I just turned the last page of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
by Susan Cain and with tears in my eyes, I wanted to stand up and cheer.
For most of my childhood and young adult life, I had a nagging sense that there was something wrong with me. I could never place exactly what it was, but it seemed to come up everywhere, from my choices of what I did with my time (I loved to read by myself or hang out with my mom) to the classroom (where my more vocal classmates always spoke ahead of me). I spent a tremendous amount of time trying to fix what was “wrong” with me by forcing myself in any way that I could to fit in with everyone else, from joining a multitude of clubs in high school to a year-long stint as a member of a sorority in college. None of it ever worked.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I discovered that there was in fact, nothing wrong with me. I was sitting in a meeting at United Way, and the new head of the organization was introducing himself. He spent time telling us about his professional background and then shifted to telling us more about his personal life. At the time, it seemed a little bit out of place – I was not used to someone in a business meeting delving so deeply into his life and personality.
It was one of those moments though, that ended up being a pivotal turning point for me. As he described himself, he unabashedly called himself an introvert. I had heard that term before and knew that I technically fell into that category on personality scales like Myers-Briggs, but I had never really understood what the term meant and usually felt that it was given a negative connotation (like being incredibly shy or anti-social). The way that he explained the term introvert, though, was different: Introverts and extroverts get their energy from different places. Extroverts tend to get energized by spending time in large groups and being with other people. Introverts, on the other hand, tend to gain energy by being alone or with a close friend.
That was me. I did like people (in fact, I loved a core group of people incredibly deeply. I was empathetic, caring, and put a lot of effort into helping people that I cared about). But if I hung out in a large group or with a group of strangers, I lost energy quickly. Part of it was that I found small talk challenging – I had an innate preference for talking about deeper, more serious subjects and often felt awkward trying to dive into a conversation that didn’t feel substantive right away. I also tended to be a private person, keeping a lot about my personal life to myself except with people I knew well, but sometimes made me come across as snobby or inaccessible.
Over the years, I did what many introverts do when they’re working on something they’re passionate about: they adopt somewhat of a public extrovert personality. I figured out how to get good at (and even enjoy) things like public speaking and mingling at cocktail parties because they were in service to something much bigger that I cared about, but I have never lost those key qualities that make me an introvert.
Since I first heard the explanation of introversion and extraversion at that United Way meeting, I’ve read a lot on the subject, but Quiet is the first book I’ve read that didn’t end up making me feel like introversion is something to be fixed. And it also didn’t come across as one giant cheer that ends in “Goooooooooooo Innies!!!”
Quiet provides a scientific, historical, and cultural context for introversion and extroversion, which not only illuminates the topic, but provides a clear argument for why we need both introverts and extroverts in order to make the world work.
I hadn’t realized until I was reading Quiet how much I still carry around a tremendous amount of guilt for not always being like the rest of the world and for needing things that the rest of the “normal” world doesn’t seem to want or need, whether it’s needing to hide out in the bathroom for a couple minutes so I can have a moment of solitude in a busy day or wanting steer away from small talk and always delve more deeply into conversations.
Quiet explains pretty much everything I never understood about myself. I cried as an 8th grader because I couldn’t figure out how to be like everyone else. I finally realize, deep in my gut and without guilt, that that’s not the point.