When you Google the word introvert, the first definition that pops up is “a shy, reticent person.” Beyond this abridged and somewhat inaccurate description, you will get more researched, nuanced responses, such as “a person who tends to turn inward”, or “someone who is more energized by time alone than in large groups.” Still, these responses do not come close to how well the writer Susan Cain captures the mind and the motivations of an introvert in her fascinating book “Quiet.”
If you do a quick scan of your network, you’ll likely be able to point out a textbook introvert and a textbook extrovert. One is quiet, withdrawn, enjoys solitude and is somewhat socially awkward. The other is gregarious, open, talkative, and the life of the party. Yes?
The reality, as Susan Cain so thoughtfully illustrates in her book, is much more nuanced. And while she reiterates the widely-held notion that none of us can be neatly assigned to distinct personality buckets, she also takes it a step further.
Through many real-life examples, she shows how we can easily misidentify an extrovert for an introvert and vice versa. Even more importantly, she illustrates how we can be mistaken about our own individual preferences.
One of the fascinating stories in her book is about Brian Little, a popular former Harvard University psychology professor. At the time of his tenure at Harvard, his lectures were considered legendary – delivered and performed like the best of Hollywood – often ending with standing ovations. To anyone in his lecture hall, he would appear to be an obvious extrovert.
But getting to know Brian more closely, you would learn that his extroverted persona was situational. While acting highly extroverted at work, in his free time Brian preferred to read books, listen to music and engage one-on-one with family and friends.
If he was a true introvert, why, then, did he choose a profession that required him almost daily to expend such a huge amount of social energy?
Brian knew his limits. Brian also knew what he himself calls his “core personal projects.” And he was willing to stretch himself in the service of those core – meaningful to him – projects.
Because of his popularity and success, Brian was frequently invited to do lectures and speeches at other colleges. During one of these visits, at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River near Montreal, he was asked to join the leadership of the college for lunch after his presentation. Brian had to think quickly on his feet. He had to do another presentation in the afternoon, and knew that if he accepted the invitation, he would be too tired to perform at his best later in the day. The small-talk at lunch would wipe him out.
Politely, Brian informed his host that one of his passions was ship design and that he would be thrilled if he could spend his lunch hour admiring ships on the Richelieu River. He then spent the lunch hour walking up and down the river all by himself, re-charging before his presentation.
Years later, the college moved campuses and was no longer located by the river. Brian, who kept receiving the invitations to lecture each year, could no longer excuse himself before the afternoon lecture to admire the ships. Instead, he resorted to hiding out in the bathroom stalls.
Brian found a way to combine his passion for educating his students and the social demands of his work in a way that didn’t burn him out.
Had he avoided doing work that was important to him, and had he not understood his need to regularly re-charge, he would have not only grown to be unfulfilled but also likely severely stressed over time.
Brian knew his preferences and understood how to deploy them in service to his passions.