Monday, November 4, 2013

Before and After Books: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

I read Quiet by Susan Cain two summers ago.  As an introvert, it was like boarding The Mother Ship.  Many of the things I suspected over the years about introverts and extroverts were validated in this amazing book.  Research was discussed.  Scenarios were given that I was only too familiar with, but new questions were raised for me as well.  There are far too many parts of this book I could expand upon but will just give a few for fear of writing another book in this simple blog post.

 I loved the parts that discussed society's bias against introverts.  We tend to hold the outgoing, gregarious person up as successful, popular and therefore, happy.  How many times growing up did I hear from adults, "She needs to come out of her shell," or "She's just so shy!" or "She's such a quiet little thing.".  I never felt bad about my demeanor as a child unless those things were brought up (and they were, many times, to answer my own question). The implication was that it was bad to be this way.  That came through loud and clear to me even as a small child.  The message I received (and still do at times) was that what felt natural and good to me was not the "right" way to be.  I think the intentions of the adults who said these things were well-meaning.  They didn't want me to get trampled on or overlooked.  But they needn't have worried.  As Quiet explains, being introverted does not mean you don't have strength or will never be recognized.  Quite the opposite actually.

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  Cain writes, "Don't think of introversion as something that needs to be cured."  I've rarely been trampled or overlooked when something has mattered to me.  That's not because I'm the most outgoing or verbose person in the room.  It's the quiet that's powerful.  I think that sometimes people view the quiet as hostility, being "stuck-up", or attitude.  It's not.  It's strength.  Strength looks different on an introvert. You don't need to speak on some things because you already know your own mind.  And sometimes as an introvert you know that extroverts aren't going to listen anyway because they are too busy verbalizing their own thoughts.  My ability to reflect and ruminate on my own inner voice has saved me many times in my life.

I also enjoyed the words from some well-known introverts.  Steve Wozniak of Apple computers was my favorite example.  Cain writes, "You might decide that Wozniak's achievement was a shining example of the collaborative approach to creativity. You might conclude that people who hope to be innovative should work in highly social workplaces.  And you might be wrong." She goes on to explain how his job at Hewlett-Packard  allowed him to work in the solitude of his cubicle and then go home and work alone until sunrise in order to create the prototype of his machine.  She quotes Wozniak's own memoir in which he writes, "Most inventors and engineers I've met are like me - they're shy and they live in their heads.  They're almost like artists.  In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention's design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee.  I don't believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee.  If you're that rare engineer who's an inventor and also an artist, I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take  That advice is: Work alone.  You're going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you're working on your own.  Not on a committee.  Not on a team."

Amen, brother.  Committee has always been a bad word to me.  You want to make me cringe, tell me I'm required to work with the group you've selected.   I've never been on a productive, assigned committee much less enjoyed my time while sitting on one.  That doesn't mean I can't work with others.  I can if I can choose people I trust and respect and work on things that matter to me.  That's the case with most introverts.

Cain also spends quite a bit of time looking at the physiology of the introvert.  I found it fascinating that introverts are more sensitive to stimuli than extroverts.  There was a long-term study done with infants who were "high reactive" and developed into what was considered an introverted personality.   It actually wears introverts out to be around too many people in highly interactive situations for too long from the time of infancy.   I've experienced this my whole life.  But I've often wondered how I've developed the skills I have that do not come at all naturally to me. I obviously didn't grow up to be a hermit.  I'm married with a family and work at a highly socially interactive job. I have friends that I go out with and enjoy.  Cain explains this phenomena in relationship to the brain, "If you were a high reactive baby, then your amygdala may, for the rest of your life, go a bit wild every time you introduce yourself to a stranger at a cocktail party.  But if you feel relatively skilled in company, that's partly because your frontal cortex is there to tell you to calm down, extend a handshake, and smile."   As an introvert, my first instinct may always be to bolt when faced with a social situation, but I am able to overcome that when it's important to me.

