Shining a light on others

One benefit of being shy is that it offers rare passage through the unseen grooves of life. While everyone else makes a public mark, the more introverted person sinks back a little, into a colorful realm of nonconformity where insights on how others interact sometimes happen. 

Here begins the story of Kare Anderson, who as a child was diagnosed as “phobically shy.”  She was disinclined to talk, had trouble being in groups, and felt out of sync in almost every situation. Even so, something in her nature drew other people toward her.  

Classmates asked her to run for student body president in fourth grade — and she won, perhaps because students had less positive views about the two other contenders, she confesses. Years later, caring parents of her high school boyfriend gently encouraged her to attend Stanford University rather than the small Christian college that her parents had in mind. To her surprise, she was accepted — and she went.  As she grew to adulthood, her courage outdistanced her shyness.

Anderson helped pay her way through Stanford by becoming a medical test subject, where she found among the other test subjects a group of kindred spirits, a “very different, motley crew of outliers” she came to love. In this parallel reality, she felt the vibrancy of people who live off the beaten path. Through the testing itself, she discovered she actually had gaps in her brain, knowledge that enabled her to begin to make cognitive sense of her shyness.

“We found out I had an odd brain,” she says. She was told she was overly sensitive to stimuli, which made her a keen observer of her surroundings and of other’s actions and motivations, but also created gaps in her thought processes. In her determination to fill those gaps, she reached out to people for clarifications of what she experienced or sensed. A professor once said to her, “You ask so many questions in class, but when you do, I understand myself better.”

Questions became Anderson’s forte, helping her to land an internship and later a job as a reporter with the Wall Street Journal. “Every day scared but thrilled me,” she says. “I got to ask people questions.” To the great satisfaction of her bureau chief, whenever she conducted an interview for a story, she always came back with enough material for several articles. 

Anderson’s capacity to see people, to draw them out and to be present to them, is the unfolding narrative of her life. The once-shy girl from Portland, Oregon, is known today as a connective behavior specialist, a person who helps others to go “lower and slower” as they become accessible to those around them. She translates her own singular perceptions and rigorous study of human behavior into “actionable insights” for others.

Those insights about connecting are hard-earned, a product of Anderson’s continual efforts to situate herself within her own life.  She says she has no sense of direction; she struggles with the simplest technology or the most mundane task, like filling out forms or using a microphone on stage. She is a synesthete, a person who sees colors when she hears sounds. “It is a sensory overload for me,” she says, and getting to a quiet place is sometimes essential for her. “There are a lot of experiences that I’ve missed, because they might be overwhelming, yet I have learned some ways to compensate.”

The upside of the way her brain functions, Anderson says, is that she has learned — out of great necessity — to forge strong relationships, especially with those who have complementary talents. She relies on other people to point the way for her — like the police chief in her small town of Sausalito, who kindly redirects her when she cannot remember where her destination is. 
 
“If you’re lucky, like me, to desperately need people who are unlike you, you realize that we can stumble and help each other,” she says. 

People who have worked with Anderson professionally say they feel changed by her.  Some aspect of their lives takes on an unexpected hue, like the Stanford professor who saw himself more clearly through her questioning.  

She calls it ‘shining a light on others’ — and being very specific about what you see: “We really thrive by giving each other candid, iterative feedback, talking together and asking purposeful questions. Imagine when someone tells you about a talent you didn’t know you had and suggests a way to use it.  That is one of the most powerful gifts you can give somebody.”