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From the beginning, Americans have revered action and been suspicious of citizens who pursue a life of the mind. In part, this is because the pioneers associated intellectualism with an ineffectual European aristocracy. We’re also a relatively young society that has (often rightly) rewarded doers, movers, and shakers. Our cultural heroes are people with personal polish and visible charisma: the hot-shot salesman, the Hollywood star, the inspirational business leader.

In her best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway, 2013), writer Susan Cain notes that this emphasis on the “Extrovert Ideal” continues to intensify as more people migrate to urban centers, where our closer physical proximity to one another encourages a greater focus on self-presentation. It’s no wonder, she argues, that we’ve come to worry over “quiet” children and stress the necessity of having a “personal brand.” Social media promises only to amplify these trends.

Cain writes that those who don’t fit this ideal are often overlooked and underappreciated — a tragedy for both the individual and the society they live in. Introverts, she argues, have many unheralded talents. They are typically good listeners, deliberate and thoughtful decision makers, and, in some cases, transformative leaders (think Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Rosa Parks). These visionaries come to the fore by wielding “soft power,” a leadership style characterized by quiet persistence, deep passion, and abiding core values.

Here’s some of what Cain discovered about introversion and those inclined to it.

What Is Introversion?

Researchers have yet to nail down uniform definitions of introversion and extroversion, though they generally agree on some key points. “Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book,” Cain writes. Extroverts, on the other hand, “enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.” In short, the two groups have different ways of dealing with external stimuli — extroverts naturally thrive on more; introverts prefer less.

Psychologists have also determined that the two personality types move at different speeds and have different motivations. “Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly,” Cain says. “They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and they are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking. They enjoy ‘the thrill of the chase’ for rewards like money and status.”

Conversely, introverts tend to “work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.”

Both types can have strong social skills and enjoy gatherings and business meetings; where they differ is in how they interact with others. Extroverts tend to be the life of the party, Cain observes, “assertive, dominant, and in great need of company.”

Introverts enjoy the company of others, though they often prefer listening to talking, and they are very deliberate before they speak. “Many have a horror of small talk,” writes Cain, “but enjoy deep discussions.”

These differences help explain why introverts, living in a world that values high-octane social interaction, can get down on themselves. I was invited to a party and all I feel is dread. What’s wrong with me? 

But the quieter class shouldn’t despair, Cain says. The personality traits that drive introversion come with their own unique strengths.

Supreme Sensitivity 

Research shows that many introverted folks are also highly sensitive, and the “highly sensitive tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic,” Cain observes. “They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. . . . They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions.”

Highly sensitive folks also process information about their surroundings on an “unusually deep” level — a characteristic that aids in weighing both sides of a complex issue and often results in thoughtful, deliberate decisions. They also “tend to notice subtleties that others miss — another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.” On the whole, this makes introverts more empathetic and attuned to others’ needs.

Introverts aren’t angels, of course. “They have selfish streaks like everyone else. Sometimes they act aloof and unfriendly,” Cain notes. Typically they are more cautious and reflective, though, which in tough times can help ensure survival and, in more sanguine moments, add deep value to friendships and families.

Going Against Type

While extroverts have a lot to gain by making space for introverts and their unique strengths, introverts also benefit by figuring out ways to adapt to their surroundings. As Cain points out, though, “there are physiological limits on who we are and how we act.” Which begs the question: “Should we attempt to manipulate our behavior within the range available to us, or should we simply be true to ourselves?”

Cain found an answer to her query in the work of Cambridge professor Brian Little, who developed the Free Trait Theory. This psychological principle posits that “we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of ‘core personal projects.’

“In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly. Free Trait Theory explains why an introvert might throw his extroverted wife a surprise party or join the PTA at his daughter’s school. It explains how it’s possible for an extroverted scientist to behave with reserve in her laboratory, for an agreeable person to act hard-nosed during a business negotiation, and for a cantankerous uncle to treat his niece tenderly when he takes her out for ice cream. As these examples suggest, Free Trait Theory applies in many different contexts, but it’s especially relevant for introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal.”

The key phrase in Little’s work, stresses Cain, is “core personal projects.” Simply put, it’s worth building social skills and personality traits that don’t come naturally to us — and that we can employ strategically and at specific times — when it is in the service of a project that adds meaning to our lives.

Our Big Ideas series features excerpts drawn from classic and contemporary works on personal development and healthy living.

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