Updated: Dec 31, 2022
This article begins by exploring the creative process. We tease apart personality preferences from the creative process. From there, we describe the nature of our creativity by exploring key mental pathways supporting both extroversion (dopamine pathway) and introversion (acetylcholine pathway). Finally, we discuss adaptation. Many people's personalities are capable of adapting to the demands of the environment. I provide examples of my leadership experience and how I was able to adapt my introvert-leaning personality to an extrovert-leaning environment.
Table of Contents
The Creative Process
Neurotransmitters and Personality
A Concluding Thought and Notes
Jeff Hulett is a decision policy executive, financial services veteran, and researcher. His experiences include being the Executive Vice President of the Definitive Companies, a decision sciences firm. Jeff's background includes data science and decision science. Jeff's experience includes leadership roles at consulting firms, including KPMG and IBM. Jeff also held leadership roles at financial services organizations such as Wells Fargo and Citibank. Jeff is a board member and rotating chair at James Madison University.
1. The Creativity Process
It is easy to think of yourself as either an Introvert or an Extrovert. Even without formal testing, most people have an intuition as to their personality type. They are naturally more “outgoing” (extrovert type) or more “quiet” (introvert type). I am a card-carrying introvert. Though, to some degree, I have "faked it" to have some level of success in a world that seems to favor extroverts. Susan Cain wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, this is like the Introvert's bible. The book does a good job of validating the introvert.
At some level though, the introvert / extrovert personality preference is confused with our creative process that regularly utilizes the same mental processes described by our personality preference. This means while we may prefer certain parts of our creative process, the entire process is regularly engaged.
the creative process, an action with both introversion and extroversion, are together necessary parts of our creative process, and,
the personality preference, which describes a person as either an introvert or extrovert, are separate personality preference descriptors.
See the graphic for a comparative perspective. The truth is, while our personalities may favor one or the other, we do both all the time. In fact, at the moment I write this article, I am extroverting about my personality that favors introverting! I write because it helps me further my introversion process - which is learning more about a THING. I also write to share my thinking with other people. I strive to write in an accessible and enjoyable way to interest other people.
Also, I have noticed my introvert-leaning personality has morphed over the years. I took the Meyers-Briggs [i] test twice, once in my mid-20s and again in my late 30s.
In my mid-20s, I tested as a "hard" introvert. At the time, I was a quantitative analyst and could enjoy spending my entire day analyzing (i.e., introverting) behavioral and credit data.
In my late 30s, I tested as "on the bubble" between an introvert and an extrovert. At that time, I was an executive leading a Bank's Mortgage division. My personality evolved as an adaptation to my environment.
I will say, I do think my "core" personality is still that of an introvert, even after I consciously committed to adapting [ii] to a more extroverted role. Think of our core personality as a state to which we may naturally return, especially under stress. To anticipate potential stress, I did develop some helpful tricks. A good example is when I attend industry conferences. Conferences like this tend to create an extroversion-intensive environment. (i.e., lots of blah, blah, blah... :) [iii] As such, there is a high likelihood I will spend most of my day communicating. While I enjoy what I'm discussing, it is mentally draining. This may sound like an introvert's nightmare, but, I could handle it with some preparation. My trick is to schedule downtime late in the afternoon. I would plan to spend an hour in my light-dimmed hotel room just resting my brain. After which, I am recharged for the evening's activities...which is probably more communicating!
An alternative way to understand extrovert and introvert differences is based on curiosity. Generally, all people possess some natural level of curiosity. It is that which motivates the curiosity that makes us unique. A helpful way to consider our personality differences is through the curiosity motivation lens.
Introverts tend to be more curious about things in their external world. They are energized and motivated by learning about and understanding those things from the external world.
Extroverts tend to be more curious about sharing with the external world. They are energized and motivated by learning and understanding how to communicate with the external world.
As an example, my wife, Patti, is certainly an extrovert. I tease her that she is an extrovert with a capital “E!” She is also an amazing teacher. Her teaching skills are centered around her motivation to communicate with children. Her greatest affirmation comes from breaking through to a child and helping them find learning success. Please notice, I didn’t say she was as motivated about learning the content. For her, introversion-oriented content is a necessary tool for teaching the child. It is the successful extroversion-oriented teaching communication that motivates her. If it were me, I’d probably get more excited about the content and learning someTHING new. Perhaps, this is why it can be unusual to find a person that is both a great teacher and a great researcher.
