Meet the Patron Saint of Introverts

How Susan Cain is leading a quiet revolution.

susan cain
Mitja Bokun for Reader’s Digest

“I have been waiting for a book like this my whole life.” “I’ve never felt so empowered!” “[It] gave me permission to be who I am.” Two and a half years ago, with the publication of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, introverts the world over sang the praises of a book that finally got it right. (The quotes are from reader reviews on Amazon.) The enthusiasm instantly landed it on the New York Times bestseller list, where it remains to this day.

A lifelong introvert and former lawyer, Cain thought after Quiet (her first book), she’d be able to retreat and write in blissful solitude. Instead she became the founder of a movement to make the world a friendlier place for the reserved, who she estimates make up one third to one half of the population. “Our rallying cry comes from Gandhi,” says Cain, 46, in the Rockland County, New York, offices of the company she cofounded, Quiet Revolution. “‘In a gentle way, you can shake the world.’”

How do you describe an introvert?

An introvert feels drained after a party; an extrovert feels invigorated. In other words, an introvert recharges by being on his or her own, and an extrovert is energized by being around others. It’s a metaphor for what’s happening biologically—an introvert’s nervous system is more sensitive to stimulation. Any introvert will relate to these funny cartoons. 

You say, “Everyone shines given the right lighting.” What do you mean?

The exact same person can flourish depending on his or her situation. I’m really struck by that. People tell me all the time that they were doing a job and it wasn’t working, and then they switched jobs and everything fell into place. Now I work with businesses and schools to help them understand and encourage introverts.

Do you think introverts are unfairly judged in our society?

Absolutely. Compared with extroverted leaders, quiet leaders are rarely promoted in the workplace. In schools, quiet students are penalized instead of being helped to cultivate their strengths.

What are these strengths?

Spectacularly creative people tend to be introverts because creativity usually involves being by yourself so you can access original ideas. Another strength is leadership. Research has found introverted leaders deliver better outcomes than extroverted leaders. Introverts are more likely to use other people’s ideas, which makes people feel like they’re contributing. Extroverts put their own stamp on things, so others don’t feel quite as engaged.

My dad is an admirable introvert. He’s a doctor and a medical school professor. While colleagues played golf at conferences, he’d go to presentations, record them, and listen to them again and again. I thought, Wow, that’s what I want in a doctor.

What about you?

I remember being at camp when I was four and observing that the activities we were supposed to enjoy, like getting together and singing a song, I did not find fun. I always had friends, but I liked playing one-on-one.

You say sometimes introverts should pretend to be extroverts. Why?

Psychologist Brian Little talks about stepping out of character for the sake of a “core personal project”—meaning the work or people you love. I go out and give speeches and interviews, which is not my métier, but I’m doing them for the sake of something I’m passionate about.

What advice can you give introverts to navigate the holiday season?

Don’t accept all the invitations you get. Give yourself a social quota; decide how many functions to attend, and offer your regrets with regard to the others. For the ones you attend, you don’t have to stay for the whole thing. I have a friend who always leaves after an hour and 35 minutes.

People today talk about how we’re overloaded with information from our gadgets, but you’ve mentioned that introverts may prefer communicating electronically.

That’s right. Sending a text is far less stimulating than having a conversation with someone. It allows us to connect without having to be so “on.”

Plus, you get to do it on your own time. I’m an introvert, and I remember when e-mail was invented—it was the best day of my life.

I felt that way too. Introverts want to process things before they articulate them, and when you’re having a conversation, you can’t do that.

Describe your perfect day.

It’s a mix of time with my husband and kids and then having four hours to myself, hanging out at a café with my laptop, a latte, and a banana-chocolate muffin. I want to be out and feel the energy of other people, but I want to be in my own zone.

Your husband is an extrovert. Is that a case of opposites attracting?

Yes. Many romantic relationships are introvert-extrovert pairings. My husband is full of life—it would be impossible for him to be here without you feeling his presence. I’m not like that, so I enjoy it. But there are things we have to work out. When we’re in the car, he constantly turns up the radio volume, and I turn it down.

What should parents do to support their kids who are introverts?

The first thing is to truly accept who your child is—to treasure it, delight in it. And to understand they have to travel down a longer runway than other kids do before they take off and fly. They’ll get there, but they need to know you’re with them and will help them. I came up with an expression to describe how I and other introverts see the world: “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.”

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