Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking explores introversion and extroversion. It discusses the differences between introverts and extroverts, the dangers of having a world run by extroverts, how to use your strengths as an introvert, and relationships of introvert-extrovert couples and the difficulties that result from this ‘mismatch’, among other related topics.

Extroversion is not always ideal

I recently watched The Big Short and it was like a punch to the gut. The willful ignorance of Wall Street and the financial sector. The unchecked arrogance. The adulation of money. The greed. Those involved in the upper echelons of the US financial sector destroyed the world economy and were not only not punished (one schmuck did go to jail1), but ultimately rewarded for their job well done2. The crash of 2007-2008 can be partly explained by the personality traits prized by Wall Street; charm, confidence, and an immense appetite for risk (psychopathy?3). As Cain and Vincent Kaminski (a director at Enron who tried to sound the alarm before their demise) explain:

The problem, he explained, was not only that many had failed to understand the risks the banks were taking. It was also that those who did understand were consistently ignored—in part because they had the wrong personality style: “Many times I have been sitting across the table from an energy trader and I would say, ‘Your portfolio will implode if this specific situation happens.’ And the trader would start yelling at me and telling me I’m an idiot, that such a situation would never happen. The problem is that, on one side, you have a rainmaker who is making lots of money for the company and is treated like a superstar, and on the other side you have an introverted nerd. So who do you think wins?”

There’s a role-playing game called Subarctic Survival Situation that you might have played before in school or at some team-building activity. The premise of the game is that your plane has just crashed in northern Canada; it is freezing cold and you have to get your act together or you’ll soon be some lucky bear’s snack. Lucky for you 15 items have been salvaged from the plane, including a compass, a sleeping bag, and an axe, among others. Having established this backdrop, the game continues as follows: first, you rank the 15 items by their importance to your survival and then you repeat this exercise, but this time with the benefit of having a team with whom to discuss how the items should be ranked. These lists are then compared against a list made by a survival expert (how do you get that title?). The idea is that the team should do better (more closely match the survival expert’s list) than any one of the team’s members. Yet it often happens that this is not the case. What goes wrong?

If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed. Yet studies in group dynamics suggest this is exactly what happens… We also see talkers as leaders. The more a person talks, the more other group members direct their attention to him, which means he becomes increasingly powerful as the meeting goes on.

Introversion: nature or nurture?

Are we born introverts or do we become introverts? This is a question that Jerome Kagan, a developmental psychologist, has been researching his whole life. Kagan hypothesized that infants born with a more active amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for much of our emotion, would react more strongly to unfamiliar objects and situations, a trait that would remain as the child grew older. As Cain explains:

And this is just what he found. In other words, the four-month-olds who thrashed their arms like punk rockers did so not because they were extroverts in the making, but because their little bodies reacted strongly-they were “high-reactive”-to new sights, sounds, and smells. The quiet infants were silent no because they were future introverts-just the opposite-but because they had nervous systems that were unmoved by novelty.

While this study seems to point in the direction of nature, it is probably not that simple. Most likely it’s not nature versus nurture, but nature plus nurture. As Cain explains:

According to the theory of gene-environment interaction, people who inherit certain traits tend to seek out life experiences that reinforce these characteristics. The most low-reactive kids, for example, court danger from the time they’re toddlers, so that by the time they grow up they don’t bat an eye at grown-up sized risks.

Cultivate your passions and find balance

Brian Little, former psychology lecturer at Harvard, has been described “as a cross between Robin Williams and Albert Einstein” and his classes at Harvard “were always oversubscribed and often ended with standing ovations”. He is also an introvert to boot. Isn’t it out of character for an introvert to do what Professor Little does? Not according to an expert in the field, Dr. Brian Little. As Cain explains:

The answer, he says, is simple, and it has to do with a new field of psychology that he created almost singlehandedly, called Free Trait Theory. Little believes that fixed traits and free traits coexist. 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.”

If you are doing something you love, then you’ll be more able to go outside your comfort zone to accomplish your goals. However, we still have our limits. What should you do if a project important to you requires you to be more extroverted than you’d prefer? Cain’s suggestion:

Start by creating as many “restorative niches” as possible in your daily life. “Restorative niche” is Professor Little’s term for the place you go when you want to return to your true self. It can be a physical place or a temporal one, like the quiet breaks you plan between sales calls. It can mean canceling your social plans on the weekend before a big meeting at work, practicing yoga or meditation, or choosing e-mail over an in-person meeting.

We need a mix of introverts and extroverts

Two examples of introvert-extrovert couples that Cain gives stood out to me: FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt and Cain and her husband. They demonstrate how introversion and extroversion can complement each other and how a mix of each is often what is needed.

FDR was elected president in 1933. It was the height of the Depression, and Eleanor traveled the country-in a single three-month period she covered 40,000 miles-listening to ordinary people tell their hard-luck stories. People opened up to her in ways they didn’t for other powerful figures. She became for Franklin the voice of the dispossessed. When she returned home for her trips, she often told him what she’d seen and pressed him to act. She helped orchestrate government programs for half-starved miners in Appalachia. She urged FDR to include women and African-Americans in his programs to put people back to work. And she helped arrange for Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. “She kept him on issues which he might, in the rush of things, have wanted to overlook,” the historian Geoff Ward has said. “She kept him to a high standard. Anyone who ever saw her lock eyes with him and say, ‘Now Franklin, you should…’ never forgot it.”

Ken may be aggressive, more aggressive in a week than I’ll be in a lifetime, but he uses it on behalf of others. Before we met, he worked for the UN in war zones all over the world, where, among other things, he conducted prisoner-of-war and detainee release negotiations. he would march into fetid jails and face down camp commanders with machine guns strapped to their chests until they agreed to release young girls who’d committed no crime other than to be female and victims of rape. After many years on the job, he went home and wrote down what he’d witnessed, in books and articles that bristled with rage. He didn’t write in the style of a sensitive person, and he made a lot of people angry. But he wrote like a person who cares, desperately.

Summary

The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers-of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity-to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply.

Citations

  1. Wikipedia | Kareem Serageldin  
  2. Time | How Washington’s Bailout Will Boost Wall Street Bonuses  
  3. The Week | Why is Wall Street full of psychopaths?