The hero of Susan Cain’s elegant, thought provoking, and wonderfully researched narrative is the introvert-the sensitive, serious and shy person who recharges his batteries by being alone. Far from it being a weakness, the author explains, introversion is a virtue.
Perhaps the most compelling argument the author makes for her assertion is the story of Rosa Parks. This was the quiet and shy woman who through her ‘radical humility’ and ‘quiet strength’ made history, and ultimately changed the course of race relations in America. Later in the book, the author also cites Mahatma Gandhi, a constitutionally quiet being, whose ‘firmness in pursuit of the truth’ or Satyagraha, toppled an empire.
The names of several other luminaries (Barack Obama, Al Gore, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates), all introverts, are scattered throughout the book. The author makes the compelling case that because our lives are, and even the world is, shaped by our personalities, introversion is a personality type that alongside extroversion needs to be understood and even embraced.
Our personalities influence, the author states: ‘..our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them. It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader and ask “what if.” It is reflected in our brain pathways, neurotransmitters, and remote corners of our nervous system.’
Indeed, in the field of personality science introversion and extroversion are ‘two of the most exhaustively researched subjects’. The author points out these two personalities have engaged human thought since the beginning of time, with the ancient writings replete with their stories. One of Shakespeare’s better known introverts was the inhibited Cordelia, who when asked by her father, the talkative and unashamedly vain extroverted King Lear, what she had to say ‘to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?’, replied: ‘Nothing, my lord.”
Unsurprisingly, the author (Susan Cain) is also an introvert who in the early years of her life was made to feel guilty about her personality. She buckled to the demands of her environment by hiding her books and tried vainly to ‘come out of her shell’ by donning the charismatic persona. She became a closet introvert because she lived, as most of us do, in a society that unthinkingly placed a premium on the Extrovert Ideal. But in all that time, all she yearned for was a book to read, and the energising and nourishing surroundings of solitude.
She advises parents that introversion in the child is not something to be apologetic about or a malady requiring therapy. She persuasively appeals for accommodation and validation at home and in our schools for the introverted children. Do all cultures enthrone the Extrovert Ideal?
The writer contrasts western institutions, which are enclaves to extroversion, to the Asian model where the traditional school curriculum emphasises listening and reading, where silence is a practised discipline, where being smart is admired, where the library is what the mall or soccer field is to the west, and stellar academic performance is a priority. ‘These profound differences in cultural values’, the author writes, have ‘a powerful impact on the personality styles favoured by each culture’.
The question is posed, and unfortunately not fully answered, whether these cultural differences explain the sensational performance gaps between Asia and the rest of the world. Perhaps far from elevating one personality over the other, the books seeks to explain the differences between the two types. It assures us that introversion is not an aberration or a predicament, nor should extroversion be regarded as elevation. It informs us of that the world needs both types, in constant and complimentary interplay and relationship, to flourish.
Susan Cain’s book elucidates some of the deepest elements of the human character that are neither Western nor Eastern, and neither masculine nor feminine. It is an eloquent and an endearing thesis not only on the essence of introversion but also on its virtues. The book has valuable lessons on how the world can exploit the strengths of those inclined to be Quiet.