2. Neurotransmitters and Personality
Our neurobiology is certainly an underlying explanation for why we may favor introversion or extroversion. Think of neurotransmitters as biochemicals that drop tags on sensory inputs. These tags provide emotion-based context to the sensory input. It also signals a pathway for the brain to process the tagged information. Next, discussed are the different tags and pathways of the introvert and the extrovert. [iv] Please note: Keep in mind all people utilize both these pathways over time. While it is true you may favor extroversion or introversion, it is also true you necessarily do both all the time!
Extroversion and the dopamine pathway:
Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter that encourages achievement via an outcome reward. Meaning, if we do something, and do more of that something than we did before, our brain will reward us with a dollop of the feel-good dopamine neurotransmitter. It is also the neurotransmitter associated with addiction (alcohol, drugs, smoking, gambling, etc) One needs more dopamine interaction to achieve the same level of reward. It is what makes human beings insatiable! Dopamine causes us to be more alert to our surroundings. It makes us very present. It also causes us to be more novelty-seeking. The reward-satiable nature of dopamine causes us to seek behavior that may seem riskier. It is why we drive forward for new discoveries, new products, etc. The dopamine pathway tends to be fast and helps make simpler, but speed-necessary decisions. The dopamine pathway tends to access easier to retrieve shorter-term memories. This pathway tends to ignore the slower recall of longer-term memories. Also, by the nature of the need for higher dopamine levels needed for higher rewards, an extrovert is more able to operate in noisy, high-sensory input environments. Verbal communication is more natural for the extrovert. Verbal communication is interactive in the present time. It is better able to interact with the non-verbal expressions of the present-focused right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex.
Per Our Brain Model: The extrovert is more comfortable in the high emotion & low language pathway. Please see the Brain Model article for the model view unencumbered by the pathway overlay.
Introversion and the acetylcholine pathway:
Acetylcholine is also a reward neurotransmitter. But it acts differently. The acetylcholine reward is provided via calmness and contentment. The acetylcholine reward is enabling the introversion process. This is in contrast to the dopamine pathway, which rewards outcomes. The acetylcholine pathway takes longer. The acetylcholine pathway is aligned with complex decisions that may need time to evaluate. The acetylcholine pathway accesses more challenging to retrieve longer-term memories. This pathway is also associated with seeking inputs from the environment to fill information gaps. The acetylcholine pathway is more sensitive to distraction. A person engaged in this pathway will be more likely to seek solitude or otherwise reduce other stimuli that may not be helpful to the cognitive task at hand. Written communication is more natural for the introvert. Written communication is penetrating over time. It is better able to interact with the past-present-future orientation of the language-dominated left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex.
Per Our Brain Model: The introvert is more comfortable in the low emotion & high language pathway. Please see the Brain Model article for the model view unencumbered by the pathway overlay.
3. Personality Adaptation
The introvert/extrovert personality preference is along a continuum. It would not surprise me if most people fall closer to the middle. People in the middle are called "ambiverts." These are people able to adapt to environmental needs. In the example I gave earlier, I admitted I am introvert-leaning. However, since my leadership role demanded extrovert-like skills and abilities, I adapted in a fitting manner to this extrovert-friendly environment. Psychologists such as Adam Grant and Barry Smith suggest the ambivert population is reasonably large - anywhere from 50% to 65% of the total population. [v] I have not been able to find a definitive study on introvert/extrovert/ambivert population distributions, but I find natural (randomly generated) genetic processes and mutations to follow a normal distribution. Thus, a claim that mild presentations of personality preferences are generally one standard deviation from the mean (< 68%) makes good sense to me! This means, the majority of us while favoring either extroversion or introversion, are close enough to the middle that we are able to adapt to common environmental demands. For me, this meant that my introvert-leaning personality was not always congruent with the demands of an extrovert-leaning leadership environment. So I adapted!
Our ability to adapt is a process commitment. We must be willing to create the habits necessary for the environment. Please see "The power of good habits" in the following graphic. Once habituated, most find the completion of a task much easier to both do and maintain. Thus, if you lean toward the introvert, you may be more drawn to the acetylcholine pathway part of the process found in steps 1 and 2. If you lean more toward the extrovert, you may be more drawn to the dopamine pathway part of the process found in steps 3 and 4. An ambivert is able to create good habits that help them adapt to situational environmental needs. An ambivert is able to access either the acetylcholine or dopamine pathways as demanded by the environment. In my earlier example, I adapted by prioritizing brain resting downtime in the midst of an extrovert-intensive environment. This enabled my acetylcholine pathway to catch up in terms of processing some of what I had learned from communication with others at the conference.
Traveling the creativity feedback loop:
1. It starts with learning, generally via practicing and doing tasks. The learning discipline is enabled by the mood-stabilizing serotonin neurotransmitter.
