Introversion, crunchy frogs & Quiet

Gentle reader, what was the last book that truly spoke to you? For me, it’s a book by Susan Cain, entitled Quiet. I want to tell you what it means to me. And my good friends Helen Tracey and Siobhan Sheridan are also here to offer their words on introversion and on Quiet.

I wish Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking had been around when I was a teenager. It explains in a very clear way about introversion and extroversion and the spectrum of personal leanings and preferences that lie between them… and particularly about why us introverts need downtime to recharge our batteries.

What is introversion? From Wikipedia*:

“Introversion is ‘the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life’. Introverts are typically more reserved or reflective. […] They are more analytical before speaking. Introverts are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation from social gatherings and engagement, introversion having even been defined by some in terms of a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating external environment.”

Not the way you think you’re supposed to
In Quiet, Cain writes beautifully about the virtues, the strengths and the weaknesses of introverts. She offers advice for introverts on how to make their way in the world in a way that works for them, how to push themselves when they need to, and how to retreat and recharge when necessary. I love the simplicity of Cain’s words here:

“Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.”

I was delighted to discover that John Cleese is also an admirer of Cain’s book. In a 2015 Nerdist podcast, Cleese says:

“I read a wonderful book recently by a woman called Susan Cain, and it’s called Quiet. And I think anyone who’s at all introverted – at all, because it’s not like you’re either introverted or you’re extroverted, there’s a spectrum – should read it. There’s a few people up one end who’ll become politicians and people at the other end who’ll become librarians or Swedish or something. But in the middle there’s this vast…. I’m on the introverted side, but I can function perfectly well in an extroverted way. But at the end of the day when I’ve been extroverted a lot, I need some quiet time on my own.. […] I recommend this book because it helped me enormously. And it’s quite nice at 74 to read a book that helps you a lot.”

I found it quite nice at 42 to read a book that helps you a lot, too. Cleese picks out a key point about introversion and extroversion: that it’s a continuum. All of us sit somewhere on it. Introverts are not down one end, with extroverts at the other. And It is definitely not the case that never the twain should meet. Just this week my friend Steve Browne wrote about his love for his wife. Steve is self-avowedly very extrovert. His wife is an introvert. Each complements the other perfectly. Steve says:

“We fill in the gaps in each other’s strengths, and that makes for an incredible bond.”

We don’t look at the simple
Cleese also talks in the Nerdist podcast about the Monty Python Crunchy Frog sketch, something of a rarity in Python terms, in that it has a punchline: “Where’s the pleasure in that?”

Cleese draws out some excellent guidelines for life from these words:

“That line pops into my head when I think about things like mountaineering. We have to figure out very clearly what we love doing and what makes us happy and we must do more of it. And we must figure out what we don’t like doing and that doesn’t make us happy and do less of it. But you know, we don’t do it, do we? We don’t look at the simple.”

I’m struck by how much this echoes Cain’s (polite) exhortation to “spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.”

Everything turned out OK
One part of Cain’s book fair brought a tear to my eye. Early on in Quiet, she quotes someone who didn’t know they were introverted growing up. But they see now that some of the external characteristics of introversion (quietness, apparent slowness to speak) had created a deep-rooted (if incorrect) feeling “that there is something inherently wrong with me. I wish I could find that little vestige of doubt and remove it.”

Right at the end, Cain provides the perfect counterpoint to this feeling. Cain talks to an introverted gentleman named David Weiss. For Weiss, taking up the drums at the age of nine was a turning point from feelings of awkwardness to finding his true path through the world. But crucially, beautifully, Weiss never forgot what it felt like before:

“I feel like I’m in touch with that person today. Whenever I’m doing something that I think is cool, like if I’m in New York City in a room full of people, interviewing Alicia Keys or something, I send a message back to that person and let him know that everything turned out OK. I feel like when I was nine, I was receiving that signal from the future, which is one of the things that gave me the strength to hang in there. I was able to create this loop between who I am now and who I was then.”

If you’ve not already, please consider reading Cain’s lovely book. And if you know of any interesting or useful books or online resources on introversion – or if you have anything to share on this topic – please do get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

And please remember: Everything turned out OK.

Don’t take my word for it (1): Helen Tracey on introversion

So how did I come to Quiet? A number of good people had mentioned Quiet to me over the past few years. But my friend Helen Tracey finally got me actually to read it. I am so glad she did! When I mentioned to Helen via Twitter (and I’ve written before about how I think Twitter is the perfect medium for introverts), she said: “It’s good to read an excellent book but even better to share it!” I asked Helen if she would like to share some words on Quiet. Here’s what she has to say:

“Although it is a few years since I read Quiet by Susan Cain, its messages still affect me deeply. I first heard about the book when trying to improve my presentation skills – standing talking in front of an audience being an introvert’s worst nightmare. When I heard how Susan had been coached to deliver her famous TED talk I immediately wanted to find out more.

"I’ve always known I am an introvert. That sounds like a confession, and I admit that before reading Quiet I would have attempted to hide this fact behind a façade of extroversion. It was such a relief to find out that I am not alone. Society is strongly geared towards rewarding extroverts and side-lining introverts. Quiet enables introverts to embrace who they really are and recognise that in many ways introverts have valuable skills and qualities that extroverts may find difficult.

"Take for example ‘small talk.’ Networking thrives on it, and networking is viewed as an essential element to business. It’s also something introverts find difficult, exhausting and probably a bit pointless. Think of it this way instead – introverts like to connect on a deeper level, therefore small talk is something superficial preventing this from happening.

"I believe that our shared trait of introversion is why myself and Michael struck up a strong bond when we finally met in person after being connected on Twitter for some time. I would not hesitate to recommend Quiet as a ‘must read’ for any introvert (I would like to advise extroverts to read it too but I don’t think they will!) and knowing Michael I’m not surprise he loved the book as much as I did!​”

Don’t take my word for it (2): Siobhan Sheridan on introversion

The most unexpected people in your circle of friends may prove to be introverts. My friend Siobhan Sheridan, HR director at NSPCC, is as confident and capable as they come. But that does not necessarily make her a card-carrying extrovert. Take it away, Siobhan:

“Michael and I first discussed this subject when I admitted to having arrived on the doorstep of a tweet-up only to hesitate and turn around and leave because I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense that I couldn’t walk into a room full of people I don’t know.

"One of the personality characteristics I’ve realised it’s most difficult to ‘guess’ about is that of extroversion vs introversion. I am frequently characterised as the former when I believe I am actually much more the latter. So for example, whilst I am able to get up in front of audiences and groups and speak or facilitate, I do need a significant amount of time alone afterwards to recharge my batteries. I’m very happy spending days on end alone and I have often been known to sneak away from parties before the end having run out of steam in some of the ways Susan Cain describes in her book.

"I’ve found myself recently reflecting on the relationship between extroversion and introversion and that of the quality of shyness. As the poet David Whyte says

”’Shyness is the beautiful and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve…’

“I suspect that whether we are introverts or extroverts we have all experienced moments of shyness in our lives?”

On introversion:


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