Entry 47: An Introvert in Fast-Brain Mode

February 16, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 47th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I spent almost all day talking to people—three conference calls and a media interview—which left me with only an hour to put words in.  There’s only so much you can do in 60 minutes of writing, but I managed 700 obligatory words.

I sort of jokingly refer to myself as misanthropic sometimes, and it’s true that I have introverted instincts.  But I don’t hate dealing with my fellow human beings as much as I occasionally pretend to.  On the contrary, there’s actually a part of me that gets a high from interacting with people, especially a large group or an audience.

But unlike Bill Clinton—who derived his energy from social interaction of every kind to the point of addiction—talking with people who aren’t deeply personal friends or family has two effects on me beyond a sort of fleeting contact high.  One effect is exhaustion.  After an extended social performance (which could be anything from a conversation at a cocktail party to giving a speech at a conference), I feel simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted.  I often collapse afterward, like Elvis, but I try to hold out long enough that I do it in my hotel room.

The other effect that social interaction has on me is to put me in a fast-brain (System-1) mode of thinking.  Washington, DC makes its residents fast-brain people; it’s necessary for survival in politics and punditry.  So when I lived in the District I got good at being a fast-brain thinker, speaker, and socializer because it’s how you get by in Washington.  It was also useful for making me grow as a person, forcing me outside of my comfort zone.

But being in that mode of thought precludes deeper, more deliberative thought, which is the kind required for research.  I resent the opportunity cost.  It’s a detriment to my productivity.  And yet it feels good being in fast-brain mode; I know some people who can only operate that way.

A desire to avoid that future was one of many factors that enticed me to an academic kind of life.  So I cultivate a kind of faux-misanthropy because I don’t want to become addicted to social interaction and fast-brain thinking that might cripple my ability to do things that offer deeper satisfaction, like write books.

As much as I try to maintain the outward appearance of keeping it real (that is, speaking and writing with candor and authenticity), I feel like I’m only my truest self when I’m alone with words, family, or friends.  And in those instances I’m not actually alone.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.