Susan Cain

Susan Cain is an ex-wall street lawyer who is quietly leading the ‘introvert revolution’ with her book: ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Susan is probably the worlds leading expert on the topic of introverts right now.  And I was lucky enough to interview her exclusively on this fascinating subject matter.

Coming from 10 years in the corporate advertising industry it’s always been obvious to me that our society and the business world in particular rewards the extroverts.

I’ve experienced so many new business pitches where the person with the loudest voice wins.

The perception is this:

Extroverts are confident and intelligent

Introverts are shy and have nothing to say

In my experience this is often not the case. We’re taught that it’s important to speak up in meetings and at social events yet what we aren’t taught is the value of being quiet and the importance of ‘considered thinking’.

Sometimes we need more time to digest information to explore all avenues in order to find the right solution. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to respond immediately. In a world that reveres real-time responses, sometimes we just need time to think.

But enough of my humble opinion. I’m sure you’re keen to hear what Susan thinks, she is the expert after-all…

Zoë B: “What’s your definition of an introvert?”

Susan C: “That’s a really good question! Introverts have a preference for lower-stimulation environments —for quiet, for less noise, for less action. That’s where they feel most alive and most energized. In contrast, extroverts crave more stimulation to feel at their best. Stimulation comes in all forms – social stimulation, but also lights, noise, and so on. So an introvert is more likely to enjoy a quiet glass of wine with a close friend than a loud, raucous party full of strangers. Many people believe that introversion is about being antisocial. That’s a misperception; introverts are just differently social.”

Zoë B: “Are you shy by default if you are introverted?”

Susan C: “Shyness, as opposed to introversion, is about the fear of negative social judgment – being excessively worried about what people think of you. Introversion is simply the preference for quiet: less stimulation. Shyness is inherently uncomfortable; introversion is not. So, you can be introverted without having that particular fear at all, and you can be shy but also be an extrovert. The traits do overlap, though psychologists debate to what degree. In practice, many introverts are also shy — but many are not.”

Zoë B: “Coming from a corporate advertising background, the general school of thought is that ‘group brainstorms’ are the most efficient way to generate creative ideas & concepts.  Personally I am not a huge fan of brainstorms and prefer solitude as a quick route to innovation. What are your thoughts on this?”

Susan C: “Unfortunately, we’re currently living with a value system that I called the ‘New Groupthink,’ which is the idea that creativity and productivity comes from an oddly gregarious place. The idea is that being social can help creativity — you have an important conversation and this gives you an idea about how to do things differently.

This is true to some extent. The problem is that we take that too far and try to structure things so that everybody is out and circulating all day long. We leave very little place for deep thought, for focus, and a work space where you can’t be interrupted. We don’t allow people to have solitude anymore. And that’s what we’re missing — because solitude is equally a crucial ingredient of creativity. We need both — the solitude and the chance encounters.

When it comes to brainstorming, we’re really missing the boat, because forty years of research has shown that individuals brainstorming on their own produce more and better ideas than people brainstorming in groups. This is true of extroverts as well as introverts.”

Zoë B: “Do you think introverts can be good leaders?”

Susan C: “Introverts are less often groomed for leadership positions. We mistake the person with the loudest voice for the best leader. Yet there’s groundbreaking new research (from Adam Grant , a management professor at Wharton) finding that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes. When the employees are more proactive,  introverts are more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extroverted leader might be more dominant put their own stamp on things – so other people’s good ideas are less likely to see the light of day. Extroverted leaders do better than introverts when employees require a lot of inspiration.”

Zoë B: “Do you know of any renowned leaders who are introverts?”

Susan C: “There are so many. In my book, I profile several transformative leaders who were shy or introverted or both — people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Gandhi. There are also many highly effective introverted CEOs — for example, Douglas Conant, who recently stepped down as CEO of Campbell Soup.”

Zoë B: “What qualities do you think introverts could teach the extroverts of the world?”

Susan C: “Introverts offer something unique to society that isn’t valued enough right now – careful, contemplative thinking; persistence; quiet strength. Marginalizing this personality trait oppresses everyone, in a way.”

Zoë B: “What impact do you think social media has had upon the way extroverts and introverts communicate? (I myself feel more pressured to respond quickly, often with less considered thought because of the real-time nature of online social media)”

Susan C: “On the one hand, social media is a terrific thing. Many introverts feel they can express themselves more easily online than in person. They can make connections with others online and THEN extend those connections in to the real world, without having to wade through the initial getting-to-know-you rituals of small talk that many introverts dislike.

On the other hand, social media is increasingly becoming a forum that’s based on self-presentation (how many friends do you have?) and on small, relatively superficial bursts of communication. In the early days of the Internet, introverts were more likely than extroverts to say they could express the “Real Me” online. But today, sites like Facebook are favored a little more by extroverts.”

Zoë B: “What changes do you think need to happen for introverts to become more valued in society as a whole moving forward?”

Susan C: “To restructure our schools and workplaces in a way that suits introverts and extroverts alike.”

Zoë B: “And finally, what words of wisdom do you have for the quiet, introverts out there who may not have been recognized for their strengths yet?”

Susan C: “I think the secret to life is living in accordance with your natural temperament – setting up a career and a social life that really suits you. But, as the psychologist Brian Little says, we all need to stretch sometimes for the sake of work and people we love. Extroverts need to act more introverted when they sit down to write a memo (even if they’d rather be chatting with their colleagues). And so too introverts have to stretch when they attend cocktail parties and meetings.”

Thanks for such sound advice Susan. For me personally, this research is groundbreaking stuff and I’d highly recommend Susan’s book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’, where she skillfully delves deeper into the subject matter of introverts. Susan proves that you don’t have to be a show pony to be of any value in the world and with this book, she has managed to balance the cold hard facts, along with charming anecdotes to leave you wishing you were an introvert! I’m also in love with Susan’s ‘quiet manifesto’ on her website, plus you can also catch her talk on TED.

If you’re an introvert reading this right now – it may be time to let your inner-introvert shine!

Simple Life Strategy: 5 introvert habits to adopt today

1. Think before you speak. Try being more considered when you’re asked an important question at work

2. Next time you want to be creative – spend some time alone. Notice if you get things done quicker

3. Don’t give up. Introverts are naturally good at ‘persisting’ so next time you feel like throwing in the towel, reconsider!

4. Adopt a ‘quiet strength’. Know that ‘strength’ is not about ‘shouting the loudest’ or being the most ‘gregarious’

5. Accept yourself. If you’ve felt ‘forced’ to ‘act like an extrovert’ in the past, it might be time to let the real you shine. Know that it’s OK to prefer ‘quiet time’ over ‘noisy time’ and this does not make you a ‘shy’ person. Structure your life according to the ‘real you’.

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