What I know now // 029

In 2012 you might have remembered an introversion revolution with Susan Cain releasing a book and giving a pretty good TED talk on it. If you were like me, you might have also read a lot of the “introverts are great!” articles that arose afterwards and have still been trickling in. Had it been another group of people, I might have even labeled it was a ‘revolution’—but the people being what they are, I would say it was more of a ‘suggestion.’

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has been on my to-read list since it came out and I was in Denver. I finally saw it in a used book store and picked up and, thanks to a round trip to the east coast, I finished it this weekend. It was like reading all the different pieces of myself put together and backed by science. I feel like I know how to better spend my time, make myself happier, and work more effectively. I’ve never been so excited to read about how un-unique I am.


Note: You should probably read the book yourself, because I’ve cherry picked my favorite parts like from a horoscope. It was an easy read, with lots of anecdotes that are totally digestible.

First, I’m assuming you know that introversion-extroversion is a spectrum and almost no one is really on either end. That introversion is different from being ‘shy’ (which is when social situations are painful) and that introversion is not being anti-social. It’s about a sensitivity to the environment which includes people. For example introverts tend to lose energy when they’re around people for too long and want to re-charge later.

We live an a world that values extroversion, especially in the business world. We want smooth talkers and schmoozers. We glamorize people who take charge and organize groups. We forget that you can be confident without being loud and can work productively by oneself. Cain gave the example that many schools are structured to compliment the way extroverts learn and not introverts. Even small things like having children sit in groups and working on group projects. One paragraph describing schools oriented in appealing to the business world absolutely baffled me:

The cooperative approach has politically progressive roots—the theory is that students take ownership of their education when they learn from one another…it also trains kids to express themselves in the team culture of corporate America. This style of teaching reflects the business community,” one fifth-grade teach in a Manhattan public school told me, “where respect for others is based on their verbal abilities, not their originality or insight. You have to be someone who speaks well and calls attention to yourself. It’s an elitism based on something other than merit.” (p.77)

Tears forever. I hate to think that children might think that merit is as important than substance.

In reality, introverts can and are successful leaders. They are uniquely good at ‘leading from behind’ because their more likely to hear and implement others’ suggestions (p.57). Whereas extroverts might be more apt to try to put their stamp on a projects and miss great group suggestions.

It shouldn’t be surprising introverts prefer working in solitude. But modern workplaces are being ooo-ed and aahhh-ed for their open floor plans under the assumption that people will work best when they are are around others. 70% of today’s employees work with an open plan and the amount of space per employee has shrunk from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 in 2010 (p.76). I remember walking into the administration section of a hospital and thinking “how nice it is that they all get their own cubical with walls.” I remember when I was growing up, cubical were the sad sign of menial office work, but I would love to have my own private space. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, but I feel like I have more control of my environment and less on edge.

Work days with meetings

Work days with meetings

Having more of my own space would feel like recreating solitude at work. When I’m alone I feel like I can engage in real honest-to-goodness deliberate practice. Otherwise, at work I sometimes feel like I’m a meeting robot that also answers a non-stop barrage of questions that interrupt my day. When I was a student, I would do most of my work from 10pm-2am when almost everyone was asleep. Since the buses don’t run that late, I have found myself coming into work early so that I can work while no one else is there (it would surprise my co-workers to find out I’m not a morning person). I’m like, whew, now I can go home and work.

Cain described a study by a researcher named Kagan who gathered 500 four-month old infants and to predict whether they would be introverts or extroverts. They did this by evaluating how these infants reacted to changes in their environment.  Those that were sensitive to the environment Kagan labeled as ‘high-reactive.’ Example: if watching a video tap of a ballon popping would would make them cry or not. The researcher guessed that those who were high-reactive infants were introverts. They followed up with these infants when they were two, four, seven, and eleven years old.  “Many of the children turned out exactly as Kagan had expected. The high-reactive infants, the 20 percent who’d hollered at the mobiles bobbing above their heads, were more likely to have developed serious, careful personalities” (p. 100).

For example, another study found that introverts tend to have the ideal volume lower than an extrovert would. Researchers found that when working at their ideal volume, they were equally aroused. If they switched the volume, introverts because over-aroused by the loud noised and underperformed (the same for extroverts). I can totally relate to this, I almost never want music loud. When I’m working, I have the volume set at the lowest bar my computer and then adjust it even lower on Spotify’s volume slider.  I just want enough sound to muffle out distractions but not to let it distract me either. But often, the music will stop and I won’t even notice. Even when I’m driving by myself, I keep the volume low, I feel like it would hurt my ears or distract me. I’m baffled by people who can watch TV while they work. My ex-roommate Matt found it amusing that I couldn’t concentrate on anything  else while the TV was on—probably why I never watch TV today.

I feel like all of this information helps me know how to prepare my environment better to work. I want to work in solitude without interruptions. I suspected this of course, it’s not like I had to read it in a book to know how I’d prefer to work, but it’s still really satisfying to hear about studies that support the way I want to work when I feel like outside forces are telling me to work in open office planes or at a coffee shop.

Besides finding the environment or being around people draining, the way introverts work is different.

“Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately. Introverts and extroverts also direct their attention differently: if you leave them to their own devices, the introverts tend to sit around wondering about things, imagining things, recalling events form their past, and making plans for the future. The extroverts are more likely to focus on what’s happening around them.” (p. 168)

It’s something I absolutely was aware of about myself. I can often be found taking notes in meetings and I will refer back to them when making decisions. It took time to get used to offering solutions without more background at work. I don’t mean that we make thoughtless decisions at work, I mean it’s more of our process at work is to throw something out for everyone to comment on early and make revisions along the way. Whereas I would prefer to understand everything thoroughly before proposing a solution. It’s why I’m often quiet at meetings, I don’t think it’s valuable for me to make a suggestion without full information—I know this isn’t true, but it’s just my habit. There’s nothing wrong with just throwing out ideas as a way to challenge assumptions, it probably helps speed things up in some cases. Cain says that introverts need to learn how to trust their gut and share their ideas as powerfully as they can. Ugh.

Finally, it should be said that introverts are not anti-social they’re just differently social. Introverts are more likely to be with a select group of close friends and prefer ‘sincere and meaningful conversations over wild parties’ (p. 226). Everyone knows this about me. I’ve just started telling my friends ‘You know I’m no fun” when they try to get me to go to a party. Part of me wants to go and not miss out, and of course I would to support my friends, but I think I would have had just as good of a time (or more) talking with them over tea. Early in the book, she mentioned that introverts hate small talk and would be more likely to engage in deep conversations with new people they meet. Me: “YESSSSSS.” She also described introverts who were good at ‘self-monitoring’ so that there were able to change their behavior according to the social demands of a situation (212). For example, Cain describes an introverted teacher who successfully performs the role of an extrovert in order to teach his class and work towards something that is important to him. I think I can be ok at this sometimes.

These are just some of the main points I wanted to share with you. Cain also gave interesting accounts of cultures were extroversion is not the ideal (sounded amazing!) and how relationships are affected by a mix introvert-extrovert of personalities, both parent-child and couples (how to introverts ever find each other?!). Cain is definitely not trying to say introverts are better than extroverts, but the book is trying to prove that introverts are as powerful and necessary to a culture as extroverts and not to let them get washed away in all the noise.

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