by: Cara Meixner
Last night, I savored a brief TED Talk by Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Her text has been on my ever-expanding to-read list since February, which feels like a dozen years to an introspective bibliophile. Cup of rooibos in hand, I engaged with Cain’s talk as if it were a tête-à-tête, often pausing to reflect on her musings on introversion.
Drawn from Jungian psychology, introversion and extraversion are preferences toggled by our nature, but strengthened by nurture. Simply put, introverts derive their energy from an orientation to the inner world, whereas extraverts are charged by engagement in the outside world. Generally, we favor one preference over the other, yet some of each exists in all of us.
Indulge me for momentary demonstration. Clasp your hands and make a mental note of which thumb resides above the other. Now, unclasp your hands and grip them together again, this time placing the other thumb above the one that was on top before. Chances are, that felt clumsy if not altogether chill inducing. Our “version” preferences – be they intro or extra, operate in a similar fashion. Just as we are capable of clasping the non-dominant thumb above the dominant one, so too are we able to exercise our intro side over the extraverted preference – and vice versa.
The challenge, as Cain surmises, is that introverts are tethered to and judged by a world that privileges extraversion. Herein, the introvert is often misunderstood. Introverts are neither shy nor fearful; rather, we savor quiet and favor sanctuary. Energy is drawn from a profound inner space enlightened by texts, discourse, and intimate collegial engagements. Whereas our extraverted friends find meetings, conventions, and brainstorming sessions to be bastions of productivity, our canvases for brilliance look remarkably different. Yet for so many introverts, attempting to “pass” as an extravert seems more palatable than explaining our own penchants for solitude and autonomy.
Cain, who left a high-profile Wall Street job in pursuit of the career she had always wanted, reflected: “I made these self-negating choices so reflexively that I wasn’t even aware that I was making them. This is what many introverts do and it is our loss, for sure. But it is also our colleagues’ loss and our community’s loss. And at the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the world’s loss because when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.”
So, what do introverts do best? Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rose Parks, Gandhi, Dr. Seuss and others, we are profusely introspective. As such, we tend to think deeply and holistically before taking action, often resulting in the perception that we are risk adverse. The “man of contemplation” is, says Cain, culturally subordinated to the “man of action” – gregarious, charismatic, and magnetic. In fact, we need individuals who are wired “heed-takers” attuned to the merits of contemplation and holism.
Cain’s self-proclaimed manifesto – a quiet revolution – entails a process of attunement wherein solitude catalyzes creativity. It means valuing independence and creating space for autonomy along side of teamwork. It means designing classrooms and workspaces that allow children, adolescents and adult to exercise both preferences, growing in independent and interdependent ways. And it also means, to paraphrase Gandhi, allowing gentle minds to shake the whole world.