Every now and then a book comes along that just gets me.
I first heard about Susan Cain when a friend of mine posted her Ted Talk on her timeline. The title alone intrigued me – “The Power of Introverts.” I thought, “That’s me. I’m an introvert.” I didn’t feel very powerful at the time – I believe I was still unemployed, having just graduated from college and moved to a new city, so I actually felt quite the opposite of powerful. But after watching Cain speak, I remember feeling completely awesome because here was a woman who got it.
I have experienced the frustration that comes with being called “quiet” or “shy.” Recently, I was going through some bits and bobs leftover from high school still in my closet to make room for all the stuff I brought home with me from Minnesota. Among all the random programs and letters, I found the paperwork from the first parent-teacher conferences from my freshman year. Parents were to meet with every single teacher within the first couple months of school to make sure their children were adjusting to the high school way of life. Teachers filled out forms for every student, outlining their grades, their ability to get along with others, and the kicker – class participation. Every single one of these papers stated something similar – that I needed to “come out of my shell” in class, that I was “too quiet,” that I performed excellently on written work and tests but rarely participated in group discussions. What hurt was that every single one of my teachers thought that my quietness was a problem.
Since then, I have learned that there is nothing more silencing to an introverted person than being called “shy.” The very word itself has acquired a negative connotation – that being shy is equivalent to being anti-social and therefore, wrong. It is a connotation I have been dealing with since I was very young. It didn’t start in high school, after all. Ever since I was a small child, I didn’t like talking to grownups I didn’t know. There is a home video buried in our house somewhere of my uncle trying to get me to give him a hug and me clinging to my father’s leg.
People who do not know me call me shy. But people who do know me know that my shyness is not an inherent part of who I am – that it fades with time and personal acquaintance and that it will fade more quickly if you never point it out to me. My shyness is more a physical repercussion of my own introverted-ness and my tendency to be uncomfortable in a new location with people I do not know. It is not indicative of my personality or any inability to have fun or relate to others. So, when someone tells me that I am shy, it is hurtful, whether or not they mean it to be. It is hurtful because it does not allow room for growth. I feel as though I have been labeled, and cannot move forward.
In college my struggles surfaced again – a natural response to my discussion-based courses, because that’s what you get when you decide to major in English and Theater. I knew that going in. However, it still amazes me exactly how much emphasis there was on participation in class. I had a few courses that counted it as 50% of our grade. They were the courses I struggled with the most. I had to mentally prepare myself for each class and usually felt drained afterwards. In other courses, I considered myself successful if I participated once in class – two times was a great day for me. But that was not nearly enough for these particular professors. I would get perfect or close to perfect marks on my written assignments, pay attention and take notes during class, work with my professors during office hours on bigger essays and projects, but because I only spoke up once or twice during a class session, my grades suffered. I was frustrated to say the least. I felt powerless in these courses that simply weren’t designed for me and how I communicate.
This is exactly what Susan Cain confronts in her book. She opposes what she calls the “New Groupthink,” a term referring to society’s relatively new inclination towards the extrovert and the world’s gravitation away from individual thought. This Groupthink manifests itself in school classrooms, where desks are often situated in pods with the students facing each other, instead of individually in rows facing the front. It has made its way into countless workplaces, where offices no longer have walls and employees are expected to participate in endless group brainstorming sessions and get ahead by having big personalities and speaking up. The problem with this is simply that it benefits only half of the population, at the risk of sacrificing all that introverts have to offer.
For an introvert, time spent alone is not only when they are able to think the most clearly, but can often be, as Cain puts it, “the air that they breathe.” She mentions the great figures of the major religions of the world like Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha, all of whom would retreat to the wilderness and return to their people to share the revelations they had during their time of solitude. Without the wilderness, there would be no revelations. Therefore, this Groupthink can also be harmful to extroverts. Always emphasizing group work prevents extroverts from experiencing the creativity that comes with solitude. At the same time she emphasizes the importance of speaking up, even for introverts. She references great historical figures like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt who were all self-proclaimed introverts, but took the helm as leaders regardless because they needed to do what they felt was right. By doing this, Cain shows the importance of balance between the two ideals – collaboration and solitude.
So yes, this book just gets me. Everyone should read it, because everyone knows an introvert. It touches on bridging gaps in communication to improve introvert-extrovert relationships. It speaks to extroverted parents struggling to raise an introverted child. It tells the introverts of the world that it is okay to speak softly, as long as they do speak and are sharing the important gifts they have to offer.
Most importantly, she affirms that there is power in being quiet. And that has made a world of difference.
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
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Check out Susan Cain and what’s happening with the Quiet Revolution.
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Up Next: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara