I’ll admit it. I love personality tests. I’m fascinated with anything that teaches me more about how people are wired and how I work. Strengthsfinder, Enneagram, DISC, team roles, you name it. I know they’re not all encompassing or explain everything about a person, but I often find them at least something about them helpful. I finished Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking early yesterday morning and felt my whole being breathe a little easier after this read. I was expecting to better understand my husband (my favorite introvert) after reading this book, but I ended up walking away with a better understanding of myself. I couldn’t believe it when I answered “true” to 18 out of 20 questions about introverted tendencies that Susan Cain offers in an unofficial introverted test. It really sunk in for me that I may not be an extrovert when I realized that my ideal vacation was that of the typical introvert: reading on a beach instead of partying on a cruise ship. (11) I think for the first time in my life, I’m naming for myself that I’m far more introverted than I’ve ever admitted.
I loved how this book didn’t seek to put people in boxes. The very first chapters acknowledged the complexity of understanding introverts and extroverts, since everyone is some sort of a mix of both. I know terms can be confusing, so here’s how Susan Cain describes extroversion and introversion:
“Introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slops and cranking up the the stereo.” (11) Cain also talks about the difference in how these two types of people work. Extroverts tend to make faster decisions, have more comfort with multi-tasking and risk taking than the typical introvert. Introverts tend to have a more deliberate work pace, with incredible focus and concentration, often unconcerned by success or money. Cain finishes with how social behavior differs. Extroverts tend to talk more, have higher comfort levels with conflict, and often have difficulty being alone. They also tend to be louder and more assertive. Introverts on the other hand, still tend to have strong social skills, but often focus them on their families or close friends. Introverts tend to listen more, enjoy expressing themselves in writing over talking, dislike conflict and appreciate deep discussions. I also appreciated this important distinction that Cain makes about shyness and introversion: “The shy person is afraid to speak up, while the introvert is simply overstimulated-but to the outside world, the two appear to be the same.” (12)
In case you read the book (and I highly recommend you do), I’ll just give you just a few of my takeaways from this read. There were many for me, and honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed this book in its entirety. It is full of fascinating scientific studies, historical accounts, personal stories and real-life examples. It was an incredibly pleasant read, both enlightening and encouraging.
“Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to. Stay home on New Year’s Eve, if that’s what makes you happy. Skip the committee meeting. Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances. Read. Cook. Run. Write a story. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll attend a set number of social events in exchange for not feeling guilty when you beg off.” (265)
What a sigh of relief I breathed when I read this. When we lived close to Seattle, I always had a sense of guilt that we were not out on the weekends, enjoying the city life and all the excitement it had to offer. There were many sights that went unseen. Our weekend outings usually meant going to our favorite coffee shop or the library to read or the waterfront, all less than 10 minutes from our apartment. We were experiencing a fair amount of transition in that season too, and I think our souls needed rest more than anything. I certainly don’t regret our low-key weekend activities, but still feel twinges of guilt when I was asked by friends or acquaintances if we’d visited Storyville Coffee yet or adventured to hike Rattlesnake Ridge, climbed Mt. Rainer or ventured into Fremont. I felt like Susan Cain gave my heart a little more permission to do what I needed to in order to be healthy. It doesn’t have to look or feel impressive. My weekend can be what I want it to be, not what I think it is supposed to be. It might not be as glamorous to report that my weekend looked like sleeping in, making German pancakes at 10am, meandering around the library, steaming milk for homemade lattes and a lazy picnic outside, but that’s what rest looked like to me much of last year. I wouldn’t have traded that for anything, not even a more thrilling weekend report.
