Susan Cain discusses the challenges and advantages of being an introvert

March 8, 2012 | By | 7 Replies More

Susan Cain is an introvert in a world dominated by extroverts who insist that introverts should act like extroverts. She recently wrote a book titled, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I took special interest in Cain’s talk because I am an off-the-charts introvert.

The world constantly dominated by extroverts is a great loss, Cain asserts, because introverts, who avoid great amounts of stimulation, often “feel their most alive, their most switched on and their

Image by Yuri Arcurs at Dreamstime (with permission)

most capable when they are in quieter, more low key, environments. Unfortunately, our most important institutions (schools and work places) “are designed for extroverts, and extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.”

Society has a prejudice that creativity comes from gregarious gatherings. Schools and workplaces typically assemble students and workers into groups and ask them to work “together,” even in activities such as writing. Kids that seek to work alone are seen as outliers and problems. Most teachers think of extroverts as superior students even though research shows that “introverts get better grades and are more knowledgeable.” Introverts are often passed over for leadership positions, even though they tend to be careful and avoid unnecessary risks. Research shows that introverted leaders tend to let proactive workers run with their ideas, whereas extroverted leaders tend to interfere with the process (min 6:45). At min 8:00, Cain suggests that “ambiverts” probably have the best of both worlds.

Creativity often flows from introverts, because solitude is often a crucial ingredient for creativity. She mentions Charles Darwin, who took long walks and avoided dinner parties. For introverts, solitude matters greatly. Psychology has shown that we can’t be among a group of others without unconsciously mirroring and mimicking the mannerisms and opinions of the dominant people in the room (min 10:23). it would be much better to have individuals generate their ideas in isolation, then come together as a team to share these ideas.

But American society has always favored people of action. It wasn’t always that way. We used to honor introverts, such as Abraham Lincoln, but no longer, now that we have moved to big cities, where people need to “prove themselves among groups of strangers.” We have become a culture of “salesmen.”

Cain argues that we need to give introverts the space to do their best, because society is facing many serious problems for which we need solutions. She offers these calls for action:

1. Stop the madness for group work. People should sometimes work together, but people should be also encouraged to work on their own.

2. Occasionally go to the wilderness to unplug.

3. If you are an introvert, occasionally open up and offer the world what you have to offer.

For further information on introversion, see my earlier post, “Time for Introverts to Come Out of the Closet.”



Category: American Culture, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, Videos

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    As an off-the-charts introvert, I really enjoyed Susan Cain’s Manifesto:

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I’ve now finished reading Susan Cain’s book, and it is excellent. You’ll want to consider reading it whether you are an introvert or whether something you care about is an introvert (yes, that means everyone). I learned so much about introverts as I read Cain’s book, that it felt spookily autobiographic.

    Introverts do have significant advantages and strengths, but it is largely an extroverts world. When people seek leaders, they tend to seek people who are extroverted. So, yes, introverts are often passed over. Lots and lots of Asian people struggle with this; I didn’t appreciate how big of a deal this is for them. Cain has offered numerous strategies for introverts and she often delves into cognitive science, setting out the research in detail, like a good introvert should. There are many contexts where this matters. Teachers need to appreciate the special needs of introverted kids. She says that putting desks in circles and telling the kids to work in groups is often a cop-out. It is also is hell for many introverts, who tend to need more alone time to excel. She reminds us that in a work situation, employers need to be reminded to give people a chance to develop some ideas on their own, or else only the extroverts will dominate and they’ll lose the chance to hear from the introverts.

    Reading this book reminded me that my own father thought there was something wrong with me because I “didn’t talk.” This was a constant struggle, having to listen to him tell me that I was defective in this way. Now I know a whole lot more about why I was so often quiet, and why he became frustrated around me. Why wasn’t this book around 50 years ago?

    I had already heard some of the information Susan Cain offered in her book, but that is because I’ve tried to stay up to date on the literature about introverts. Cain’s book goes far what I knew, however. She provided a comprehensive manual for and about introverts. She will tell you what’s going on and give you lots of hints about getting along with extroverts.

    Ms. Can was an attorney who struggled, much like I do, and constantly deprecated her own efforts and abilities because they didn’t match up to the extroverts at the firm. But then she started forcing herself to listen better, and people were telling her that she was a skilled negotiator. She finally realized one reason for her success as a negotiator is that she invited lots of feedback from the participants. Still, she struggled. Eventually, she asked herself whether she was a good “fit” for her job, mainly due to her exhaustion trying to keep up with the social end, including the pressure to hang out after work, to “have a drink” with her co-workers. Here are her 3 questions that led her to change her career:.

