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TED2012

Susan Cain: The power of introverts

February 28, 2012

In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. But, as Susan Cain argues in this passionate talk, introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated.

Susan Cain - Quiet revolutionary
Our world prizes extroverts—but Susan Cain makes a case for the quiet and contemplative. She reaches millions of people through her books, podcasts and her mission-based organization, Quiet Revolution, which empowers introverts for the benefit of everyone. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
When I was nine years old
00:15
I went off to summer camp for the first time.
00:17
And my mother packed me a suitcase
00:19
full of books,
00:21
which to me seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do.
00:23
Because in my family,
00:25
reading was the primary group activity.
00:27
And this might sound antisocial to you,
00:30
but for us it was really just a different way of being social.
00:32
You have the animal warmth of your family
00:35
sitting right next to you,
00:37
but you are also free to go roaming around the adventureland
00:39
inside your own mind.
00:41
And I had this idea
00:43
that camp was going to be just like this, but better.
00:45
(Laughter)
00:47
I had a vision of 10 girls sitting in a cabin
00:50
cozily reading books in their matching nightgowns.
00:53
(Laughter)
00:55
Camp was more like a keg party without any alcohol.
00:57
And on the very first day
01:00
our counselor gathered us all together
01:03
and she taught us a cheer that she said we would be doing
01:05
every day for the rest of the summer
01:07
to instill camp spirit.
01:09
And it went like this:
01:11
"R-O-W-D-I-E,
01:13
that's the way we spell rowdie.
01:15
Rowdie, rowdie, let's get rowdie."
01:17
Yeah.
01:22
So I couldn't figure out for the life of me
01:24
why we were supposed to be so rowdy,
01:26
or why we had to spell this word incorrectly.
01:28
(Laughter)
01:31
But I recited a cheer. I recited a cheer along with everybody else.
01:37
I did my best.
01:40
And I just waited for the time
01:42
that I could go off and read my books.
01:44
But the first time that I took my book out of my suitcase,
01:47
the coolest girl in the bunk came up to me
01:49
and she asked me, "Why are you being so mellow?" --
01:51
mellow, of course, being the exact opposite
01:54
of R-O-W-D-I-E.
01:56
And then the second time I tried it,
01:58
the counselor came up to me with a concerned expression on her face
02:00
and she repeated the point about camp spirit
02:03
and said we should all work very hard
02:05
to be outgoing.
02:07
And so I put my books away,
02:09
back in their suitcase,
02:12
and I put them under my bed,
02:15
and there they stayed for the rest of the summer.
02:19
And I felt kind of guilty about this.
02:21
I felt as if the books needed me somehow,
02:23
and they were calling out to me and I was forsaking them.
02:25
But I did forsake them and I didn't open that suitcase again
02:28
until I was back home with my family
02:30
at the end of the summer.
02:32
Now, I tell you this story about summer camp.
02:34
I could have told you 50 others just like it --
02:37
all the times that I got the message
02:40
that somehow my quiet and introverted style of being
02:42
was not necessarily the right way to go,
02:46
that I should be trying to pass as more of an extrovert.
02:48
And I always sensed deep down that this was wrong
02:51
and that introverts were pretty excellent just as they were.
02:54
But for years I denied this intuition,
02:56
and so I became a Wall Street lawyer, of all things,
02:59
instead of the writer that I had always longed to be --
03:02
partly because I needed to prove to myself
03:05
that I could be bold and assertive too.
03:07
And I was always going off to crowded bars
03:09
when I really would have preferred to just have a nice dinner with friends.
03:11
And I made these self-negating choices
03:14
so reflexively,
03:17
that I wasn't even aware that I was making them.
03:19
Now this is what many introverts do,
03:22
and it's our loss for sure,
03:24
but it is also our colleagues' loss
03:26
and our communities' loss.
03:28
And at the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the world's loss.
03:30
Because when it comes to creativity and to leadership,
03:33
we need introverts doing what they do best.
03:36
A third to a half of the population are introverts --
03:39
a third to a half.
03:41
So that's one out of every two or three people you know.
03:43
So even if you're an extrovert yourself,
03:46
I'm talking about your coworkers
03:49
and your spouses and your children
03:51
and the person sitting next to you right now --
03:53
all of them subject to this bias
03:56
that is pretty deep and real in our society.
03:58
We all internalize it from a very early age
04:00
without even having a language for what we're doing.
04:03
Now to see the bias clearly
04:06
you need to understand what introversion is.
04:08
It's different from being shy.
04:11
Shyness is about fear of social judgment.
04:13
Introversion is more about,
04:15
how do you respond to stimulation,
04:17
including social stimulation.
04:19
So extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation,
04:21
whereas introverts feel at their most alive
04:24
