I was asked in a recent job interview, “What’s a major decision you would like another go on?”
I answered that I wouldn’t change anything. Every choice I’ve made in my life has led me to the point I’m at now. And I like my life now.
“But,” I went on, “If I HAD to choose, I would have studied literature instead of ecology.”
This is a regret I’ve had for a long time, that I missed my chance to dedicate massive amounts of time to consuming and discussing books with smart people who cared.
At 20 I was not self-aware. I didn’t know myself well enough in my college years to study the thing I love most. Reading was like eating to me — it was not optional — and so I was oblivious to the fact that literature was a passion and not a basic necessity.
But, as I said in my interview, my life would have taken a different turn had I chosen the literary path. I would not be married to my husband. I would not have my children. I would not have the dream job I now have.
Thankfully, to stand in for those classes I did not take, there is the New Yorker: Fiction podcast. Hosted by New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, this podcast highlights the best of the best of the short story. Each month an esteemed writer chooses a story from the archives of The New Yorker, reads it aloud, and then discusses it with editor Deborah Triesman. The discussions help sate the cravings of my literature-degree daydream: Triesman and the reading-writer contemplate what makes it a good story, they examine craftsmanship, they attempt to tease out meaning, and –- most importantly for writers -– their dialogues provide insight into the mind and inclinations of a high-quality fiction editor.
I’ve been binging on New Yorker podcast stories lately, re-listening to ones that struck me hard the first time around, and want to share my favorite six with you. I love these not only for the stories themselves, but for the conversations around them as well:
I used to volunteer in our kids’ classrooms on Mondays, helping our son’s third grade teacher with copies and helping our daughter’s first grade teacher with word-sort groups. I worked with a group of three kids in our daughter’s class – a fun, quick little boy who liked to shout out answers, an intense, commanding little girl, and a somewhat serious, quiet little Korean-American girl who, based on her sweet but mysterious smile, I suspect has a rich inner life with just a tiny bit of mischief.
One Monday, I was working hard to prevent the little boy extrovert and the assertive girl from dominating the lesson, as quickly-spoken kids tend to do, and so I asked the quiet girl a direct question, shushing the other two so that she could think and answer. After she hadn’t spoken for a good 20 seconds, I was about to prompt her when I remembered a passage from Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In her chapter about “Asian-Americans and the Extrovert Ideal,” the author interviews a Chinese-American man working in America:
A software engineer told me how overlooked he felt at work in comparison to other people, “especially people from European origin, who speak without thinking.” In China, he said, “If you’re quiet, you’re seen as being wise. It’s completely different here. Here people like to speak out. Even if they have an idea, not completely mature yet, people still speak out.”
I am not a patient person, and as my husband and friends can tell you, I am an interrupter, a sentence-finisher, a buttinsky. A prompter. So it was with great self-restraint that I held my tongue, telling myself that this sharp little girl had the answer in her, she was just letting her thought mature before speaking it. Another five or ten seconds passed, and then, with perfect poise, this six-year-old girl gave her answer fully formed, with no shyness, no “um”s, not one bit of hesitation. With no leading into an answer and looking to me for reaction to see if she was on the right track, with no question in her mind about the accuracy or thoroughness of her response. And as you can guess, she was concise, articulate, and absolutely correct.
I fell in love with her right then and was so grateful that I had read Susan Cain’s book. On top of helping me understand my husband and son better, Quiet gave me the restraint I needed to give this soft-spoken, highly intelligent girl a chance among her gregarious peers. Moreso, it showed me the rewards for patience, for I will always carry with me that moment of pride for this little girl. A moment neither one of us would have experienced had I prompted as I was tempted to do.
“I ♥ Introverts” originally published November 2012.
If you are an introvert, or are married to an introvert, or your best friend or child is an introvert, or if you don’t understand introverts, or if you have no interest in introverts whatsoever, or if you want a deeper understanding of humanity and your relations with people, you should read this book. I devoured it.