Elmhurst College: Author Susan Cain Discusses How to Tap the Power of Introverts

Alumni News

Author Susan Cain Discusses How to Tap the Power of Introverts

After years of researching and writing about introversion, author and self-described introvert Susan Cain dreaded the inevitable: a national speaking tour to promote her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

The New York Times best-selling author told an attentive audience at Elmhurst College on Sunday night that prior to hitting the road, she joined Toastmasters to practice her speaking skills in a no-pressure atmosphere, embodying her message that introverts sometimes have to do what is uncomfortable to validate their power.

“One of the mistakes we’re told is that creativity and productivity comes from a gregarious place,” Cain said during her talk before more than 800 people in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. “Another mistake we believe unconsciously is that the most assertive talkers have the best ideas.”

A former corporate lawyer and graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Cain recalled growing up as an introvert. In one summer camp experience, she said, campers were repeatedly asked to cheer, “R-O-W-D-I-E that’s the way we spell rowdie! Rowdie! Let’s get rowdie!”

“I couldn’t figure out why we had to be so rowdy all of the time, and why we had to spell this word incorrectly,” she said, prompting laughter. “And then I would retreat into a book.”

Far from retreating, Cain now is hoping to provoke serious discussions about the value of solitude and introversion in a world that rewards collaborative creativity and productivity with a “madness for constant group work.”

After all, introverts make up one-third to one-half of every workplace and classroom, according to Cain. Her quick check of the audience members who identified themselves as introverted confirmed her estimation. 

She described introverts as preferring less stimulation—less background noise, fewer lights, fewer social situations to decode. Historically, she said, introverts (such as Albert Einstein and J.K. Rowling) often have more knowledge than extroverts—not necessarily higher IQs—because of their persistence and careful thoughtfulness.

Extroverts (including Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton) have “Champagne-bubble personalities” that crave stimulation and are bored when they are not getting it, she said.

“Both these styles are fabulous and great in different ways,” she said. “What I’m calling for is a world where your two styles are working together from a point of awareness.”

To underscore her point, Cain flashed a photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg standing beside the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

“This is an ideal picture of what the world should be,” Cain said. “Zuckerberg, a known introvert, hired Sheryl, an extrovert,” to do the things that she did well but that he knew he wasn’t as comfortable with, she said.

“We need to rethink what we mean by diversity. We know that when we have racial diversity and gender diversity to make up our companies or schools, they perform better,” she said. “The same exact thing is true when it comes to personality diversity.”

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