On my desk this week…
The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
by Susan Cain
[definite major purpose]
“Connecting people to fix the world over time is the deepest spiritual value you can have,” Newmark has said.
What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful—they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.
I [Wozniak] acquired a central ability that was to help me through my entire career: patience. I’m serious. Patience is usually so underrated. I mean, for all those projects, from third grade all the way to eighth grade, I just learned things gradually, figuring out how to put electronic devices together without so much as cracking a book. . . . I learned to not worry so much about the outcome, but to concentrate on the step I was on and to try to do it as perfectly as I could when I was doing it.
Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two thing at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.
[brain science] [frisbee (you see what you look for)]
The amygdala serves as the brain’s emotional switchboard, receiving information from the senses and then signaling the rest of the brain and nervous system how to respond. One of its functions is to instantly detect new or threatening things in the environment—from an airborne Frisbee to a hissing serpent—and send rapid-fire signals through the body that trigger the fight-or-flight response. When the Frisbee looks like it’s headed straight for you nose, it’s your amygdala that tells you to duck. When the rattlesnake prepares to bite, it’s the amygdala that makes sure you run.
Kagan hypothesized that infants born with an especially excitable amygdala would wiggle and howl when shown unfamiliar objects—and grow up to be children who were more likely to feel vigilant when meeting new people. And this is just what he found. In other words, the four-month-olds who thrashed their arms like punk rockers did so not because they were extroverts in the making, but because their little bodies reacted strongly—they were “high-reactive”—to new sights, sounds, and smells. The quiet infants were silent not because they were future introverts—just the opposite—but because they had nervous systems that were unmoved by novelty.
Indeed, the sensitivity of these children’s nervous systems seem to be linked not only to noticing scary things, but to noticing in general. High-reactive children pay what one psychologist calls “alert attention” to people and things. They literally use more eye movements than others to compare choices before making a decision. It’s as if they process more deeply—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—the information they take in about the world. In one early series of studies, Kagan asked a group of first-graders to play a visual matching game. Each child was shown a picture of a teddy bear sitting on a chair, alongside six other similar pictures, only one of which was an exact match. The high-reactive children spent more time than others considering all the alternatives, and were more likely to make the right choice. When Kagan asked these same kids to play word games, he found that they also read more accurately than impulsive children did.
Both groups reacted to the pictures, but the formerly shy kids reacted more. In other words, the footprint of a high- or low-reactive temperament never disappeared in adulthood. Some high-reactives grew into socially fluid teenagers who were not outwardly rattled by novelty, but they never shed their genetic inheritance.
As Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkley, who specializes in positive emotions, put it to the New York Times, “A blush comes online in two or three seconds and says, ‘I care; I know I violated the social contract.’”
In fact, the very thing that many high-reactives hate most about blushing—its uncontrollability—is what makes it so socially useful. “Because it is impossible to control the blush intentionally,” Dijk speculates, blushing is an authentic sign of embarrassment. And embarrassment, according to Keltner, is a moral emotion. It show humility, modesty, and a desire to avoid aggression and make peace. It’s not about isolating the person who feels ashamed (which is how it sometimes feels to easy blushers), but about bringing people together.
To understand why introverts and extroverts might react differently to the prospect of rewards, says Dorn, you have to know a little about brain structure. As we saw in chapter 4, our limbic system, which we share with the most primitive mammals and which Dorn calls the “old brain,” is emotional and instinctive. It comprises various structures, including the amygdala, and it’s highly interconnected with the nucleus accumbens, sometimes called the brain’s “pleasure center.” We examined the anxious side of the old brain when we explored the role of the amygdala in high-reactivity and introversion. Now we’re about to see it’s greedy side.
The old brain, according to Dorn, is constantly telling us “Yes, yes, yes! Eat more, drink more, have more sex, take lots of risk, go for all the gusto you can get, and above all, do not think!” The reward-seeking, pleasure-loving part of the old brain is what Dorn believes spurred Alan to treat his life savings like chips at the casino.