and their most switched-on and their most capable
04:26
when they're in quieter, more low-key environments.
04:28
Not all the time -- these things aren't absolute --
04:30
but a lot of the time.
04:32
So the key then
04:34
to maximizing our talents
04:36
is for us all to put ourselves
04:39
in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.
04:41
But now here's where the bias comes in.
04:44
Our most important institutions,
04:46
our schools and our workplaces,
04:48
they are designed mostly for extroverts
04:50
and for extroverts' need for lots of stimulation.
04:52
And also we have this belief system right now
04:55
that I call the new groupthink,
04:59
which holds that all creativity and all productivity
05:01
comes from a very oddly gregarious place.
05:04
So if you picture the typical classroom nowadays:
05:09
When I was going to school,
05:11
we sat in rows.
05:13
We sat in rows of desks like this,
05:15
and we did most of our work pretty autonomously.
05:17
But nowadays, your typical classroom
05:19
has pods of desks --
05:21
four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other.
05:23
And kids are working in countless group assignments.
05:26
Even in subjects like math and creative writing,
05:28
which you think would depend on solo flights of thought,
05:31
kids are now expected to act as committee members.
05:34
And for the kids who prefer
05:38
to go off by themselves or just to work alone,
05:40
those kids are seen as outliers often
05:42
or, worse, as problem cases.
05:44
And the vast majority of teachers reports believing
05:48
that the ideal student is an extrovert
05:51
as opposed to an introvert,
05:53
even though introverts actually get better grades
05:55
and are more knowledgeable,
05:57
according to research.
05:59
(Laughter)
06:01
Okay, same thing is true in our workplaces.
06:03
Now, most of us work in open plan offices,
06:06
without walls,
06:09
where we are subject
06:11
to the constant noise and gaze of our coworkers.
06:13
And when it comes to leadership,
06:15
introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions,
06:17
even though introverts tend to be very careful,
06:19
much less likely to take outsize risks --
06:21
which is something we might all favor nowadays.
06:23
And interesting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School
06:27
has found that introverted leaders
06:30
often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do,
06:32
because when they are managing proactive employees,
06:34
they're much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas,
06:37
whereas an extrovert can, quite unwittingly,
06:40
get so excited about things
06:42
that they're putting their own stamp on things,
06:44
and other people's ideas might not as easily then
06:46
bubble up to the surface.
06:48
Now in fact, some of our transformative leaders in history have been introverts.
06:51
I'll give you some examples.
06:54
Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Gandhi --
06:56
all these peopled described themselves
06:59
as quiet and soft-spoken and even shy.
07:01
And they all took the spotlight,
07:04
even though every bone in their bodies
07:06
was telling them not to.
07:08
And this turns out to have a special power all its own,
07:11
because people could feel that these leaders were at the helm,
07:13
not because they enjoyed directing others
07:16
and not out of the pleasure of being looked at;
07:18
they were there because they had no choice,
07:20
because they were driven to do what they thought was right.
07:22
Now I think at this point it's important for me to say
07:26
that I actually love extroverts.
07:29
I always like to say some of my best friends are extroverts,
07:32
including my beloved husband.
07:35
And we all fall at different points, of course,
07:39
along the introvert/extrovert spectrum.
07:41
Even Carl Jung, the psychologist who first popularized these terms, said
07:44
that there's no such thing as a pure introvert
07:47
or a pure extrovert.
07:49
He said that such a man would be in a lunatic asylum,
07:51
if he existed at all.
07:53
And some people fall smack in the middle
07:56
of the introvert/extrovert spectrum,
07:58
and we call these people ambiverts.
08:00
And I often think that they have the best of all worlds.
08:02
But many of us do recognize ourselves as one type or the other.
08:06
And what I'm saying is that culturally we need a much better balance.
08:09
We need more of a yin and yang
08:12
between these two types.
08:14
This is especially important
08:16
when it comes to creativity and to productivity,
08:18
because when psychologists look
08:20
at the lives of the most creative people,
08:22
what they find
08:24
are people who are very good at exchanging ideas
08:26
and advancing ideas,
08:28
but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them.
08:30
And this is because solitude is a crucial ingredient often
08:33
to creativity.
08:35
So Darwin,
08:37
he took long walks alone in the woods
08:39
and emphatically turned down dinner party invitations.
08:41
Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss,
08:44
he dreamed up many of his amazing creations
08:47
in a lonely bell tower office that he had
08:49
in the back of his house in La Jolla, California.
08:51
And he was actually afraid to meet
08:54
the young children who read his books
08:56
