A few months ago, on struggling with confidence at work, I was recommended a book to read by a colleague who insisted the book would change both my life, and my outlook on myself. That book was Quiet by Susan Cain, a non-fiction book exploring what it means to be an introvert. The concept alone – someone writing about introverts, was enough to make me run to the library I work at and grab the book ASAP. (Well, actually, I checked it was in stock and then waited until everyone else had gone and issued it to myself discreetly instead. Because, you know, I’m an introvert.)
Now the book, in general, isn’t the most perfect thing in the world. I mean, it’ll certainly change your outlook – but it isn’t without it flaws. Within its chapters Cain takes a number of different case studies and analyses them to the bone, revealing different traits of introversion with each one. It’s incredibly interesting – the case studies talk of famous people, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, but also complete unknowns who Cain has interacted with herself, providing an incredibly diverse outlook on introversion – but after a while, I do feel that Cain begins to unintentionally repeat herself. While you can tell she is passionate about the subject, and eager to spread her ideas of how society should look at introverts differently, all you need is to read the first half of the book and then you’ll get the idea. Her view very much stems from one angle – the more corporate, office-role angle within the culture of law she was once a part of – and there’s only so much one can say about just one kind of occupation.
Saying that, Cain ensures to cover as much as she can – school, work, everyday life – and succeeds, I believe, in arguing her case well. She believes that Western culture (of course, she’s mainly talking of the US) prefers extraverts over introverts and that society unintentionally discriminates against those of a quieter, calmer, and more independent nature. She stereotypes introverts as book-readers, extraverts (or extroverts) as party-goers, and tells us how our schools, with emphasis on group-working, and our workplaces, with open offices and teamwork, are not allowing those who prefer to sit alone enough room to flourish.
She has a point.
The most rewarding thing about reading this book was, of course, the assurance that the way I am – introverted, shy, reluctant – isn’t that uncommon (or bad). Although it’s wrong to take one woman’s work as gospel, learning that High Reactivity isn’t a myth really helped change my outlook on myself. High Reactivity is when you are easily stimulated; when a noisy room can be too much to bear. Apparently introverts are High Reactives, meaning that they suffer more easily when presented with a higher stimulating environment. For example, if a room is full of people, loud noises, flashing lights, lots of conversation and no places to hide, an introvert will get tired very quickly and prefer to stay in a quiet room and work alone. On the other hand, Low Reactives are extraverts, and aren’t as bothered by these environments and, in fact, thrive better the more stimulating the environment is. Extraverts, according to Cain, bore easily when alone.
Of course, not everything’s black and white, so there are some introverts who love more stimulating environments and extraverts who prefer to be alone. But in general, this, I feel, is a way for people to help themselves better understand introversion and extraversion. Why do I always have to rush away at lunchtimes when at work and spend the hour by myself? Why do I often find it extremely difficult concentrating on group training days? Why am I always mentally tired when I get home from work, having spent the entire day working in a room with around 30 students every hour? And why, oh why, do I always have ridiculous anxiety whenever someone invites me to a party, or a group meal?
There are multiple traits that allow us to group ourselves under the titles Introvert and Extravert. Just the names alone explain it – introverts prefer to stay within themselves, to think rather than speak, to spend time flourishing in an environment they can better control; and extraverts prefer looking outside, seeking stimulation, and acting rather than considering. It’s obvious now, if you think about it. But before reading this book, I hadn’t even considered the science behind it all. Sure, I knew I was an introvert, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. Cain has taken something that should be right in front of our noses at all times and has covered it in extreme detail here. She speaks of the software developers who prefer to work alone, locked in their bedrooms; of the students who don’t slot into university life because of their distaste for socialising; of the school children who struggle with group work yet thrive when given an independent task; and of herself, a former Wall Street lawyer, who struggled to accept her own introversion and still, despite everything, has an issue with public speaking*.
I am now able to put on a pretty confident façade when at work. Quiet helped, of course, but it was the simple act of accepting myself that has allowed me to more easily get past my shyness. I’m not sure how many people look at me now and know I’m an introvert, but when I look at myself at work nowadays, I can barely believe it. It’s easier to act confident now, to speak loudly and spend all day in the presence of people. But after all is said and done, after the work day is over and we all say goodbye, I wonder how many of us go home and lock ourselves in our bedrooms, take out a book or another quiet activity, and spend the rest of the evening enjoying solitude? I certainly do. If nothing else, this book opens up the possibility of you not being the only one. And it certainly will change your outlook on yourself.
*See Cain’s inspiring TED Talk here, and watch her awkwardness, her slight stammer, her obvious desire to be somewhere else. But look, also, how great she now is at putting on that persona, of convincing us all that she is, in fact, the most confident woman on the planet.