Ten Questions with Susan Cain the Expert on Introverts

Harvard Law School alumna and author Susan Cain visited the Harvard Bookstore on Feb. 7 to promote her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Published in 2012, “Quiet” explores and questions contemporary views on introversion. FM sat down with Cain before she headed home to New York.

Harvard Law School alumna and author Susan Cain visited the Harvard Bookstore on Feb. 7 to promote her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Published in 2012, “Quiet” explores and questions contemporary views on introversion. FM sat down with Cain before she headed home to New York.

Fifteen Minutes: “Quiet” argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and that we lose a lot in doing so. How did you get the idea to write about this topic?

Susan Cain: Well, I think in many ways I’ve had the idea all my life; since I was a young child I’ve been aware of these dynamics,  although I never had a language for it. I studied here and went off to become a lawyer in New York, and had the idea that to be a good lawyer you had to be a bold, gregarious, swashbuckling kind of person and I knew I wasn’t, so I thought I was at a big disadvantage. But then when I got to the practice of law, I looked around and I realized that many of my colleagues who were best at what they did were introverts. They were quiet and reflective and they were using those traits well.  I thought we needed to have a language for talking about that.

FM: Speaking of this language, how would you define the word “introvert”? What are the biggest misconceptions about introverts?

SC: You know you’re an introvert if you find yourself needing to recharge your batteries on your own. Imagine that you’ve been at a party for two hours and you’ve had a really good time. At the end of those two hours, do you feel like you’re craving more and you want to stay all night? That’s how extroverts tend to feel. Or do you start to feel depleted? No matter how good a time you’ve had, you might feel depleted, drained of energy. And you get your energy from being in a quieter setting. The misconceptions about introverts are that they’re antisocial, unfriendly, uncaring, and in fact they’re really not—they just want to socialize in quieter ways.

FM: How would you differentiate between introversion and shyness, two often associated words?

SC: They’re really not the same, because shyness is about the fear of social judgment. So you could be the kind of person I was describing before—someone who gets their energy from being on their own and needs to recharge that way—without being especially fearful about other people’s opinions. So there’s some overlap, but not completely.

FM: Can you explain some of the research surrounding introversion and how science is helping us to better understand introverts?

SC: There’s really interesting research on babies being born with different levels of reactivity to stimulation, and the babies who are most reactive to stimulation are the ones who grow up to be introverts because they feel more of the things that are coming at them from the minute they’re born. If you give them sugar water to suck on, they suck on it more dramatically than other kids do. And those same kids, when they’re presented with a new social situation, react more strongly to it.

FM: Do you think it’s possible to be a little bit of both—a little introverted and a little extroverted—or to be different in different situations, or is everyone one or the other?

SC: I think everybody’s a mix of both. And even Carl Jung, the psychologist who first popularized these terms in the 1920s, said there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert. He said such a man would be in a lunatic asylum.

FM: The tagline for your book is “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” What is this power, exactly?

SC: The power is really many-fold. We know many of the most creative people across time have been introverts because solitude is a crucial ingredient of creativity. We know from management research, interestingly, that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do. So those are two to start with—leadership and creativity.

FM: In the introduction of your book, you use Rosa Parks as an example of an introvert who had a quiet but powerful courage. Who are some prominent figures today who you would consider introverted?

SC: That’s an interesting question. President Obama, I would guess, is an introvert. Larry Page, at Google, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. Those are a few.

FM: One chapter of your book describes the benefits and challenges of being part of an introvert-extrovert couple. Since Valentine’s Day is coming up, what advice would you give to introverted college students in relationships with extroverts, and vice versa?

SC: The first piece of advice is to negotiate in advance how often you’re going to socialize as a couple, because if one person wants to be going out all the time and the other person wants to hang out at home and be cozy, that can cause conflict. You don’t want to negotiate that every night, so figure out in advance how often you are going to go out per week, agree to it, and stick to that plan.

FM: Harvard seems built for people who are willing to put themselves out there, whether in class, extracurriculars, or social settings. How can our school be doing to better cater to introverts?

SC: Well, I don’t know that Harvard is really set up only for extroverts. My experience of it actually was that it’s an environment that also rewards quiet scholarship; it’s an environment where people can connect one-on-one and can connect with each other around shared passions. Those are all ways introverts want to interact, so I think it works very well.

FM: I read “Quiet” over winter break, after my mom—who is a self-proclaimed introvert—made my entire family complete your book’s “Are you introverted or extroverted?” quiz at the dinner table. Your book not only made me question where I stood on the introvert-extrovert scale, but it also helped me understand my mom’s personality in a whole new light. I’m guessing you would consider that a success story in terms of changing perceptions about introversion. What’s been your most rewarding success story from the publication of this book?

SC: I can’t even say the most rewarding story because there have been so many. But I can tell you just the other day I met a young woman who told me she had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but she said she had felt like a sorry excuse for an entrepreneur because she was too quiet and she imagined that to start a company you had to be a much more “out there” kind of person. And she said she read the book and watched my TED talk, and the next day she started her company and it’s doing really well.