Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) explores the psychology of 2 distinct personality types, that is, introversion and extraversion and explains how cultures tend to undervalue introverts. The author, Susan Cain is a writer and lecturer who co-founded ‘Quiet Revolution,’ a company with a mission to ‘to unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all.’
- “Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling… extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough”
- “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”
- “Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.”
Susan Cain “Quiet” Summary
The Extravert Ideal
The opening of the book details the story of Rosa Parks, a woman who refused to give up her seat on a public bus, which resulted in one of the most important civil rights movements in the 20th century. Upon her death in 2005, the flood of obituaries described Parks as ‘timid and shy’ but with ‘the courage of a lion’ and with phrases along the lines of ‘quiet fortitude.’
Aware of the paradox, Cain writes: “What does it mean to be quiet and strong?”
She attempts to enlighten the reader further:
“Why shouldn’t quiet be strong? And what else can quiet do that we don’t give it credit for?”
Introversion in the modern era is seen as a second class trait -like a pathology. In many cultures today, whereby the value system rewards Extraversion, it makes sense that many introverts tend to hide, even from themselves. This is what Cain labels as the Extrovert Ideal, which she describes as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”
Furthermore, she writes: “Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”
In doing this, we fail to acknowledge the other side of the spectrum, where the unique strengths of introverts befall. After all, Cain argues: “Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”
Moreover, without the introvert, the likes of Microsoft, Harry Potter, George Orwell’s 1984, Google, The Theory of Relativity and Schindler’s List, wouldn’t have come to fruition.
The Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum; Where Do You Belong?
“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality—the ‘north and south of temperament,’ as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them. It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes… and ask ‘what if.’ It’s reflected in our brain pathways, neurotransmitters, and remote corners of our nervous systems.”
In the introductory section of the book Quiet, Cain provides a questionnaire that readers can use to better understand their own temperament.
Read the statements below and answer either true or false, choosing the answer which applies to you most often.
- I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
- I often prefer to express myself in writing.
- I enjoy solitude.
- I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame, and status.
- 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’m not a big risk-taker.
- 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 two close friends or family members.
- People describe me as “soft-spoken” or “mellow.”
- I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it is complete.
- 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.
- I often let calls go through to voice mail.
- If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.
- I don’t enjoy multitasking.
- I can concentrate easily.
- In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.
If you’re an introvert, you’ll have probably answered most of the statements as true, whereas an extrovert would answer most of the statements as false.
Note that there are multiple factors to consider when determining one’s personality. The fact that you may be introverted or extroverted does not mean that your behavior will always be predictable.
As the author, Susan Cain points out: “…even if you answered every single question as an introvert or extrovert, that doesn’t mean that your behavior is predictable across all circumstances. We can’t say that every introvert is a bookworm or every extrovert wears lampshades at parties any more than we can say that every woman is a natural consensus-builder and every man loves contact sports. As Jung felicitously put it, “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”
This is partly because we are all gloriously complex individuals, but also because there are so many different kinds of introverts and extroverts. Introversion and extroversion interact with our other personality traits and personal histories, producing wildly different kinds of people.”
Practicing in Solitude
In chapter three of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cain presents the findings of K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and a pioneer in the field of human performance.
In one of Ericsson’s famous experiments, researchers placed expert violinists at the Music Academy in West Berlin into one of three groups. The groups were (1)‘best violinists,’ (2)‘good violinists’ and (3) those who were ‘training to be violin instructors.’
In addition, researchers then interviewed the musicians and asked them to keep diaries which detailed their length of practice sessions. The goal of the research was to identify whether or not there was a correlation between the number of hours spent practicing alone and the musician’s level of expertise.
THE FINDINGS: Even though all 3 groups had similar demands on their time with relation to class activities, the ‘best violinists’ spent over an average 3.5 hours a day practicing in solitude whilst the other two groups averaged just over 9 hours per week.
