Susan Cain: Why Do We Undervalue Introverts? In a culture where being social and outgoing are celebrated, it can be difficult to be an introvert. Susan Cain argues introverts bring extraordinary talents to the world, and should be celebrated.
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Why Do We Undervalue Introverts?

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Why Do We Undervalue Introverts?

GUY RAZ, HOST:

But first, maybe you're not about to stop speaking for 17 years, but maybe you do consider yourself somewhat of an introvert - a person who prefers to be alone, a person who by definition draws his energy from solitude. But extroverts...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, Steve Ballmer.

RAZ: Extroverts are a little different.

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STEVE BALLMER: (Screaming).

RAZ: This is a slightly infamous clip of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who we can safely say gets a lot of his energy from being around other people.

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BALLMER: I have four words for you. I - love - this - company. (Screaming) Yes.

RAZ: Another famous extrovert, Bill Clinton.

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PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Tell me how it's affected you again. You know people who lost their job and lost their homes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, yeah.

CLINTON: Well, I've been governor of a small state for 12 years. I'll tell you how it's affected me.

RAZ: Lots and lots of celebrities and entertainers are extroverts. They're outspoken, confident, charismatic. Surely you remember the late Joan Rivers.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What does your grandson want to do when he grows up? Does he know yet?

JOAN RIVERS: Right now, he's 10. He wants to be a football player but, you know, stupid.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What do you want him to be?

RIVERS: Gay.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You want him to be gay?

RIVERS: I want him to be gay. I want him to be gay. Who else is going to give a damn that I knew Judy Garland?

(LAUGHTER)

SUSAN CAIN: So to me the question is, why do we celebrate only that? Or why do we value that so much more highly than the opposite set of traits?

RAZ: This is Susan Cain. She has written a book all about introverts.

CAIN: Because, you know, I think people need to realize, like, we're not talking about some tiny percent of the population. We're talking about probably half of humanity, according to the most recent study.

RAZ: That's crazy.

CAIN: Yeah, and so it just makes no sense for anybody really to be undervaluing this way of being.

RAZ: Susan says as a culture, we place a higher value on extroverts in all sorts of ways. But why do we do that? Here is her explanation from the TED stage.

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CAIN: One answer lies deep in our cultural history. Western societies, and in particular the U.S., have always favored the man of action over the man of contemplation. But in America's early days, we lived in what historians call a culture of character where we still at that point valued people for their inner selves and their moral rectitude. And if you look at the self-help books from this era, they all had titles with things like "CHARACTER: The Grandest Thing In The World." And they featured role models like Abraham Lincoln who was praised for being modest and unassuming. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a man who does not offend by superiority.

But then we hit the 20th century, and we entered a new culture that historians call the culture of personality. You know, what happened is we had evolved from an agricultural economy to a world of big business. And so suddenly, people are moving from small towns to the cities. And instead of working alongside people they've known all their life, now they are having to prove themselves in a crowd of strangers. So quite understandably qualities like magnetism and charisma suddenly come to seem really important. And sure enough the self-help books changed to meet these needs. And they start to have had names like "How To Win Friends And Influence People." And they feature, as their role models, really great salesmen. So that's the world we're living in today. That's our cultural inheritance.

RAZ: Which brings us back to the idea of quiet. Earlier, we mentioned this idea that being introverted means you get a lot of your energy from being alone. And Susan Cain says that's actually a good way to think about it. But there's actually a biological explanation behind all of this as well.

CAIN: Which is to say that introverts have nervous systems literally that react more to stimulation of all kinds - from social stimulation to the stimulation of lots of noise in a room.

RAZ: And scientists have researched this. There was one study in particular.

CAIN: By a psychologist named Russell Geen.

RAZ: And Geen gave two groups of people a series of math problems. But then he switched on some background noise. So for one group, it sounded a little bit like this...

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RAZ: ...About as loud as a restaurant at lunch time. But for the second group...

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RAZ: ...They had to solve their math problems with noise about as loud as a leaf blower behind them. So when Geen compared his results...

CAIN: He found that the extroverts were able to do well with the background noise playing more loudly. And the introverts need less background noise to work at their best.

RAZ: Now, we think of introverts as sort of being stuck in their own heads simply because they're quiet. But what Geen's research showed was precisely the opposite - that introverts are susceptible to being pulled out of their own heads pretty easily. And they can become overwhelmed and distracted by too much stimulation in noisy or crowded places.

CAIN: And extroverts tend to have nervous systems that react less, and therefore, crave more stimulation in order to feel kind of at their most alive and energized. And I think that's really profound research, you know, for thinking about how we are children and adults, you know, all humans thrive.

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CAIN: Our most important institutions - our schools and our workplaces - they are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts' need for lots of stimulation. Nowadays, your typical classroom has pods of desks and four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other. And kids are working in countless group assignments, even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you would think would depend on solo flights of thought. Kids are now expected to act as committee members.

Same thing is true in our workplaces. We now - most of us work in open-plan offices without walls where we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our coworkers. And when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions even though introverts tend to be very careful - much less likely to take outside risks, which is something we might all favor nowadays.

What I'm saying is that, culturally we need a much better balance. We need more of a yin and yang between these two types. You know, this is especially important when it comes to creativity and to productivity because when psychologists look at the life of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them.

RAZ: So what's the connection between introverts and, like, creative types?

CAIN: Well, some studies show that they're just introverts, and some say they're kind of a mix of introverts and extroverts, where, like, they're extroverted enough that they can get their ideas out there and exchange ideas with other people. But they're introverted enough that they can tolerate the solitude that creativity requires 'cause - I think this is one of the great, great misconceptions of the modern age. This whole idea of collaboration has become such a sacred word and concept...

RAZ: Yeah.

CAIN: ...That we think that creativity all has to emerge from this very collaborative place. But the same is also true of solitude. You can't really know what you and you alone think unless you are willing to be by yourself for a while.

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CAIN: Now, none of this is to say that social skills are unimportant. And I'm also not calling for the abolishing of teamwork at all. And the problems that we are facing today in fields like science and economics are so vast and so complex that we are going to need armies of people coming together to solve them - working together. But I am saying that the more freedom that we give introverts to be themselves, the more likely that they are to come up with their own unique solutions to these problems. So I wish you the best of all possible journeys and the courage to speak softly. Thank you very much.

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RAZ: Susan Cain, her book based on these ideas is called "Quiet: The Power Of Introverts." You can see her full talk at ted.npr.org. I'm Guy Raz, more ideas about quiet in a moment. You are listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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