Susan Cain [ The Power of Introverts ] Hello everyone. I have come to believe from researching and writing this book for about seven years now, started back in 2005, I’ve come to believe that introversion and extroversion are as profound a part of who we are, as core to our identities as our gender. Therefore it’s very important to understand where we truly fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum.
And when I say this, I’m not talking about where we appear to fall, or who we appear to be because most of us, in this extroverted culture of ours, act much more extroverted than we really are. So what I’m asking is who you are deep down if you could spend your time exactly as you please, your workdays, your weekends who would you be? Would you be more of an introvert or would you be more of an extrovert?
This is a really important question so I want us to get to the answer, get to the bottom of it before we move forward with the talk. And so what I’m going to ask you to do is to break up into groups of six quickly and share with your group a private and personal memory from your childhood that you think illustrates who you really are. And then we’re going to take the most private and personal and profound of these memories and share them with the entire audience.
If there are any consultants in the audience, please don’t do this to people in future talks, introverts hate this kind of stuff. So let me just get a show of hands how many of you were thinking, when you still thought that I might be serious, “how can I get out of here right now — without insulting the speaker?” Yeah, yeah. And how many of you would describe yourself as introverts? Wow, oh my gosh could it be a hundred percent ? No. Any extroverts in the room? Okay maybe. I would say we have about five extroverts.
That’s good because you can tell us your perspective.
Of course also the important thing is not only to identify who we are but why are we the way we are. What is it that makes an introvert an introvert or an extrovert an extrovert? And the truth is there are as many answers to this question as there are personality psychologists. But boiling it down, what really distinguishes us is that introverts prefer environments that are lower stimulation environments.
I’m talking now about social stimulation so by that I mean you’d rather maybe have a glass of wine with a close friend as opposed go to a thumping party full of strangers. But I’m not talking only about social stimulation; this also plays out in things like how much noise you like to have on in the background, how bright the lights are, how bright you like your lights to be. Even something as crazy as if I place a drop of lemon juice on your tongue, if I could do that right now, we would find that the introverts in the room would salivate more in response to the lemon juice than our five extroverts would, because introverts respond more to stimulation and therefore prefer lower amounts of it. And this is so important to understand because what it tells us is that if we want to optimize our lives and to be operating at our fullest powers and with our fullest amount of energy, we really need to put ourselves in environments that have the proper amount of stimulation for us .
There’s one interesting experiment by the psychologist Russell Geen that has even found that if you give introverts and extroverts math problems to solve with different levels of background noise, the introverts will do better when the background noise is lower and the extroverts will solve the problems better when the background noise is higher.
So we all have our different sweet spots and then, of course, the question becomes most of life is kind of a one size fits all environment: our schools, our workplaces are like this.
How do you design things, how can we think about ways to tailor the amount of stimulation for individual preferences? The fuel that lead me to write this book, to spend the last seven years doing it, is that I have been distressed to see that our world is primarily set up in a way that I believe maximizes the energies of extroverts while not those of introverts .
The bias in our culture against introversion is so deep and so profound and we internalize it from such an early age we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. But from the minute that you’re introduced to a preschool classroom, when you were a young child, you’re immediately in an environment where you’re expected to be happy in a group.
Teachers have been found, all the way through at every age level of the educational system, the vast majority of teachers believe, thank you, oh much better. The vast majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert . Even though, by the way, introverted kids get better grades .
And same thing is true at the work place, in our work places, and you can tell me what your experiences are at Google, I would like to hear about this when we get to the Q and A later. But, in general, in the work place, we now live in an environment that it’s increasingly open plan offices where people don’t have very much privacy, they’re working in groups for a lot of the time.
And studies tell us that introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions even though research by Adam Grant from the Wharton School, recent ground breaking research , has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do. And I say all this, when I say this is not to take anything away from extroverts, I think extroversion is a really enormously appealing personality style, it’s just to say that this tendency, this kind of chauvinism that we have, this two tier structure of how we view personality leads to a colossal waste of talent and of energy and of happiness.
We need to be adopting much more of a yin and yang approach of balance between the two styles.
And I want to talk about how this plays out in our lives and I want to show you why it is so important that we get to this place of yin and yang and why we will all be the better for it; introverts for sure, but all of us. And to do this I’m going to start in an unlikely place. I’m going to take you on a very quick tour of the animal kingdom starting with a colony of fruit flies .
So it turns out that there are introverts and extroverts in almost every single species of the animal kingdom . I mean, who knew this but I found this out when I was doing my research. Many species have introverts and extroverts. So down to the level of fruit flies, there are what biologists call Sitter Fruit Flies who kind of sit still and kind of hop up and down in place. And then there are Rover Fruit Flies who explore the outer margins of fruit fly society.
And the reason that they do this, the reason that many species are structured this way is because the two types have very different kinds of survival strategies.
