Quiet by Susan Cain: a must read

Quiet by Susan Cain

I recently read a book entitled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can Stop Talking by Susan Cain–one of the most insightful books I have ever read. I rarely say this about any book, but this particular one is a must read for everyone, not just introverts. Packed with anecdotes, scientific research, and practical advice, Quiet is a potential life saver for introverts who struggle to find their place in the world. Everyone else may come away with a newfound understanding of introverts and perhaps a greater appreciation for how they can be good teammates, partners, and leaders.

As the saying goes, “never judge a book by its cover.” This is especially true for Quiet. Its cringe-worthy title is clearly a marketing device, and it creates an unfortunate  “introverts vs. the world” impression, which is NOT the tone of the book at all.  Cain’s intention with this book is to promote understanding and to inspire introverts to utilize their abilities to make the world a better place.  Far too often, the news is filled with stories of sensitive young souls who take their own lives–or worse, the lives of others. Countless others never sink to this low but struggle with depression, loneliness, or poor self esteem. Imagine how different things would be if these introverts understood that their “differences” were actually assets. What if they blossomed into artists, thinkers, scientists, and inventors–wouldn’t society benefit as well? Quiet is Cain’s impassioned plea to introverts and extroverts alike to work together to make this vision a reality.

One of the most important accomplishments of Quiet is to dispel common misconceptions about the difference between introverts and extroverts. Except in extreme cases, you cannot truly know if someone is an introvert or extrovert from the outside. This is because introversion and extroversion lie on a spectrum. Thus, there are introverts that excel at public speaking and extroverts that enjoy curling up with a good book rather than going out every night. In addition, these habits are acquirable and not hardwired personality traits.

The true difference between introverts and extroverts lies in the way they react to stimulus. Introverts tend to be risk-adverse, meaning that they approach new situations cautiously. Scientific research increasingly shows that this is not a choice but a physiological reaction. This does not mean that introverts struggle with or seek to avoid new situations but that they need time to observe, to listen, and to think before acting. And because their brains are on alert throughout, introverts tend to expend energy in these situations, requiring time to “recharge” afterwards. In contrast, extroverts tend to thrive on stimulus and may derive energy from it. Extroverts also have the ability to live “in the moment” which allows them to react more quickly in new situations.

Introverts struggle because our modern society is built for extroverts. From the moment we enter the school system, we are thrown into a classroom full of other kids and required to raise our hands for everything, including going to the bathroom. In school, we learn that group projects are often dictated by those that speaks first or more confidently rather than on ability. Fortunately for introverts, there are other avenues to show achievement such as homework and tests. This is not the case in the business world.  Increasingly, networking and presentation skills are valued above work product. Speed is prized over accuracy.

Cain isn’t asking for us to completely redesign the world to suit the needs of introverts. To a certain extent, the world is what it is, and as adults, our job is to deal with it as best we can. But there are many manageable changes that we can make to help introverts become more productive members of society. In the interest of time, I’ll only mention two of them.  The first change is to recognize that the quickest answer is not always the best one. Studies show that “group think” and spur-of-the-moment meetings are actually inefficient and counterproductive. The second change is to accept that sometimes the best answer is not the one that we want to hear. Too many organizations have been destroyed because “the voice of reason” was drowned out. No one likes being the bearer of bad news–the buzzkiller–but people do it because it is necessary and because they care.

To care. To love. Of all of Cain’s advice to introverts, this is the most important. In Quiet, Cain speaks of a different kind of leadership, a “soft power.” The kind of power that seems ineffectual in the short run but can move mountains with time. The kind of power made famous by an introvert: Gandhi. The only way to succeed in doing something differently is to do it long enough and well enough for others to recognize its merits. Love makes this possible. “Follow your passion” is almost a truism today, but for introverts, it is the best (and sometimes only) way for them to maximize their abilities.

I’d like to conclude with a quote from Quiet that sums up its essential appeal:

If you are an introvert, find your flow by using your gifts. You have the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up. You enjoy relative freedom from the temptations of superficial prizes like money and status. Indeed, your biggest challenge may be to fully harness your strengths…[Rather than being a lesser version of someone else] stay true to your own nature…Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way. It’s up to you to use that independence to good effect.

Read Quiet. It may change your perspective, improve your team, or even save a life–maybe your own.

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