Living in a not so quiet world
Updated: May 20
“Come out of your shell more” “Participate more” “Put yourself out there more” If anyone has made any of these remarks to you in your lifetime, you’re probably quiet, shy or an introvert.
And if you’ve ever felt bad about your introversion, I feel you. Because ever since I was younger, time and time again I’ve been told these words. And so, I grew up believing I needed to be louder, bigger, and bolder to fit into a world that “can’t stop talking.”
In class, I was never naturally inclined to speak up when I wasn’t super passionate about a topic, and I always knew that too much socializing and small talk burned me out. But I’d try to brush off that discomfort because I thought I’d never be praised for being a good listener and soft-speaker because I wasn't a loud talker and “natural-born” leader (whatever that last part means anyway).
But I’ve realized that my natural inclination to not raise my hand right away or jump at the opportunity to talk to a stranger isn't because of some crippling anxiety, it's just because of my introversion. And thanks to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I value it even more now. I’ve learned what it truly means to be an introvert, and how I can use what I know about myself to be successful in all parts of life. (Sidenote: For not reading in a while, I'm happy I picked up a book actually worth reading)
So for my fellow introverts or even extroverts who want to learn more about what it means to be an introvert in an extroverted world, here are a few takeaways from Susan Cain’s Quiet.
1. We shouldn’t overlook introverts
According to Quiet, being quiet, shy, or introverted are all perfectly normal ways to be. About 50% of the entire US population is introverted while 40-60% report themselves as shy. Yet, the Western world seems filled with extroverts, while the introverts stick out like sore thumbs. But we shouldn’t overlook this 50%. The world would be devoid of many inventions, important works of literature, and philosophies without introverts.
But we do overlook it. We associate charisma, friendliness, and extraversion with success. We live in a world where the loud talkers are seen, heard, and praised, and the listeners and soft speakers are ignored or even undermined. But Cain suggests that if we valued introverts and adjusted the world to fit them better, maybe they wouldn’t be so overlooked. And maybe they’d all learn to start embracing introversion a little earlier in life.
2. Americans live by the “Extrovert Ideal”
Cain suggests that ever since the rise of industry and big business, Western culture has transformed from a “culture of character” to a “culture of personality,” while extraversion is viewed as superior and introversion as inferior. Essentially, when Americans think of their ideal co-workers, friends, leaders, significant others, or students in a classroom, they picture those who are gregarious, charismatic, and comfortable in the spotlight.
And to put this in perspective, if I were to ask you: who do you look up to as a leader? more likely than not, you would answer with Martin Luther King Jr. or FDR over Rosa Parks or Eleanor Roosevelt. And what distinguishes the last two from the first is personality. MLK Jr. and FDR were charismatic extroverts. While Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt were soft-spoken introverts.
3. The “Extrovert Ideal” stifles creativity
There are pitfalls to a world that favors extroverts. In this world, highly charismatic extroverts are viewed as leaders. And so, there is a sort of groupthink mentality, as people favor, listen, and follow the loud leaders.
So picture this: a large brainstorming session with well-spoken extroverts. Most of the suggestions or ideas they put forward will be agreed with, unless someone speaks up of course. But, there is physiological research that suggests that when people oppose a group consensus, our amygdales (the part of the brain that processes emotions) light up, signaling fear of rejection. So large brainstorming sessions can unintentionally discourage valuable contributions to the group. So where does introversion come into play here?
Well, introverts are literally wired differently- our nervous systems prefer less stimulating environments, and we work best with the perfect amount of stimulation, coined by psychologists as an “optimal level of arousal,” or what Cain calls “a sweet spot.” This is why some people might prefer peace and quiet over loud music. Your sweet spot is where you perform your best – not too under or overstimulated.
So, in the case of brainstorming, a quieter environment is more conducive to an introvert’s creativity, because too much stimulation, too many talking heads, contribute to stifling creativity, as introverts literally lose our trains of thought.
Essentially, just because someone talks a lot, doesn't mean what they’re saying is valuable. Don’t equate eloquence with brilliance. And when introverts are forced into awkward extroverted roles, the loss affects everyone. Cain says, “when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.”
