Stepping Out Into The World: Henry Cavendish
The world of work can be a daunting place for people with certain personality types. For us introverts, it can be intimidating to find ourselves in meetings with assertive, self-assured people. They’re often quicker to the right answer, faster at finding the solution, and more confident in offering their opinion.
Whenever I think of talented people who shun the limelight and thrive nonetheless, I think of their patron saint: Henry Cavendish.
By anyone’s standards, Henry Cavendish was a high achiever. Born in 1731, he was the natural philosopher and Fellow of the Royal Society who discovered hydrogen, or “flammable air” as it was then known. He also measured the density of the Earth and came up with a number within 1% of that calculated using modern techniques.
And yet, Henry Cavendish was also very, very shy. He could only speak to one person at a time, and only if the person was known to him and male. He was especially shy of women, and had a back staircase added so he could avoid the housekeeper. It’s now thought that he may have been somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
All of this begs the question: how did a man with such crippling social anxiety get anything done?
Cavendish rarely ventured out, and if he did, it would be to one of the scientific soirees at the Royal Society. You couldn’t look at or talk to him though; if you wanted to initiate a conversation, you had to address an empty part of the room somewhere in his vicinity, and if your thoughts were deemed interesting, you might receive a high-pitched reply in return.
Of course, his is an extreme case, but it’s clear even from this that Cavendish was a man who wanted to communicate. He just found it extremely difficult. If he hadn’t wanted to, then he would have retreated to his mansion, never to be heard from again. But because he clearly had something to offer, allowances were made on both sides.
Communication between introverts and extroverts
For extroverts, it’s worth ensuring in decision making that everyone has an equal part in discussions; that they’re sharing the limelight equally. If this is not forthcoming, then introverts have a responsibility to find creative ways of ensuring that their voices are heard, and this can sometimes involve pre-meeting preparation.
One good trick is to take charge of the agenda. Good meeting protocol requires that timings should be kept, so that meetings do not overrun and that time isn’t wasted. If the agenda is studied and circulated ahead of time, it’s likely that a more democratic range of voices will be heard, as the focus moves from giving one person a forum for airing their views to giving everyone the shared goal of trying to reach a consensus within a set time.
Asking for a pay rise
There are certain topics in the workplace that are difficult for anyone to broach, whether you’re an extrovert or not. This is one subject where the example of Henry Cavendish doesn’t help us. At the time of his death in 1810 he was the largest depositor in the Bank of England. His grandfathers were the Dukes of Devonshire and Kent, giving him access to huge houses that he could convert into laboratories. He never had to ask for money. But we can imagine what kind of approach this man of such rigorous exactitude might have taken.
It’s all very well thinking you deserve more cash. The trick is being able to prove it. Most companies now are strict about having yearly feedback sessions, which give employees and employers the opportunity to review performance targets and decide whether objectives have been met.
However, some outcomes can slip under the radar, especially for introverts. It can be useful to keep hold of positive client feedback and to use this as evidence demonstrating your value to the team. It’s also good to keep a list of more tangible markers of progress. More nebulous criteria such as “demonstrates a good understanding of” and “showed good attention to detail” are difficult to justify, but were you instrumental in a successful website launch? Did you get some urgent copy out before deadline while under pressure?
Yes? Don’t let your employer forget.
Different perspectives and empathy
Of course, it’s possible that some of the stories about Cavendish have been embellished. He did have friends, including his loyal assistant, Sir Charles Blagden. Blagden was an intensely curious man, an inveterate note-taker who acted as a conduit between Cavendish and the scientific community. He helped Cavendish out in some of his experiments and even persuaded him to go on several research trips, including one to the industrial north.
It’s impossible now to quantify the beneficial influence their partnership had on their work, but to me, this seems exactly the point. We often can’t predict how our different personality types can mesh together to produce positive outcomes until it’s happening in practice, and for this reason, it’s important to step out of our comfort zones.
Some large companies already have internal mentoring schemes; but if yours doesn’t, or is an organisation with a relatively small number of staff, then it may be worth proposing one. Mentoring schemes are usually structured with a view to promoting staff progression, where a junior member of staff will be paired with one who is more senior. But its aims needn’t be so rigid. It could be used as a way of promoting staff integration, as a way of allowing new staff members to talk to longer-serving employees. It could be used to promote cross-department familiarity, giving valuable context to a company’s operations.
It needn’t be so official; an informal, fifteen-minute chat one lunchtime each week to discuss working practices, for example, could be beneficial. All it would take to initiate something like this would be a polite email request.
The whole point of this is empathy and understanding. Once you start seeing things from the perspective of others it allows you to work better together, whether you’re an introvert or extrovert.
Henry Cavendish was, for all the anecdotes about his eccentricity, a person who found the world confusing, and he turned to science to make sense of it all. Once you get to know someone, you begin to empathise with them; you see the world through their eyes. Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, it’s this stepping out into the world and becoming an active part of it that can help bring professional success.