Introverts and the Be Gretchen Principle

– Alexia Larcher

One of the things that struck me about David’s last post was that many people, for whatever reason, believe that introversion actively hinders their lives. Actively. Hinders.

Now of course it depends what you want out of life. Introverts can very well become rich and famous. Or popular. We have Audrey Hepburn in our ranks, Grace Kelly, and Guy Kawasaki. (Here’s a nice, diverse list.) We can end up changing a lot of lives with our work. We can travel the world. But most of us end up having a hard time with a simple concept, which Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project calls “Be Gretchen.”

Several years ago, Gretchen Rubin found herself on a bus wondering what she wanted out of life and she realized she wanted to be happy. So she took a year-long sabbatical from her job as a lawyer to test out every single hypothesis she’d heard about happiness. She published her results in the book The Happiness Project and posted the 12 most important happiness-inducing principles for her life on her blog, which she calls the 12 Personal Commandments. The first one is “Be Gretchen” on that list for a reason. Here’s what she has to say about it:

But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.

Now, you might think – “Well, okay, but why does that make you sad? You don’t want to visit a jazz club at midnight anyway, so why does it make you sad to know that you don’t want to do that? If you wanted to, of course you could.”

It makes me sad for two reasons. First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!–and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: “The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open.” Which means — at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not — to acknowledge what I don’t encompass.

But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.
Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible — in fact quite easy — to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.

This is the problem many introverts face too. Many of us wish we were extroverts because we believe it would make our lives significantly easier. We look at extroverts and they look like they’re enjoying their lives. They look as if they are always surrounded by people who love them and it’s tempting to compare these situations to our own lives and wonder what’s wrong with us.

But honestly, we’re using the wrong measuring stick. We’re wondering why we are not someone other than ourselves and then get frustrated because we can only be ourselves. We don’t think about the downsides of being extroverted: regularly seeking a higher amount of stimulation, getting bored if others aren’t around, to name a few possible ones. It only looks easier to be an extrovert because our society is built for us to join crowds. It’s ridiculously easy to text someone and meet up at a popular restaurant or a packed club, compared to a time when telephones and cars didn’t exist. We can still build our own lives so that we don’t burn ourselves out on socializing. And then we can go out and conquer the world if we want to.

More on applying the Be Gretchen principle here. It’s not easy, for sure.

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