Susan Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a New York Times bestseller. Her TED talk about the power of introverts has been seen nearly 14 million times. Heleo’s founder Rufus Griscom recently sat down with her to discuss her new book, Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, and the amazing cultural changes that have happened since Quiet was released. You can watch the video of the talk here or listen below.
Rufus Griscom: Quiet has had a huge impact and conversation. The ripples of that impact continue. Let’s start with the story of your adventures. You went to Princeton, then Harvard Law School, were a high-powered attorney, and then did what a lot of us think about doing, but don’t do: quit your job to write a book. The story of your personal journey to write that book, the doubts you might have had along the way, is really pretty extraordinary and worth sharing.
Susan Cain: It’s funny, because the way that you just told it, “quit your job to write a book,” makes it sound so dramatic. It makes it sound like something no one could ever do, and in fact, I didn’t do it in as dramatic a way. There are ways to do it that require a little bit less “Oh my gosh, I’m risking everything”. In my case, I took a leave of absence from my law firm, knowing I probably wasn’t going back, but also knowing that I could if I needed to. A huge, important psychological trick, really.
I had no idea when I left that I was going to start writing. I was just taking a break because I was burned out, I thought was going to go travel the world, most likely. Instead, within two days, I found myself writing and signing up for a class in creative nonfiction writing at NYU. On the first day I sat there, and it was like one of those cinematic epiphany moments of “This is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.”
Even then, I truly didn’t think I was going to be publish anything until the age of 75. I didn’t think I would ever make a living as a writer, I just thought this was going to be the hobby around which I centered the rest of my life.
Rufus: Was it something like six or seven years after you left the law firm before you published Quiet?
Susan: It was about 11 years, actually. First I wrote a play and a memoir and all kinds of stuff that’s still sitting in my hard drive. Then about four years after I left the law firm I started working on Quiet.
Rufus: I know from past interviews that you initially thought ofQuiet as this quirky project. You’d go to dinner parties and say, “I’m working on this book on introversion,” and people would look at you quizzically. In retrospect, it seems obvious this is a huge thing that our society hasn’t addressed, but that wasn’t clear at the time.
Susan: Oh my god, absolutely. When I was first working on Quiet, I thought if I was lucky, it ultimately might sell, I don’t know, 100 copies. I really had no idea. The whole reason for writing the book is that the word introvert and the concept around it has been stigmatized.
I really want to tell this story, especially for those of you who have book projects that you’re thinking about. I’d sent my proposal for Quiet to five different agents, and the first four said no. A few of them said, “I really like the writing, but this topic is completely non-commercial, it won’t sell, and so can you please come back with a different subject.”
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Then I came to Richard [Pine], and from the very beginning, he was such a believer in it, really more even than I was, and has been such a partner and a champion ever since.
This stuff is so subjective so if a person gets this kind of feedback along the way for the project that they’re passionate about, keep looking for the person who gets it.
Rufus: To what extent do you think things have changed since you wrote the book?
Susan: The book was very critical of education, of schools, and of corporate life, and the way in which they all undervalue introverts. I expected a lot of push-back from these institutions but found exactly the opposite. I found schools and companies incredibly receptive to these ideas. They just say, “Okay, what should we do? We know we have a problem, how can we fix it?”
Rufus: My wife and I have parent-teacher conferences and they sit us down and say, “Well, your son is a little quiet and reserved, and this is something we’re working on,” so I think that persists.
Susan: Believe me, your son knows it, whether they say it to him directly or not. That’s why I wrote the book for kids. I was getting these letters from people who are 50 and 60 talking about the messages they were sent when they were five and six, like “Why can’t you be more like your extroverted sister”? One person who grew up a while ago said he got “Why can’t you be more like the Kennedy boys?” He’s this really introverted software engineer living in Santa Cruz. He’s not like the Kennedy boys, and it’s okay. People still hold it with them.
