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The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Susan Cain

We over-estimate how outgoing or charismatic leaders need to be. You still have to be able to walk into big meetings and address them without fear, but most 'leadership' is done through small teams or one-on-one mentoring of juniors. Don't need giant personalities to build businesses. Need people who build their team, not their own ego.

The speed of modern commerce means need people trained to react fast, autonomously, rather than sheeple who ave to get everything approved by head office miles away from the action.

'The bus to Abilene'. Anecdote about a bored family sitting on a porch in Texas and someone says "Why don't we go to Abilene?" so everyone hops on the bus to Abilene. But when they get there someone says "I didn't really want to come here" and someone else says "Nor did I - but I thought you wanted to, so I went along with it." It's about our tendency to follow anyone who suggests action - any action. US Military have adopted it as a 'red flag'. Anyone can say "I think we're getting on the bus to Abilene here" as a sign that need to rethink motives.

Multiple studies showing that open plan offices bad for productivity, particularly for introverts (which is most computer programmers) who work far better when given privacy, room for quiet thinking, and freedom from interruptions. Eliminate meetings and substitute more passive forms of co-operation such as email and instant messaging.

Brainstorming just doesn't work. People produce better ideas with individual quiet contemplation. The bigger the group, the fewer the ideas. The exception is managed online brainstorming. Group brainstorming makes people feel like they're part of a team, but doesn't actually produce better ideas. Several reasons, but main one is the fear of disapproval.

Shyness can be overcome by self-talk. The amygdala is still feeling anxiety, but the prefrontal cortex can soothe it with reminders of conversational skills learned etc.

You don't have to be an aggressive type to be a great negotiator. It often pays to be quiet and gracious, to listen more than talk, and to have an instinct for harmony rather than conflict.By listening, you can hear what really matters to the other side and come up with creative solutions that satisfy both parties.

Highly sensitive people tend to be keen observers who look before they leap. They arrange their lives to limit surprise. They are sensitive to smells and sounds, and notice more details. They dislike small talk. Their conversation tends to be about ideas rather than things.

In his book, Born To Be Good Dacher Keltner says that if he ever had to choose a mate with one speed-dating Q it wd be: "What was yr last embarrassing experience?", bc embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us together, and how much they care about the judgement of others.

Just about every animal species has a mix of fast reactors and cautious reactors. Mix is always around 80/20%. The fast reactors get first crack at potential food or mating source, but sometimes it's the second mouse that gets the cheese.

Human extroverts have more sexual partners, but they also have more adultery and divorce. They exercise more, but they have more accidents and injuries. They have wider social networks, but commit more crimes.

Different styles of argument can escalate conflict. Example of an extrovert guy, who argued emotionally and got visibly angry, and introverted wife, who hated conflict and shut down when husband started shouting. The more she withdraws, the more ignored and unheard he feels, and the angrier he gets. The angrier he gets, the more threatened and upset she gets, and the further she withdraws.

Extroverts prefer games and players that are competitive; introverts value teamwork and co-operation.

People who use botox are less anger prone. The act of frowning shifts the amygdala toward negative emotions. And, because other person sees you frowning, their negative emotions aroused in a vicious cycle.

Guy with a fiery, drama queen wife who'd explode with "This kitchen is filthy!" when only a few cups in the sink. At first he'd try to point out that she was over-reacting, but then figured it was easier to just re-interpret her use of words. She was really trying to say "I wish you'd keep the kitchen tidy." And so the correct response was "Glad to." (See Steve Jobs)

Introverted children react differently to novelty. Not just new people, but also new places and events. It's not an inability to relate to others, but a reaction to over-stimulation. Important not to label them as "shy" or they will accept that label as a fixed trait rather than as an emotion they can control. Teach them 3 simple skills: Smile, Stand Up Straight, Make Eye Contact.

We often marvel at how geeky kids blossom in adulthood. But perhaps it's not the kids who have changed but the environment. As adults they get to select the jobs, friends and social circles that suit them. In 1911 a former farm boy from Missouri proposed a course of evening classes in public speaking at the YMCA in New York. He wanted to be paid $2 a session, but the director refused. The lectures, though, were a sellout, and Dale Carnegie went on to found the Dale Carnegie Institute and to write the bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People. His success marked the beginning of what Susan Cain, in her thought-provoking book, calls the “trans­ition from the Age of Character to the Age of Personality”, a change from a world where people are judged by their actions to one where they are judged by how they present themselves. The 20th century, in America at least, becomes the era of the extrovert, a country where fear of public speaking is “considered to be a pathology — not an annoyance, not a disadvantage, but a disease”.

