Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018

Embracing the Power of the Quiet

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November 2, 2018

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Very often one comes across instances of people branding others as ‘socially awkward’, ‘timid’, ‘shy’, ‘insociable’, etc to describe those who seem to be happy to be by themselves, wrapped in thoughts of their own, less interactive and showing a general disinclination to engage with either activities or people so much so that ‘introverted’ has become a derisive term and a plagued disposition to possess. Today’s competitive world places too much value in over assertive behaviour, aggressive marketing and self-blandishment. This leaves quite a few desolate and disadvantaged. This is especially pertinent in the field of education as all those values and characteristic traits which society cherishes are nurtured at the educational institutions as the educational space today exists solely to cater to the demands of the job market. These being the case, societal expectations and requirements have far ranging and far reaching implications on how education is customized to meet its end. Seen in this context, comments like ‘speak up’, ‘assert yourself’, ‘mingle’, ‘socialize’, ‘make yourself heard’, etc. echoes this very importance accorded to extroverted behaviour.

Is it a right thing to force all and sundry to exhibit or mould their behaviour on such models of extroverted behaviour that is highly sought after? Is being introverted, something one needs to overcome and give up in the face of such derision and contempt? Isn’t there anything good about being an introvert? Can’t we let such people just be? What is it to be an introvert? These are some of the questions the ground breaking book Quiet- the power of introverts in a world that cannot stop talking by Susan Cain answers in its quintessentially persuasive and convincing tone. I was handed this book by a learned colleague of mine, at a time when I was undergoing a phase characterized by self-doubt, low self-esteem, constantly being held up to the standards of fake social diplomacy and shallow camaraderie which I could not bring myself up to exhibit. My inability to make small talk and follow social niceties left me feeling inadequate and I began questioning if there was something wrong with the way I am.The book came as a god send. It came as a great relief and source of assurance as it has too many with the same disposition.

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

Written by an introvert herself, the book is the culmination of a lifelong process of battling social prejudices against introversion that she faced since her childhood and continued even in adulthood.Susan Cain is a lawyer and consultant by profession and this book is a result of her interaction with thousands of people, academic study and research gathered from scholarly papers, magazine articles, chat-room discussions, and blog posts.

The premise of the book is established by puttingt the influential psychologist Carl Jung’s seminal work Psychological Types, popularizing the terms introvert and extrovert as the central building blocks of personality, in the foreground and taking the discourse further on from there:

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

The book makes a very compelling case for letting introverted people be themselves and harnessing their intuitive powers that come with their natural disposition to let them live their lives without having to be apologetic about not conforming to the extroverted archetype, going through all the life processes behind a facade of an acquired personality it kills them to be.

What makes the book more credible is the inclusion of the author’s narrative detailing her trials and tribulations to carve her niche in a world that has scant regard for the introverted characteristics.

The book doesn’t claim to be a self-help book with tips to enhance personal appeal but only offers to present its case for introverts who tend to undermine and under appreciate their inherent traits which when properly harnessed would give these individuals reason to celebrate their unique strengths.It is a persuasive argument to embrace introversion and the subtle but powerful traits that comes with the package. What the book does hope to achieve is, in the author’s own words, ‘a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.’The author asserts that she could vouch personally for the life-transforming effects of this outlook.

The very well documented generalized characteristics – the result of close study and painstaking research exhibited by the introverts as well as extroverts explain why they behave the way they do. Seen as observations made with scientific detachment, the conclusions gain validity and authenticity, which in turn help in making a non-judgmental and insightful study of personality types.

It is a thoroughly researched book with many revelations in the nature of epiphany shared by the author. It chronicles the rise of the extroverted ideal and how it gained currency in the intensely competitive world characterized by cut-throat competition and intolerance towards anything modest or subdued.She laments how society went from the ‘Culture of Character to Culture of Personality without realizing that we had sacrificed something meaningful along the way’, aided by ‘the self-help tradition in which Dale Carnegie played such a prominent role.’She delineates how in the Culture of Character, ‘the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honourable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of having a good personality was not widespread until the twentieth.’

The author tries to shatter the myth behind the extroversion style of leadership promoted by the highly reputed educational institutes like the Harvard Business School by pointing out ‘yet even at Harvard Business School there are signs that something might be wrong with a leadership style that values quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision-making.’

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. But we make a grave mistake to embrace the Extrovert Ideal so unthinkingly. Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions—from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer— came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.

She makes a strong case for creativity at work in introverts through case studies, describing in vivid detail the working style of people like Stephen Wozniak, and his advice ‘to work alone’ to accomplish creative and productive results giving credence to the statement ‘introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation.’ But sadly we do not encourage solitude and independent working. Cain uses this observation to highlight what she thinks workplaces and educational institutes are doing wrong in terms of what she calls promoting ‘The New Groupthink’ which values group work against everything else.In schools we come across a replica of this model in the form of ‘cooperative’, or ‘small group’ learning. She credits the emergence of the trend to the rise of WORLD WIDE WEB. To add credence to her arguments, the author gives details of the working style of the likes of Kafka, Dr Seuss, Einstein, Lewis Carroll, to prove her point.

The book does not work to show the extroverts in poor light; rather it makes a case for the introverts to be recognized for what they bring in with their general inclination for reflection, thoughtfulness, thoroughness. It reassures the introverts to ‘stay true to their nature’ and value their attributes of ‘intellectual persistence, prudent thinking, and the ability to see and act on warning signs. The power of soft power and embracing the quiet exemplified in the likes of Mother Teresa, Buddha, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Warren Buffett, and Rosa Park smakes the case of introverts strong. But in the end Susan Cain is actually seeking for a balance where the extroverts and introverts make a good combination by complementing one another.

The section most pertinent from the perspective of an educator is the one titled ‘How to Cultivate Quiet Kids in a World That Can’t Hear Them’ which offers real life examples from classroom settings and gives very practical tips in raising and encouraging introverted kids.

Sample the following excerpt about understanding the needs of introverted children:

Focusing on introverted children, whose talents are too often stifled, whether at home, at school, or on the playground, with a little mindfulness and understanding can help. But parents need to step back from their own preferences and see what the world looks like to their quiet children. The truth is that many schools are designed for extroverts. Introverts need different kinds of instruction from extroverts, write College of William and Mary education scholars Jill Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig. And too often, ‘very little is made available to that learner except constant advice on becoming more social and gregarious.’ The purpose of school should be to prepare kids for the rest of their lives, but too often what kids need to be prepared for is surviving the school day itself. The school environment can be highly unnatural, especially from the perspective of an introverted child who loves to work intensely on projects he cares about, and hang out with one or two friends at a time. In the morning, the door to the bus opens and discharges its occupants in a noisy, jostling mass. Academic classes are dominated by group discussions in which a teacher prods him to speak up. He eats lunch in the cacophonous din of the cafeteria, where he has to jockey for a place at a crowded table. Worst of all, there’s little time to think or create.

To all those who lean towards the introversion side of the personality spectrum and others who are closely connected with such people (this practically includes everybody!), the book is a must read!


P. Ajitha

P. Ajitha

P Ajitha is an ‘accidental’ teacher who having stumbled upon teaching by chance has stayed put by choice having found the vocation enabling as well as ennobling. She teaches English and Life Skills with occasional foray into in-house teacher training at Delhi Public School, Coimbatore but prefers to call herself a co-traveller in the journey called education she embarks with her students and peers together. Like minded teaching practitioners can reach her at ajithapaladugu@gmail.com.

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