Thursday, April 26, 2012


I finished the book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can't Stop Talking" this week. I've always know I was an introvert, but it was during my time in Charlottesville that I learned more about what that meant, thanks to my friends' obsession with Myers-Briggs. Anyway because of that, I found this book fascinating.

The author, Susan Cain, covers it all — research about introverts/extroverts, the way the differences play out in the workplace, case studies of people and relationships. And then she talks about ways to function as an introvert in an extrovert world while staying true to yourself. She also addresses raising and teaching introvert kids, how to make a workplace conducive to introverts and extroverts, and how to balance a marriage between an introvert and an extrovert.

One of the research points that I found particularly interesting was a study of children. Four-month-old babies were exposed to stimuli in a new environment. Some babies were "highly reactive" to having a bunch of new stuff put in their faces. They flailed their arms, cried, etc. Others were pretty passive and weren't bothered by the new things and environment. Those babies were brought back at different ages after that for interviews and tests. What the researchers discovered is that the babies that were highly reactive were introverted as children. This seems surprising, but it makes the connection that introverts are sensitive in their senses (loud noises, bright lights) and to change.

I don't fit every stereotype of introverts, and no one really does. But I was not the laid back baby my sister (an extrovert) was. I don't handle change very well. I desperately wanted to go back to kindergarten when I was in first grade. And it always takes me time to adjust to a new environment (school, job, city, etc.), though it's been a faster process as I've made more moves. But I don't like fireworks or 3-D movies. I get overwhelmed in crowded and loud places. While I've always known these things were true about me, I had never really connected them to my introversion.

And a lot of introverted adults become pseudo-extroverts in different parts of their lives. But it is usually tied to something they are passionate about. And that's the case for me in my current job. Four days a week I sit out in a loud and busy newsroom. I have to be "on" for my students on the desk and when I teach class. And I actually draw a lot of energy from that and enjoy it mostly because I am passionate about the work. I love community news, and I love teaching students.

What I realized a couple of weeks ago is that I have found a way to balance that and provide rest for myself as an introvert. One week recently I had to cover some extra night shifts for co-workers that were gone. I also had eight individual meetings with students and two classes to teach. Because of the extra shifts, I had to give up my office day, the day I get to catch up on stuff and be out of the newsroom. By the time Friday rolled around, I was exhausted and my frustration level was high. I walked out of work that day thinking it was a miracle I didn't lose it with someone. While part of the exhaustion was the hours I was working, a big part of it was not having down time. I was always "on" and didn't get to balance it with "off" time. The next week I worked from home on my office day, and I couldn't believe the difference I felt. And this is a point Cain made in the book. She called it making a free trait agreement with yourself, recognizing that you can be a pseudo extrovert in part of your life, but you have to allow for down time to recharge. And you can give yourself a free pass from going to an event or social outing to get that time.

The end of the book talks a lot about raising and teaching introvert children. It definitely made me question the way I teach my class. But I also reflected on the way I was raised (my mom is an extrovert and my dad is an introvert). Again I didn't take fit all the stereotypes, I am a risk taker and was even more of one as a kid. I was involved in a number of things, but my parents let me pick and choose what I wanted to focus on. They encouraged my imagination and eventually my writing from an early age, which was an outlet for me. When I would argue with my parents, I often needed down time to figure out what I really wanted to say. My dad was the same way, and my mom learned to give me space. Since I was pretty passive and cared a lot about others, my mom had to help me be assertive. Everyone in my family remembers the story of me getting the top bunk at camp. My mom and sister helped me role play to assert myself and get what I wanted. That's exactly the kind of thing the book encourages parents to do with introverted children.

My dad was also an example of how to succeed in business as an introvert. I learned that if you only talk when you have something important to say, people will listen to you. While class participation was always an issue for me, my dad didn't tell me I always had to be the most talkative student, but instead encouraged me to think through my thoughts and speak up when I had something to say. The teacher would recognize my thoughtfulness.

In the real world, I learned that I held a lot of power by only talking when I had something important to say. In meetings at the first newspaper I worked at, co-workers often talked just to hear themselves talk and others talked over them or ignored what they had to say because most if it was nonsense. But if I had something to say, everyone knew it would be important and the room would go silent. I gained the respect of those I managed by really listening and not making snap decisions. And those same things apply now. I have a wider view of what's going on because I observe and listen.

But after reading this book, I can also see why I was unhappy in my last job. I was never passionate about the work. I didn't really care about writing and editing stories for investment bankers. I worked with mostly introverts in a quiet office. I never had a reason to come out of my shell and be more than a passive employee. The exception was when I managed a team of employees located in Pakistan. I was an advocate for them and earned their trust and respect. But before I took over as their manager, they doubted I could be the advocate they needed because I wasn't that way in the rest of my work. And that explains why I was passed over for some other roles prior to that.

This book reinforced the idea that I'm only going to be happy in a job where I am passionate about what I do and the impact of my work.

One negative stereotype of introverts is that they don't like people. Cain says in the book that introverts are actually empathetic and care deeply about others. I saw a lot of myself in Cain's example of second-grader that worried about spending equal time with friends on the playground. Her friends were in separate groups, and she didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I was the peacemaker and always worried about hurting others feelings. As an adult this translates into a dislike of small talk. Introverts want to really know people and have deep conversations.

There's so much more I could write about this, but I think it's better if you read the book. If you're an extrovert, it will give you insight into relationships with introverts (as a boss, co-worker, spouse or parent). And if you're an introvert, it will help you figure out how to stay true to yourself but not get lost in an extrovert world.

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