    First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child.

    Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to.

    Third, pay attention to what you envy.

    It occurred to Cain that she was not a good fit for what she was doing, so she followed these rules, which pointed her in the direction of being something like a teacher or a psychologist, which is exactly what she ended up doing with her well-researched and clearly written book. In Cain’s case, she left the legal profession to spend six years researching and writing her book. Her efforts led up to her presentation at TED, which was not an easy thing to do for an introvert, and she delivered a solid talk. Knowing that she is an introvert, however, I suspected that there would be much more useful information/encouragement in her book, and I was not disappointed.

    I’ll end with a few quotes from Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain:

    “Being introvert forces others to have real conversations.”

    “Introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo . . . Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

    “[I]ntroverts are also “highly sensitive,” which sounds poetic, but is actually a technical term in psychology. If you are a sensitive sort, then you’re more apt than the average person to feel pleasantly overwhelmed by Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” or a well-turned phrase or an act of extraordinary kindness. You may be quicker than others to feel sickened by violence and ugliness.”

    Who is the ideal parent for an introvert?

    “[A] high-reactive child’s ideal parent: someone who “can read your cues and respect your individuality; is warm and firm in placing demands on you without being harsh or hostile; promotes curiosity, academic achievement, delayed gratification, and self-control; and is not harsh, neglectful, or inconsistent.”

    Cain suggests that it is likely that extroverts caused the stockmarket crash of 2008. Contrast introverts:

    “Introverts, in contrast, are constitutionally programmed to downplay reward—to kill their buzz, you might say—and scan for problems. “As soon they get excited,” says Newman, “they’ll put the brakes on and think about peripheral issues that may be more important. Introverts seem to be specifically wired or trained so when they catch themselves getting excited and focused on a goal, their vigilance increases.”

    One more strategy for introverts:

    “[D]on’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way.”

    So now you know that I loved this book. It was like having an insightful conversation who knew me a little too well, who know my strengths and struggles. This was one of the five most rewarding books I have read in the past few years. No doubt.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    “Noting that she and [Michael] Moore are both introverts — a fact Moore rightly acknowledged is hard to believe — [Susan] Sarandon asked the famously pushy filmmaker how he gets up the nerve to barge in on powerful subjects and chase them around for interviews. “I am terrified,” Moore said. “I’ve always been terrified, and I’m trying to hide it as best I can, trying to convince myself that I’m going to get through it alive and that no harm will come to me.”

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    “Managers must strive to help introverts find their voice, Wilkins says. One technique: Ask them to share their ideas before a meeting so they have an easier time speaking up in front of others.

    “Help them to see that speaking up is not about self-promotion or being in conflict but rather about offering the team key insights, making better decisions or increasing the efficiency for all,” she says.

    What about those extroverts who never seem to be at a loss for words? Should managers cut them off?

    Managers definitely should weigh in on how an extrovert is affecting others. Wilkins suggests saying something in private: “At our last meeting, you spoke for 80% of the meeting. As a result, you were not able to get buy-in from the group, and this will impact your ability meet the deadline next week.”

  5. Erich Vieth says:


    We’ve all been to those parties where the sole purpose of the event is for everyone to break into small groups where they talk about sports, the weather, or where the host’s second cousin got her hair done. It’s moments like these where it suddenly becomes very important to find out if there’s a pet you can play with, or when all else fails, perhaps a large potted plant to hide behind. If there’s a drink to be fetched or a bowl of chips to be refilled, this task will instantly become the sole purpose of my existence, because literally anything is better than small talk.

    However, despite appearances, I don’t hate people. I just hate shallow socializing.

    And therein lies the problem that has kept thousands of introverts awake until all hours of the night. Because being an introvert doesn’t mean that you want to be alone all the time. But unfortunately, in order to meet people to share your inner world with, it’s necessary to go out and socialize. In order to get to those coveted discussions about life goals, creative passions, and the existence of the universe, you sometimes have to start with some small talk, no matter how painful it might be.

    When I socialize, I’m not looking for a way to just pass the time. I already have a full list of hobbies and interests and not enough hours in the day to enjoy them all. But I am always looking for a new person with whom I can share my passions and my world. Sometimes meeting that one new person can be worth the agony of socializing.

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