I grew up thinking of myself as very self-conscious, observant, reflective, and averse to conflict. I enjoyed time by myself, and preferred thinking about things to talking about things with other people. I attributed these characteristics to growing up as the only Asian child in the first schools I attended. Later I decided that wasn’t it at all. I was just introverted, a personality characteristic shared by many.
Now along comes Susan Cain, a high-achieving introvert, with an exhaustive examination of what we know about the introvert/extrovert spectrum in her much-praised, best-selling book “Quiet”, which is subtitled “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”.
In Part One of her book Cain explains how extroversion became the cultural ideal through such influential programs as the Dale Carnegie course in “How to win friends and influence people.” In today’s world we encourage students and job seekers to get out there and “Network, network, network!” But she observes that creativity most often occurs when individuals work alone. Successful organizations need to facilitate and reward individual creativity.
In Part Two of her book Cain explores the research suggesting that biology or genetics may be factors pre-determining individual temperament and place on the spectrum.
Most interesting to me was the research on how babies react to certain negative stimuli, and suggesting that high-reactive babies tend to become conflict-avoiding introverts, while low-reactive babies tend to become fearless extroverts.
Part Three of Cain’s book explores the role of culture in affecting individual temperament. She primarily focuses on Asian-Americans who manifest higher incidence of the characteristics of introverts, while also sharing a culture valuing those characteristics such as appreciating quiet time, individual effort, social harmony, and conflict avoidance.
In the final Part Four of her book, Cain offers advice to both introverts and extroverts on how to communicate and interact with each other, and how to raise our children.
Introverts can and do achieve success in many and varied fields. Our introvert President Barack Obama is regularly criticized for failure to “schmooze” with members of Congress and his big money donors, preferring to spend time with his family and a small circle of personal friends. In sharp contrast, see Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton who are classic extroverts who actually seem to enjoy the process of making new friends and influencing people.
When I walk or ride my bike on Northern Delaware’s scenic Greenway, I enjoy the quiet and the time to think. But I observe my fellow regular exercisers who are constantly talking on the phone, or who are constantly plugged in with earphones, as if they can’t stand the silence or the waste of time just thinking to themselves.
The best advice I received from my immigrant father was to take up public speaking in high school. My father observed that success in life is not achieved only through education and hard work, but also through the skills to communicate ideas through speech and writing. So I can do formal presentations before audiences large and small. It’s the small talk at cocktail receptions that I find most difficult and challenging.
Thank you, Susan Cain, for the best explanation to date of why that is.