“And the self-help industry, into which hundreds of thousands of Americans pour their hearts, souls and some $11 billion a year, by definition reveals our conception of the ideal self, the one we aspire to become if only we follow the seven principles of this and the three laws of that. I want to know what this ideal self looks like.”
A new job in an old place and a room full of 30 new faces with whom you must either interact successfully or be forever condemned to isolation. For some this might seem a dream come true – for me it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Ever since I can remember I have hated small talk – I am terrible at it, I make the worst first impression because I literally have no idea what constitutes “small talk” and frankly I do not enjoy it even a bit. But in my high school, in my university and in my job you have to be sociable and communicative. At interviews you have to say you are a team player, you absolutely love working with many people and you cannot imagine working anywhere else but in an open space with 60 people where even when you go to the bathroom you meet at least 5 colleagues with whom you should exchange absolutely useless words. Otherwise you are seen as socially inept.
I always blamed myself for that. I spent most of my teenage years trying (almost successfully) to be like the extrovert kids – center of attention, always screaming, chatting and laughing. It took me so much energy to pretend that I often came home absolutely exhausted and I needed to stay by myself for a long time. I was sure there was something generally wrong with me – and that I would never succeed if I don’t learn to be a successful communicator. One that is always happy to talk to people about senseless things.
Before becoming a writer, a blogger and a motivational speaker, Susan Cain was trapped in a job that somewhat was not fitted to her personality. A lawyer in a large New York firm she needed to be on the top of her game – charming and communicative – but there was always some sort of pretense in her behaviour. After she quit her job Cain focused all of her time on a subject that has been tormenting her – how did the world change from the Cult of Character to the Cult of Personality? Back in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century quiet and reserved people were widely admired. The more a woman was considered gentle and unassuming, the better party she was. And there came Dale Carnegie on the horizon (I do enjoy his How to Win Friends and Influence People, do not get me wrong) and we suddenly become obsessed with the Cult of Personality. Up to today people spend an outrageous amount of money trying to fit the ideal that society has placed upon us – extrovert equals success / introvert equals isolation.
If you look at job advertisements, they almost always feature key words such as “team player”, “open”, “communicative”, etc. In school and university we are constantly forced to work in groups, and being evaluated on it. The quiet and reflective type of person is pushed back in favor of a more expansive personality. In her Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking Susan Cain incorporates more than 100 years of history and philosophy to show that we might be losing more than we are gaining from this change. Even though at some points Cain is rather one-sided (implying introverts are much better than extroverts) more or less she is indeed trying to stay within the grey area. In a world that moves faster than we can even imagine, it is important we stop and listen to the quiet voices in the room. You might say (and I was thinking the same) that these quiet voices must make themselves heard. They do; it’s just that their style is not so expansive and they more often than not remain unheard in the background.
Despite the loopholes and the somewhat unreadable style at times, Susan Cain raises an important question. Society must stop forcing people to change and we must within ourselves fight the self-help industry that is forcing us to buy this book or attend that seminar so that we emerge identical. By a standard someone decided is successful and appropriate.
Quiet must be read by anyone who feels their inherent quietness is an obstacle to their personal development. And it must be read by anyone who ultimately believes an introvert is a shy person. If you ask anyone, I rarely come across as introvert. I am outspoken (even though I hate small talk), I tend to communicate well (even though only when I have something I really want to say), and I smile a lot (even though mostly at people I like). However, almost every day after work I go home and I feel utterly exhausted not only by the 16+ hours spent in the office but also by the endless communication, most of which doesn’t add any value to my (or their) life. And I prefer those quiet evenings with just a few friends and a few bottles of wine to the large groups of people I don’t even know (or like). In that sense disregarding a few weaknesses in Quiet, it appealed to me.
To end with a personal example (given Cain’s novel is full of personal examples). The last seminar of my 2-month training to become an investment banker was a seminar with an US personal trainer, who spends her time coaching CEOs and other senior people on how to be successful and likeable individuals. I disagreed with most of the things she said but I became quite infuriated when she made us choose a really powerful word that we want people to associate us with. I was among the last ones and until my turn came around, I heard a lot of magnificent, epic, fighter, great, ambitious, amazing, etc. I said: I want to be a person other people can depend on. She wanted me to make it more powerful. I said No. I said I don’t think that being enthusiastic and expansive is the only way out here to be successful. I rarely show any excitement – not because I am not actually excited but because I am not the kind of person who easily shares her emotions. And I refuse to buy self-help books or hire an expensive coach to teach me how to be someone else to succeed. I believe I can do it being the person I am. And I believe that’s exactly what Susan Cain is telling us. If only we remain quiet for a bit to actually listen.
PS: After the seminar several of my colleagues told me they agreed with me but didn’t want to say that given the lecturer was not exactly impressed with my way of thinking…
Other favourite quotes:
All of which raises the question, how did we go from Character to Personality without realizing that we had sacrificed something meaningful along the way?
We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.
You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind…That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why even night is not night enough.