As Cain writes: “The best violinists rated ‘practice alone’ as the most important of all their music-related activities.” This is when, as they would describe, the real work gets done.
So what is the magic behind practicing in solitude? When Cain interviewed Ericsson, he described something called ‘Deliberate Practice,’ and explains what it means:
“In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful—they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.
Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires
deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”
Thus, it is no mystery that -as Cain writes: “Many introverts seem to know these things instinctively,” avoiding the herd whenever they can.
Optimizing Around Your Preferred Level of Stimulation
In the 1960s, research psychologist Hans Eysenck hypothesized that humans have a tendency to seek ‘just right’ levels of stimulation. A stimulation can take many different forms: from loud noises to flashing lights, to the dull roar of a cocktail event. Eysenck believed that introverts were more sensitive to overstimulation than extroverts and it accounted for their differences on many levels. For instance, optimal stimulation for an introvert might mean working behind closed doors in a quiet corner office. On the other hand, an extrovert would prefer high wattage activities such as team workshops or trading business cards at a seminar.
“Once you understand introversion and extroversion as preferences for certain levels of stimulation,” Cain tells us “you can begin consciously trying to situate yourself in environments favorable to your own personality—neither over-stimulating nor under-stimulating, neither boring nor anxiety-making. You can organize your life in terms of what personality psychologists call ‘optimal levels of arousal’ and what I call ‘sweet spots,’ and by doing so feel more energetic and alive than before.
She further clarifies: “Your sweet spot is the place where you’re optimally stimulated. You probably seek it out already without being aware that you’re doing so. Imagine that you’re lying contentedly in a hammock reading a great novel. This is a sweet spot. But after half an hour you realize that you’ve read the same sentence five times; now you’re under-stimulated. So you call a friend and go out for brunch—in other words, you ratchet up your stimulation level. [p128; Susan Cain Quiet summary]
The Takeaway: Understanding your sweet spot can increase your satisfaction in every arena of your life. Set up your work, your social life and your hobbies around your optimal level of stimulation!
‘Free Trait Theory’ And Stretching Beyond Your Comfort Zone
Is the very notion of introversion-extroversion too pat a dichotomy: the introvert as sage philosopher, the extrovert as fearless leader? The introvert as poet or science nerd, the extrovert as jock or cheerleader? Aren’t we all a little of both? – Susan Cain
To what extent does biology influence our personality, and to what degree does situational factors play a role?
This has been a popular topic for discussion. On one side lie the ‘person’ group; those who believe that personality is relatively stable throughout one’s lifetime. On the other side, lie the ‘situationists,’ – those who believe that there is no core self and that our personality is more fluid than we like to think -adapting to demands placed by the situation.
In her book, Cain discusses a relatively new concept in the subject of personality theories, called ‘Free Trait Theory,’ which was theorized by researcher Prof. Brian Little.
It suggests that our biological temperaments give us fixed traits but we are able to adjust to temporary situations through what Little describes as ‘Free Traits.’
Cain writes about Professor Little’s observations:
“According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits—introversion, for example—but we can and do act out of character in the service of ‘core personal projects.’
In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly. Free Trait Theory explains why an introvert might throw his extroverted wife a surprise party or join the PTA at his daughter’s school. It explains how it’s possible for an extroverted scientist to behave with reserve in her laboratory, for an agreeable person to act hard-nosed during a business negotiation. And for a cantankerous uncle to treat his niece tenderly when he takes her out for ice cream.
So, if you’re an introvert living the corporate life in America, should you try to savor your true self for quiet weekends whilst spending your weekdays striving to ‘get out there with the crowd?’
Or, if you’re an extroverted freshman at University, should you save your true-self for those weekend parties and spend your weekdays focusing in solitude?
Whatever strategy you choose to follow, the lesson of free trait theory is evident: if some work or calling is important to you and if it requires you to stretch your personality outside your zone of comfort, then, by all means, pursue it!
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