Holley Gerth is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, licensed counselor, and life coach. She imagines a world where we all become who we’re created to be, use our strengths to serve, and grow for a lifetime. Holley cofounded the groundbreaking blogging community (in)courage and cohosts the popular podcast More Than Small Talk.
Below, Holley shares 5 key insights from her new book, The Powerful Purpose of Introverts: Why the World Needs You to Be You. Download the Next Big Idea App to enjoy more audio “Book Bites,” plus Ideas of the Day, ad-free podcast episodes, and more.
1. Being an introvert or extrovert is more about science than small talk.
Stereotypes make it seem like being an introvert or extrovert is simply about how much we enjoy small talk, but neuroscience has shown that the difference runs far deeper. According to Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, extroversion is linked with the dopamine/adrenaline, energy-spending, sympathetic nervous system, while introversion is connected to the acetylcholine, energy-conserving, parasympathetic nervous system. And when Dr. Debra Johnson scanned the brains of introverts and extroverts, she found that they use different primary pathways for processing. An extrovert’s primary pathway is shorter and more straightforward, while an introvert’s pathway is longer and more complex, which explains why we often need time to process before responding to something.
2. Introverts need a new strategy: think like Finland.
In March 2010, marketing experts gathered to make Finland a world-famous tourist destination. As Finland is known as “the land of introverts,” they decided not to add action and excitement, but to emphasize the country’s affinity for peace and quiet. As a result, tourism grew, and citizens thrived. In a similar fashion, introverts succeed and contribute the most not when we conform, but when we utilize our unique strengths. In fact, 53 percent of millionaires identify as introverts, and a ten-year leadership study revealed that introverted CEOs are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors.
“We spend a lot of time trying to eliminate our struggles, but our efforts are often better spent identifying the corresponding strengths and moving toward them instead.”
3. Our struggles are just the other side of our strengths.
When I worked as a counselor, my clients often said things like, “Help me get rid of this part of who I am.” But our struggles are attached to our strengths. For example, introverts are highly observant and often catch what others miss, like the flicker of pain on a friend’s face. Research shows, however, that we’re also more likely to deal with anxiety. Now picture a continuum with “Introvert Nervous System” in the middle. The left end is the struggle side labeled “anxiety,” and the right end is the strength side labeled “Empathy.” We spend a lot of time trying to eliminate our struggles, but our efforts are often better spent identifying the corresponding strengths and moving toward them instead. As we do so, our struggles naturally start to recede.
4. Visibility and volume don’t equal value.
Our culture often confuses visibility and volume with value. Because of that, introverts can think we need to be more like our extroverted counterparts to lead or have influence—but that’s simply not true. Because of social media and other equalizers, influence is no longer about the quantity of our power, but the quality of our personal connections. Introverts excel at this kind of influence through strengths like listening well, acting intentionally, and supporting others. Leadership expert Jim Collins describes the most effective leaders this way: “They display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will . . . While they can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy.”
5. It takes a lifetime to become who we already are.
Australian nurse Bronnie Ware cares for people at the end of their lives. The most common regret she hears is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” What if we introverts started living more true to ourselves? In our noisy, chaotic, stressed-out world filled with opinions and criticism and division, maybe introverts can be a gentle yet powerful whisper. Maybe our strengths, like empathy and perceptiveness, reflection and meaningful connection, insightfulness and creative innovation, are essential parts of the change we all long for.
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