Have you ever been told that you should strive to be a “people person”? Do you loathe small talk? Would you rather spend a free weekend by yourself, reading, writing, drawing than party all day and all night? Here’s a big secret: You are not alone, and you also do not have to do any of the things above if you don’t feel comfortable with it.
The Introvert/Extrovert Spectrum
The terms “introversion” and “extraversion” were defined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung in 1921, almost 100 years ago. He described them as a personality trait showing how people interact with their environment: Introverts react internally on environmental impulses, while extroverts react externally. C. G. Jung was of the opinion that every person leans more towards one or the other.
Scientists have been trying for a long time to find out more about the introvert/extrovert spectrum and how you define where exactly a person can find themselves on it. Countless studies have tried to identify whether we are born introverts and extroverts or whether we learn these behaviors from our environment. Today, we know that introversion and extroversion are only 40-50% inheritable; as in so many other cases, it is a combination of nature and nurture. You can take the test here.
The Extrovert Ideal
Susan Cain, author of “Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” pinpoints the 1920s in America as the starting point of the “Extrovert Ideal“; a general shift driven by economy and advertising towards a society that relies heavily on what others think of them, thus making it important to always leave behind a lasting impression. The rise of professional salesmanship (a job well-known for the high level of extraversion it requires) coupled with the increasing significance of one’s looks and appearance resulted in a myriad of self-help books such as “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie as well as countless seminars and workshops on small talk, negotiating and presentation skills. All these methods had something in common: They depicted introversion as a personal weakness that should be overcome by people “suffering” from it. Being an extrovert, the life of a party, a social butterfly, that was the goal. “We are told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable”, says Susan Cain.
But Can Introverts Lead?
When it comes to famous introverts, names such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison or Charles Darwin come to mind. All of them treasured quiet and solitude and somewhat helped form the opinion that introversion is mostly limited to scientists or writers. In terms of (opinion) leaders, the general consensus has always been that extroverted people are more likely to lead than introverted people as they are not afraid to voice their beliefs, are happy to motivate others and ooze charisma. Steve Jobs. Oprah. Bill Clinton. So what about Barack Obama? Steve Wozniak? Warren Buffet? While they might not seem as introverts at first glance, Susan Cain claims they are. According to her, introverts are not necessary shy and socially awkward but simply people who prefer environments that are not over-stimulating but situations where they can draw energy from calmness, quiet and self-reflection. Steve Wozniak even stated in his autobiography that “If you want to be truly innovative, work alone” – insisting that he never would have invented his first personal computer if it wasn’t for the hours he spent by himself, pouring over his work.
The New Groupthink
In today’s world, introverts seem to have it harder than ever: The importance of teamwork and collaboration is praised everywhere, brainstorming is a common group exercise to come up with new ideas, open-plan offices (sometimes even without permanently assigned desks) are en vogue. And all this even though studies have shown that group brainstorming does not necessarily work, simply because people are afraid of being judged and humiliating themselves – even though that is precisely what should not occur in brainstorming. Some companies are now shifting back towards an office that focuses more on its employees as separate people instead of one entity, allowing them to use cubicles and close their doors when they do not want to be disturbed. Jason Fried, founder of online project management tool Basecamp, who talks about “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work” in his Ted talk even went as far as introducing “No Talk Thursdays” at his company where employees were not allowed to talk to each other for one whole day.
On the other hand though, the rise of the Internet and its use at work has been a welcome change: Studies have shown that introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online, for example. Additionally, online collaboration (which is very different from its face-to-face counterpart) has become a norm for many companies these days, allowing them to interact with other people with the screen acting as a filter. Participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own and therefore makes it easy to achieve true collaborative results between both introverts and extroverts – which according to Susan Cain is the ultimate goal in today’s economy: A Steve Jobs for every Steve Wozniak, so to say.