You don't have to be an extrovert to succeed in business or in life, says author Susan Cain. In a society that often seems to be the private sandbox of glad-handing, back-slapping, brainstorming masters of the universe, it turns out that there is room for the one-third who fall on the introvert side of the personality spectrum: the cerebral, quiet, perceptive to nuance, and emotionally complex. The world – and business – would be the poorer without them and their contributions, Cain says.
Without introverts, we would have missed out on the Apple computer, the theory of relativity, van Gogh's sunflowers and "The Cat in the Hat," Cain told BusinessNewsDaily. Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert and former Wall Street attorney, is the author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" (Crown, 2012), an exploration of the surprising advantages of being an introvert in an extroverted world. It has been riding the New York Times bestseller list for the past nine weeks.
The extroversion/introversion spectrum
The extroversion/introversion spectrum is all about how people respond to stimulation, including social stimulation, Cain said.
Extroverts crave large amounts of stimulation to feel at their best, while introverts feel most alive when they are in a quieter, more low-key environment," she said. "It's important to understand introversion this way, because people often associate it with being antisocial. It's really a preference for socializing in a less stimulating way."
An introvert, for example, might prefer having a glass of wine with close friends to going to a large party, Cain said.
Introversion is not shyness
Introversion is also often conflated with shyness, she said, but they're not the same thing.
"Shyness is the fear of social judgment," Cain said. "Bill Gates is an introvert, but he's not shy."
The technology industry in particular has been hospitable to introverts, she says, although it raises a question-or-egg question about whether it's the nature of the people attracted to technology or if it is the characteristics of the technology industry itself that makes for a happy marriage.
"I think one of the reasons we see so many introverts in tech professions is because the idea of sitting quietly in front of the computer and interacting with it is less stimulating," Cain said.
What clouds the issue is that most people fall short of either of the antipodes on the extroversion/introversion axis. There is such a thing as an ambivert, she said.
"We're all sometimes extroverts," Cain said.
And introverts. She's fond of quoting Carl Jung, the 20th-century Swiss psychiatrist who first popularized the concepts of extroversion and introversion.
"Jung said, 'There's no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert,'" she said. "'Such a man would be in a lunatic asylum.' I love that one."
The distinction, though, is frequently overlooked by Western society, which has placed a premium on extroversion for the past century, she says.
"It's very much a Western thing," she said. "We've always favored action over contemplation."
That shift took place at the turn of the 20th century, she said, when people started moving into cities and working for big companies. People began thinking about how they could stand out in a job interview. They began asking, "How do I sell myself? How do I make a sales call?"
The culture of personality
"I think that's when we really entered what the historians call the culture of personality," Cain said. "We started valuing people for being very magnetic, charismatic and dominating. That's really the culture we've inherited today."
Cain sees a bias against introverts. Schools, workplaces and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, she said. Many introverts come to believe there's something wrong with them and they should try to feign extroversion. Cain believes this bias leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy and happiness.
In point of fact, many of the great achievers of the 20th century were introverts, Cain says: Eleanor Roosevelt, George Orwell, Rosa Parks, Marcel Proust, Warren Buffett, Larry Page and Steve Wozniak, who with Steve Jobs (an extrovert), brought the original Apple computer to life, to name a few.
Can introverts be effective leaders?
"Extroverts and introverts have both pros and cons as leaders," she said. "We tend to see the pros in extroverts and the cons in introverts. I think Obama is an example where you can see them both."
Do you have to shout to be heard?
How do introverts leverage the qualities associated with them – reflectiveness, persistence, sensitivity – to craft a successful career in a business world that prizes groupthink and is dismissive of introverts as leaders? Do you have to shout to be heard?
How do you field such alpha personality rituals as working the room?
The reality of most of these glad-handing sessions is that you end up with a whole fistful of business cards that you'll never be able to follow up on, she said.
"Find one of two people you want to build a deep connection with," Cain said. "I think of parties as a series of one-on-one conversations, because that's where I'm comfortable."
And use your natural skills. More than half the radio hosts Cain has met have told her they are introverts, she says. And they play their natural listening abilities to the hilt.
"Introverts are known for asking really good questions and listening to the answers," Cain said. "That's an introvert's conversational style. It usually starts early in life when you want to take the attention off yourself and focus it on another person."
Cain offers the advice of Jon Berghoff, an introvert who has carved out a career as a nonpareil salesman.
"A lot of people believe that selling requires being a fast talker, or knowing how to use charisma to persuade," Berghoff told Cain. "Those things do require an extroverted way of communicating. But in sales there's a truism that 'we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately.' I believe that's what makes someone really good at selling or consulting; the Number One thing is they've got to really listen well."
"I think it's partly by being a 'pretend' extrovert when you need to be, as long as you're not burning out," Cain said. "The real thing is to make your true self work for you. If there's an avenue of business that's of interest to you, figure out a way you can do it while still being able to recharge. We will all step outside our comfort zones to do work that we love. But the key to this is to grant ourselves restorative niches, a place where we can go when we want to return to our true selves. People are so hungry for this balance. Even extroverts crave more quiet."
Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.