There's also a lot of information about education and introverts which I found very affirming to my own beliefs.  Particularly interesting were the sections about parenting an introverted child.  My daughter is the archetype of an extrovert, but my son is more like me.  He gets along well socially with others but really enjoys and often prefers time alone. One of the funny family stories we have about him is about when he went to preschool for the first time.  The teacher told us how he was playing with the blocks alone.  When she invited him to come to circle time, he said, "No, thanks.  I hate people."  Naturally, we were a little embarrassed, but I have to admit I was a little proud to of his willingness to express his desire to work alone in his own four year old way. This part also  gave me a lot of food for thought about how to parent my daughter because she is such an extrovert.  She and I deal with things very differently.  Good to keep in mind to save a little grief.

I think what hit home for me most was the section about leadership.  All my life I've been somewhat of a reluctant leader.  I can remember the principal of my grade school telling the fifth grade me in her office that I could be such a positive leader if I wanted to be.  The inference was that I was too lazy or negative to do so and she just couldn't understand why. Here's why  - It was because her agenda was not my own.  She also couldn't make her agenda my own no matter how hard she tried which probably frustrated her to no end.  I'll admit that is something frustrating about introverts.  We're stubborn.  It's difficult to get us on board with your ideas because we're often so sure of our own.  I admit freely that this is not always a good way to be and something I struggle with at times.   Flash forward 20 some years later (and too many similar situations to count) to the worst boss I have ever had telling my co-workers (not when I was present of course) that it was my fault no one wanted to get on board with her inane initiatives and that I could just run things since I seemed to think I was in charge anyway.  Wrong.  The last thing I wanted was her job. Reluctant leader, remember?  But once again, she was frustrated I wouldn't adopt her agenda.   There I was again in the same situation I found myself in as a fifth grader.  To quote another book I just finished reading, "Life was a wheel, it's only job was to turn, and it always came back to where it had started."

  It has always made me uncomfortable when people want me to be the leader.  I don't volunteer for it.  I'm much more of an on-my-own personality. I feel strongly about what is right and what is wrong for me. I don't want to be responsible for that with others.  But I find myself in situations sometimes when, in spite of myself,  I care about things and will speak my mind.  And once again, I find myself thrust into the role of the reluctant leader.  I've never been shy about saying no, and I realize that this is when people often want me around as the leader.  It's somewhat of a dubious honor.   They aren't comfortable with saying it but know I have the reserves for it.   I will dig my heels in if I feel something's wrong.   That's okay with me.  I'm oddly kind of proud of it.  Women in particular frequently have trouble with saying no, even when they know what is being asked is ridiculous.  Saying no can be powerful.  It's not that we can never say yes.  But no can be just as important especially if you're tenacious.   Think about where we'd be if Rosa Parks hadn't refused.  She didn't give speeches or shout and holler.  She just said no and refused to budge on it.  That's where introverts often have the trump card.  Just no.  No hollering or discussion or committee.  Just no.  This is wrong, so -- no.   And yes, Parks is mentioned in the book as a well-known introvert. 

There was a story shared in Quiet that I had not heard before but was still so familiar somehow.  I will end with this and hope you will check out this insightful book no matter which side of the fence you find yourself of the whole introvert/extrovert issue.

"Mark Twain once told a story about a man who scoured the planet looking for the greatest general who ever lived.  When the man was informed that the person he sought had already died and gone to heaven, he made a trip to the Pearly Gates to look for him.  Saint Peter pointed to a regular-looking Joe.

'That isn't the greatest of all generals,' protested the man. 'I knew that person when he lived on Earth, and he was only a cobbler.'

'I know that,' said Saint Peter, 'but if he had been a general, he would have been the greatest of all of them.'

Cain goes onto say,
"We should all look out for cobblers who might have been great generals.  Which means focusing on introverted children, whose talents are too often stifled, whether at home, at school, or on the playground."


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