And so now I’m going to move a little bit up the animal kingdom and I’m going to take you to the world of pumpkinseed fish . An evolutionary biologist named David Sloan Wilson did a really fascinating experiment with a pond full of these fish where he came to the pond and he dropped this gigantic trap right into the middle of the pond, an event which he says from the fishes perspective must have seemed like a space ship landing right in the middle of their backyard.
And the fish responded really differently to this foreign presence.
Some of the fish, the introvert fish, responded by saying, “I’m not getting anywhere near that thing.” And they hovered on the sidelines of the pond and as a result they made it completely impossible for David Sloan Wilson to catch them in his trap. So had that trap been a real predator those fish, the introverted fish, would have been the ones that survived.
The extroverted fish immediately had to investigate what this trap was and they went swimming right up to it with no, with nothing standing in their way and, of course, they were immediately trapped. Had it been a real predator they would have been zonked.
But it’s not so simple because then Sloan Wilson comes back a few days later with a fishing net and he manages to scoop up the introverted fish who had eluded him the first time around and he brings them back to his lab. And what he finds in this environment is that the extroverted fish do much better because this is an alien world, it’s a world of unfamiliarity and extroverts tend to be more comfortable very quickly in unfamiliar environments. And so in this case, the extroverted fish started eating more quickly and going about their business more quickly while the introverted fish were kind of hanging back and not faring well.
So this is a kind of a parable to tell us that there really are different kinds of strategies for success and strategies for the survival and thriving of our species.
Now I’m going to come back to human beings finally and I want first to talk to you about children, about human children.
Let me ask you, how many people in the audience here have kids? Okay, so probably about two-thirds of you. But even for those of you who don’t have children, the reason that what I’m going to tell you is important is that human children haven’t yet absorbed the social norms of our society and so therefore they act the way they are really meant to act, the way they truly are.
If we look at the behavior of children we learn a lot about ourselves.
So, of you parents, how many of you have ever been to some kind of Mommy and me class or a Daddy and me class? Okay, not many of you. So let me explain what this is because it’s going to be relevant. This is basically a class where a parent or a babysitter takes a young child, usually a baby or a two year old, maybe a three year old and you all sit around in a circle. I’m going to show you what it looks like. Yeah — it looks like this. You all sit around in a circle and you sing songs and you play musical instruments and like that.
What you will find in these classes is that some of the children will behave like the sitter fish meaning they will stay closely by their parents’ sides, they’ll sit in their parents’ laps, they won’t really participate and they will look either scared or just reserved. And then others of the children like that little baby in the read jumpsuit who’s right in the middle of the room he’s a rover child. And so he doesn’t know where his Mom is, it’s all good with him, he’s perfectly comfortable.
The thing is that the parents of the sitter children in this kind of a situation tend to feel pretty worried about their offspring. They feel like, “Wow, my child’s not getting much out of this class and maybe this is going to be the story of their life. Maybe they will always have trouble participating and won’t get the fruits of what life has to offer.”
This is a really understandable worry but I want to broaden the picture for you of what’s really happening with a child who behaves this way. That child is doing what psychologists call paying alert attention to things. So it may appear as if the child is sitting inertly and passively and not taking anything in, but that’s not what’s happening.
They’re actually learning by observing and they’re observing in a very intent way.
So very often with these children, I see it again and again, it may take them minutes or days or weeks or months to actually plunge into the situation at hand, but when they do they already know the social rules, they already know the subtle nuances of what’s going on because they have been paying attention all that time. And this form of paying attention to things, of noticing things that are scary but noticing things in general at a subtle level, this carries through with these children all the way into adulthood.
It becomes a kind of way of dealing with the world and a way of processing information.
So, for example, if you give these children when they’re a little bit older this kind of a puzzle to solve where you have two pictures that seem to be very similar and you ask them to figure out what the subtle differences are between them, these kinds of children will spend much more time than other children will comparing the two. In the lab you can actually see their eyes darting back and forth more times than those of bolder children.
And they more often get the right answers.
And this kind of thing continues as these kids grow up. So — you give them puzzles to solve, adult size puzzles, they take more time to do it. They get better grades in school, they get, they’re more likely to get Phi Beta Kappa keys. And then the other thing and I’m sorry about this extroverts but introverts have actually been found to know more about many subjects.
In one study of college freshman they tested the students of their knowledge of, what was it, 21 different subjects. It was like everything from art to astronomy to physics to statistics and they found that the introverts knew more about all of these subjects. And what’s relevant about this is that the introverts are not smarter, as far as IQ goes the two groups, introverts and extroverts, totally similar IQ. So instead what’s happening here, the advantage that introverts have in these kinds of intellectual problem solving puzzles is the very behavioral style for which introverts often criticized , the very behavioral style that has you sitting still more, reflecting more, being more reserved, being more just slow to process stuff , that is the flip side of the behavioral style that helps you in problem solving.
