Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking': Validation for the Less Vocal

Power is not a word usually associated with introversion.

I've lived most of my life as an extrovert even though I am an introvert, and although I feel powerful and confident, my introverted side often makes me feel less than powerful.  I surround myself with extroverts - my husband, my two daughters, and my two best friends.  And I don't think that most people, especially my past students, would ever think I was an introvert.  A few years ago, a student wrote me a letter at the end of the school year that said, "At first you annoyed me because you never stopped talking, but I realized somewhere along the way that you were an amazing and caring teacher and I really loved your class, so thank you."  It's not the first time I was told that I talk too much, which is ironic since throughout my life I've basically forced myself to not be so quiet in large groups.

I remember times in high school and college that I felt like I was choking to find words to share in class.  I worried about my face turning red, that my words didn't come as quickly as the people around me whose hands flew up as soon as the teacher posed a question. I once skipped a school day because I didn't want to give a speech. Not to mention the slew of other introverted traits I possess - I'm sensitive to my environment both emotionally and physically.  I prefer to hang out with one other person.  I am not a pack animal.  I prefer a quiet dinner over a loud party. I like to work alone. Being "on" all day as a teacher exhausted me. I am rejuvenated through yoga and reading and taking long walks by myself. I prefer to think before responding. Finally,  I don't like to be in the spotlight even though I have been in high school plays and musicals, been the leader in numerous activities and committees, been a camp counselor, a high school English teacher, the singer in a band, and a hostess with the mostess.

I prefer to be quiet because life feels loud to me often.  Even while I was living in London, my favorite days were spent in museums or taking walks by myself in new parts of the city.  I loved hopping on the train by myself and going to a new country to figure it out alone and spending the afternoons writing in a cafe.  The idea of traveling in a group made me more nervous than navigating a foreign city alone.

Susan Cain's book 'Quiet' helped me to validate my introverted power and make me think deeply about my core personality, but even better it helped me to appreciate the parts about me that most often I associate with some negative feelings. As Cain puts it in her introduction, "It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live in a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight." So many times in my life, I have apologized either to myself or to others about something that stemmed from my introversion.

Cain starts 'Quiet' with how extroversion became our cultural ideal and when our society started to value the doers and talkers with big personalities versus the Eastern ideal of the wise leaders who spoke little and meditated often.  Cain gathered research on the introverted leaders that our country needed to propel itself forward, and those that shaped the culture we live in - from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Rosa Parks to J.K. Rowling, from Einstein to Spielberg. As I read example after example and felt more and more validated about being an introvert, I thought that she missed the point that not all introverts are being overlooked in our society and in many professions the introverts are sought out - maybe not in the business world or in education, but in many places introverts shine even brighter than extroverts. She is sometimes harsh with her research and examples of the over impulsive, extroverted leaders who feed only their egos without really ever thinking about the financial ruin they will inevitably unleash on the country.

When I shared some of the parts of the book with my very extroverted husband like the Harvard Business School model which leans heavily on students working together and extroverts leading the way or the part about Tony Robbins and his leadership retreats, my husband said, "Did she say anything good about extroverts?" I thought about this as I read.  I came to this conclusion - it wasn't really that Cain made the point that introverts are better than extroverts, it was more that as a society we seem only to value the extrovert in leadership positions and in our education system and even in the way we parent.  We view introversion as something we need to fix; we feel the need to bring introverts out of their shells and open them up as if converting them into extroverts will make them normal.

Cain's research made me think about my own teaching style.  I am an introvert who ran a very extroverted classroom.  I did make it my goal to help the quiet kids speak, giving them opportunities to be heard drawing from my own experiences as the quiet one that had great ideas but didn't know how to share them effectively.  Why did I feel the need to fix them?

The stories Cain shared about brilliant Professor Brian Little who lectured and dedicated himself to his students in the most extroverted way possible, so much so that none of his students would ever guess that after giving speeches at conferences that Little, a very introverted man,  would hide in the bathroom stall to avoid more talking during lunch.  I've done this.  During my last year of teaching, one of my favorite times during the day was my 30 minute lunch break where I ate alone in my classroom.  I was able to recharge and reset myself to be extroverted for the rest of my students for the rest of my day. This is what Cain calls a "restorative niche" - the place you want to go to "return to your true self."

'Quiet' opened my eyes to how lopsided our culture is in terms of the "Extrovert Ideal." Cain doesn't try to make the point that we all need to be introverts, but she does produce compelling evidence (her depth and variety of research studies include adults, leadership, children and relationships) that our society often tries to encourage everyone to be extroverts and rather than changing our core personalities, introverts need to have a "quiet revolution" and revel in the gifts they possess.

I know that after reading the book and clicking together the pieces of my life, the tension spots in my marriage, the times I felt my most comfortable and most uncomfortable, that many of those pieces coincided with my introversion.  I may not be starting a quiet revolution, but I at least feel validated for the powerful person that I am because of my introverted core personality.

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