4. Not everyone succeeds in the same environment
The first Apple computer wouldn’t have been created if it weren’t for Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs’s business partner. And he successfully built it because he was alone. He did attend meetings with other computer lovers, but it wasn’t in those meetings where he was the most creative and productive. Wozniak, if you haven’t guessed it already, is an introvert. And if he were told to work with a group of people to create a computer, it probably would have taken a lot longer and might’ve not been as well-thought-out.
People should recognize that we all need different environments, different “sweet spots” to succeed. Recognize what environment you succeed in, and that will be a game changer to your success.
5. The world needs balance
There's so much talk about balance in our world: yin and yang, peanut butter and jelly, salt and pepper, introverts and extroverts. So, isn't it obvious that the world needs balance?
Cain referenced an interesting psychological experiment showcasing this idea, conducted by a developmental psychologist, Avril Thorne. The experiment consisted of fifty-two young women- half introverts and half extroverts. Each had ten-minute conversations with one of their own type and one of the other type. Thorne discovered that both types appreciated each other.
The findings suggested that in the case of introversion and extroversion, opposites attract. Introverts sometimes prefer talking to extroverts and in the experiment, even described the conversations as a “breath of fresh air.” While the extroverts felt like they could relax more with the introverts and confide in them more. This experiment makes a lot of sense to me because I love having both introverted and extroverted friends, and I think it's important to surround yourself with people with different personalities and temperaments.
In friendship, sometimes it's better to seek those unlike yourself and recognize that it is good to have a balance. We must understand that the world should be tailored to both types because both offer something unlike the other.
6. Our personalities are like rubber-bands
Cain says, “we are elastic and can stretch ourselves but only so much.” We are who we are initially because of our genetics, brains, and nervous systems. Free will can take us far, but we can only adjust ourselves to a certain extent. Someone born to be like Bill Gates cannot become Bill Clinton, no matter how much he tries to polish his social skills. And Bill Clinton will never be Bill Gates no matter the number of hours spent on the computer.
Essentially, if you’re an introvert, you might choose to be more extroverted in situations like networking events, parties, presentations, performances. Our personality doesn’t change, but our behavior does across situations, which we can control. And this is largely affected by our levels of arousal and comfort.
So if you’re an introvert wishing you could be more extroverted, it doesn’t mean you can’t do what extroverts do best. Cain, a natural introvert, is a lecturer on top of being a writer because she worked hard and practiced public speaking. But your inborn temperament and nervous system’s tendency to prefer less stimulation is unchanging. So instead of beating yourself up for being quiet and focusing on your weaknesses, recognize your strengths. Introverts tend to be intuitive, deep thinkers, analytical, creative, highly concentrated, sensitive, the list goes on. While extroverts have very different, but equally important strengths. So discover your strengths and work on them instead of wishing you had other ones.
7. Don’t be afraid
The last important takeaway I got from this book is that introverts need to not be afraid. This fear of rejection will stifle their success. If introverts are aware of how they work best, they can adjust their performance. For instance, if you know you want to contribute to a class discussion or work meeting, prepare ahead of time. If you want to join the brainstorming session, work on ideas beforehand. If you’ve been dying to network with some people you admire but know you don’t thrive in that setting, go for as long as you need, and know that you can go home after and relax. You have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations, and in this case, situations where extroverts thrive.
If you're an introvert, you probably are very aware of who you are and what you love. So in networking, talk about a topic you love to ease your nerves or discomfort. This tip also works for those with presentation jitters. I’ve found that I’m much better at public speaking if I’m speaking from the heart, and presenting something I am proud of. Prepare for presentations so you won’t be as aware of blank stares in the audience but more aware of what you are saying. Because introverts are typically highly sensitive to their surroundings, they are more likely to pay attention to how others behave and react to them, distracting them from their task, like giving a speech for example.
Nevertheless, know your strengths, and channel them. And know that you shouldn’t give in to the social pressures of extroversion. You should embrace your introversion with confidence, and when you believe in yourself, others will too.
Susan Cain’s book left me realizing that maybe the Western world does value extroverts too much. And maybe it is our culture that is causing introverts to question who they are, trying to change themselves to fit in. But if more people recognize the strengths of introverts and more introverts value and stand up for their strengths, the world could be even more brilliant. Because why wouldn’t we want a world that is filled with all different types of people, ideas, and inner worlds brought to life?