Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet is a book about introverts, by an introvert. But introvert and extrovert alike will gain much-needed insight into this common but misunderstood personality type by reading this book.

The introvert-extrovert spectrum is much like that of gender. Everyone has a different mix of inner-directed and other-directed qualities, just like everyone has traditionally male and female traits in unique proportions. But, broadly speaking, about 30% of us are introverts, with the rest being extroverts or ambiverts (equally introverted and extroverted-- androgynous personalities, if you will). This is a higher percentage than most people think, because many introverts have learned how to come across as extroverts. We have to. We live in the most extroverted culture in history. Indeed, Cain spends the first couple of chapters of the book exploring the transition from a culture that valued more introverted qualities like character and thoughtfulness in the 19th century to the America of self-help and salesmanship that we recognize today. In particular, she hones in on Dale Carnegie-- his career as the original self-help guru as well as his personal transformation as a young man from a shy and awkward boy into a dynamic public speaker. This was an especially riveting section to me since I was really impacted by How to Win Friends and Influence People when I read it a couple years ago.

But the most influential part of the book for me was when she discussed a few illustrative personal experiences. She describes her experience at a Tony Robbins "Release the Power Within" conference in vivid terms, relating how she felt like the only person with a shred of self-awareness in a sea of rowdy extroverts, and how being in such an environment only drove her more inside herself. Those of you who are introverts who have ever been subjected to an ice-breaker (which means all of us) can relate. Similarly, I resonated with her inner turmoil when she described a high-level business negotiation where she was nearly crippled by self-doubt, but overcame it beautifully by letting her thoughtfulness, compassion, and confidence shine through. This discussion of the value of authenticity was a welcome counterweight to the prevailing wisdom that we must adopt a blustery facade to keep from getting steamrolled in life. 
However, Cain also discussed in the context of a popular college professor how useful and important it can be for introverts to adopt an extroverted facade at particular times. Without his engaging demeanor in the lecture hall, the professor could have never made the impact on his students that was so important to his life's work. In another anecdote, she describes how a retreat with a bunch of other introverts started out great with lots of time for silent reflection, but ended up being boring after a while. In contrast to the ills she ascribes to extroverts in other parts of the book, she found herself missing the excitement and fun that extroverts bring to the table, and I think most of us can relate with that. At a recent long weekend with my college friends, I recognized how much more enjoyable it was having a few extroverts and ambiverts in the mix. It just wasn't as fun when they weren't there.

Cain also provides loads of research that paint a complex picture of how introverts and extroverts function in society. For example, she describes how the financial crisis of 2008 can be attributed to extroverts. Extroverts had apparently come to dominate the financial industry in the preceding decade by jumping on hot opportunities and throwing caution to the wind, while introverts who saw the red flags were marginalized because of their lower short-term earnings. We all know how that went. So if you're an extrovert, take note. Make sure to listen to the introverts in your business-- and your life, for that matter.
So I walked away from the book with a more nuanced understanding and heightened awareness of the role that introversion plays in my life and in society. It's practical stuff. For example, it helped me understand why being fully present with other people is so dang hard for me. On average, about 25% of my attention is inner directed, and sometimes it's a whole lot more than that. Conversely, over 90% of extroverts' attention is naturally focused on the here and now. They're more engaged-- and that's why they're more engaging! Sounds obvious, I know, but even knowing those numbers has helped me keep my engagement in check when I feel myself become more inner-directed. It's also tuned me in to the introversion level of the people I interact with. After thinking about this stuff for a couple months now, it's second nature for me to identify in a split second how introverted someone may be, and this has helped me know what I can expect from them. 
As a side note, I listened to this book on audio, and it's amazing how deeply the lessons have sunk in after absorbing it drop by drop over several weeks. It's been a real help in my struggle for better moment-to-moment presence. So if introverson is a topic you'd like to spelunk, don't just give it a read-- give it a listen!

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