We also have a “new brain” called the neocortex, which evolved many thousands of years after the limbic system. The new brain is responsible for thinking, planning, language, and decision-making—some of the very faculties that make us human. Although the new brain also plays a significant role in our emotional lives, it’s the seat of rationality. Its job, according to Dorn, includes saying, “No, no, no! Don’t do that, because it’s dangerous, makes no sense, and is not in you best interests, or those of your family, or of society.”
The neurons that transmit information in the reward network operate in part through a neurotransmitter–a chemical that carries information between brain cells–called dopamine. Dopamine is the “reward chemical” released in response to anticipated pleasures. The more responsive your brain is to dopamine, or the higher the level of dopamine you have available to release, some scientists believe, the more likely you are to go after rewards like sex, chocolate, money, and status. Stimulating mid-brain dopamine activity in mice gets them to run around excitedly in an empty cage until they drop dead of starvation. Cocaine and heroin, which stimulate dopamine-releasing neurons in humans, make people euphoric.
“It’s not that I’m so smart,” said Einstein, who was a consummate introvert. “It’s that I stay with problems longer.”
This is because anticipating rewards–any rewards, whether or not related to the subject at hand–excites our dopamine-driven reward networks and makes us act more rashly. (This may be the single best argument yet for banning pornography from workplaces.)
The key to flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings. Although flow does not depend on being an introvert or an extrovert, many of the flow experiences that Csikszentmihalyi writes about are solitary pursuits that have nothing to do with reward-seeking: reading, tending an orchard, solo ocean cruising. Flow often occurs, he writes, in conditions in which people “become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself.”
It’s because of relationship-honoring that Tibetan Buddhist monks find inner peace (and off-the-chart happiness levels, as measured in brain scans) by meditating quietly on compassion. And it’s because of relationship-honoring that Hiroshima victims apologized to each other for surviving. “Their civility has been well documented but still stays the heart,” writes the essayist Lydia Millet. “‘I am sorry, said one of them, bowing, with the skin of his arms peeling off in strips. ‘I regret I am still alive while your baby is not.’ ‘I am sorry,’ another said earnestly, with lips swollen to the size of oranges, as he spoke to a child weeping beside her dead mother. ‘I am so sorry that I was not taken instead.’”
[culture and personality]
Though Eastern relationship-honoring is admirable and beautiful, so is Western respect for individual freedom, self-expression, and personal destiny. The point is not that one is superior to the other, but that a profound difference in cultural values has a powerful impact on the personality styles favored by each culture.
But when we began talking about Asian concepts of “soft power”–what Ni calls leadership “by water rather than by fire”–I started to see a side of him that was less impressed by Western styles of communication. “In Asian cultures,” Ni said, “there’s often a subtle way to get what you want. It’s not always aggressive, but it can be very determined and very skillful. In the end, much is achieved because of it. Aggressive power beats you up; soft power wins you over.”
“In the long run,” said Ni, “if the idea is good, people shift. If the cause is just and you put heart into it, it’s almost a universal law: you will attract people who want to share your cause. Soft power is quiet persistence. The people I’m thinking of are very persistent in their day-to-day, person-to-person interactions. Eventually they build up a team.” Soft power, said Ni, was wielded by people we’ve admired throughout history: Mother Teresa, the Buddha, Gandhi.
This pattern–the decision to accept what another man would challenge–occurred again and again in Gandhi’s life.
Soft power is not limited to moral exemplars like Mahatma Gandhi. Consider, for example, the much-ballyhooed excellence of Asians in fields like math and science. Professor Ni defines soft power as “quiet persistence,” and this trait lies at the heart of academic excellence as surely as it does in Gandhi’s political triumphs. Quiet persistence requires sustained attention–in effect restraining one’s reactions to external stimuli.