2. Improvement and mental efficiency then occur as tasks are habituated. The learning process is rewarded by the acetylcholine neurotransmitter. Improvement generally leads to positive feedback from those benefitting from the task execution.
3. That positive feedback is related to the oxytocin neurotransmitter. Positive feedback stimulates reward impulses via the dopamine neurotransmitter.
4. Dopamine causes the good feeling received by a job well done. This reward-based neurotransmitter information tag encourages more learning
... and the loop continues and leads to continuous improvement and enhancing our creativity.
4. A concluding thought
It is important to keep in mind that creativity springs from both our natural introversion and extroversion mental processes. It is possible one pathway is more or less active depending on the demands of the environment. An introvert / acetylcholine-leaning person will be less tolerant of high-sensory stimulating environments. They prefer calm and focus. Similarly, an extrovert / dopamine-leaning person will be less tolerant of low-sensory stimulating environments. They prefer excitement and variability.
When choosing a job or role, start by understanding your own personality. Seek to align your desired role with your current personality. Also, be aware that your personality WILL EVOLVE. Be open to stretching yourself toward roles that will help you achieve YOUR success. Based on Susan Caine's introvert and extrovert research, objectively, the world values extroverts more than introverts. Be confident that you can adapt. "Fake it until you make it" is a real thing. "Fake it" is code for practicing and building habits to advance your skills and abilities.
To sort out the many preferences that go into job and role decisions, using decision tools can be very helpful. Your personality is one of many preference tradeoffs. These decision tools will help you properly determine and weigh your preferences to make the best decision for you. I have used Definitive Choice in the past. You can check it out here:
What if it turns out you were wrong? That no matter how hard you try, your current role does not seem to fit. That is ok, continue to adapt, talk to your boss, change your mind, and evolve your role. The path to success is NEVER a straight line. One of my biggest life lessons about planning for success and the actual success I have realized is:
“Goals are not always achieved as planned, but planning is necessary to achieve any goal.”
Understanding how both introversion and extroversion impact your personal energy or motivate your curiosity is important to get the most out of your creativity! There are tests to help you understand the way your personality leans and tricks you may implement to help get the most out of your personal energy, curiosity, and creativity. Finally, your personality is adaptable to different environments as needed to drive your success! Be aware, stress may trigger a return to your base personality.
[i] If you have not taken the Meyers-Briggs or MBTI, I recommend it. It is especially useful to do with your work team or with your spouse. This helps identify personality alignments or compliments. In the context of work, it is helpful to understand when assembling a complementary team. While skill sets are usually more obvious, personality complementarity can be nuanced and more difficult to fit together. Ray Dalio has a nice treatment of this concept in his book Principles. Also, another good test is called a conative test. This describes how one takes action. It is related to, but with some important differences from, personality testing. I took the Kolbe A assessment and found it helpful. The Economist wrote an article called The link between personality and success. It suggests people should work to moderate their personality, not going too far out in either extreme. An ambivert is someone who is more in the middle between an introvert and an extrovert. Personality does evolve as we age. I’ve heard it compared to erosion. While younger, we may have sharp peaks like the Rocky Mountains, over time, our personality “rounds” and akin to the Appalachian Mountains. Perhaps this relates to our adaptability.
[ii] For a more complete discussion of adaptation and adapting to drive personal success, please see the article Let's Get Lucky!
[iii] To be fair, industry conferences tend to be important sales events. This includes industry vendors selling to industry participants, industry participants in one part of the value chain selling to industry participants in another part of the value chain, or networking of people to sell themselves for their next job. While important, these events do tend to concentrate a high level of extroversion into a few days. It is net exhausting for us introvert-leaning folks....while net exhilarating for the extrovert-leaning folks.
[iv] The following citations support this exploration of neurotransmitters and pathways impacting introversion and extroversion:
Charles, How Introvert and Extrovert Brains Differ: 6 Differences According to Science, Mind Journal, accessed 2022
Khalil, Influence of extroversion and introversion on decision-making ability, International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 4(5), pp.1534-1538, 2016
Depue, Fu, On the nature of extraversion: variation in conditioned contextual activation of dopamine-facilitated affective, cognitive, and motor processes, Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, p.288, 2013
McCulloch, Embracing the Introverted Brain, Mind Brain Ed Think Tanks+, accessed 2022
Hammer, Copland, Living with Our Genes: Why They Matter More Than You Think, 1999
[v] Grant, Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage, Psychological Science, 24(6), 1024–1030, 2013
Holohan, Winning personality: The advantages of being an ambivert, The Today Show, 2016