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How and why our location on "the introvert-extrovert spectrum" influences most (if not all) of our decisions and opinions
on February 13, 2012
Throughout most of her book, Susan Cain takes a balanced approach to the immensely difficult task of examining the advantages and disadvantages of being primarily an introvert as well as those of being primarily an extrovert. I use the term 'primarily' in the context of culture as well as one's temperament, personality, preferences, tendencies, and (yes) volition. 'If given a choice'' is a helpful phrase. Some people dread being the center of attention whereas the behavior of others indicates a pathological need for it. Not all introverts are shy and reluctant, however, and not all extroverts are bombastic and impulsive. Moreover, expediency can also come into play. As Walt Whitman affirms in 'Song of Myself,' each person is 'large''and contains 'multitudes.'
When writing her book, Cain was guided and informed by research in social science (e.g. Carl Jung, Jerome Kagan, Elaine Aron, C.A. Valentine, David Winter) supplemented by what she had learned from her own observations. She examines the inadequacies of several concepts such as charismatic leadership, the New Groupthink, the "Extrovert Ideal" (i.e. "the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight"), being or at least seeming "cool," collaborative innovation, and being a more "assertive" student in the classroom. Historians' accounts and media coverage must share at least some of the blame for widespread but remarkably durable misconceptions about eminent persons such as Warren Buffett, Dale Carnegie, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Steven Spielberg, and Steve Wozniak. However great their impact on others may be, all are (or were) essentially introverted. What else do they share in common? They are renowned for being thoughtful, indeed reflective, tending to take more time than others do to make sound decisions and to reach correct conclusions.
Ironically, Carnegie is among the pioneers of self-help programs that emphasize "winning friends and influencing people," the title of a book first published in 1936 that continues to be a bestseller. According to Cain, Carnagey (who later changed his name "likely to evoke Andrew Carnegie, the great industrialist") was a good-natured but insecure high school student. He was skinny, unathletic, and fretful. His subsequent career from farmboy to salesman to public- speaking icon demonstrates a shift in America "from what influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality - and opened up a Pandora's Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover."
By the end of the book, Cain seems to include in the introvert category almost anyone who is "reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned." Surely many (most?) of those who are extroverts also demonstrate one (if not several) of these attributes, at least occasionally. How would she categorize, for example, Richard Feynman?
The much more important point, in my opinion, is that assigning a label such as introvert or extrovert to someone denies the human complexity to which Whitman referred. Obviously, some people are more or less introverted or extroverted than others. It's also obvious, that some situations (usually in a social context) require outgoing behavior whereas other situations (usually in an intellectual or spiritual context) require solitude, tranquility, perhaps even isolation.
For me, some of Cain's most valuable material is provided in Chapter 11, "On Cobblers and Generals" (especially pages 250-258) when she discusses the implications and consequences of many (most?) schools that are designed for extroverts. "The purpose of school should be to prepare kids for the rest of their lives, but too often what kids need to be prepared for is surviving the school day itself." She goes on to observe, "The school environment can be highly unnatural, especially from the perspective of an introverted child who loves to work intensely on projects he cares about, and hang out with one or two friends at a time." Cain offers several key points for teachers to consider (e.g. "Teach all kids to work independently"), followed by several key points for parents to consider if they able to select a school (e.g. one that hires and supports teachers "who seem to understand the shy/serious/introverted/sensitive temperament"). I agree with Cain that appearance is not reality...but the fact remains, that the misconceptions she repudiates in her book are no less "real" because they are wrong, nor are the "personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover."