The word "introvert" is a pretty loaded term, really. It's hard to define the exact qualities that make someone introverted or extroverted. Being an introvert is hard, especially when your accomplishments thrust you into the public eye. There's a fine line between introversion and shyness, but introverts often experience both. Introverts prefer solitude, are quiet by nature, tend to be curious and contemplative, and do their best thinking alone. As a result, they may come across as aloof, standoffish, or just plain rude. Introverted musicians like Michael Jackson and Prince were known to live extremely private lives out of the limelight despite their very public careers.
Throughout history, famous introverted leaders have fooled us all, becoming some of the most prosperous and influential men and women of their times. Maybe they were uncomfortable and just counting down the minutes until they could go home, but these are some of the most ground-breaking, famous historical introverts to have ever lived.
Isaac Newton, born in 1643, was the father of modern physics and an extremely introverted person. His desire to be alone started when he was a young boy, perhaps related to his sickly nature and tumultuous relationship with his mother. Even when he was a student at Cambridge, Newton was a loner, extremely private, and temperamental. This behavior continued throughout his life. He never married, had very few, if any, friends, and was almost paranoid when it came to betrayal and criticism.
His unsavory qualities didn't make Isaac Newton someone with whom you'd want to spend time, but he did have a brilliant mind; Newton's law of universal gravitation solidified the idea that the Earth wasn't at the center of the solar system and set the foundation for future studies of the universe. He also developed laws of motion and infinitesimal calculus, adding to his legacy as a scientific revolutionary.
One of the most important scientists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein was on the record as an introvert. Known for quotes like "Be a loner. That gives you time to wonder, to search for the truth. Have holy curiosity. Make your life worth living" and "I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity,"
Einstein, the physicist who developed the theory of relativity, was German-born, incessantly curious, and a determined non-conformist. Beyond the theory of relativity—one that challenged Newtonian physics and scientific notions about gravity—Einstein also developed the predecessor to atomic power. His formula, E=MC2, suggested that matter could be converted to energy in such vast amounts that atomic power was possible.
Einstein took seriously his responsibility as a scientist. He once said, "Although I am a typical loner in my daily life, my awareness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has prevented me from feelings of isolation." Even with that attitude, however, Einstein was increasingly isolated in the 1930s as he tried to develop a "unified field theory," which would blend the laws of the universe and the laws of physics. His own interests differed from those of his colleagues, and as Einstein has already told us, being a loner was okay.
Nikola Tesla, the introverted inventor from Serbia-Croatia, is often pitied for his reclusive nature because it may have been, in part, why he didn't get credit for his accomplishments during his lifetime. One of many brilliant scientists who preferred to be by himself, Tesla was of the opinion that isolation was the best way to foster creativity.
“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude," he said. "Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone — that is the secret of invention: be alone. That is when ideas are born.”
As the inventor of the Tesla coil and a revolutionary in early AC (alternating current) power systems, Tesla made his way to the United States in 1884. He briefly worked with fellow inventor Thomas Edison, but they had creative and business differences that resulted in each of them venturing out on their own. Tesla developed a system of wireless electricity for a group of investors in the late 1890s and early 1900s, but he was out-funded by his rivals, including Edison.
It's widely believed that many of Tesla's contemporaries stole his ideas. Thomas Edison brought Tesla into his "invention factory" and used the employee's ideas to get patents while Guglielmo Marconi took credit for Tesla's short-range radio communication technology. Tesla withdrew from the world and became more and more eccentric, perhaps falling victim to mental illness. Although he lived on the 33rd floor of a New York hotel for the last years of his life, he died alone and in debt in 1943. With or without credit, Tesla's contributions remain an important part of his legacy.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates admits to being shy child who loved to read but, like a true introvert, Gates can go from hiding in his shell to being outspoken on the turn of a dime when it comes to what he's passionate about.
Being shy and being introverted aren't always the same thing, but Gates has grappled with both. Lucky for Gates, who founded Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975, he has managed to channel his introverted nature into success. Other computer innovators have been called introverts as well, namely Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.
In 2013, Gates commented on how to use introversion as a positive quality, telling an audience during a Q&A, "I think introverts can do quite well. If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert, which might be, say, being willing to go off for a few days and think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself very hard to think out on the edge of that area."
Gates has taken his own advice, not only in computing but in philanthropy. He joined forces with Warren Buffett on "The Giving Pledge" in 2010 and has started the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife. The Gates Foundation is the largest private charitable organization in the world.