for fear that they were expecting him
08:58
this kind of jolly Santa Claus-like figure
09:00
and would be disappointed with his more reserved persona.
09:02
Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer
09:06
sitting alone in his cubical
09:08
in Hewlett-Packard where he was working at the time.
09:10
And he says that he never would have become such an expert in the first place
09:12
had he not been too introverted to leave the house
09:15
when he was growing up.
09:18
Now of course,
09:20
this does not mean that we should all stop collaborating --
09:23
and case in point, is Steve Wozniak famously coming together with Steve Jobs
09:26
to start Apple Computer --
09:29
but it does mean that solitude matters
09:32
and that for some people
09:35
it is the air that they breathe.
09:37
And in fact, we have known for centuries
09:39
about the transcendent power of solitude.
09:42
It's only recently that we've strangely begun to forget it.
09:45
If you look at most of the world's major religions,
09:48
you will find seekers --
09:51
Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad --
09:53
seekers who are going off by themselves
09:56
alone to the wilderness
09:58
where they then have profound epiphanies and revelations
10:00
that they then bring back to the rest of the community.
10:02
So no wilderness, no revelations.
10:05
This is no surprise though
10:09
if you look at the insights of contemporary psychology.
10:11
It turns out that we can't even be in a group of people
10:14
without instinctively mirroring, mimicking their opinions.
10:17
Even about seemingly personal and visceral things
10:20
like who you're attracted to,
10:22
you will start aping the beliefs of the people around you
10:24
without even realizing that that's what you're doing.
10:27
And groups famously follow the opinions
10:29
of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room,
10:32
even though there's zero correlation
10:34
between being the best talker and having the best ideas --
10:36
I mean zero.
10:39
So ...
10:41
(Laughter)
10:43
You might be following the person with the best ideas,
10:45
but you might not.
10:48
And do you really want to leave it up to chance?
10:50
Much better for everybody to go off by themselves,
10:53
generate their own ideas
10:55
freed from the distortions of group dynamics,
10:57
and then come together as a team
10:59
to talk them through in a well-managed environment
11:01
and take it from there.
11:04
Now if all this is true,
11:06
then why are we getting it so wrong?
11:08
Why are we setting up our schools this way and our workplaces?
11:11
And why are we making these introverts feel so guilty
11:13
about wanting to just go off by themselves some of the time?
11:15
One answer lies deep in our cultural history.
11:19
Western societies,
11:22
and in particular the U.S.,
11:24
have always favored the man of action
11:26
over the man of contemplation
11:28
and "man" of contemplation.
11:30
But in America's early days,
11:34
we lived in what historians call a culture of character,
11:37
where we still, at that point, valued people
11:40
for their inner selves and their moral rectitude.
11:42
And if you look at the self-help books from this era,
11:45
they all had titles with things like
11:47
"Character, the Grandest Thing in the World."
11:49
And they featured role models like Abraham Lincoln
11:52
who was praised for being modest and unassuming.
11:55
Ralph Waldo Emerson called him
11:57
"A man who does not offend by superiority."
11:59
But then we hit the 20th century
12:02
and we entered a new culture
12:05
that historians call the culture of personality.
12:07
What happened is we had evolved an agricultural economy
12:09
to a world of big business.
12:11
And so suddenly people are moving
12:13
from small towns to the cities.
12:15
And instead of working alongside people they've known all their lives,
12:17
now they are having to prove themselves
12:20
in a crowd of strangers.
12:22
So, quite understandably,
12:24
qualities like magnetism and charisma
12:26
suddenly come to seem really important.
12:28
And sure enough, the self-help books change to meet these new needs
12:30
and they start to have names
12:33
like "How to Win Friends and Influence People."
12:35
And they feature as their role models
12:37
really great salesmen.
12:39
So that's the world we're living in today.
12:42
That's our cultural inheritance.
12:44
Now none of this is to say
12:48
that social skills are unimportant,
12:50
and I'm also not calling
12:53
for the abolishing of teamwork at all.
12:55
The same religions who send their sages off to lonely mountain tops
12:58
also teach us love and trust.
13:01
And the problems that we are facing today
13:04
in fields like science and in economics
13:06
are so vast and so complex
13:08
that we are going to need armies of people coming together
13:10
to solve them working together.
13:12
But I am saying that the more freedom that we give introverts to be themselves,
13:14
the more likely that they are
13:17
to come up with their own unique solutions to these problems.
13:19
So now I'd like to share with you
13:24
what's in my suitcase today.
13:26
Guess what?
13:33
Books.
13:35
I have a suitcase full of books.
13:37
Here's Margaret Atwood, "Cat's Eye."
13:39
Here's a novel by Milan Kundera.
13:41
And here's "The Guide for the Perplexed"
13:44