Cain, a self-confessed introvert who left her career as a corporate lawyer to become a writer specialising in psychology, is unhappy about a culture where “the pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never to be visibly anxious, keeps ratcheting up”. The purpose of her book is to trumpet (in the most discreet way possible) the importance of the solitary individual with a big idea, in a world where everyone wants to be the life and soul of the party.

She starts with the story of Rosa Parks, the quiet woman who ignited the American civil-rights movement by her refusal to sit in the blacks-only part of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was the catalyst for Martin Luther King’s speech: “There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July, and left standing in the piercing chill of an alpine November.” Parks made no speeches (she hated appearing in public), but her action was crucial, as Cain points out. “A ­formidable orator refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus wouldn’t have had the same effect as a modest woman who’d clearly prefer to keep silent apart from the exigencies of the situation.”

Cain cites lots of other examples of introverts who have changed our lives: Gandhi, Darwin, even JK Rowling. She argues that the most effective CEOs are not the loudmouths but quiet leaders such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Investment banks and trading floors need introverts who are not happy about taking huge punts on subprime mortgages, but the problem is that in the thrusting environment of the City, the fist-pumping, high-fiving trader is always going to prevail over the softly spoken geek.

As Cain discovers in her forays into the world of inspirational leadership — and Harvard Business School — there is very little room for the introvert in corporate America, where behaving like a contestant on The Apprentice is the norm rather than the exception. At IBM in the 1950s, the sales force gathered each morning to belt out the company song, Selling IBM, to the tune of Singing in the Rain: “We’re always in trim, we work with a vim. We’re selling, just selling IBM.” Cain quotes a survey that says more Americans are afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. That’s because underneath their confident smiles, many Americans (at least one third) are really introverts struggling to keep up with their loudmouth contemporaries.

The book is scathing about groupthink, which tends to favour those with the ­loudest voices, and highlights research that shows that people produce more ideas when they work alone. “Scientific evidence shows that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” explains one psychologist interviewed by Cain.

The internet is the saviour of the introvert. As Cain points out: “The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of 200 people might blog to 2,000, or 2m, people without thinking twice.” Social media has made new forms of leadership possible for the shy and retiring such as self-described introvert Craig Newmark, who was a systems engineer at IBM until he founded Craigslist, which is now the seventh largest English-language website.

It is not just humans who divide into party animals and shrinking violets. There are shy fruit flies, mountain goats and Eurasian tits. Scientists have identified about 100 species within which about 20% are slow to warm up while the remainder are restless seekers after novelty. There is an evolutionary trade-off in this split: shy animals forage less widely for food but are less likely to be killed by predators; bolder animals take more risks and are more likely to survive in times of shortage when risk-taking pays off. There are studies of reactivity in babies that suggest that humans are divided in roughly the same proportions. Research shows that introverts who tend to be reactive to external stimuli are literally “thin-skinned”, being more likely to blush or sweat than their thicker-skinned extrovert counterparts.

Extroversion varies from culture to culture. In China, high-school students value friends who are “humble”, “altruistic”, “honest” and “hard-working”, while in America they prefer “cheerful, enthusiastic and sociable”. The Finns are famously so introverted that the joke goes that the only way you can tell if a Finn likes you is if he is looking at your shoes instead of his own. We British are still a bit squeamish about “show-offs”, although the short, sad life of Jade Goody suggests that we don’t mind laughing at them on television.

As the mother of a daughter whose teacher always told me she should talk more in class, I was fascinated by the chapter on introvert children and how it is important to respect the fact that they have a different learning style (once they get to university, introverts often excel — better powers of concentration). There is a horrifying case study of a shy child whose parents wanted to put him on medication, “to make him less passive”.

Quiet is a very timely book. As we struggle through a recession largely caused by extrovert City boys and politicians, it is the moment to re-evaluate our obsession with the extrovert ideal. Although the mixture of journalism, science-lite and self-help is not always satisfying, Cain’s central thesis is fresh and important: “Introverts living under the extrovert ideal are like women living in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.” And maybe the extrovert ideal is no longer as powerful as it was; in a century when power is swinging towards the introverted East, perhaps it is time we all stopped to listen to the still, small voice of calm.

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