Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a time there was a woman who dreaded the staff meeting roundtable, when each person had to share what was good or bad or on their professional plate that week or in their personal life. All five, nine, fifteen pairs of eyes would be upon her as she forced her voice to carry down the table, knocking off as few words as she could to express, “Everything’s great!” before turning her flushed face to the colleague beside her. This same woman could take the stage before an audience in the hundreds and deliver a speech with poise, loving every moment she was in the spotlight.

She’d spin around her shopping cart to avoid meeting an acquaintance in the produce department at the grocery store, then host a wine dinner that night for twenty strangers, the joy bubbling as much as the Champagne she poured, explaining to the assembled crowd the difference between méthode traditionelle and transfer method of production. She could spend hours waiting tables at a busy restaurant, engaging in happy grace and good humor with dozens of customers, but the thought of a Friday night party at a friend’s, hanging out in a kitchen drinking beer with a few people from work? She’d feign a sudden flu or a last-minute family obligation to avoid hours of mindless chatter.

That I am an introvert is not news to me. I can’t recall when I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test, but I should have INFJ tattooed on my forehead, for the results never waver. And at some point, I got the message that being an introvert doesn’t mean I’m shy, for I am not. It doesn’t mean I’m not a risk-taker, for I am, or that I don’t form deep personal attachments, for I have many. What it does mean, among many things, is that socializing wears me out. I abhor chitchat, loud people, group projects and “going out.” It means I love to lose myself in solitary endeavors. It means I love process, not reward.

It means I’d rather just sit and listen. And when I have something to say, please be patient. I’m not a fast talker and I pause a lot, searching for just the right word. And even then you’ll probably have to strain to hear me. Unless I’ve thoroughly rehearsed my responses, I’ll never deliver my thoughts with articulate confidence and my volume is usually turned to low.

There are parts of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking that made me laugh, even as tears stung my eyes. Knowing I prefer to be alone—that I have little tolerance for casual social situations—never released me from feeling I needed to overcome my social awkwardness and impatience, my thin skin and tendency to fret about the future and things beyond my control. I thought these were faults, not characteristics of a personality type shared by millions, most of us existing in contemplative, considerate silence.

Through research, anecdotal interviews and personal experiences, Cain explores the ways introverted personalities manifest themselves in the workplace and personal relationships. The section on “highly-sensitive” people struck home.

The highly sensitive tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions—sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. They are highly empathetic…with thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world (pages 136, 137)

Yes, please. Reading this, I realized one of the reasons I tend to shut myself off and away is because I am overwhelmed by my own helplessness to change the world. I take things so personally and feel them so deeply that I become frozen in place, not knowing how to translate feeling into action.

When Cain, on pages 217-218, discusses her professional epiphany, I had another laugh/cry moment. Hers was realizing that she was never cut out to be a corporate lawyer; mine, a university or corporate administrator. There is so much about each profession at which we excelled, rising quickly through the ranks. But neither of us is cut out for committee work, for schmoozing and glad-handing, for blowing our horns—all required in legal circles and ivory towers and boardrooms. I loved the one-on-one time I spent counseling students, building relationships with individual faculty or business partners, developing administrative processes and procedures, doing research and yes, presenting at conferences and leading workshops, for which I rehearsed and prepared weeks in advance.

But I knew I’d never rise to the ranks of the one in charge; I simply wasn’t built for the social demands and networking required of a Director. So, for twenty years I left job after job just at the pinnacle of power and success—always the Bridesmaid, never the Bride. I never really knew why, except that something was inherently wrong with me. At long last, I accept nothing is wrong with me: denying myself the opportunity to advance is recognition that moving up meant moving into roles for which I was constitutionally not suited.

Now I am a writer. And a peaceful little clam. I work to create niches of social balance to avoid complete isolation—I belong to a book club, a writer’s group, I volunteer, meet friends for coffee. Social media is a great release for me, because I talk only when I want to, I have all the time in the world to construct my thoughts (which I can edit later!) and no one is looking at me as I speak. Quiet has given me permission not to regard my limited in-person social circle as evidence of a failure of personality, but as respect given to my true nature: “Love is essential: gregariousness is optional.”