Another way in which these kinds of children grow up to play really important roles in our culture is introverts and extroverts have very different attitudes to risk taking , profoundly different attitudes.
Extroverts are much more likely, when they see something that they want, to go for it. And this actually goes down to the level of neurochemistry. Extroverts have been found to have more active reward networks in their brain so that if they see something that they want or if they’re contemplating a promotion or whatever it is literally their reward networks become more activated and they get excited and this is accompanied by all kinds of joyful and fizzy emotions. And it’s actually these emotions, I think, that make extroverts such delightful company. They’re kind of like champagne bubble emotions that come with the contemplation of a reward.
And this can be a really great thing because it helps us to seize the day when we have these kinds of feelings.
But the downside to this way of being, is that when you’re that focused on a reward you don’t see the warning signals that are also coming at you saying, “Hum. maybe you should stop. Maybe there’s a problem here.” I mean you literally don’t see them as much. And introverts are much less likely to fall prey to that dynamic. I mean they sometimes do, this stuff is not black and white, but they’re less likely to fall prey to it.
This is not to say that introverts don’t also take risks because they do. But they tend to be more slow and more circumspect about it. One study of a group of traders at a London investment bank found that the introverts were the most successful traders, probably because of this way of processing information.
Another example of this would be somebody like a Warren Buffett who is a self-described introvert and is famous for sitting out on market bubbles that other people fell prey to because he is the type of person, he’s actually said that the key to investing for him is not his knowledge but his temperament. So he pays attention to warning signals and he sees them when they’re coming.
There are so many advantages that I want to talk to you about but I’m going to run out of time so I’m just going to tell you about one more for now and we can talk more in the Q and A as well. I want to talk to you about creativity. So – two important studies by, one by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and another by Gregory Feist have found that the most spectacularly creative people in a number of fields have tended to be introverts.
And they’re not just any introverts, these are introverts who have extroverted sides to them as well. They’re people who can go out and they can exchange ideas and they can advance ideas and so on. But they’re also people who are comfortable with solitude. And that is the key component because solitude turns out to be a real catalyst to creativity. Not the be all and end all, it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition, but it is necessary.
The reason for this is we’re social creatures, all of us — introverts included, we’re such social creatures that we can’t literally be around a group of people without being, without instinctively mimicking the opinions of the people in the group. So even something as seemingly primal and personal and visceral as who you’re attracted to, you will actually, if you’re in a group of people who have declared so and so to be attractive, you will start finding so and so more attractive than you otherwise would have.
And this is just a kind of fundamental tenet of human nature.
So if you want to go and find out what you really think about things you almost can’t do it without secluding yourself to some degree . But I want to be really clear about what I’m saying here and what I’m not saying. So when I say this I’m not trying to argue that man is an island after all, to contradict John Donne. We’re human beings, we love and we need each other.
And I’m also not trying to say that we should be abolishing group work and abolishing team work.
I think it’s clear that we need that part of the creative puzzle as well. And that this is probably increasingly true – every day – because as the problems that we face grow more complex we’re going to need more and more and more than we’ve ever done before to really stand on each other’s shoulders .
But what I am saying is that there are two kind of contradictory drives in human nature and one of these drives is the drive that makes us come together. It’s the drive that makes us love each other and need other and trust each other. And then another of these drives is the drive for solitude and for autonomy and for independence.
Introverts have that latter drive particularly strongly but this is a drive that we all share.
And so if we’re going to, we need to figure out ways of harnessing both of these drives as productively as we can. And so I’m just going to call for three different kind of takeaways for us to think about and I’m talking now at the kind of big picture level and then at the Q and A you can ask me questions that are more specific about your lives, your work lives or your personal lives or whatever.
So the first takeaway I’d like to share with you is just to give yourself more time for quiet, more time for solitude, more time to just get away, to feel truly entitled to it instead of feeling like it’s something that you need to feel guilty about.
The second one is to think really differently about the next generation of introverted children because the same children who have been sitting on their parents’ laps when they’re two or three years old and then grow into teenagers who develop solitary interests that they love to pursue whether it’s in spider taxonomy or for 19th century art, or whatever it happens to be these children often are the great artists and writers and thinkers of tomorrow or they’re just really fantastic human beings.
We need to stop treating them as if there’s something wrong with them and instead appreciate and take delight in what is right about them.
And then the final thing that I would say to you is for all of you to really think hard about what is the key to your own power.
From fairy tales there are many kinds of different powers that are on offer in this world. And some of us are given lightsabers like Luke Skywalker, and we get to swashbuckle our way through the galaxies. And some people are given wizard’s educations. But then there are some people where the power that is given to them is a key to a secret garden that is full of inner riches. And the trick to living well, the trick to living well is to use the power that has been granted to you instead of trying to make do with all the different powers that are on offer.
What is the power that has been given to you? And so that is what I want to say to you in closing. May you all use your powers well and brilliantly.