There is a difference between being introverted and being shy according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet. Shy people are afraid of speaking up and introverts feel overstimulated and need downtime[^Page 13]. There’s an even bigger distinction between extroverts and introverts and it’s not just how they prefer to spend their time. The big difference is that we live in a society that holds extroversion as the ideal state of being, a phenomenon that Cain calls The Extrovert Ideal[^Page 4].
Exploring this extrovert ideal, and the strength that introverts can bring to the table in daily life, is what Quiet is all about. It starts with an exploration of what the extrovert ideal is, and how it manifests itself. The second section is all about the biology of introversion and extroversion. Part three is a short exploration about the cultural reference of extroversion as the ideal state of being. The final section of the book does some exploration on how to survive and thrive in the working world of extroverts as as introvert.
The Extrovert Ideal
The Extrovert Ideal started to take shape around the time Dale Carnegie was setting up shop as we moved from a culture of character to a culture of personality[^Page 21]. The culture of character was obvious in small towns where there was little mobility and people knew your character as you grew up. As people moved to cities and didn’t have a frame of reference for you, your personality had to stand on its own merits out of the gate[^Page 22-24].
In many ways we seem to be at some sort of peak in this culture of personality now as we idolize Instagram and YouTube stars whose posed live’s likely bear almost no resemblance to what is truly happening behind the scenes.
To go with this transition to personality culture, parents recognized that kids needed to present themselves well and started to push children away from solitary activities that wouldn’t present well in a group context. Here’s how Cain puts it.
Well meaning parents of the midcentury agreed that quiet was unacceptable and gregariousness ideal for both girls and boys. Some discouraged their children from solitaire and serious hobbies, like classical music, that could make them unpopular. They sent their kids to school at increasingly young ages, where the main assignment was learning to socialize.[^Page 27]
What this increased focus on good people skills has lead us to is what Cain calls The New Groupthink[^Page 77] which is the idea that we all need to work in teams and think together as a group to be maximally effective. This is how we get open offices, group chat, and all day meetings in that group chat.
Group think gets us many brainstorming sessions, which always get high marks by participants mostly because it makes them feel attached to each other despite the research that says you get more diverse and stronger ideas by worknig alone[^Page 89]. It also gets us studies that focus on what people think a good leader is (hint it’s a people person) instead of focusing on the results that a leader produces[^Page 56], at least in North America.
A counter point to this comes up in Cain’s third section of the book as she looks at Asia and the fact that the typical introvert traits are more likely to get you into leadership positions and to be praised[^Page 187]. Where Asian leaders are more likely to sit quietly and work with the ideas of their peers, North American discussions are often carried by the loudest in the room. Since good ideas come equally from introverts and extroverts we are throwing out many great ideas from introverts simply because they’re not loud[^Page 51].
Problems with the Extrovert Ideal and the Strengths of Introverts
One of the biggest issues with a world focused on extroversion is that we design around it and thus often run counter to an environment that allows for focused work. Cal Newport argues that the ability to focus on a single thing for extended periods of time is becoming more valuable at the same time as it’s becoming harder to do[^ See my review of [Deep Work](https://curtismchale.ca/2016/04/07/accomplish-worth-suffer-less-distraction-deep-work-cal-newport/)]. In It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work the authors call Slack and all day meeting where you have no way to filter out attendees[^ [See my review of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work](https://curtismchale.ca/2019/06/19/why-do-we-assume-it-has-to-be-crazy-at-work/)].
We have this culture of interruption first in open offices at the same time as many workers are aiming for the fabled 10,000 hours of deliberate practice popularized by Malcom Gladwell in Tipping Point. The thing is, you can’t do deliberate practice in a group, and groups are all we have.
Deliberate practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentrations, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. [^ Page 81]
While introverts can stretch themselves within limits[^ Page 121] they ultimately can’t get that far away from their introverted set point and need time to recharge. Enter the social lubricator at conferences of alcohol which is little more than a glass of extroversion[^ Page 143].
Extroverts are highly reward sensitive where introverts are more likely to see warning signs, but as we’ve already established, loud voices carry the day so introverts get drowned out in the bravado of extroverts[^ Page 158].
Extroverts, in all other words, are characterized by their tendency to seek rewards, from top dog status to sexual highs to cold cash. They’ve been found to have greater economic, political, and hedonistic ambitions than introverts; even their sociability is a function of reward-sensitivity, according to this view — extroverts socialize because human connection is inherently gratifying. [^ Page 159]
Cain makes a compelling case for the housing crash being attributed to the extroverted ideal of taking risk for reward and ignoring the introverts that were raising alarm flags, just without the brash character that wins the day. Another big reason that extroverts may have helped cause this crash is that they don’t pause between information and decision, they often say yes when they should say no. If you can get extroverts to pause, they make decisions and weigh information as well as introverts do[^ Page 166].
The problem is getting them to pause instead of the quick-and-dirty approach they naturally favour.
Extroverts are more likely to take a quick-and-dirty approach to problem-solving, trading accuracy for speed, making increasing numbers of mistakes as they go, and abandoning ship altogether when the problem seems too difficult or frustrating. Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately.[^ Page 168]
You can also struggle at home if you’re an introvert and are forced by your work situation to be out with people all day. Instead of coming home dead exhausted it’s easy for an extroverted spouse to think that you were energized all day and not recognize the emotional cost the day has taken on their introvert[^ Page 228]. To this Cain says we need to come up with agreements about the number and type of social engagements that will happen in a week[^ This echos the ideas in [Start Love Repeat](https://amzn.to/2J5rBwi) and For Better or For Work around agreements with spouses in a relationship].
I remember a time when my more extroverted wife worked at home and I worked construction. I’d come home ready to sit and relax and she’d want to head to the beach to soak up the sun, which I had done all day. It took a bit, but we came to an agreement about the number of nights we’d have people over or head out. Having an agreement in place helped us both have the proper expectations around our social engagements and let me expect the energy expense of being out and social more in my days.
Culture starts the emphasis on the extroverted ideal with school children who work in group desks on collaborative projects. When introverted students struggle or dislike group work, they mostly get told to be more extroverted[^ Page 253].
We tend to forget that there’s nothing sacrosanct about learning in large group classrooms, and that we organize students this way not because it’s the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with children while grown ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one there’s nothing wrong with her. She just happens to not fit the prevailing model. [^ Page 253]
For parents of introverts, it’s hard to help because it’s unlikely that your child is going to confess their shame at school so you won’t see them struggle[^ 258]. At worst, parents take their children to what amounts to little more than “conversion” therapy to turn them into extroverts[^ Page 242]. Luckily Cain provides some direction for parents of introverted children to help them survive the extroverted world.
One of the best things you can do for an introverted child is to work with him on his reaction to novelty. Remember that introverts react not only to new people, but also to new places and events.[^ Page 248]
Outside of parental assistance, Cain provides ways that introverts can thrive in an extroverted world.
How Introverts Can Thrive in an Extroverted World
From birth introverts often react strongly to external stimuli[^Page 102] they become cautious introverts. Cain says they’re like orchids, and need the right soil to thrive unlike extroverts that are more like dandelions and can thrive almost anywhere[^Page 111].
If we start to look at our office culture in this light we can see that open offices provide crazy stimulation for introverts which is unfortunate because seeking privacy in open office culture is often thought of as a bad thing[^Page 94]. If you want your introverts to thrive, so up to 50% of your workforce, then you need to provide ample opportunities to get privacy and normalize seeking privacy.
Cain also suggests that you focus on your strengths as an introvert.
The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.[^ Page 264]
I sit in my office most days with few interruptions. I get to focus long on writing and programming with a few dance parties thrown in as my kids drift into my office. I read daily and spend hours thinking about problems as I solve them in relative solitude.
I don’t participate in group chats, and have no notifications on my devices during work hours.
I’ve built a career that lets me get paid well to spend time digging into solutions deeply and then translating them into value in words or code for my clients. Introverts need to work to carve out spaces in their work that they can provide value in this manner. Where research and quiet thinking is prized over instant gregariousness and responding to things at all hours[^ Luckily people like Cal Newport are pushing this introverted ideal under the idea of Deep Work].
When Introverts can be Extroverted
This doesn’t mean that introverts can’t or shouldn’t display extroverted ideals at times, they just need to be strategic with it. The biggest idea Cain puts forward around this is that we can act extroverted if we are passionate about a project[^ 219]. She cites a professor who is seen as the big loud extrovert, but outside of class spends most of his time quiet reading and avoiding interaction with most people.
Or another lecturer that hides in the bathroom with his shoes up on the seat so that he can recharge between his morning lecture and afternoon engagements.
Both of these people are acting out of character because they believe in their mission, and at the same time they have ample time to withdraw and be on their own to recharge. That means, you need to find something you’re passionate about.
Cain suggests that one of the great ways to find this passion is to figure out who you’re jealous of in a working situation[^ Page 218]. What do they do in their work that makes you jealous? I know I’m jealous of authors that get to read/research and then write long about their work, which leaves me with the question of how I get to the same spot.
Should You Read Quiet by Susan Cain?
Susan Cain makes a compelling arguement that by catering to extroverts, we’re missing much of the good that introverts can bring to the table. We miss it either by looking to the loud voices first, and by exhausting our introverts with the working situations we push on them. They simply don’t have the energy to figth another battle where as loud as they shout, it will never be as loud as the extroverts quiet talking in the room.
For introverts, Cain provides a path towards acting a bit more out of your comfort zone if you can find your Zone of Genius[^ See [The Big Leap](https://curtismchale.ca/2016/10/27/things-go-bad-just-success-starts-youve-hit-upper-limit/) for more on the Zone of Genius]. She also provides you with some tools to recover in a world of extroversion as you push yourself to speak up more and act a bit more like an extrovert.
I found the book fascinating, and confirming in many of the ways I do business, particularly the ways I limit my communication inputs so that I can control the information coming at me.
If you’re an introvert, or an extrovert trying to bring out the best in the introverts around you, this is a stellar read.
Photo by: vanf