[definite major purpose]
In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly. Free Trait Theory explains why an introvert might throw his extroverted wife a surprise party or join the PTA at his daughter’s school. It explains how it’s possible for an extroverted scientist to behave with reserve in her laboratory, for an agreeable person to act hard-nosed during a business negotiation, and for a cantankerous uncle to treat his niece tenderly when he takes her out for ice cream. As these examples suggest, Free Trait Theory applies in may different contexts, but it’s especially relevant for introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal.
According to Little, our lives are dramatically enhanced when we’re involved in core personal projects that we consider meaningful, manageable, and not unduly stressful, and that are supported by others. When someone asks us “How are things?” we may give a throwaway answer, but our true response is a function of how well our core personal projects are going.
At first blush, Free Trait Theory seems to run counter to a cherished piece of our cultural heritage. Shakespeare’s oft-quoted advice, “To thine own self be true,” runs deep in our philosophical DNA. Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of taking on a “false” persona for any length of time. And if we act out of character by convincing ourselves that our pseudo-self is real, we can eventually burn out without even knowing why. The genius of Little’s theory is how neatly it resolves this discomfort. Yes, we are only pretending to be extroverts, and yes, such inauthenticity can be morally ambiguous (not to mention exhausting), but if it’s in the service of love or a professional calling, then we’re doing just as Shakespeare advised.
[definite major purpose]
“I could literally go years without having any friends except for my wife and kids,” he says. “Look at you and me. You’re one of my best friends, and how many times do we actually talk–when you call me! I don’t like socializing. My dream is to live off the land on a thousand acres with my family. You never see a team of friends in that dream. So notwithstanding whatever you might see in my public persona, I am an introvert. I think that fundamentally I’m the same person I always was. Massively shy, but I compensate for it.”
[I am master of my emotions]
I also shared some psychological tricks for feeling calm and secure during intimidating situations, such as paying attention to how your face and body arrange themselves when you’re feeling genuinely confident, and adopting those same positions when it comes time to fake it. Studies show that taking simple physical steps–like smiling–makes us feel stronger and happier, while frowning makes us feel worse.
[definite major purpose]
Having spent so much time navigating my own career transition and counseling others through theirs, I have found that there are three key steps to identifying your own core personal projects.
First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child. …
Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to. …
Finally, pay attention to what you envy. Jealousy is an ugly emotion, but it tells the truth. …
“Emotional labor,” which is the effort we make to control and change our own emotions, is associated with stress, burnout, and even physical symptoms like an increase in cardiovascular disease. Professor Little believes that prolonged acting out of character may also increase autonomic nervous system activity, which can, in turn, compromise immune functioning.
“… I like having thoughtful conversations because they make people happy.”
“… If you find something that arouses your passion or provides a welcome challenge, you forget yourself for a while. It’s like an emotional vacation.”
[I form good habits and become their slave]
Many of those paths will be found in passions outside the classroom. While extroverts are more likely to skate from one hobby or activity to another, introverts often stick with their enthusiasms. This gives them a major advantage as they grow, because true self-esteem comes from competence, not the other way around. Researchers have found that intense engagement in and commitment to an activity is a proven route to happiness and well-being. Well-developed talents and interests can be a great source of confidence for your child, no matter how different he might feel from his peers.
Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again. –Anais Nin
But as I grew older, I drew inspiration from my grandfather’s example. He was a quiet man, and a great one. When he died at the age of ninety-four, after sixty-two years at the pulpit, the NYPD had to close the streets of his neighborhood to accommodate the throngs of mourners. He would have been surprised to know this. Today, I think that one of the best things about him was his humility.
This book is about introversion as seen from a cultural point of view. Its primary concern is the age-old dichotomy between the “man of action” and the “man of contemplation,” and how we could improve the world if only there were a greater balance of power between the two types. It focuses on the person who recognizes him- or herself somewhere in the following constellation of attributes: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned. Quiet is also about this person’s opposite number: the “man of action” who is ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight.