Listen to your inner introvert

Charles Darwin took solitary walks and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak claims he never would have become such an expert if he left the house. These and other geniuses show that sitting still and keeping quiet may be the best trick you’ll ever learn.

FOR the longest time, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, felt that she had to fake it to make it.

“I keep getting the message that somehow my introverted style of being is not the right way to go, that I should be trying to pass as an extrovert,” she said at a recent TED conference (one of two global annual talks that bring together experts in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design).

Recalling an early childhood trip to summer camp, Cain tells the audience how she had taken her books along with her. But when she got to “Camp Rowdie”, she was ridiculed for reading her books and not having enough camp spirit. So she went book-less for the rest of the summer.

“I always sensed deep down that this was wrong, and that introverts are excellent. For years, I denied this intuition so I became a Wall Street lawyer instead of the writer that I always longed to be, to prove to myself that I could be bold and assertive. I went to crowded bars when I preferred to have a nice dinner with friends,” she says.

Cain made self-negating choices so reflexively that she stopped realising she was making them. Until seven years ago.

“I realised that groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” she says.

So she wrote a book.

Quiet is the result of seven years of reading, researching, thinking. It is a fascinating, well-researched book that opens with a moving account of civil rights activist and notable introvert Rosa Parks (who, in 1955, famously sat in the “whites only” section of a public bus and helped fuel the black rights movement in the United States), and an interesting question to ponder: “Why shouldn’t quiet be strong?”

But make no mistake: Cain doesn’t preach. Rather, she describes real-life examples and personal experiences in crystal clear prose, and draws on the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience, to shine a light on the bias against introverts.

We are living in a world in which schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, she states.

“Most schools and workplaces now organise workers and students into groups, believing that creativity and productivity comes from an oddly gregarious place,” she says in an interview in Scientific American magazine.

If the latest research is right and one out of every two or three people we know are introverts, the “Groupthink” approach that’s fixated on teamwork, open-plan offices and the wisdom of crowds could have far-reaching effects. And in Cain’s opinion, that’s not a good thing.

Is silence golden?

We’re all inured to the 21st century cult of self-expression. The rise of Facebook and Twitter demonstrates that most people believe nothing in the world deserves to be heard more than the thoughts drifting across their frontal cortex. Introversion, it seems, is a quality best suited to spineless geeks – and the occasional creep. But here’s the thing: introverts do prefer quiet conversations with a few close friends and plenty of alone time, but not because they resent or fear people and are quietly planning the imminent demise of their enemies.

“Introversion is really about having a preference for lower stimulation environments. So it’s just a preference for less noise, less action. Extroverts, on the other hand, really crave more stimulation in order to feel at their best,” explains Cain in an earlier interview, adding that most people have the misconception that introversion is about being antisocial or arrogant.

Self-confessed introvert Noorazlina Abdullah, 32, can certainly relate to being negatively judged.

“People tend to think I’m a snob. They say, ‘Eh, sombongnya budak ini’ (she’s so stuck up), but really, I’ve always kept to myself since I was young,” she says, adding that in secondary school, the popular kids were always extroverts.

Nothing much has changed, despite her teachers’ best efforts to encourage her to speak up in class. Now an editor, Noorazlina says she chose a profession that allows her to do what she does best – work behind the scenes. She dreads public speaking and presentations, and avoids both whenever possible. But none of that stops her from being good at her job

Aloof writer Steven James, 32, is also an introvert. However, James, who likes to “read books by obscure American authors and watch existential films” at home on a free day, put these habits aside for a while in an effort to be more outgoing.

“I used to go clubbing with my friends, but I found it rather boring. The DJs never played the kind of music I liked and I didn’t have anything in common with the people I meet. Soon, I realised it was an exercise in futility,” he says.

With only a few close friends to talk to these days, James vents his feelings through music by writing and playing the blues.

Not surprisingly, psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University) and Gregory Feist (associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University) suggest that the most creative people in many fields are usually introverts, wrote Cain in an article for the New York Times. They claim that solitude is a crucial and underrated ingredient to creativity.

Cain cites brainstorming sessions as an example. Pioneered by a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn, this practice has been wildly popular in corporate America since the 1950s. However, 40 years of research shows that brainstorming in groups is a terrible way to produce creative ideas. Says Cain: “The organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham puts it pretty bluntly: ‘Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’”

Cain adds, “Darwin took long walks in the woods and turned down dinner invitations, Dr Seuss wrote alone, and was afraid of meeting the kids who read his books for fear they would be disappointed at how quiet he was. (Apple co-founder) Steve Wozniak claimed he never would have become such an expert if he left the house. Indeed, most major religions have seekers, Buddha, Jesus, each went into the wild to learn.”

In short, no “wilderness” (actual or metaphorical), no revelation.

According to Psychologies Magazine, introverts are also deep thinkers. This is based on a research by the co-founder of business-psychology firm ML Consulting, Gillian Rankin, which highlights that introverts think before they speak and develop their ideas quietly, by reflection. This means they tend to be good listeners and have a depth of concentration.

In an article for Time magazine, Cain writes, “It’s no accident that introverts get better grades than extroverts – they know more about most academic subjects and win a disproportionate number of Phi Beta Kappa keys and (US) National Merit Scholarship finalist positions – even though their IQ scores are no higher.”

But for all their natural gifts, introverts tend to go unnoticed in what the magazine calls “The Age of The Hard Sell”.

Accountant Emily Chin, 29, says that, as an introvert, she has to work harder to get ahead in the workplace.

“I think life is ultimately more difficult for us because a lot of contacts are made through socialising and networking,” says Chin. “But for those who don’t enjoy networking, they have only their skills and hard work to fall back on. Even then, all that might go unnoticed if you don’t know the right way to market yourself.”

Chin isn’t voicing an irrational fear. At school, extrovert students are considered ideal even though introvert students get better grades. And according to Cain, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership roles in the corporate world.

“That’s a real problem because research has shown that, as leaders, introverts are more careful, much less likely to take outsized risks, and are more likely to let creative and proactive team members run with their own ideas, rather than run over them or squash them – something that should be an ideal trait in the modern office,” she says.

She points out that history and science have proven that people who like to be alone have been key innovators and leaders. Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Sir Isaac Newton were all introverts, and so are many of today’s business leaders, from Douglas Conant of Campbell Soup to Larry Page at Google.

And if last year’s media storm surrounding Charlie Sheen’s “winning” ways proves anything, it’s that shutting up has its advantages. Moreover, Wall Street’s financial collapse of 2008 and disasters like Enron would also never have occurred, writes Cain, if people had listened more to their inner introvert.

Sync or sink

This brings us back to the main line of the argument: the pitfalls of the New Groupthink. When future Warren Buffets are stifled, it’s not just them who suffer, but society as a whole.

“It’s never a good idea to organise society in a way that depletes the energy of half the population. We discovered this with women decades ago, and now it’s time to realise it with introverts,” says Cain.

This isn’t to say we should shun collaboration and a strong team spirit. If Steve Wozniak had not collaborated with Steve Jobs, there would be no Apple, explains Cain in her book. However, it’s important to recognise that introverts like Wozniak need more space and privacy to do their work. Says Cain: “Offices need chatty conversations, and great spaces to make serendipitous interactions. But we also need much more privacy, and more autonomy. The same is true – more true – for schools. Yes, teach kids to work together, but also how to work alone.”

In other words, introverts can’t afford to retire to a cave and live like hermits. To establish valuable relationships, as well as earn a living, it is necessary to function well with others. It is here that the introverts are at a disadvantage: although they are not necessarily shy – shyness is a separate social anxiety – they often find social situations draining and struggle with small talk.

But while scientists have begun to learn that the introverted or extroverted temperament seems strongly inborn and inherited, Dr Goh Chee Leong is living proof that introverts can break free from the stereotypes that define them.

“Contrary to popular belief, being introverted does not automatically mean that you can’t socialise or connect with people or work in a career that requires you to do so. You don’t have to be a prisoner to your personality,” he says.

A reserved person by nature, Dr Goh is speaking from experience. He grew up as a quiet child, preferring books and movies to socialising. These days, however, his role as vice-president of the Malaysian Psychological Association requires him to have great oratory skills and occasionally give public speeches in front of hundreds of people.

In his opinion, introversion and extroversion aren’t fixed categories, but two opposite ends along the same continuum. It is possible to move along this continuum, getting more introverted or extroverted, as one gets older.

Chin, for instance, says solitude has helped her get over the death of both her parents several years ago. “I think I’m getting increasingly comfortable being by myself, but my boyfriend, a real extrovert, balances me out,” she says.

Although many people get more introverted with age, Dr Goh has some advice for them: “Introverts can be good with people. If you’re not one of them, just remember that you can develop your people skills without changing the essence of who you are.”

Ultimately, he says, it’s important for both introverts and extroverts to appreciate the differences between one another.

Chin agrees. “If everyone was alike, the world would be a very dull place indeed!” she says.

For her, having a few real friends matter more than having a few hundred acquaintances. “I’m happy the way I am,” says Chin. “I think all introverts make a conscious decision to be the way they are. I know I do. I don’t envy or resent extroverts nor do I have the desire to be one of them.”

And aspiring author and famously social networker Tom Chalfant shows that, sometimes, it could very well be the other way around, with extroverts envying introverts. In his blog, he writes about introverts on Facebook: “I like the quiet people. They are out there, watching and reading and thinking. Smiling or frowning. Considering what’s before them. I like their careful consideration and envy their restraint. I know they are out there, because once in a blue moon they click ‘like’ – that’s about as loud as they get – and then they dart off again.”

Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is currently availanble at major bookstres nationwide.

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