by Maimonides.
13:46
But these are not exactly my books.
13:49
I brought these books with me
13:52
because they were written by my grandfather's favorite authors.
13:54
My grandfather was a rabbi
13:58
and he was a widower
14:00
who lived alone in a small apartment in Brooklyn
14:02
that was my favorite place in the world when I was growing up,
14:05
partly because it was filled with his very gentle, very courtly presence
14:08
and partly because it was filled with books.
14:11
I mean literally every table, every chair in this apartment
14:14
had yielded its original function
14:17
to now serve as a surface for swaying stacks of books.
14:19
Just like the rest of my family,
14:22
my grandfather's favorite thing to do in the whole world was to read.
14:24
But he also loved his congregation,
14:27
and you could feel this love in the sermons that he gave
14:30
every week for the 62 years that he was a rabbi.
14:33
He would takes the fruits of each week's reading
14:37
and he would weave these intricate tapestries of ancient and humanist thought.
14:40
And people would come from all over
14:43
to hear him speak.
14:45
But here's the thing about my grandfather.
14:47
Underneath this ceremonial role,
14:50
he was really modest and really introverted --
14:52
so much so that when he delivered these sermons,
14:55
he had trouble making eye contact
14:58
with the very same congregation
15:00
that he had been speaking to for 62 years.
15:02
And even away from the podium,
15:04
when you called him to say hello,
15:06
he would often end the conversation prematurely
15:08
for fear that he was taking up too much of your time.
15:10
But when he died at the age of 94,
15:14
the police had to close down the streets of his neighborhood
15:17
to accommodate the crowd of people
15:20
who came out to mourn him.
15:22
And so these days I try to learn from my grandfather's example
15:26
in my own way.
15:29
So I just published a book about introversion,
15:31
and it took me about seven years to write.
15:34
And for me, that seven years was like total bliss,
15:36
because I was reading, I was writing,
15:39
I was thinking, I was researching.
15:42
It was my version
15:44
of my grandfather's hours of the day alone in his library.
15:46
But now all of a sudden my job is very different,
15:49
and my job is to be out here talking about it,
15:52
talking about introversion.
15:55
(Laughter)
15:58
And that's a lot harder for me,
16:02
because as honored as I am
16:04
to be here with all of you right now,
16:06
this is not my natural milieu.
16:08
So I prepared for moments like these
16:11
as best I could.
16:13
I spent the last year practicing public speaking
16:15
every chance I could get.
16:17
And I call this my "year of speaking dangerously."
16:19
(Laughter)
16:22
And that actually helped a lot.
16:24
But I'll tell you, what helps even more
16:26
is my sense, my belief, my hope
16:28
that when it comes to our attitudes
16:31
to introversion and to quiet and to solitude,
16:33
we truly are poised on the brink on dramatic change.
16:35
I mean, we are.
16:37
And so I am going to leave you now
16:39
with three calls for action
16:41
for those who share this vision.
16:43
Number one:
16:45
Stop the madness for constant group work.
16:47
Just stop it.
16:49
(Laughter)
16:51
Thank you.
16:54
(Applause)
16:56
And I want to be clear about what I'm saying,
16:58
because I deeply believe our offices
17:00
should be encouraging
17:02
casual, chatty cafe-style types of interactions --
17:04
you know, the kind where people come together
17:06
and serendipitously have an exchange of ideas.
17:08
That is great.
17:10
It's great for introverts and it's great for extroverts.
17:12
But we need much more privacy and much more freedom
17:14
and much more autonomy at work.
17:16
School, same thing.
17:18
We need to be teaching kids to work together, for sure,
17:20
but we also need to be teaching them how to work on their own.
17:23
This is especially important for extroverted children too.
17:25
They need to work on their own
17:28
because that is where deep thought comes from in part.
17:30
Okay, number two: Go to the wilderness.
17:32
Be like Buddha, have your own revelations.
17:35
I'm not saying
17:38
that we all have to now go off and build our own cabins in the woods
17:40
and never talk to each other again,
17:43
but I am saying that we could all stand to unplug
17:46
and get inside our own heads
17:48
a little more often.
17:50
Number three:
17:54
Take a good look at what's inside your own suitcase
17:57
and why you put it there.
17:59
So extroverts,
18:01
maybe your suitcases are also full of books.
18:03
Or maybe they're full of champagne glasses
18:05
or skydiving equipment.
18:07
Whatever it is, I hope you take these things out every chance you get
18:10
and grace us with your energy and your joy.
18:14
But introverts, you being you,
18:17
you probably have the impulse to guard very carefully
18:20
what's inside your own suitcase.
18:22
And that's okay.
18:24
But occasionally, just occasionally,
18:26
I hope you will open up your suitcases for other people to see,
18:28
because the world needs you and it needs the things you carry.
18:31
So I wish you the best of all possible journeys
18:36
and the courage to speak softly.
18:38
Thank you very much.
18:41
(Applause)
18:43
Thank you. Thank you.
18:47
(Applause)
18:50

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Susan Cain - Quiet revolutionary
Our world prizes extroverts—but Susan Cain makes a case for the quiet and contemplative. She reaches millions of people through her books, podcasts and her mission-based organization, Quiet Revolution, which empowers introverts for the benefit of everyone.

Why you should listen

Susan Cain is a former corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant -- and a self-described introvert. At least one-third of the people we know are introverts, notes Cain in her book QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Although our culture undervalues them dramatically, introverts have made some of the great contributions to society -- from Chopin's nocturnes to the invention of the personal computer to Ghandi's transformative leadership. Cain argues that we design our schools, workplaces and religious institutions for extroverts, and that this bias creates a waste of talent, energy and happiness. Based on intensive research in psychology and neurobiology and on prolific interviews, she also explains why introverts are capable of great love and great achievement, not in spite of their temperament -- but because of them.

In 2015 Susan Cain announced the launch of her mission-based organization Quiet Revolution that aims to change the lives of introverts by empowering them with the information, tools and resources they need to survive and thrive.

In the workplace, companies are not fully harnessing the talents of their introverted employees and leadership teams are often imbalanced with many more extroverts than introverts. The Quiet Leadership Institute has worked with companies from LinkedIn to GE to Procter and Gamble to help them achieve their potential by providing learning experiences that unlock the power of introverts.

At the heart and center of the Quiet Revolution is empowering the next generation of children to know their own strengths and be freed from the sense of inadequacy that has shadowed the children of previous generations. Susan's second book, Quiet Power, is written for teens and young adults but also serves as a tool for teachers and parents. In addition, Susan has created a portal and a online learning experience for the parents of quiet children and has also established the Quiet Schools Network. Susan's podcast, Quiet: The Power of Introverts debuted in February 2016 as a 10-part series designed to give parents and teachers the tools they need to empower quiet kids.

Susan and the Quiet Revolution have received numerous accolades and press including Fortune magazine, The New York Times, NPRand many more.

The original video is available on TED.com
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