In some ways, working through the theories and examples in this book is exhausting and dispiriting—if I’d had a better understanding of how I function best, would I have made different choices? Yet, the most important choices I’ve made—a life partner who is warmer and friendlier than I, but even more of an introvert; excelling at and loving parts of my profession that I’m built for and not being swayed by extrinsic rewards to pursue paths for which I am not; the dogged determination that puts me in front of a keyboard every day with few indications that I will be able to make a living doing what I love—I’ve stuck to my temperament. My life’s path hasn’t been without its stumbles, but even without knowing quite what makes me tick, I’ve been true to my nature. This is Cain’s consistent and loudest message, delivered with the gentle power of an introvert.

A Manifesto for Introverts (from Quiet)
1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: Thinkers.
2. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.
3. The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths.
4. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend extrovert. There will always be time to be quiet later.
5. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is key to finding work you love and work that matters.
6. One genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.
7. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.
8. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.
9. Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.
10. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers — of persistence, concentration, and insight — to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems. make art, think deeply.”

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Ten thousand words swarm around my head; Ten million more in books written beneath my bed*

Yesterday I penned  typed the final words of the final project of the writing program in which I’ve been engaged since late autumn 2010. From her studio in Salem, OR my writing mentor has assigned a dozen projects designed to build writing chops in someone who wrote her last piece of fiction when she was twelve. In eighteen months I have written, edited and revised thousands of words. A few thousand of those became six short stories, three of which I have submitted for publication. Two were published and one was short-listed for a national literary award. I need – must – do the slog work of getting the others off my hard drive and into an editor’s in-box. Many editors’ in-boxes. Rejection is an execrable and universal certainty of writing for publication. The form rejection letter is why God made the shredder.

But soon, after I receive feedback from this latest attempt, I will be on my own. No deadline, no direction, no word limit, no encouragement, no criticism. If I felt writing to be a solitary pursuit before, well, welcome to hanging in the wind.

I move forward with the unshakeable feeling that the small successes I’ve achieved thus far are cosmically laughable, that at some point my writing will gather dust and lurk in the corner next to my abandoned acoustic guitar. My stories will suffer from skills as short as my stubby fingers; like my “C” chord, they will almost – but not quite – make it.

What will keep me writing are the moments when I lose myself in the page, when the story takes over, when the characters wrench the outline from my hands, tear it into shreds and run off in their own direction and I can scarcely type fast enough to keep up. I write for the calm which comes over me, when I have no desire to eat, drink or move for an entire afternoon, yet when I finally rise from the chair to stretch, I am replete and relaxed. I write for the one true sentence (merci, E.H.) that may appear among hundreds of attempts, the sentence for which I can’t quite believe I was responsible when I read it later. I write because I have a loving partner who responds to my comments said in jest or dream about wanting to write full-time by catching my hand, looking me in the eye and saying, “I think you should, Julie.” I write because I’m afraid of what will become of me if I stop.

I know that really, I’m not alone. In the brief time I have explored my voice as a writer, I have discovered the heart of Seattle’s writing community: Richard Hugo House. The handful of Hugo workshops in which I’ve participated have inspired and terrified me. I have walked away from each with ideas, resources and a sense that I’m not entirely insane. Now that I am free from the obligations and pressures of my writing program, I can’t wait to enroll in a long-term Hugo House course. Twitter, of all places, is a community of infinite possibilities. I encounter writers every day and take part in weekly discussion groups with writers of all experience levels. This blog – these pages of rambling, navel-gazing drivel and book reviews – have brought kindred souls into my writing life. My writer’s to-do list includes next weekend’s Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, exploring the online courses offered by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the real-time workshops at Port Townsend’s The Writers’ Workshoppe.

I will regard this ending as a beginning. Whatever I write from this point forward I write for me, on the steam of my imagination and commitment to practice.The blank pages loom large. The feeling is delicious and disturbing.

*title credit to the brilliant songwriters and musicians The Avett Brothers and their song “Ten Thousand Words.” I end my post with additional, painfully fitting, lyrics from this song:

“Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different
We love to talk on things we don’t know about”