‘'Why I believe in the power of introverts'’

Bookworm: Fictional five-year-old Matilda is a gifted reader with an introverted personality.
by Susan Cain

Writer, lecturer and self-confessed introvert. She is the author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking .

Modern western culture misunderstands the shy and the quiet people and rewards the attention seekers. But it is the introverts who are most likely to come up with solutions to our problems.

When I was nine, I went to summer camp for the first time. My mother packed me a suitcase full of books. In my family, reading was the primary group activity.

Camp was like a keg party without any alcohol. On the first day, our counsellor taught us a cheer to instill camp spirit: ‘R-O-W-D-I-E, that’s the way we spell rowdie. Rowdie, rowdie, let’s get rowdie’.

I could not figure out why we were supposed to be so rowdy, or why we had to spell this word incorrectly. I waited for the time that I could go and read my books.

“I could not figure out why we were supposed to be so rowdy, or why we had to spell this word incorrectly”

But the first time I took my book out, the coolest girl in the bunk asked me, ‘Why are you being so mellow?’ The second time, the counsellor came up to me with a concerned expression and said we should all work hard to be outgoing.

So I put my books away.

I could have told you 50 stories like this — all the times I got the message that my quiet and introverted style of being was not right. I always sensed this was wrong. But for years I denied this intuition.

I became a lawyer, instead of the writer I longed to be. I was always going to crowded bars when I would have preferred to have a nice dinner with friends.

I made these choices reflexively. This is what many introverts do. It is our loss, but also our colleagues’ and communities’ loss. It is the world’s loss.

A third to a half of the population are introverts, subject to this deep bias. Introversion is about how you respond to stimulation. Introverts feel at their most alive, switched-on and capable when they’re in quiet environments.

Here’s where the bias comes in. Our schools and workplaces are designed mostly for extroverts.

When I was at school, we sat in rows and did most of our work autonomously. Now, your typical classroom has pods of desks and kids work in countless group assignments.

Most of us work in open plan offices, where we are subject to the noise and gaze of our coworkers. Introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful and let employees run with their ideas.

Some transformative leaders have been introverts: Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Gandhi all described themselves as quiet, soft-spoken and even shy.

Solitude is often a crucial ingredient to creativity. Darwin took long walks alone in the woods and turned down party invitations. Steve Wozniak says he never would have become such an expert had he not been too introverted to leave the house when he was growing up.

Why are we getting it so wrong? Western societies have always favoured the man of action over the man of contemplation. But in America’s early days, we valued people for their inner selves and moral rectitude. Self-help books had titles like Character, the Grandest Thing in the World.

In the 20th century, we entered the culture of personality. People moved to the cities, and had to prove themselves in a crowd of strangers. Magnetism and charisma came to seem really important. Self-help books started to have names like How to Win Friends and Influence People.

The problems we face today are vast and complex. But the more freedom we give introverts to be themselves, the more likely they are to come up with unique solutions.

I sense, believe and hope we are poised on the brink of dramatic change. Introverts, you probably have the impulse to guard very carefully what is inside your own suitcase.

But just occasionally, I hope you will open up your suitcases for other people to see. The world needs you and the things you carry.

You Decide

  1. Is the culture you live in unfair to introverted people?

Activities

  1. Create a large poster, divided into two, explaining the differences between introverts and extroverts and how to get the best out of each of them.

Word Watch

Keg party
A party where large amounts of beer are served from a keg.
Counsellor
The person responsible for children’s welfare at a US summer camp.
Introversion
A preference for quiet environments. This is different from shyness, which is the fear of being judged negatively by others.
Eleanor Roosevelt
The US first lady when Franklin Roosevelt was president. She challenged the view of her job by campaigning on issues such as civil rights.
Rosa Parks
A civil rights activist who refused to obey an Alabama law requiring black people to sit at the back of buses.
Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian independence movement during the rule of the British empire. He famously achieved his aims through non-violent means.
Darwin
Charles Darwin was the author of On The Origin Of Species, the book which first outlined the theory of evolution.
Steve Wozniak
Inventor of the first Apple computer.
Early days
The United States was created in 1776.
Rectitude
Righteous behaviour. For example, President Lincoln was held up as a role model for people to aspire to in the 19th century.