On Susan Cain and Introverts

Susan Cain seems to be the most recent person to discover that there is nothing wrong with being an introvert.  Her TED speech was impressive, because Susan Cain is a wonderful, energetic, empathic speaker.  And there is a segment of the population – introverts – who are going to react strongly to it, because its a message we all like to hear : “All those things you’ve been told time and time again are wrong with you?  Well there is nothing wrong with you.  You’re a beautiful little flower – in fact you’re probably more beautiful than some of those big brash gaudy flowers.  And the world – well the world better shape up and start making your life easier, or, well, there’s gonna be some indeterminate form of trouble”

For the record, I’m an introvert.  A big, avoid parties, enjoy solitude and reading, and keeping my thoughts to myself, introvert.  I often say (as a joke… although all jokes have an element of truth in them deep down) that I hate people.  And I’m not a self loathing introvert.  I also agree that its an extravert’s world out there. I learned long ago to accept what being an introvert means to me:

Other people are tiring.

I find it hard to think, when I’m also trying to manage all those other, tiring people.

I’m bloody well not going to tell you what I’m thinking about, until I’ve formed the thought in my head, and got it fairly right.

Because inside my head is where things matter.  Its where I live.  The outside of my head is just a place where new things come from – its job is to funnel them into my mind.

I have no evidence (and I can’t read her book, until the end of March, so I may have to write a follow up then) but I suspect Susan Cain agrees with me on these points.

But we disagree – I think – on one major issue.  Susan Cain comes close to suggesting that introverts and extraverts are at war.  Whereas I think between us we have more potential if we work together.  And for introverts – as a niche, its up to us to find our way into the inefficient cracks of extravert society.  If its a war, we are not an opposing army.  We are a resistance, who extraverts might one day wake up and notice are running everything, secretly, behind the scenes.  If we’ve done it right, the extraverts won’t even care.

So – let me get this straight – I do think the world needs to be told that there is nothing wrong with being an introvert.  I do think its right that extraverts should be told there are people whose minds work in a slightly different way from yours (incidentally, if you’re an extravert… imagine you’ve spent all day in meetings.  Then gone out with a crowd of people after work.  Then, on arriving home, you’re in-laws have turned up for dinner.  Just as you are seeing them out the front door, after a lovely meal, a friend calls, and suggests you pop down the pub for last orders.  You say “I think I’m going to have an early night” tired from all the socialising.  Well, that’s how an introvert feels after an hour of meetings.  Or after one long phone call.  Once you can understand that, we can move onto the deeper implications).  I also think its right that introverts need to be told that there is nothing wrong with them, that its just a characteristic they have, like their height, eye colour or sexuality.  But I don’t think we need to get extraverts to compromise as much as Susan Cain seems to think we do

Lets take her discussion of education.  Susan Cain says

1.  Introverts do better at school than extraverts

2. The school system is increasingly biased towards extraverts in how children are taught to learn

3. There are more extraverts than introverts (actually, I think Susan Cain overestimates the number of introverts – everything I’ve read suggest we are 25% of the population)

Now – for right or wrong – our school system is set towards getting everyone to the same level.  It doesn’t do a wonderful job of helping those who are capable of excelling excel, because it spends its time picking up the pieces of those who are falling behind.  Now, looking at the statements above we see that, despite the extravert education system, the introverts are doing well.  On average, they don’t need more help.  Its the extraverts – the majority – who need help.  So doesn’t it make sense to have an education system which teaches extraverts in the way they find the best to learn?  Its at the expense of the introverts doing even better – but hey, its not the extraverts who are going to pop down the library and carry on with self study on their own, is it?

I’m tempted to think that the workplace is the same.  Now, I’m going to make assumptions here – some are probably unjustified, and many are based on talking to my wife, who is the sort of extravert who makes extraverts go “wow – she talks a lot”.  Really, its all a lot of guess work.  But its been through my mind, and feels sufficiently right for me to want to put down on paper – which is better than you’ll get from the average extravert’s blurtings.  A workplace is full of extraverts and introverts.  Probably still in similar ratios.  Introverts, when they see problems, or opportunities to change things, will look them over, come up with a few ideas, and then (if they still like them) will tell someone.  Extraverts are different.  Extraverts don’t really believe in the reality of an idea until they’ve told someone else about it – until the idea has left their head and entered the world.  So extraverts hold meetings.  And they brainstorm.  And generally tire out the introverts (who would much rather just read the minutes, then come back with their own thoughts on the matter).