Rufus: Meanwhile, if you think about the structures of some of these corporate institutions, there’s been this huge move towards open offices, which is not necessarily ideal for everybody. By the way, you’ve helped design a new line of office furniture, is that right?
Susan: Yeah, through Quiet Revolution. We partnered with Steelcase, the world’s largest producer of office furniture, to create quiet spaces that companies could put into their open plan offices. The idea is that you could create an environment where people could choose freely to move back and forth between the quiet and the social spaces, instead of having to be in the open all day long.
I was doing some work with an investment banker recently, and I thought that he was interested in this topic because he was a good and concerned manager. He sent all the cues of social dominance. Then he starts telling me, “Actually, I’m really shy at cocktail parties, and I feel really uncomfortable in social settings.”
This is what I hear all the time. I’ve come to realize that most humans have these feelings, and not just some of the time, but an awful lot of the time, and it’s not socially acceptable to talk about them.
Rufus: The Quiet Revolution as an organization is getting a huge amount of engagement from companies and schools all over the country.
Susan: We’re starting a Quiet Schools network where we are working with educators all over the country to help them understand how to work with the quieter children in their classrooms. We’re starting with our first cohort of 50 educators this June, but our goal is to be in every school in the country before long, and also in every company in the country, because we’re doing the same kind of program with companies like GE and P&G and so on and so on. It’s really exciting.
Rufus: I hope you get to our son’s school, because we’d love not to get another report saying that our son is too quiet. We think he’s kind of charming.
Susan: I’m sure he is.
Rufus: Hillary Clinton was asked a question four months ago, “Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?” Her answer was, “Well, I think I’m an extro-introvert,” which we might call an ambivert.
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We know that some of the most revered presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to Jefferson, Madison, and even JFK have been labeled as introverts. Meanwhile, you have some cautionary tales around people like Jeb Bush. It seemed like his introversion was a liability on that particular stage. How do you see these dynamics playing themselves out on the political stage?
Susan: It’s enormously complicated because in general we tend to swing back and forth between who we elect—or at least with who gets into the spotlight—regarding extroverts and introverts. With introverted candidates, you could say it’s analogous to the fine line that women candidates need to walk. There’s this very narrow channel that you need to surf between not being too docile over here, and not being too aggressive over there.
With President Obama, I think it worked for him especially as a campaigner, because he’s such a natural orator. I have always been a very reluctant public speaker, but I found that there really is this subset of introverts who love public performance and public speaking, and they feel really comfortable in that setting, because it’s interaction you can control. The minute they get off the stage and in the cocktail party scrum, that’s when they start feeling less comfortable.
President Obama is probably like that, and it works for him. With Hillary Clinton I think you see a little bit of a compensation of speaking up, probably with a louder voice than would really come naturally to her, and a wider smile than would come naturally to her. I think when people are perceiving this so called phoniness in her, a lot of it is that. She’d probably be better served by owning a little bit more of who she is.
Rufus: Our friend Amy Cuddy, who has a wonderful book called Presence, and the second most watched TED talk ever, had what I thought was the most insightful description of why Donald Trump was doing so well. She said that people have a subconscious distrust of people who have an asymmetry between what they’re communicating through their body language and what’s coming out in their speech. The more scripted you are, more prepared you are, the more uncomfortable you are—which comes out in a rigid torso and things like that—the less people trust you. In Obama’s case, many of his most wonderful speeches were scripted, highly scripted, he’s a writer and he managed to play to that strength really nicely.
Susan: Even his scripted speeches were consistent with who he is, because he is a writer, and then he would deliver these speeches that were incredibly writer-ly. So for him, that was synchronous. On the other side, with Donald Trump, people are saying it’s about him being willing to be not politically correct. Yes, that’s some of it, but I think what people really mean deep down when they say that is he’s not filtered, and that’s what they’re appreciating. That’s the ultimate non-scriptedness. Whatever comes into his head, you’re hearing it.
Rufus:Historically over time, our relationship to introversion and extroversion has changed. Now with the rise of the internet, thoughtful people who are good at expressing themselves with words, more introverted leaders, are rising. Do you think the pendulum is swinging, moving back towards empowering introverts?
