Ponder these questions:
1. Do you prefer one-on-one conversations over group activities?
2. Do you like to express yourself in writing?
3. Do you tend to think before you speak?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, you just might be an introvert. Maybe you already suspected this. Maybe you know it but have spent a lifetime trying to pretend you’re more extroverted than you actually feel.
Why would you do that? Maybe it’s because North American society dramatically undervalues introverts and as you traversed from elementary school to college to your first job, you might have learned that your introverted tendencies were something you needed to hide, fix or deny.
I’ve always known I’m an introvert but thanks to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, a New York Times bestseller, I now have a better understanding of what that actually means. Many people assume that introverts are shy, withdrawn and even antisocial while extroverts are loud, friendly and gregarious. While these things may be true of some people, the truth is more complex.
For example, one of the main differences between introverts and extroverts is simply that extroverts can handle more sensory stimulation. Loud music, roller-coasters, crowded streets or an animated group discussion don’t bother the extrovert and in fact, they energize him. If an introvert is exposed to these same things, she is thrown off-balance and, after a period of time, she feels over-stimulated, begins to shut down and is desperate to escape to quiet surroundings.
Consider public speaking. Most introverts are terrified of speaking in public and experience a variety of mental and physical reactions to it. These include sleepless nights, elevated heart rate, excessive sweating, shaking, vomiting and even fainting on the way to the podium. But, because so many careers require public speaking, many have trained themselves to do it by only accepting engagements on topics where they have expertise, spending weeks planning, and practicing breathing exercises, etc. beforehand. When it’s over, even if it was a huge success, the introvert is completely depleted and needs to immediately retreat to solitude to recover. While extroverts may also get butterflies before giving a speech, they don’t put so much pressure on themselves to succeed, spend less time planning, wing it more. If the speech is a success and the audience is pleased, the extrovert feeds off that and sticks around for the backslapping.
One of Cain’s most interesting claims is the notion that extroverts reactwhile introverts inspect. If an introvert and an extrovert both go to the same sales pitch, the extrovert is more likely to react instantly to what is being shared, to be wowed by high-pressure tactics and to be excited about the possibilities. Inherently suspicious, the introvert will probably experience none of these things. He’ll need to go back to the office, think about what he heard, digest it, maybe do his own research and then come back with a host of questions.
When the extroverted tendency to jump in and see what happens is combined with the introverted need to inquire and make informed decisions, great things can happen. Business partnerships, boards and senior management teams which value and include an equal distribution of both dispositions, have the perfect combination of fearlessness and risk aversion.
But this rarely happens. Because our society values speaking up, sharing your opinion and excelling at teamwork, introverts rarely make it to the top and when they do, their cautious approach to change is often viewed as a hindrance. Introverts dislike teamwork even though, fastidious about details, they often do the bulk of the work and demand little of the glory. They are also less interested in wealth, fame and status than extroverts, which knocks many of them off the corporate ladder early on.
Cain believes that we live in a culture which admires risk-takers but a time which needs more heed-takers. Some people have gone so far as to blame the 2008 economic meltdown on a lack of introverts in high finance, positing that, if only there had been more cautious, quiet, inquisitive people at the top, it never would have happened. I’m not sure if that’s true. Perhaps they were there and no one listened. Perhaps they don’t have the chutzpah to make it in such a high-octane business and so there’s a dearth of them at the top.
Reading the book has been therapeutic for me in the sense that I feel more comfortable with my introversion and realize that there’s nothing wrong with my preference for working in solitude and my desire to always leave parties early, if I go at all. As the parent of a classic introvert, I’m also determined to let him be who he is and resist the temptation to “bring him out of his shell”.
If you think you might be an introvert, you can take Susan Cain’s quizhere You might just be surprised.