Quiet is a dichotomous and fascinating book that was written by Susan Cain in 2012. It includes extensive scientific research and years of studies about human nature on the topic of introversion, as well as the emotional and personal effects of introverted people trying to cope in an extroverted world. There are multiple messages for both introverts and extroverts, alike, and the power of her book lies in understanding ourselves, and others, so that we may succeed.
Susan Cain has been a guest speaker on TED talks, a successful podcast that has amassed billions of dedicated followers listening to a variety of subject matters. She is also, ironically, an admitted introvert who learned over time to overcome her natural inhibitions and become one of the most successful writers and influencers of our time. Her book has been listed by Forbes magazine as “A must-read”, and truthfully, as an extrovert married to and often surrounded by introverts, I couldn’t agree more.
She begins the journey of understanding the origins of human nature through the story of that “mighty likeable fellow,” Dale Carnegie. His metamorphosis from farm boy to salesman to public-speaking icon exemplified the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the early twentieth century. This is the time when towns became urbanized, and people suddenly found themselves working and living next to strangers. Where once it was enough for people to simply be good and kind, the American culture began to change, and those qualities were no longer enough. Once admirable traits such as good citizenship and golden deeds took a back row seat to new, enigmatic personality traits including magnetism, being forceful and outgoing, and sheer attractiveness. By 1920, the focus had so shifted from inner virtue to outer charm that the path to extroversion was laid out for Carnegie and all future generations to come.
Susan Cain goes on to show how individuals are often ‘forced’ into extroverted scenarios, as noted in the highly competitive and prestigious business school of Harvard University. There, the group is the master and individualism is often cast aside. Students have no choice but to work together in small groups to complete their assignments and survive the rigorous curriculum. The fallout from this “Groupthink” scenario is that introverts are subjected to an uphill battle that extroverts are not, as they work to establish themselves, promote their ideas and make a difference in an already grueling academic program. One student, Don Chen, summed up his experience at Harvard with this: “Socializing here is [considered] an extreme sport.” Yet interesting enough, some of the most successful CEO’s of our times that emerged from Harvard rarely use groups to make decisions in their companies, including the successful Darwin Smith, who oversaw Kimberly-Clark for twenty years.
From historical premise of cultural change to the university culture, Cain then swings the arc of introverted individuals and how they were all the way back to Biblical days. We may all know of Moses and the Ten Commandments, but who has heard of Aaron – Moses’ shy and little known brother who was actually his right-hand man? Are all religious figures that stand up on the pulpit and preach to the masses extroverts themselves? Certainly not, and among the many people Cain interviews, is Adam McHugh, an evangelical pastor who had to learn how to step beyond himself to be able to breathe the word of God into his flock.
On a more recent, political note, Cain then talks about Eleanor Roosevelt as the “conscience” behind President Franklin Roosevelt during his four terms. Though an unlikely pair, their differences complimented each other’s roles well (minus his philandering, of course). Eleanor became a major influence in the social and cultural front during her day. The irony behind her success, though, is that as a young adult Eleanor was shy, aloof and lacked confidence. It was because of her interest in social change that she was able to accomplish great things for our country as she grew into herself and her role as First Lady. Another political introvert who had to move past his natural tendencies of ‘gathering within instead of seeking without’ is Al Gore. Both of these individuals were inherently considered “shy,” yet became well-known powerful public speakers and advocates for what they believed in. Cain and other researchers agree that finding that one’s passion is what allows introverts to become what they are not, and succeed in the outside world.
Cain references many scholars and scientists throughout the book, all of whom are noted in the extensive notes at the end, including Gregory Berns, Dr. Matthew Leiberman, Marc Berman and Jerome Kagan. Kagan, the notable Harvard psychologist, for example, studied young children and their behavioral inclinations all the way through to adulthood. His studies provided ‘painstakingly documented evidence’ that high-reactivity is a biological basis of introversion. He ties in physical attributes, the amygdala of the brain and other conclusive reports that show just how introverts react to the world and the scenarios around them.
What I enjoyed most about Cain’s book, however, is her segway in later chapters into more individual and personal uses for understanding how introverts function, by bringing it down to the singular, family level. She addresses the positives and negatives of how ‘opposites’ are attracted to one another, how they work against each other, and how to best work together in a healthy, happy marriage. She then discusses parenting and shows a number of examples how parents can better relate to and teach their children once they understand their introverted or extroverted persuasion. Shyness and introversion are not the same, and children are often mislabeled and misjudged on their capabilities, once that stigma of being “shy” is cast upon them. Furthermore, she admits to what we all experience on a daily basis, in our homes, our relationships and the business setting, known as “the communication gap,” and provides concrete solutions for living and working better together day-to-day.
From business to interpersonal, history and religion, Cain has succeeded in writing a thorough account of introversion as a personality trait that must compete with the extroverts in a self-recognized extroverted world. Her examples are thorough, her references are extensive and it is obvious that she wrote about a topic she has strong feelings for (which is the key to success, remember). One of the most notable phrases that emerges from Quiet is the “rubber band theory” of personality, where she states that as individuals we are able to stretch ourselves outside of our comfort zones to accomplish more, but only so much before we eventually ‘break.’ The goal is to improve yourself by stretching just enough to accomplish what you want to and need to, and understanding who you are and what makes you tick. For introverts, especially, they must figure how which scenarios are alarming and which ones are inspiring, and then place themselves in the right setting, the right career, and ultimately the ideal life.
A key line at the end of the book that states this endeavor best is this: “The Secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.” I would add at the end, ‘and to always make sure that you shine brightly.” Because, in the end, isn’t that exactly what we all want to do, one way or another, before we leave this crazy world?
Are you an introvert trying to survive in an extroverted world and sometimes barely hanging on? Or, is your inclination extroversion, have you been trying to “tone things down” through the years? It’s all about balance, knowing yourself and understanding those around you.