Friday, March 16, 2012

Introversion, Quiet Persistence, and the Tortoise

For much of my adult life I have thought of myself as the tortoise in the Aesop fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Many “hares” at various times have run circles around me—secured promotions before me in business, published articles or books before me in academia, and, of course, given me all kinds of advice about how I needed to speak up and become more gregarious if I wanted to survive in this world. Labeled as shy by those hares, I nevertheless felt that if I kept plugging away at what I was doing, success would follow. As it has turned out, I have beaten a few of those hares, not that I viewed my life as a contest against them, but my quiet persistence has won the day.

And quiet persistence is precisely what Susan Cain describes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (1, 2, 3) as key to the introvert’s success in today’s extrovert-driven world. An introvert herself and former Wall Street attorney and negotiator, Cain reviews the considerable research on introversion and extroversion and provides in the process a liberating manifesto for introverts everywhere.

Careful to distinguish shyness from introversion—“shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating” (p. 12)—Cain refutes the claim of the psychiatrists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) that fear of public speaking is pathological. Citing the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mohandas Gandhi, among many other famous introverts who were terrified of speaking up in a crowd, she goes on to report the research that shows introverts to be more creative, artistic, empathic and better at problem-solving than extroverts.

Introverts are more cautious, that is, we look before leaping, or rather, think before acting, and they crave solitude: rather than go to a party on a Saturday night, we often prefer to spend the time alone reading a book. Deep discussion one on one is the desired method of socializing by an introvert; small talk may then occur after the two have gotten to know each other, but not before.

Crowds are generally avoided because they are a main source of the overstimulation Cain is talking about. Groupthink and group projects of the type that are required so routinely on college campuses today produce conventionality and suppress imagination. It humiliates members of the Asian culture who, by western standards, are unfortunately viewed as shy by nature; the irony is that Asian culture views fast-talking extroverts as weak and insecure.

Solitary persistence is our source of innovation. “It’s not that I’m so smart,” as Albert Einstein, a tortoise-introvert and not-very-good student in our conventional schools, put it. “It’s that I stay with problems longer” (quoted in Cain, p. 169).

It is the din of crowds that shuts down the minds of introverts. At crowded dinner tables where three or more conversations may be going on at once, I confess, if someone is trying to talk to me, to pretending to hear what they say, guessing at their words. Usually, I prefer to remain silent.

So how is it that introverts can become great speakers, actors, comedians . . . or college professors? This of course is a question only an extrovert could ask! Cain says that a certain amount of “pseudo-extroversion” can be developed, but I think of it, assuming extensive preparation has been completed, as being in control when I am in front of a class. The fear is then minimized, not that I wasn’t terrified the first time I did it or that I don’t still feel an edge thirty years later. Spontaneous or extemporaneous speaking by introverts is not likely to happen many times or be performed very well.

To the surprise of the hares of the world, quiet persistence is the path to success, not just in the performing arts but also, as Cain illustrates, in personal selling and entrepreneurship. For thirty years I have been telling my students that they do not have to be a back-slapping, plaid-wearing Herb Tarlek in order to become a successful salesperson or entrepreneur. Both can be and at times are introverted. Persistence, the confidence to pursue one’s goals in the face of opposition and discouragement, eventually wins.

To close this post, I think it is only fitting to cite a familiar text to demonstrate Susan Cain’s accomplishment. Paraphrasing the text:

Introverts of the world, read this book!
You have nothing to lose but your chains.
The chains of guilt and humiliation that there is something wrong with you because you would rather not speak up in front of a crowd or would rather read a book than go to a party. Let the extroverts of the world find some other way to entertain themselves than by telling you what they think you should be doing!

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Follow-up:

Nutrition and the Argument from Uncertainty. In this post on nutrition I argued that according to the latest, cumulative scientific evidence, we should minimize sugar and starch intake. Political rumblings, of course, are now stirring to regulate or ban sugar. Scott Dailey in The Wall Street Journal parodies this sugar-police mentality with a variety of stories. Here’s one: “Excuse me, sir, could you buy me an Orange Crush?” “Sorry, kid. I could go to jail for that.”


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