Susan: When I was doing the research, I went out to Silicon Valley and expected to see the dynamics that you were just talking about, because of course, Silicon Valley was founded by so many introverts. What I found was a much more complicated picture. There’s often this divide in Silicon Valley where there are the introverted engineers over here, and then there’s the idea that to really be a leader, really be the manager, you’ve got to step out of that shell and adopt this whole other set of characteristics.
There’s still a lot more latitude in that culture than in typical 1950s sales corporate culture. That’s the great news. But we’re just at the beginning. There’s still a long way to go. I’ll give you one example of a company that’s different. Eileen Fisher is a very gentle, feminine, shy by her own description. And also a person with a spine of steel. You feel it the minute you talk to her.
Her whole company is created in that gentle spirit. Meetings begin with a little chime. They have all kinds of practices designed to make things really collaborative and it’s not hokey. It’s who she is, and the whole company embodies that ethos.
Rufus: There’s a view, from an evolutionary perspective, that in our species we need different brain types. There’s certainly this scale of introversion and extroversion, but maybe there are six or seven different kinds of brain types that we diagnose as problems, but in fact, they each confer both advantages and disadvantages, and we should embrace neuro-diversity.
Susan: Absolutely. We need to really rethink what leadership is supposed to be in the first place. We’re born with these different hard wirings, and if you’re more on the introverted side of things, you’ve got this gigantic cocktail of emotions that are compelling you to behave in a certain way, and extroverts have the corresponding cocktail of emotions telling them to behave the opposite way. We often don’t understand these emotions.
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If you’re an introvert, you really don’t know why it is that on your first day in a new country, or a new school, why you feel so ridiculously uncomfortable, even though you know you’re going to like it three days later, and you can’t get over that set of feelings. You shouldn’t actually be trying to, because that’s the type of animal that you are. If you know that and relax into it, your whole experience of those situations is so different.
[Questions from the audience]
Audience member: How do you reconcile introversion with the world of social media, which was largely built on the idea of extroversion and constantly engaging with the world? Especially when participating in this sharing of the personal is so largely expected now?
Susan: I think it’s difficult for people that are “introverts,” and it doesn’t feel like this is changing anytime soon. In fact, it feels like it’s just getting bigger and becoming bigger than us.
Audience member: From a personal perspective, and then when you work in that industry, or if you are a part of that in your life and in your career, and that’s sort of expected of you, how do you still maintain any sense of quiet, I guess?
Susan: On the social media side, it kind of works both ways, because I’ve talked to a lot of introverts who say they really welcome having social platforms, because it is a way to connect with lots of people, and you can be doing it from the privacy of your own home. You don’t actually have to be going out to the party to have all these connections, so from that point of view it can work really well. At the Quiet Revolution Facebook page, people interact with it with different ethos from what you would usually see. You can make a social platform into what you want it to be.
At the same time, there is a ridiculous pressure that everybody feels, and it’s a problem not just for introverts. It prevents us all from being present in the moment, because there’s always the question of “Should I take a picture of this event and post it, or should I live the event?” I think we’re all subject to that.
Audience member: Why do you think so many introverts have such a fragile sense of self, and feel less than, instead of simply accepting themselves?
Susan: There are probably many answers to this question. One of them,I believe, is because introverts are sent the message from such a young age that there is something wrong with their way of being, with their sheer preference of how to spend their time. They’re sent the message, “I know you want to go over there and draw that picture by yourself, but that’s really not what you should want to be doing, you should want to be over here in the play group with seven of your preschool classmates.” You get that over and over, and that can really undermine your sense of who you are.
The testimony that we’re hearing over and over is that once people get to the point of feeling permission to be themselves, paradoxically, they become much more confident in the outward facing world. They go to job interviews, and they’re much more confident now that they feel okay being an introvert. It’s a funny paradox, but it makes sense when you think about it.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.