“Remember the dangers of the New Group think. If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust, but group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking. Arrange for people to interact one-on-one or in small casual groups. Don’t mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas.” (266)
Susan Cain gives a great deal of research surrounding how productive brainstorming as a group actually is, compared to how productive we think it is. After leading teams of 10 or 11 people for a number of years in Residence Life, I often utilized this principle of group brainstorming, often utilizing a whiteboard (as does much of corporate America.) The irony is that I observed much of Susan confirms in her book; it doesn’t work well. I would watch my more observant Resident Assistants (RAs) sit back in their seats, allowing the more outgoing student leaders to lead the discussion. I often got the best results and heard from everyone when I put them into smaller groups of 2 or 3, asked for responses via email or allowed for some quiet reflection prior to a group brainstorming session or sharing in a class setting. I can think back to one particular “green-light” brainstorming session in this last year where our group of 11 shared “anything-goes” ideas for what events we would put on for the remainder of the school year. I wasn’t surprised to not hear much from several of my more observant, thoughtful RAs, but still felt disappointed to not have stumbled upon a better way of hearing from everyone. (If you were ever an RA for me, just know I’d do it differently now!) How I would love to go back to that meeting and give each RA 5-10 minutes to write down their own ideas first before sharing them with the group. As Cain’s findings indicated and my own experiences demonstrated for me, we share the best when we have time to think first before sharing, for both introverts and extroverts alike.
“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 prowess-of persistence, concentration, insight and sensitivity-to do work you love and work that matters.” (264)
I love how well this book celebrated how to be who you are. What may appear to be weaknesses may simply be seen in the wrong light. Not everyone’s abilities are best seen on a stage. As I’ve long believed, Quiet confirms that every strength has a shadow side. Extroverts are often glorified and introverts underappreciated in American culture. I think Quiet does a good job of providing some balance for this perspective. Cain shows both the strengths and weaknesses for both extroverts and introverts. Quiet does not deny the challenges for introverts that come with living in an extroverted culture like America. But it does give permission to adjust accordingly, in order to still be fully yourself. Cain talks about a “free trait agreement” that you can make with yourself or another person. It essentially “acknowledges that we’ll each act out of character some of the time-in exchange for being ourselves the rest of the time.” (221) Susan Cain gives some practical examples of ways to do this with friends, spouses, employers and even yourself. After you are willing to acknowledge who you truly are, you can start making some “free trait agreements” to work towards goals, while still having permission to be fully yourself the rest of the time, placing yourself in the right lighting. This week, it looked like me going to a craft night with new friends, but staying home the next night instead of going to a women’s night at church. It is a comforting thought to think that by making this kind of exchange, I’m actually saving myself for my best work: “the work I love and the work that matters.” (264)
I think it takes a lot of courage to be yourself, especially when you may not look like what the culture praises most. If nothing else, this book convinced me more than ever that we need all kinds of people. And if I’m willing to offer this grace to others, I need to be willing to offer this grace to myself, even if it means staying home on a Friday night or working on a project alone before involving others. I’ll admit it feels a little uncomfortable to call myself an introvert, but I think part of being brave is using the strengths we’ve been given, instead of wishing for what another has.
Some of my favorite children’s books do an excellent job celebrating both ends of the spectrum of personalities. Days with Frog and Toad ends with a story called “Alone” in which Frog spends time alone and Toad questions if Frog even wants to be his friend anymore if he’s not spending time with him. It seems inconceivable that there could be any other reason for being alone. What Toad discovers is that Frog just wanted time alone to reflect and “to think about how fine everything is.” Toad is reminded that Frog is indeed his friend. The story ends with the two friends eating “wet sandwiches without iced tea. They were two close friends sitting alone together.”
I also love how Toot and Puddle ends as these two friends spend the majority of the book apart, one at home enjoying the simple pleasures of each season and the other adventuring abroad. As they sit at their table in Woodcock Pocket, finally together again, their dinner toasts seem to exemplify the best parts of both extroversion and introversion, and the truth that Cain sums up, “relationships make everyone happier, introverts included.” (264)
“Here’s to all your adventures around the world,” said Puddle.
“Here’s to all your adventures right at home,” said Toot.
“And here’s to being together again,” Toot and Puddle said at the same time.