Susan Cain was an introverted child and suffered because of it. Now she wants to help young people reclaim the power of the quiet, thoughtful inner life
If you are a natural introvert – and a third to a half of us are – you will identify with some of Susan Cain’s most awkward childhood moments and have several more of your own. Cain recalls vividly the excruciating wait for the school bell each morning, groups of friends huddled together, everyone else seemingly at ease and full of chatter. She remembers being called to the front of an English class and told to act out a scene from Macbeth, improvising with her own words. Unable to speak, she turned red, began to shake and had to sit down. She left class that day feeling utterly ashamed.
Cain was an introvert from a family of introverts. In the evenings, at weekends, her parents and her older brother and sister would sit around in the living room and disappear into their books. “I was probably the most extroverted of any of them,” she says.
In many ways, introspection didn’t hold her back – Cain went to Princeton and then Harvard Law School – but it certainly shaped the way she saw things. “In adolescence, everyone’s self-esteem takes a beating,” she says. “For me, it was crystallised around this feeling I could not shake – that I should be more gregarious, more outgoing, that I should be spending my Saturday nights with a gang of 20 kids.
“As an adult, that bothered me not at all – but I still kept on seeing how extroverts are held up as the ideal. In my law career, looking at leadership and negotiation skills, there was a belief that you had to be a certain person – a ‘take charge, get what you want’ sort of person.”
I got so many letters saying, ‘If only I’d known all this when I was a kid'
In 2005, Cain began to write a book to redress the balance; to celebrate the introvert, solo reflection and deep thought in a world that overvalues extroverts, sociability and ‘group think’. It took seven years to finish. “I thought it was my idiosyncratic little project and I’d be lucky to sell 1,000 copies,” she says.
Instead, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking became an instant bestseller, and has been translated into 40 languages. It also led Cain to co-found the Quiet Revolution, a company whose mission it is to promote the power of introverts in all areas of life.
Her new book, Quiet Power, is aimed at adolescents. “When Quiet came out, I got so many letters from introverted people aged 40, 50, 60, who were still carrying the wounds of childhood, of growing up as an introverted child in an extroverted culture,” says Cain. “They kept saying, ‘If only I’d known all this when I was a kid.’”
Quiet Power is a brilliant handbook for quiet children (and their parents), first setting out the difference between the introvert, who is drawn to the inner world of thoughts and feelings, and the extrovert, who thrives on people and activity.
Cain also covers the difference between shyness and introversion, although these often come together. While shyness stems more from fear of social judgment and self-consciousness, introversion is a true preference for the quieter, contemplative environment. So, while shyness, in certain situations at least, may be something to overcome, introversion can be something to celebrate. “I think quite a helpful formula, if you find yourself not wanting to go somewhere or do something, is to ask yourself why,” says Cain. “If it’s a true preference for being on your own, doing your thing, then honour that preference. If it’s fear that is holding you back, maybe find ways to give yourself a push.”
Divided into sections, school, socialising, hobbies and home, Quiet Power is packed with suggestions on how to push yourself. When it comes to raising your hand to speak in class, for example, Cain suggests jotting notes in case you freeze when you speak, sitting at the front so you don’t see all eyes on you and striking early when you know the topic of discussion before it rambles in unexpected directions.
The book also covers strategies to make life smoother for introspective children. These include noticing when you feel drained and in need of peace and quiet, and also carving out your own safe space to recharge. Cain stresses the importance of communication too. Instead of stealing away to spend lunch alone in the school library, talk to your friends about introversion and extroversion, and explain that you need to retreat at times: it can stop them feeling hurt or confused.
Many issues pertinent to all young people – such as toxic friendships, drugs and alcohol and social media – are examined through lens of the introverted teen. One section describes the misery of an introverted girl whose friends turned on her – and instead of walking away, she quietly took the abuse. “Introverts invest so much in their friendships and by nature tend to have just a few friends,” says Cain. “So even when they are treated badly and their confidence is shattered, they remain in those cliques as they worry they won’t make new friends.
“I’ve also heard over the years from addiction counsellors who say some of the teenagers in their care are clearly shy kids using substances to give them artificial bravery so they feel better socially.”
Social media, continues Cain, is a double-edged sword for the introverted teen. “It means that even when you’re at home, the jockeying for social status and thinking about where you fall socially never goes away. But at the same time, it means you can participate in groups without needing to leave your house.”
Crucially though, Quiet Power is also a celebration of the introvert, full of role models who achieved not in spite of being introverted but because of it. These not only include history makers such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Stephen Wozniak and J K Rowling, but also teenagers who have shared their stories, been voted on to school councils, received standing ovations for speeches, won awards for art or writing, or, in one case, designed and built a working submarine.
Introspection, Cain assures her young readers, tends to come with “superpowers”. One is a talent for listening and empathising with others. The other is an ability to delve deeply into a project or topic and focus for long stretches. “Finding your passion is crucial for everyone, but especially introverts because they often prefer to focus energy on one or two projects they really care about,” says Cain. “That passion can also lift you up and propel you through your fear.”
Few are better proof of this than Cain herself. Having spent seven years on her first book, researching, interviewing, thinking, writing (all bliss for the introvert), Quiet was published. Next came the real challenge – promotions, interviews and, most terrifying, a TED talk before 1,500 people.
Cain joined Toastmasters (an organisation that helps adults with public speaking), and worked with a speaking coach and an acting coach, and the final result was brilliantly powerful – with nearly 14m views to date. (Bill Gates named it one of his favourites!) Quiet Power, Cain hopes, will help the next generation of introverts forge their own quiet paths and, when necessary, make sure they are heard.
The introvert child: Advice for parents
• Understanding the introvert personality is key and can help you decide what your child needs to do and what can be skipped. (Do you really need after-school clubs when school itself can be draining enough?) If you think of your child’s anxiety level on a scale of one to 10, generally, you can push within the four to six range.
• Find ways to make things easier. For young children, arrive early at a party so they don’t need to walk into a crowded room where everyone is already in groups.
• Make it clear that you don’t mind if some things take your child longer and use empathy and encouragement: “I feel like that too, sometimes,” and “Didn’t work? OK, maybe next time.”
• Allow your child a quiet corner and always give space to recharge. School, socialising, organised activities can be exhausting – don’t be hurt if she or he wants to be alone after time in the “outside world”.
• Turn to fiction. Writers of children’s stories tend to be introverts and so do their protagonists. The young reader gets to see quiet, thoughtful children having amazing adventures, whether it’s JK Rowling’s Harry Potter or Roald Dahl’s humble Charlie or bookish Matilda.
• Understand that introversion isn’t something to “conquer” or “outgrow” – it’s innate and to be treasured. Introverted children are often kind, thoughtful, focused and very interesting company, as long as they are in settings that work for them.
Mental illness is a result of misery, yet still we stigmatise it