for her newborn, to deny the same to workers in their homes, highlights once again the ever-widening gulf between the haves and the have nots, this time at the workplace. “Constant contact” leads to “Constant Comment,” the name of a spicey, fragrant tea, which is always fun to drink, perfect for tea time and casual conversation, small talk and gossip, not–let me make this perfectly clear–PRODUCTIVITY. When kabbitzing workers are no longer as productive in their identical cubicles punching the time clock as they were at home, bad decisions made by selfish, self-important management indulging themselves in their grand offices, will drive businesses to ruin, as this class thinking did in the 1890s and the 1930s. As of yore, the privileged class will have put themselves in the position to blame the working class.

    Perhaps this business trend, to have a woman lead the cause against worker productivity, is a variation of the theme that had a woman take up the socially divisive, misogynistic, and xenophobic platform of the Republican Party as it morphs into a variation of the Tea Party. I speak, of course, of Sarah Palin.

  • “Schindler’s List” was made by an introvert? Maybe the novel (originally titled “Schindler’s Ark”) was written by an introvert, but there is no such thing when it comes to making big budget movies. Movie setes are the ultimate when it comes to collaborative workplace. And you think Google could have existed without massive collaboration? Maybe for the first few months, while the “Google Guys” worked out their initial search algorithms. But after that? They didn’t grow into a billion-dollar company without LOTS of collaboration…