Quiet: How to Harness the Strengths of Introverts – a GHC 2016 Lecture by Susan Cain

“Have any of you ever read a book that you loved so much that you wrote an over-the-top gushing fan letter to the author?” Susan Ali asked the audience.  Many hands went up.  “How many of you got a response from the author?”  There were fewer hands this time.  “How many of you were lucky enough to fast forward a couple of years and establish a business relationship with this author?”  There was one hand in the air, accompanied by audience laughter.  “I have been fortunate enough to have all these things happen to me,” Ali concluded.  “The book is ‘Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.’  It gives me great pleasure to introduce the author:  my dear friend, Susan Cain.”

Cain graciously stated that she was the fortunate one in gaining the opportunity to collaborate with Ali.  She opened her lecture with the phrase “The Problem with No Name.”  This phrase was coined by Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique” and it was used to describe a curious malaise that women were feeling in earlier decades.  Cain posits that we have a new unnamed problem in the workplace today.  Introverts are now the ones experiencing a curious malaise.

The workplace is not suited to introverts; meetings and group brainstorming sessions reward extroverted behavior.  “Is the ideal technologist bold, alpha and gregarious?” Cain asks.  The answer, of course, is that there is no picture of the ideal technologist.  The lack of an environment that provides introverts with what they need to do their best work is the unspoken problem that underlies the dearth of women in technology.

Temperament matters.  Psychiatrists, who normally cannot agree on anything, unanimously state that our degrees of introversion and extroversion define how we work, love and live.  This is true across all cultures.  We have heard before that the strongest teams tare also the most diverse.  Teams that contain a mix of introverts and extroverts are the most effective.  It is this ideal blend of yin and yang that led Cain to launch “The Quiet Revolution”.

“Revolutions generally begin in childhood,” Cain stated.  She proceeded to share a telling anecdote.  She was 9 years old and attending summer camp for the first time.  Her mother packed a suitcase full of books.  This was very natural for Cain’s natal family; they were a group of readers and some of Cain’s favorite family memories include evenings where everyone read together in the living room.  Cain expected a similar bonding experience would occur at summer camp.  Instead, the camp counselor assembled the young charges and taught them the following cheer, which they were expected to repeat daily:



Rowdy!  Rowdy!  Let’s get rowdy!

The audience burst into bemused laughter.  It was a tragicomic situation.  Aristotle said, “We are what we do repeatedly.  Excellence is therefore not an act but a habit.”  Imagine encouraging a group of easily influenced, malleable 9-year-olds to a) get rowdy and b) keep at it!  Practice makes perfect … and this practice sounds perfectly awful.  I have a bone to pick with that camp counselor’s cavalier treatment of a child’s precious formative years.

Cain recalls wondering, “Why do we have to get rowdy and why do we have to spell rowdy incorrectly?!”  But, children accept things and peer behavior is highly influential (more on that later) so rowdy she got.  She was rowdy all through camp, on her return from camp (one can only imagine the parental dismay.  They probably cherished visions of returning campers quoting “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau!), all through middle school and all through high school.  This determination to prove that she could be the ideal extrovert led her to practice Wall Street law for several years, instead of becoming the writer she wanted to be.  Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project”, reports a similar experience.  Whenever she heard of college friends becoming great lawyers, she would react in a neutral fashion.  Conversely, when she heard of college friends publishing books, she became sick to her stomach with envy.  In the end, Cain concludes, pretending to be something you’re not is a colossal waste of energy, talent and happiness.

Continued in Part 2: Quiet – Solitude matters!

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