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Susan Cain's Quiet Revolution: Helping Introverts Survive and Thrive

06/22/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
Tetra Images - Jessica Peterson via Getty Images

Going by myself to cocktail hour at my very first sales conference seemed like a good idea at the time.

I was a 34-year-old marketing associate at a huge Fortune 50 company. I had started as a secretary (my real passion was creative writing), and had taken on more and more until I found myself with an office, my own secretary, and a corporate card.

I also found myself at a massive sales conference.

Although I never liked parties, I thought mingling with my sales colleagues before the big kick-off presentation would be good for my career, and that surely I'd find someone I knew. No such luck. Clutching my glass of chardonnay and plate of stuffed mushrooms, I scanned the sea of laughing faces and realized I didn't know a single one.

Finally, I saw the woman who had interned with our team the year before. Seeing me too, she smiled and waved, but as I started over, she shrugged apologetically, gestured at the throng around her and turned away.

Now I was in full panic mode. Ten endless minutes stood between me and the safety of a seat in the audience. The voices around me got louder; the people seemed to multiply. Then I did what any right-minded introvert would do: I ran to the ladies' room and locked myself in a stall.

Like Susan Cain, introvert pioneer and author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can't Stop Talking, I have dozens of stories like this and have spent most of my life trying to "fix" myself. However, Cain says it's the extroverted world that needs fixing, and the aim of her new company, Quiet Revolution, is to do just that.

A brief history of introversion

In her inspiring TED talk, Cain discusses how extroversion hasn't always been prized over introversion. Early self-help books had titles such as Character, the Grandest Thing in the World, and featured introvert role models like Abraham Lincoln "who was praised for being modest and unassuming," and whom Ralph Waldo Emerson called, "A man who does not offend by superiority."

Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the terms extroversion and introversion in the 1920s, and defined them based on people's reactions to social interactions. Extroverted people are energized by them while introverts find them enervating.

As Cain says, introversion is distinct from shyness, which is about "fear of social judgment." In other words, someone who's introverted isn't necessarily shy while some extroverts may get shy and insecure in certain situations.

As the 20th century progressed, introversion continued to be underappreciated. Nineteen-thirties best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People taught techniques on how to "make friends quickly and easily" and how to "increase your popularity." A 1950s study went as far as to examine the link between introversion in children and criminality (no link was found), while an earlier study was surprised to discover that introverted children often grew up to be well-adjusted adults.

The 1970s saw the popularity of open classrooms and schools without walls, which were supposed to promote group work and teamwork among teachers. (Having gone to schools with and without walls, the only extra thing I learned in the wallness school was how to tune out extraneous noise.)

In the 1980s, Michael Bloomberg launched what might have been the first open office, which was designed to promote "transparency," figuratively and literally. Other companies soon followed suit, hoping to encourage a serendipitous exchange of ideas, as Cain says, but also subjecting employees to the "constant noise and gaze" of coworkers. In other words, an introvert's nightmare.

A quiet revolution

So what's an introvert to do?

Learn

While your coworkers probably know what introversion is, they might not know the best way to communicate with those who are introverted. Conversely, you as an introvert might not know the best way to communicate back.

Cain's Quiet Leadership Institute offers training on introversion and what it is, how to communicate with and manage an introvert, and how introverts can better communicate and even lead.

Change

By "change" I don't mean "become an extrovert" if you're an introvert, or vice versa. However, making small adjustments for yourself is certainly easier than changing others.

For instance, you might work in an open office and hate it. While you certainly can't "march in with two-by-fours and drywall to build [yourself] an enclosure," as designer Elan Morgan says at the QuietRev website, you can focus on smaller changes.

To recharge you might take a solitary walk. Need privacy? Devise a "I need privacy" signal such as putting on your headphones. As for alone time, you might want to book a conference room and have a party of one.

In addition to work and career, the QuietRev site offers a wealth of advice on parenting and life in general.

Look in your suitcase

I have two pieces of work advice I try to remember when things get tough. One is "Play to your strengths." Obvious right? But not to me during a time I was being pushed in a career direction I didn't want. The other is, "Imagine a good day at work." Chances are if your actual work days don't look like your imagined good ones, you might want to reconsider your path.

Now I have a third: look in your suitcase. In her TED talk, Cain opens with a story about lugging a suitcase full of books to summer camp. After being accused of being "mellow" by one of her fellow campers, she hid the suitcase under her bed. Much later of course she learned to not just embrace it but to share it with the world, and encourages other introverts to do the same.

At the sales conference, I did come out of the bathroom eventually. But I talked to no one as I took my seat at the presentation, which, with its blaring rock music and flashing lights, did little to ease my anxiety. I wish back then I had realized I had a suitcase and what was in it was worth sharing. Next time though, I'm definitely bringing it.