The Secrets of a Super Successful Introvert
Best-selling author and self-proclaimed introvert Susan Cain explains why everyone—even the most social butterflies—can benefit from tapping into their soft-spoken side.
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Many introverts find chitchat, which requires jumping quickly from subject to subject, overstimulating. They seek out deep, serious conversations in which they can focus on a single topic of mutual interest. Follow their lead. A study by University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl, PhD, found that the happiest people have twice as many substantive conversations as the unhappiest and participate in far less small talk.
Steve Wozniak, an introverted engineer, cofounded Apple Computer with Steve Jobs and invented a personal computer that would transform the industry. His collaboration with Jobs was central to his success, but he did the hard toiling work—and advises others to do the same. "I don't believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee," he writes in iWoz. "Not on a committee. Not on a team."
The advice sounds unconventional, but scientists are beginning to recognize that solitude is a catalyst for expert performance. When you're alone, explains K. Anders Ericsson, PhD, a research psychologist who studies excellence, you can make headway on the tasks that are most challenging to you personally. "If you want to improve what you're doing," Ericsson told me, "you have to be the one who generates the move. But in a group, you're the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time." The psychologist Adrian Furnham, PhD, puts it even more bluntly. "The evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups," he writes. "If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."
Science tells us that social connections make us happier and healthier, and science is right. But there are different kinds of social connection. Reading, for instance, can be a deeply social act, putting you inside other people's minds. The introverted writer Marcel Proust called reading "that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude." And studies suggest that reading makes people more empathetic and improves social skills by helping us better understand our fellow humans.
Wharton School associate professor of management Adam Grant, PhD, says that one of the most effective leaders he ever met was a highly introverted two-star general in the U.S. Air Force. The general's subordinates respected him because he listened to them. It turns out that listening is key to good leadership: New research by Grant and his colleagues has revealed that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts, because they're more likely to consider other people's suggestions. The press, says Grant, is full of advice for introverted leaders—to smile more and improve their speaking skills. But in at least one important regard, introverted leaders should keep doing what they do naturally: encouraging subordinates to take the initiative. Extroverted leaders, are you listening?
Get away, small scale
Introverted psychology professor Brian Little, PhD, is a brilliant speaker whose lectures at Harvard often ended with standing ovations. Onstage, he acted like an extrovert because he wanted to get his message across dynamically. But by the time class was over, Little would feel so spent that he sometimes raced for the nearest bathroom stall to recharge. He knew his own limits, and he respected them. Extroverts might not crave refuge as strongly as introverts do, but in an overstimulating world, it's good to find what Little calls "restorative niches" to clear your mind. These minibreaks help you relax so you can gain access to your deeper feelings and insights.
Use quiet commitment to achieve your goals
Just as I did with the train conductor who wanted me to pay for my ticket twice, many introverts use a form of power so subtle that power almost seems the wrong word. Instead of taking strong stands in a loud voice, they make insightful suggestions in a gentle tone. Instead of holding forth at a meeting, they make alliances behind the scenes. Instead of calling attention to a problem, they work at it, carefully and doggedly.
Foothill College communication studies professor Preston Ni calls this style soft power, and contends that even someone who's not outwardly charismatic can lead if she is committed to her cause. The introverted Mother Teresa wielded soft power, and so did Gandhi, who had been a shy man. "In the long run," says Ni, "if your idea is good and you lead with your heart, it's almost a universal law: You'll attract people who want to share your cause. Soft power is quiet persistence."
Susan Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Crown)
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