Susan Cain is the New York Times bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Her wonderful TED talk on the subject has nearly 5 million views:
Susan and I discussed how introverts and extroverts should best deal with each other, what we can all learn from introverts, and how she went from being scared of public speaking to being a professional public speaker.
My conversation with Susan was quite long, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post edited highlights here.
If you want the extended interview I’ll be sending it out in my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
Extroverts often ask me “Gosh, I have this colleague and I know they are really bright and full of ideas but they are not saying anything at meetings. So how do I find out what they are thinking?” My first piece of advice is, don’t ask them in a meeting. A meeting is the worst place to talk to an introvert. You are much better asking them one-on-one in a quiet setting and giving them plenty of time to prepare. Introverts by their nature want to process and think things through before they actually articulate something.
For introverts working with extroverts, it really is the converse. I think introverts need to remember that extroverts really want to connect and check in more often than introverts might feel the need for it. Pushing yourself to do something like poking your head into your colleague’s office a few times a day and checking in, that goes a much longer way than you would think.
I think it is a delicate balance of needing to sometimes step outside of your comfort zone, particularly when you are in situations like a leadership role or going to a networking event or public speaking. That said, it’s one thing to occasionally step outside your comfort zone, but you shouldn’t be living your life out there.
You should be creating a life for yourself where you’re mostly drawing on the strengths of your own temperament and making sure you are at a career or organization where you think you will be able to do things the way you like to do them.
Meaning you have enough privacy or downtime in your workday, doing the kind of work where you get to sit and focus and concentrate if that is the kind of thing that you like to do. I think it’s important to make sure to craft the life that suits your individual temperament and then just step outside when you need to.
There was a study by Adam Grant in the last couple of years, where he found that introverted leaders delivered better outcomes than extroverts do when they are managing proactive employees. Because the introverted leaders are more likely to let those proactive people run with their ideas and generate stuff. Extroverts are more about putting their own stamp on things, so other people’s ideas don’t come to the surface as much. So in a 24/7 economy where we really depend on everybody being proactive and generative, I think the style of introverted leaders is more and more needed.
That is a big can of worms there. Personally, as a constitutionally happy introvert, I tend to be skeptical of that type of research. Because, first of all, I think there are a lot of different types of happiness.
I think you can be a really happy person without jumping for joy everywhere. It can be a quieter form of happiness. And number two, a big thing to remember, is that most of those research studies are done through self-reporting where there is a questionnaire that asks a person “How happy are you on a scale of one to five?”
We know that introverts tend to answer those questions less extremely than extroverts do. This is part of the way introverts think. They tend to be more measured in their thinking. So, they’re going to say “Yeah, I’m really happy!” and before they actually fill it out on the survey they’ll think, “Well, you know, I’m not always happy. Some of the time I might be a little bit blue, so I’ll put down a three or a four instead of a five.” Whereas an extrovert is likely to answer more extremely. So I really wonder about those studies.
I actually think that anybody doing any kind of survey should be thinking about this. If you were a company and you wanted people to be rating your product, you are better off finding a group of extroverts who love your product to complete the survey than introverts. The extroverts are probably going to give you a higher score, even if they like your product the same amount as an introvert does.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s research that he did on the psychological state of “flow”, which is like a transcendent state where you are still engaged in an activity. It could be reading. It could be chess. It could be talking. It could be anything. You are still engaged in that activity but you are outside of yourself. You are neither bored nor anxious, you are completely engaged.
Most of the activities that he describes in his book are pretty introverted activities, solitary ones or thoughtful ones. And I’m always struck by that, going back to your question about happiness. A person who is engaged in that state of flow, they are not necessarily jumping for joy or they don’t necessarily have a huge smile on their face while in flow. It’s kind of a state that’s beyond happiness or reward. It’s more of a state where you are really melding with the thing that you are doing. And I think it’s something that any introvert can relate to. I found that book to be life changing.
There are a lot of things, but one thing is the capacity of introverts to sit still by themselves and be quiet, to concentrate. We know that most really creative people have been those who could tolerate large swaths of time in solitude, because that is such an important ingredient of creativity. And also, if you give introverts problems to solve, they spend more time inspecting the problem, thinking about the problem and more often get the right answer.
And none of that has to do with intelligence. There is no IQ difference between introverts and extroverts, but rather the behavioral style of introverts is to be able to sit still and think through and concentrate. And that is an incredibly under-valued resource.
If you want the extended interview (where Susan explains when introverts really should act more extroverted, and the two secrets that helped her go from being terrified of public speaking to being a professional public speaker) I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
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