I think I can say that most people who know me would not call me “shy.” Quiet maybe and not usually the life of the party, but not shy.
Well, I have a secret.
I was lucky enough to have parents who let me be myself and encouraged my passions for reading, writing, and drawing. Both sides of my extended family, however, are filled with boisterous sorts who think that nothing is better than spending nearly every waking moment with each other arguing, joking, and talking…a lot. I love them all dearly but there were many times during my childhood when I longed for a retreat from so much togetherness and chatter. Middle school was just plain awful, as I think it must be for anyone who can’t quite squeeze themselves into the rigid social parameters of that particular environment. My mom finally rescued me from a particularly rough time by enrolling me in drama classes. She didn’t consult me about this and you’d think that a shy, quiet child would be horrified at the prospect. Instead, I found that I loved everything about acting and the theater and discovered an emotional strength that I never knew I possessed. To this day, I honestly believe that my mom’s intuition and love rescued my essential self from the some of the worst damage it could have suffered.
As you might gather, I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years and so, Susan Cain’s wonderful new book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking really struck a chord for me. Cain, a former corporate lawyer, is herself a self-described introvert who, strange as it might seem, does quite a bit of public speaking. Actually, I don’t think this is a paradox at all. I think of my own love of acting and the “rightness” I always felt about being on stage playing a part. Also, although it isn’t addressed in depth in Cain’s book, there are more than a few introverts in the arts who are, or were, dynamic performers and often quite gregarious within the right situations. Steve Martin, Audrey Hepburn, Jimi Hendrix, Meryl Streep are all introverts who have undeniably entertained and moved many. Cain draws our attention to many of those individuals who changed our social and cultural landscape through passion and quiet strength: Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Steve Wozniak, Gandhi, J. K. Rowling. All these and more make it clear that our world would be a very, very different place were it not for the contributions of introverts.
This is a thoughtful, very readable, approach to the question “What is the place of introverts in a culture that values the Extroverted Ideal?” (and Cain makes it clear that this ideal is by no means universal). Introverts can lay claim to many qualities that enhance their success as artists, teachers, leaders. Big-picture thinking, listening skills, and the ability to effectively use solitude are invaluable but Cain makes the point that perhaps the introvert’s greatest strength is the quality of persistence. The old adage tells us that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. For good or ill our culture tends to lionize the glamorous one percent, but on that issue Einstein had, I think, the best last word. “It isn’t that I’m so smart,” he once said. “It’s that I stay with problems longer.”
If you are an introvert, you need to read this book. If you are an extrovert seeking to understand a friend, a partner, a co-worker, or a boss, you will find Quiet a wonderful resource. Either way, this book gets my highest recommendation.