Modern society puts a high premium on extroversion. In school, we have “show and tell” and are graded for “playing well with others.” At work, good eye contact, a firm handshake, and the ability to present a PowerPoint deck are requirements for success. If we are successful enough, the only avenue for advancement in most professions is management where we have to communicate with others and present even more PowerPoint decks.
What’s an introvert to do?
The message of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is to appreciate your introversion and learn how to use it.
The book shows us (with plenty of research to prove its claims) that introversion isn’t a personality disorder that people are supposed to overcome. It is an inherent trait — and a positive and useful one.
Introverts have a natural tendency to think before acting. This provides balance for the impulsiveness of extroverts and an antidote to groupthink that pervades collaborative teams. Many successful couples and partnerships have learned to balance introversion and extroversion. Shy Eleanor Roosevelt helped build the career of her charming and charismatic husband Franklin. She also helped him develop the empathy he needed to lead our nation through the Depression and World War II. Guy Kawasaki has launched many Silicon Valley businesses, but the book quotes him revealing his true nature, “You may find this hard to believe, but I am an introvert. I have a ‘role’ to play, but I am fundamentally a loner.”
What about the times when introverts have to give speeches or entertain at dinner parties? Cain presents an idea from Harvard University psychology professor Brian Little (himself an introvert) called the Free Trait Theory. We have certain fixed traits like introversion, but we have free traits that enable us to act out of character for things that matter to us. This is what enabled an introvert like me to join Toastmasters and serve as a Little League president. There are times when we have to “fake it until we make it,” as Eleanor Roosevelt had to learn to give speeches to support her husband.
However, we have to allow ourselves time to recover by going back to the quiet that make us feel comfortable. It’s like going to a trade show and attending a party or a mixer, and then retreating to your hotel room by yourself to read or watch TV for a couple hours before going to bed. If we fail to give ourselves that break, we risk burning out or, as what happened to Professor Little, winding up in the hospital.
The key is to understand and accept our natural inclinations and gifts and learn how to use them. Cain writes:
The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight or a sun-drenched beach. For others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers — of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity — to do work you love and work that matters.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking promises a revolution. In a world that labels people who need alone time as “anti-social” or accuses those who want to stop and think as impeding progress, seeing the value of introversion is truly revolutionary. The book urges us to accept our true selves, and in doing so, claim our true power.