Let’s take a quiz! Answer yes or no to the following questions:
- I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
- I often prefer to express myself in writing.
- I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in-depth about topics that matter to me.
- People tell me that I’m a good listener.
- I enjoy work that allows me to “dive in” with few interruptions.
- I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or only a few friends.
- People describe me as “soft-spoken” or “mellow.”
- I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it’s finished.
- I dislike conflict.
- I do my best work on my own.
- I tend to think before I speak.
- I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself.
- If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with less to do rather than too much.
If you were like me and were shaking your head vigorously yes to most of these questions, then congratulations! You are an introvert!
If you were also like me, then this result would have repulsed you. On almost every one of my report cards, my teachers would write, “Emily needs to come out of her shell.” I recall the first time my mother confronted me about this, gripping the report card in her hand. “Why can’t you be like the other kids? You will not be successful if you are quiet!” These are not words that eight year olds want to hear, or can even comprehend. Even a newly immigrated Chinese woman who barely spoke English knew that there was something “wrong” with being an introvert.
Based on this feedback, I felt the need to correct myself and become a “learned extrovert”. I forced myself to raise my hand and talk in class. I forced myself to be the “leader” in group projects. I forced myself to mingle and hang out in large group settings. To the outside world, it might have seemed I was successful. But was I?
What I didn’t realize was that “shy” and “introvert” aren’t necessarily the same thing. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for minimally stimulating environments. On the contrary,extraverts typically tend to enjoy human interactions and thrive off being around other people.
21st century Western culture revolves around extroversion. Classrooms are structured so that kids face each other in a table and many office spaces are designed in the same manner, to encourage students and coworkers to talk and work together.. We’ve become a culture of personality, where charisma and magnetism are highly favored traits.
As I tried to jam myself into that extrovert mold, it was like trying to hold water on a flat plate: messy and useless. I’d flop onto my bed at the end of the day, feeling so drained that no amount of sleep would take away the empty feeling. It wasn’t until I read Susan Cain’s insights on introversion that I truly understood my personality type.
Her book, Quiet, was a game changer in my life. The title itself was so eye catching: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I immediately picked up the book and saw this line:
“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”
I’d been told my entire life by my parents, teachers, and friends, to “come out of your shell”. Why was this an issue? Why was it a problem that instead of going to someone’s house on a weekend, I preferred to stay at home and read? Why was it a problem that I liked to think and work by myself before group projects? Why did anyone feel like it was necessary that I had to be an “extrovert”?
Cain argues that introversion is not a problem at all, but can actually be a person’s greatest strength. Everyone has been given different abilities, and it’s just a matter of knowing yourself and putting yourself in the right environments. In fact, there have been a lot of very influential leaders that were introverts: Rosa Parks, Ghandi, and good old honest Abe! Introversion and leadership are not mutually exclusive. Cain brings up the example of Moses; “we don’t ask why God chose as his prophet a stutterer with a public speaking phobia. But we should. The book of Exodus is short on explication, but its stories suggest that introversion plays yin to the yang of extroversion; that the medium is not always the message; and that people followed Moses because his words were thoughtful, not because he spoke them well.”
Introverts are needed everywhere, even in business! It’s not just an extrovert’s stomping grounds anymore. Because of the overwhelming number of extroverts in the business world, Adrian Schumpeter of The Economist argues that this is why more and more companies need the reflective and long term qualities of an introvert. We need more Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates in a world filled with Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandbergs.
Now that I embrace my introversion, I realize that some of my core strengths come from my introverted personality. My best work comes from my introspection. Creativity flows my from reflection. I strive to be the best version of myself, not a flimsy mold of what society deems is good.
This by no means is a simple task, and it’s still something I struggle with everyday. But with Cain’s “Quiet Revolution Manifesto”, I’m constantly being reminded that my introversion itself is a strength:
- There is a word for “people who are in their heads too much”— thinkers.
- Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.
- The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths.
- Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There is always time to be quiet later.
- But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.
- One genuine relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.
- It’s okay to cross the street to avoid making small talk.
- “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.
- Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.
- “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” —Mahatma Gandhi
So take pride in your personality, introverted or extroverted, because you have the power to change the world as long as you are passionate. It may manifest itself in different ways but the potential is not restricted to how you enjoy your free time. As Susan Cain beautifully states, “we know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in this world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.”