Susan Cain believes society overvalues the gregariousness of extroverts and dramatically undervalues the talents of introverts. In her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and in her record-smashing TED talk, Cain explores ways to tap-in to the quieter contingent–in the workplace, the classroom, and elsewhere–whose input we cannot afford to waste. The New York Times chronicles Susan’s impact on modern culture–both personally and professionally–since her TED Talk and book were debuted:
Last month, 50 executives from General Electric gathered on the fourth floor of a SoHo office building for a “fireside chat” with Susan Cain, the author of the 2012 book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” which has sold two million copies worldwide.
One man asked what advice Ms. Cain had for his introverted college-bound daughter. “Take time to find your tribe,” she said. “It’s a difficult world when the social currency is how gregarious you are.”
“I’m having my own identity crisis,” joked a woman who said she is from a boisterous Italian family, where her introversion is often misunderstood.
“Are you ready to do marriage counseling?” one executive asked the author, to a knowing chortle from the crowd.
At 47, Ms. Cain, who is petite and exudes the gentle calm of an experienced yogi, has become a coveted draw on the public-speaking circuit — though she is a champion of people who don’t like to advertise themselves.
A talk about “Quiet” she gave at a 2012 TED conference has been viewed more than 11.6 million times online. And she has delivered more than 100 speeches since then, sometimes commanding five figures for an appearance. (She also does pro bono work, she stressed.)
Ms. Cain started, or at least was on the forefront of, a bona fide publishing trend. Books by other authors after hers include “The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World” and a guide in the popular “For Dummies” book series titled “Success as an Introvert.”
And it is at least partly because of her efforts that The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and the like are now teeming with personality quizzes and posts like “Can You Survive This Party as an Introvert?” and “26 Cat Reactions Every Introvert Will Understand.”
“Now people think it’s cool to be an introvert,” said Amy J. C. Cuddy, a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School, adding that at least half her students tell her they have read Ms. Cain’s book. “I love that the students are no longer ashamed,” she said.
One may have expected Ms. Cain to follow up with another book, and indeed she considered it, but she changed her mind after seeking advice from Seth Godin, a best-selling author who chronicled social movements.
“Writing a book is rewarding,” Mr. Godin said he told her. “But it doesn’t change most people’s lives.”
And so Ms. Cain, who has been coached in public speaking, is now promoting Quiet Revolution, a for-profit company she has started that is focused on the work, education and lifestyle of introverts, which she defines roughly as people who get their psychic energy from quiet reflection and solitude (not to be confused with people who are shy and become anxious in unfamiliar social situations). Extroverts, by contrast, thrive in crowds and have long been prized in society for their ability to command attention. Many people share attributes of both, she said.
Ms. Cain and Paul Scibetta, a former senior executive at J. P. Morgan Chase whom she met when they both worked at the law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in the 1990s, have set up a Quiet Leadership Institute, working with executives at organizations like NASA, Procter & Gamble and General Electric to help them better understand the strengths of their introverted employees.
They are developing an online education course for parents and have begun to introduce a series of other programs: a co-branded lifestyle section on The Huffington Post overseen by Quiet Revolution staff members (of which there are 13 thus far); a podcast; a website to support a community that includes writers and advocates called Quiet Revolutionaries; and a line of young-adult books and shows whose heroines are quiet leaders.
The company is based at Quiet House, a two-story Victorian house with a view of the Hudson River near Nyack, N.Y. The employees there observe “quiet mornings”: no meetings before 12:30 p.m. and none on Fridays. The dining room is a shared work space. Mr. Scibetta works in an upstairs bedroom, where he set up a whiteboard in front of a fireplace. Across the hall is Michael Glass, the creative director, formerly the director of TED Talks in New York.
Ms. Cain sensed her own introversion early on. “I’ve been aware of it since I was 4, even though I didn’t have a language for it,” she said. The youngest of three raised in Lawrence, N.Y., on Long Island, she wrote plays in fifth grade and set up a workshop under a card table in the family den where she produced a magazine, Rags, selling subscriptions to family members.
Ms. Cain attended Princeton and then Harvard Law School, which she graduated from in 1993. After working in corporate law, she became a consultant, teaching executives how to negotiate, and noticed her quieter clients feared that they lacked the proper temperament to do so. Her research suggested that this is, per her own experience, rooted in childhood.
“Everything is telling kids: ‘Do not follow your actual nature. Be a cheerleader,’ ” she said. Ms. Cain wants to let them know it’s O.K., and maybe even beneficial, to keep to themselves. “There are a lot of kids who don’t make it to the other side,” she said. “And they are sitting there wishing they were different.”
She cited some of the thousands of letters she has received from fans, like a public relations director who told Ms. Cain she no longer felt guilty for dining alone. One parent of an introvert sent the link of the TED Talk to a teacher who discussed it, and the book, at parents’ night, telling the crowd, “There is nothing wrong with your child.”
Another young person moved by Ms. Cain’s work is Jake Millman, 18, who is headed to Princeton this fall. He played competitive soccer at his high school, Horace Mann School in the Bronx, and was co-president of his class. “I like people,” he said. And he likes to be alone, too. “But I thought solitude was not normal,” he added. That is, until he read Ms. Cain’s book.
“Now when I don’t want to go out on Saturday night, my friends don’t bother me anymore,” he said. “I’m a proud introvert.”
Not that extroverts are being shut out of this conversation (as if). Mike Erwin, a former professor of leadership and psychology at West Point who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, invited Ms. Cain to speak to cadets in 2012 after he finished reading “Quiet.” He didn’t understand students who were reticent to talk in class or who wanted to explore every risk before jumping into a task. “I’m an extrovert,” he said. “And, as I look back at my career, I wrote off a lot of people who didn’t speak up or want to be in charge.”
In May, he was appointed chief executive of the Quiet Leadership Institute, where he is helping project managers at NASA learn how to lead teams populated with introverts (a common personality type in science). At Procter & Gamble, Mr. Erwin said, executives in research and development are exploring, among other things, how to help introverts become more confident leaders.
“If you are confident in who you are,” he said, “you can allow a lot of criticism to not affect you.”
This, Ms. Cain said, is particularly true in social-media culture, where attention is heaped on the noisy and provocative.
“It’s a culture that says it rewards authenticity,” she said, “but it really rewards a curated, managed kind of authenticity. It’s not and will never be the authenticity of two friends sitting down and having a cup of coffee together and sharing the truth of their lives.”