In a culture where being social and outgoing is prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. But, as Susan Cain argues in her passionate talk in TED Talk 2012, introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world and should be encouraged and celebrated.
Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is an introvert. So as she gets up to present from the TED2012 stage, bag in hand, it is not a comfortable experience. But it’s an important one, and that’s the point.
Her family grew up reading — they would read together and bring books on trips. That’s how they were social. She tells a story of going to camp at age 9. Her mother packed her a bag full of books to read quietly, the normal thing her family did on vacation, thinking camp would be the same, “I had a vision of ten girls sitting in a cabin reading books in their matching night-gowns.” But when she got to “Camp Rowdie” (as they spelled it), she was ridiculed the first time she read her book, for not being social and outgoing and not having enough camp spirit. So she put her books away, and didn’t get them out for the rest of the summer. (And she drives the point home by putting her bag under a table.)
She has, she tells us, at least 50 stories like that. 50 ways, little and small, where the message was clearly sent: being an introvert is wrong.
And that bugged her. Cain felt — had an intuition — that as an introvert she had value. But she didn’t know how to articulate that at the time, and so she became a lawyer. She wanted to be an author, but all her internalized notions about what is good made her reflexively choose the profession associated with extroversion, choose to go to a bar rather than a nice dinner with friends.
That bias, she claims, is everyone’s loss. While the world certainly need extroverts, it also needs introverts doing what they do best. It’s a bias that has no name. To understand it, we need to understand that introversion isn’t about not being social, it’s not being shy, it’s about how someone responds to stimulation. While extroverts crave social interaction, introverts are much more alive while they’re alone. Cain brings in her thesis with the insight that, “The key to maximizing talents is to put yourself into the zone of stimulation that’s right for you.”
It’s a simple-sounding lesson, but a very difficult one to really get, and act on. As she points out, we’re living in a culture that increasingly values groupthink. We believe that creativity comes from a very oddly gregarious place. In the classroom, where Cain and her fellow students used to sit in rows, and to read and work alone, students are increasingly put in groups and asked to be committee members — even for solving math problems or creative writing. Kids who prefer to work alone are seen as problem cases, and graded accordingly. Teachers report, and believe, that the ideal student is extroverted. (“Even though introvers get better grades, and are more knowledgeable.”)
And it’s the same in office environments. Introverts are routinely passed over for leadership roles. That’s a real problem because research has shown that, as leaders, introverts are more careful, much less likely to take outsized risks, and are more likely to let creative and proactive team members run with their own ideas, rather than run over them or squash them — something that should be an ideal trait in the modern office.
Indeed, says Cain, some of the most transformative leaders in history — Eleanor Roosevelt, Ghandi, Rosa Parks — were introverts. Each of those described themselves as quiet, soft-spoken, or shy. That quietness had a special, extraordinary power of it’s own. People could tell that these leaders were there because they had no choice, because they were doing what they thought was right.
Of course, Cain loves introverts, and no one is purely intro- or extroverted. We all fall somewhere on that spectrum. But most of us recognize ourselves as one or another, and “culturally we need a better balance, we need a better Yin and Yang between these two things.”
Cain wrote her book. It took her seven years to write; seven years of reading, researching, thinking — total bliss. And now that it’s done she needs to go out in the world and talk about it. That’s not something that comes easily, or comfortably to her. But she’s excited about it, because she thinks the world is on the brink of change in how we treat introverts.
To help that along, she has three calls to action:
1) “End the madness of constant group-work.” Offices need chatty conversations, and great spaces to make serendipitous interactions. But we need much more privacy, and more autonomy. The same is true — more true — for schools. Yes, teach kids to work together, but also how to work alone.
2) “Go to the wilderness. Have your own revelations.” You don’t have to go build huts in the woods and be isolated, but we could all stand to unplug and be in our heads for a time.
3) “Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase, and why you put it there.” Extroverts, whose bags might be filled with sky-diving kits, grace us with the energy and joy of these objects. Introverts, probably guard the secrets of their suitcases, and that’s cool.
“But occasionally, just occasionally, I hope you will open the suitcase up. Because the world needs you and what you carry.”