The Power of Introverts: Author Susan Cain Explains Why We Need to Appreciate the Talents & Abilities of the Quiet Ones

Ours is a loud cul­ture of non­stop per­son­al shar­ing, end­less chat­ter, and 24-hour news, opin­ion, and enter­tain­ment. Even those peo­ple who pre­fer read­ing alone to the over­stim­u­lat­ing car­ni­val of social media feel pres­sured to par­tic­i­pate. How else can you keep up with your family—whose Face­book posts you’d rather see die than have to read? How else to build a pro­file for employers—whom you des­per­ate­ly hope won’t check your Twit­ter feed?

For the intro­vert, main­tain­ing an always-on façade can be pro­found­ly enervating—and the prob­lem goes far beyond the per­son­al, argues author Susan Cain, reach­ing into every area of our lives.

“If you take a group of peo­ple and put them into a meet­ing,” says Cain in the short RSA video above, “the opin­ions of the loud­est per­son, or the most charis­mat­ic per­son, or the most assertive person—those are the opin­ions that the group tends to fol­low.” This despite the fact that research shows “zero cor­re­la­tion” between being the loud­est voice in the room and hav­ing the best ideas. Don’t we know this all too well.

Cain is the author of Qui­et: The Pow­er of Intro­verts in a World That Can’t Stop Talk­ing, a book about lead­er­ship for intro­verts, the group least like­ly to want the social demands lead­er­ship requires. And yet, she argues, we nonethe­less need intro­verts as lead­ers. “We’re liv­ing in a soci­ety now that is so over­ly extro­vert­ed,” she says. Cain iden­ti­fies the phe­nom­e­non as a symp­tom of cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism over­com­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly agri­cul­tur­al ways of life. Aside from the sig­nif­i­cant ques­tion of whether we can change the cul­ture with­out chang­ing the econ­o­my, Cain makes a time­ly and com­pelling argu­ment for a soci­ety that val­ues dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ty types equal­ly.

But can there be a “world where it’s yin and yang” between intro­verts and extro­verts? That depends, per­haps on how much cre­dence we lend these well-worn Jun­gian cat­e­gories, or whether we think of them as exist­ing in bina­ry oppo­si­tion rather than on a spec­trum, a cir­cle, a hexa­gram, or what­ev­er. Cain is not a psy­chol­o­gist but a for­mer cor­po­rate lawyer who at least seems to believe the bal­anc­ing act between extro­vert­ed and intro­vert­ed can be achieved in the cor­po­rate world. She has giv­en talks on “Net­work­ing for Intro­verts,” addressed the engi­neers at Google, and tak­en to the TED stage, the thought leader are­na that accom­mo­dates all kinds of per­son­al­i­ties, for bet­ter or worse.

Cain’s TED talk above may be one of the bet­ter ones. Open­ing with a mov­ing and fun­ny per­son­al nar­ra­tive, she walks us through the bar­rage of mes­sages intro­verts receive con­demn­ing their desire for qui­etude as some­how per­verse and self­ish. Nat­u­ral­ly soli­tary peo­ple are taught to think of their intro­ver­sion as “a sec­ond-class per­son­al­i­ty trait,” Cain writes in her book, “some­where between a dis­ap­point­ment and a pathol­o­gy.” Intro­verts must swim against the tide to be them­selves. “Our most impor­tant insti­tu­tions,” she says above, “our schools and our work­places, they are designed most­ly for extro­verts, and for extro­verts’ need for stim­u­la­tion.”

The bias is deep, reach­ing into the class­rooms of young chil­dren, who are now forced to do most of their work by com­mit­tee. But when intro­verts give in to the social pres­sure that forces them into awk­ward extro­vert­ed roles, the loss affects every­one. “At the risk of sound­ing grandiose,” Cain says, “when it comes to cre­ativ­i­ty and to lead­er­ship, we need intro­verts doing what they do best.” Para­dox­i­cal­ly, that can look like intro­verts tak­ing the helm, but out of a gen­uine sense of duty rather than a desire for the spot­light.

Intro­vert­ed lead­ers are more like­ly to share pow­er and give oth­ers space to express ideas, Cain argues. Gand­hi, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and Rosa Parks exem­pli­fy such intro­vert­ed lead­er­ship, and a qui­eter, more bal­anced and thought­ful cul­ture would pro­duce more lead­ers like them. Maybe this is a propo­si­tion any­one can endorse, whether they pre­fer Fri­day nights with hot tea and a nov­el or in the crush and bus­tle of the crowds.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Jung Explains His Ground­break­ing The­o­ries About Psy­chol­o­gy in a Rare Inter­view (1957)

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

Dai­ly Med­i­ta­tion Boosts & Revi­tal­izes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Har­vard Study Finds

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Sylvie Plaz says:

    With all due respect, it is naive, not to say dis­in­formed, to imply quiet­ness of intro­verts could be some­thing valu­able far away from “cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism”.
    Cain should come to Venezuela or Cuba to see the extro­verts dom­i­nate every­thing, not giv­ing any space to self crit­ics, med­i­ta­tion or sobri­ety. Caín “iden­ti­fies the phe­nom­e­non as a symp­tom of cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism over­com­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly agri­cul­tur­al ways of life”, it sounds very much like a non informed state­ment.

  • Dani says:

    As an intro­vert, I com­plete­ly under­stand. I am much more free with my thoughts & ideas when I have time to cul­ti­vate them myself than I do on the spot or in meet­ings. As a mat­ter of fact, my anx­i­ety can be so bad in larg­er social sit­u­a­tions, that I for­get every­thing that I know. I ‘black­out’. I am almost always in the top 10% for intro­ver­sion on extro­ver­sion-intro­ver­sion scales. If oth­er peo­ple are dom­i­nat­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, I’m like alright, I don’t want to talk any­way… but then when the idea I had through of comes up & I did­n’t say it, I get mad at myself. It’s hard, & I can expect every­one to func­tion around me, but I also need a recharge zone.

  • Dani says:

    thought* can’t*

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