Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Surviving and thriving in an extroverted world

I heard a rumor about a book written recently that extolls the virtues of being an introvert. I knew immediately that I must read this book, since I strongly identify with all possible definitions of introversion. Every personality test I've ever taken confirms this identification. This blog post summarizes what I've learned from Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.  I found it to be enlightening, educational and enjoyable to read. The author lays out with meticulous detail, supported with credible research, what it means to be an introvert vs. an extrovert, and how each of these can function ideally. Rather than cast one as "right" and the other as "wrong", she merely states that they are "different" and anyone who can recognize and respect the differences will benefit. Since introverts make up 20% of the population, there's a chance you may be one or know one.

Introverts and Extroverts

Public opinion states that we should all be gregarious and comfortable in the spotlight. Taking action quickly, risk-taking, exuding certainty, workings well in teams and socializing in groups will take us far in life. It helps to "put ourselves out there" in order to get ahead in life. Some people struggle with this ideal, thinking they are less-than, broken or wrong. Maybe others have been told, or think to themselves:
  • You're thinking too much about this
  • You're so boring
  • You need to come out of your shell
  • Promote yourself more!
  • You're so shy
  • Why don't you go out and make more friends

These are questions asked by extroverts to anyone who doesn't conform to the extrovert ideal. Why aren't we all outgoing and confident? We live in a highly urbanized society where the first impression is of extreme importance. It pays to be magnetic, stunning, forceful and energetic. That's what's been reinforced for the last 100 years, and its different from an era when more of us lived in smaller towns, we knew each other, and one's character was the most important currency. Reputation communicated who we were and guided others about who to befriend, marry, hire and respect.

In an extroverted world, it may seem strange to encounter people who prefer a quieter atmosphere, work alone rather than in groups, have fewer friends, think deeply and don't speak up unless there's something important to say. Without a viewpoint like Cain offers, we might follow society in thinking that something is "wrong" with these quiet people, we might manufacture drugs to "calm their nerves" or "give them confidence" so that they can emulate gregariousness and confidence, no matter how painful it is. 

Cain, however, asserts that there are a number of famous, brilliant, strong leaders who were, and are, introverts. And the introvert ideal has something tremendous to offer anyone who wishes to cash in on its wealth of assets.

  • laugh at your jokes, 
  • are more assertive, 
  • think out loud, 
  • prefer talking to listening, 
  • are rarely at a loss for words, 
  • blurt out things they don't mean to say, 
  • are comfortable with conflict
  • don't like solitude.
  • can be serious, sensitive listeners, 
  • prepare in advance for situations, 
  • avoid conflict,  
  • ponder deeply before making decisions, 
  • listen more than talk, 
  • think before speaking, 
  • find expression better in writing than in conversation, 
  • don't like small talk but enjoy deeper discussions. 
People in creative professions are more likely to be introverts. Famous leaders (Gandhi) are introverts. CEOs can be introverts (Bill Gates), as can famous inventors (Steve Wozniak, Nikola Tesla). However, the world today is set up for extroverts both in schools and at work. Business schools reward the extrovert ideal, reinforcing gregariousness over deep thinking, even though studies show that both introverts and extroverts make excellent leaders. In fact, introverted leaders are more successful in companies comprised of self-starters who innovate and jump at opportunities to do new things with little managerial encouragement. Extroverted leaders are better with teams that are more passive, requiring managers who talk more and provide more explicit direction. 

Cain points out that our economy could have strongly benefitted from more introverts within leadership in the financial sector during the years leading up to the Great Recession. She outlines a strong trend in rewarding quick decision-making with little attention to details and nuance of the surrounding environment within financial and banking companies. We all paid the price for that mistake. 

In school settings, we know that introverts and extroverts are measured as equally intelligent. However, studies show extroverts thrive more in elementary school, but introverts fare much better in higher education, which favors deep thinking and independent learners. 

When viewed objectively, introverts are seen as serious and careful, good at school, watchful and quiet, devoted to love ones, loving intellectual problems, sensitive to their environment, thinking and feeling deeply (which brings nuance to experiences), who concentrate with intensity and are capable of complex emotionality.

Cain spends chapters outlining how introverts function at work and at home, in school and in relationships (both romantic and friendships). She even outlines extroversion and introversion between the East and the West on a cultural level. "Americans are some of the most extroverted people on earth" (186), and within our nation, Congress typifies the extrovert ideal, preferring flash and bang over deep quiet thinkers who will say something once then remain silent. 

What can we learn from this book?

  1. If you know an introvert or are an introvert, realize that these traits are to be celebrated, not scorned. Look for environments where an introvert can thrive: lower levels of stimulation, time and space for quiet reflection and deep thinking, opportunities to speak up without threat or intimidation (either explicit or implicit), opportunities to speak with other 1-on-1 about meaningful topics. Identify how your current environment rewards both introversion and extroversion and ensure there is a balance to accommodate both styles. 
  2. Understand that both introverts and extroverts have limits. People who tend to be quiet can be outgoing and gregarious in the pursuit of a passion, as long as it is meaningful to them (more money or vacation time is rarely the best reward), just as extroverts can occasionally think deeply and pause to reflect on their actions. However, requiring too much of this from someone who isn't comfortable with it can actually bring harmful results (yep, studies show that, too). 
  3. Even though we have limits, it makes sense to push on the boundaries of our comfort zone. Be willing to engage with large groups of people, to learn how to make small talk, to worry less about what others think and feel. It is especially helpful to understand your passion and pursue it. Do you care about the environment? About educating others? What is standing in your way and how might you adapt in order to reach those goals? Cain's book is full of examples of people who have found ways to thrive as an introvert in an extroverted environment -- they push their limits, then find ways to retract and recharge. As long as you are pursuing your passion, its possible and fun.
  4. The better we understand our own personality, the better our chance of operating in a world that may or may not accommodate us. Understand that "quiet" does not equal "bad", and we all have something powerful to offer to those around us. Find a passion and pursue it. Thrive. 

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