Every so often a book comes along that really makes an impact on me, one of those books which tells you things about yourself that you already knew really but gives you a framework for them and helps you understand that it’s really ok to be that way.
The book in question on this occasion is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and (and the irony is not lost on me here) I have been reading it during a solo trip to Oxford in which I have found myself alone in pubs, cafes, on long walks and sitting in my accommodation.
The thing is that I have always enjoyed my own company and, these days at least, think nothing of going away for a few days on my own; or having solo trips to the cinema, concerts, etc… There was, however, a time when I felt very self conscious about engaging in this sort of activity, believing that doing things on my own was somehow a failure of my own making, that my desire to be alone was somehow at odds with the prevailing nature of society – a little bit freakish in fact. Don’t get me wrong I really enjoy the company of others too (and why do I feel that I need to say that?), but being on my own has a very restorative aspect for me.
It turns out, however, that a sizeable percentage of the population also feel this way and have the same debilitative fears about going into new situations, engaging in small talk, not thinking well on our feet, over preparing for any sort of public speaking (including what to say as part of a seemingly spontaneous conversation), and group learning – I could go on…
One of the reason for this must surely be because introverts do not tend speak up about these things (although we are more likely, however, to write about very personal matters on social media and in blogs), but Cain also makes the argument that society, and in particular Western society, is much more geared towards the extrovert…which probably helps explains my previous feelings of freakishness.
So what I like about this book is that it is, first and foremost, very comforting to me to find out that my feelings and actions are not as rare and abnormal as I thought; and are something I share with around 30% to 50% of the population (depending on the way these things are measured), and that many of the strategies that I have adopted through life have been consistent with where I am on the introvert/ extrovert scale (I had a number of “OMG I’ve been doing that all my life” moments reading this book):
– my many solo cycle rides as a teenager/ and my many early morning walks when on family holidays
– my preference for intimate conversation to being centre of attention at a big gathering
– my non-prescriptive leadership style which has a preference for pro-active co-workers
– my fear of conflict and reticence to express my opinions to those I don’t know so well
– my need to warm up to a social situation, and often preferring observation to participation
All these things are typical introvert behaviour which I am more than ever happy to claim as my own and understand more deeply.
But this blog is also about balance and I also like Cain’s book because, while she is very keen to put forward the ‘introvert case’, she is not prescribing a lifestyle that is wholly inward looking or hermetic. What she does is help introverts to understand why we think and act in particular ways, and offers some useful strategies to help is find a way of being appropriately outgoing while at the same time staying true to ourselves.
There is far too much on this to go into in detail here, but some of the key ideas include:
– the need to find ‘restorative niches’, time to ourselves that we build into our everyday lives
– the relationship between solitude and creativity
– ‘Free Trait Theory’, the idea that we are born with certain personality traits, but can act out of character for the things/ people we care about
– that introverts can be effective in a world that seems skewed towards those who are more outgoing, and how a balance between the two can often yield great results – including within a partnership.
There is much more in the book including, for me, a very useful chapter on working with introvert children; as a Father of one it is certainly going to have an effect on the way I parent.
Naturally the notion of whether we are introvert or extrovert, or even ambivert (yes there is such a term) is not the sum total of how we interact with the world, and how we view and process that interaction; and there will be other factors to take into account. Nevertheless, Cain’s book has given me a new confidence to celebrate (in my own introverted way) what I am and to find the right ways to be for me and those around me…I cannot recommend it highly enough