Without the meetings.  Without the ability to shout over cubical walls, the poor extraverts won’t be able to get anything done.  Productivity drops by 75%.  Now, if you rule out the introverts, productivity will only fall by 25%.  And it won’t even fall by that amount because introverts have a couple of tools in their arsenal which they learn to exploit.

The first is to be friends with an extravert.  Or, you know, marry one (a risky decision, but its working out for me).  You can manage your time with the extravert, and use that time to explain your ideas to him.  All you have to do is win over the extravert, then he’ll do the job of winning over everyone else.  Of course, you’ve got to pick you extravert… you want one of the really popular, really convincing ones.  But if you provide the ideas (and yes, act as his sounding board… it would be better if you didn’t have do, but at least its only one person, and you can control the situation more), then they’ll spread.  You might not get the credit, but that means you won’t have to deal with the other people that taking the credit entails.  Your pet extravert will, however, consider you his secret sauce – and won’t want to leave you behind.

The second is to learn public speaking.  “But introverts can’t speak publicly!” I hear you cry.  Um, we can.  Because when you speak publicly, its a very managed situation – moreover,  you’ve thought of what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it beforehand.  Its a learned skill, that anyone with a few evenings to spend at a Toastmasters group can pick up.  Moreover, I’ve noticed public speaking unlocks a slightly different personality – the crown pleasing, crowd controlling, dare I say it, charismatic me.  Now, I can’t keep this version of me turned on for too long, it drains me.  But when I’m in a meeting, and I have to take control, remembering to switch to ‘Presentation Ben’ is a big advantage.  Still think you can’t do it?  Trust me, you do it all the time.  If, like me, you live in your head, then everything you do is a presentation, an act to portray yourself to the world.  Many of our best known comedians and actors are good public speakers.  Hell, so is Susan Cain.  She knows she can do this – I know that almost anyone can.

The final trick is to know your energy.  And to honour your energy.  If you’re feeling tired, you need to recuperate.  Right now, I’m sitting in a hotel room in London, taking a break from the world.  Because work does drain me (moreso since I’ve got myself involved in the world of product management meetings).  And, bless her, my lovely wife can drain me too – and certainly joining her in activities she loves (which involve lots and lots of other people.  Did I mention that I hate people?) drain me.  So I’ve taken a few days to escape.  And be on my own.

So it doesn’t need to be a war.  You just have to accept that the extraverts need to do things there way, and we need to make a life in that world…

Or we did.

Because half my life ago now, the my little, introverted, world changed.  And it was all due to introverts.

Specifically, it was due to the group of introverts who built and brought to me the internet.

As an introvert, the net is wonderful.  Right now, I’m sharing ideas with you – and it isn’t tiring, its the opposite, its a release, because these ideas are finally leaving my skull and going outside where they can bother other people.  I don’t have to talk to you.  I don’t have to race to keep up with both thinking and talking (hmm, that could be a good slogan “Introverts think without talking.  Extraverts talk without thinking”).  Meanwhile, my shopping is delivered to the door (and the sooner they have robot deliverymen the better), my books arrive straight on my kindle.   I still get to meet new people, but I meet them at my rate – at the rate of thinking, not at the rate of talking – or the more common rate of smalltalking.  And, when all the meetings get too much, I can work from home, and actually get stuff done.

In peace and quiet.

Alone.

And the research suggests that the stuff I get done this way, is going to be better than the stuff extraverts bash out between themselves at meetings.

So who am I to complain?

I never wanted to be president.  To much shaking hands and dealing with people.

No, the vizier behind the throne.  That’s power.  After all, presidents only last for 8 years.

Ideas… they last quite a bit longer.

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