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  • Bina Murray

Susan Cain and Redefining Being an Introverted

Growing up, I had always found myself being at the so-called ‘quieter’ end of the spectrum when it came to comparing myself to my friends and classmates at school. Other than the time I completely crushed it as the narrator in the year six school play, you would never catch me trying to be the loudest voice in the room or to attract the most attention. It was just never really my thing. I enjoyed spending time with people I liked and whom I felt comfortable around and could be very talkative and loud and caring. Yet, at the same time, eventually too much interaction would drain my energy. I would be forced to retreat to the privacy of my room afterwards to play a few hours of the classic tonic that is The Sims 2 in order to recharge. This was and still is my personality and, of course, a personality is not something one can easily change.

However, as I’m sure a lot of fellow introverts have experienced, I’ve found myself constantly being made to feel self-conscious as teachers, relatives, and classmates told me that I should “speak up” and “put myself out there more”. I always feared the dreaded question: “why are you so shy?”. It’s never nice to be made to feel like your personality is somehow wrong and that you are inferior because you don’t act like a certain group of other people who consider themselves to possess the ‘correct’ character traits. Moreover, it is frustrating to be incorrectly labelled as ‘shy’ and lacking in confidence; someone who needs to be looked out for by the more outspoken. On the contrary, I’ve mostly always had plenty enough self-confidence, but I just didn’t express it (and still don’t express it) in the way that our popularity-preoccupied-society sees as valuable.

However, when I came across the American writer, lecturer, and former attorney Susan Cain and read her seminal book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, I felt liberated. The book has been translated into forty different languages, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for seven years, and was named the best book of the year by Fast Company Magazine. Fast Company Magazine also named Cain one of its “Most Creative People in Business”. Additionally, her incredible TED talk has been viewed over 30 million times on and YouTube combined, with Bill Gates calling it one of his all-time favourite talks.

The book is labelled as ‘self-help’ but it is also a highly informed study and statement of inclusion that urges its readers to reconsider the character traits they see as valuable. Defining introverts as “people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments”. Cain argues that, in general, modern Western societies drastically underestimate and undervalue introverts. She makes it her mission to reveal how much we lose in doing so, how many people we restrict. Quiet introduces the figure of the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ which has come to dominate over the last century because of an increasingly consumerist culture, ‘hard’ capitalism, and the way in which media functions. Cain posits that such changes have made hard selling techniques the norm in business with such techniques being better suited to the more extroverted worker. Cain suggests that schools and workplaces have been affected by this ‘ideal’, where relentless group work, open-plan offices, and group brainstorming sessions are the norm. For Cain, there is a “one-size-fits-all” model emerging in society that ostracises many people for whom that model just doesn’t work.

She cites many examples of introverts who have made vastly important contributions to society - Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak, etc. – and elegantly crafts case studies of other unknown but highly successful introverts she’s met, showing the richness and vibrancy that comes with valuing each person on an individual basis and not merely judging them against a set of standard ideals. In this way, she also places the common definition of success under tension and urges us to question what we consider to constitute a successful life.

As an introvert, Cain is an honours graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School and worked for seven years as an attorney. At one point she describes how the environment at Harvard felt oppressive and stifling for her, as all aspects are geared to promote extroversion. Grades depend partially on speaking out in class and she suggests that the students who succeed in such an environment are those who use their extroversion to create and direct the most audacious extracurricular evenings and events. Although having enjoyed many aspects of her corporate law career, Cain eventually decided to leave it behind for a different pace of life and started ‘Quiet Revolution’, which is a "venture-backed, mission-based" organisation that works to transform office architecture in order to redirect the space to better facilitate focus and privacy. The organisation also relates to the Quiet Leadership Institute which helps companies and institutions train introverted leaders and empower quiet children.

Susan Cain thus showcases how imperative it is in leadership to consider all different forms and styles, whether they be more extroverted or introverted. I do not consider people’s personalities to be this black and white, in that we are either completely extroverted or completely introverted and indeed, it can be hard to know exactly how to define one’s personality in concrete terms. However, I am very appreciative of and admire her determination to change the landscape of corporate leadership and to address people while they are still at school, reassuring them that their personalities are not wrong: they can work and lead in whatever style best suits them.

Ultimately, leadership is an infinitely flexible and malleable concept and we can shape it any way we choose. Indeed, due to the pandemic with the proliferation of working from home which might naturally suit more introverted worker, perhaps companies will take this opportunity to reconsider the environments and structures in which their employees work. It has been clear that the traditional office environment is not the sole model and exemplar of productivity with remote working facilitating flexibility. As Cara Pelletier, the Director of Diversity, Equity and Belonging at Ultimate Software, stated in a Forbes article: “our eventual transition back to the office presents an opportunity for us to better support one another, anticipate the needs of our teams, and pave the way for a more empathetic and human workplace.”

We are currently at a stage of redevelopment and restructuring and hopefully, these changes will reflect Susan Cain’s idea of a working world which enables all its employees to work in the way that suits their personalities, challenging perceptions of what it takes to a valuable person and the ‘perfect’ leader.

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