Co-founder of Quiet Revolution and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain works to make introverts around the world feel empowered at home and at the office. She recently sat down with world-leading business thinker Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and host of the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, to discuss why introversion goes hand-in-hand with positive disruption.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Susan and Whitney’s full conversation on the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, click here.
Whitney: What is the most disruptive thing you did when you were growing up?
Susan: I’ve always been someone who followed my own drummer, more than your average person. In fact, I was just taking Gretchen Rubin’s quiz that helps you figure out what kind of habit follower you are, and I discovered from that that I am a “rebel,” — I’m not going to do it just because you told me to do it; I’m going to have to have my own internal reason for doing a thing.
Whitney: So, you’re a disruptor!
Susan: I never really thought about it like that. I knew from a very early age I wanted to be a writer — I was always creating magazines and selling subscriptions to my family members. It didn’t really matter to me that other people weren’t doing that same thing; that was just my thing.
I don’t even know where I got that idea from at such a young age. If there’s something you love doing, I suppose, you want to then be the creator of that thing.
Whitney: You knew you wanted to be a writer. What kind of writer did you want to be?
Susan: When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to write stories because that’s what you read when you’re a kid. Part of the reason that it took me so long to actually become a writer is I didn’t understand until a much later age that there’s such a thing as creative nonfiction, and I’m not really a fiction writer by nature. I reached a point at around age 20 thinking, “Oh, I guess that was just a youthful dream,” and that wasn’t right because I [actually just] didn’t want to be writing fiction.
Whitney: It was directionally right.
Susan: It was directionally right, but it took me another ten years to figure that out.
Whitney: So speaking of the next ten years to figure it out, you have had this revolutionary idea, and [a short while later,] over two million copies of your book [Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking]. What was your big idea that launched this movement?
“One out of every two or three human beings is introverted, and there is tremendous power associated with having this temperament.”
Susan: The idea is that one out of every two or three human beings is introverted, and there is tremendous power associated with having this temperament. We live in a culture that is telling introverts that they should turn into extroverts, instead of helping them to capitalize on their powers for the benefit of themselves and of everyone.
Whitney: How do you define “introvert”?
Susan: Introverts get their energy from being in a quieter setting — you could be very socially skilled, but if you’re out at the dinner party for too long, you start to feel like, “I’ve got to go home.”
It’s also useful to know that that comes from a neurobiological difference between introverts and extroverts. Introverts have nervous systems that react more to stimulation — what that means is we tend to be more in our sweet spots when things are a little bit quieter around us. And when things get too chaotic, we start to get that overwhelmed feeling, like, “I want to tone this down.” Extroverts have the opposite makeup. They have nervous systems that react less to stimulation, and so that means that they’re at their best when there is more happening. [When] there’s not enough going on, they start to feel listless and unhappy.
Whitney: So how did you come up with this idea?
Susan: Well, I have been thinking about this all my life. From the time I was a little kid, my preferred way of spending my time was not necessarily conforming to the way our larger social structures were saying you were supposed to. I see this now with my kids. You go to summer camp, for example. You get on the bus in the morning and it’s this uproarious environment, and you get to camp and it’s really loud music and, “We’re going to have so much fun today! We’re going to go to this activity and this one and then this one!” And you don’t have any time or autonomy to do your own thing.
When I stopped practicing law in my early thirties, I started writing plays and memoirs and stories, [but then] came back to this idea that I’ve been thinking about all my life — this was the one I knew I was going to publish. All the other stuff that I’d been working on is still sitting on my hard drive to this day, completely unattended to.
Whitney: Was this warming up or circling around? Were you not aware of it, or were you afraid of it?
Susan: A little bit of both. Back then it was a really weird, idiosyncratic topic and so I felt a little uncomfortable bringing it up. Also, there is a funny byproduct of all this — everybody is always viewing me through the lens of, ‘Here comes the introvert,’ [which] is a strange lens to always be viewed through.
Whitney: That’s good from a market [perspective,] from “Susan Cain” as a product, but from “Susan Cain” as a person… You’re saying it can get complicated.
Susan: Yeah, it’s limiting. I don’t tend to think of life in product terms; I think much more in person-terms. Now having said that, I wouldn’t really sit around and complain about it — everything has been fantastic.
I will say also as a writer, I’ve always been drawn to writing about the things that make me, or people in general, feel uncomfortable. That’s always where the impulse to write has been. In fact, I’m working on another book right now. I can’t talk about the topic, but it’s the same feeling of “this is one of those topics that bothers a lot of people and they don’t even know it.” That just happens to be my muse as a writer and comes with some discomfort, and you take that as part of the package.
Whitney: Is there any way in which you would argue that introverts are uniquely suited to disruption?
Susan: I do think that it’s very common for introverts to describe themselves in the way that I did — marching to their own drummer. Whether that is an intrinsic property of being introverted or whether it’s just a byproduct of spending quite a bit of time in your own company, either way, the result is that you know what you think and feel about things, and you tend to develop your own view of the world, which lends itself to disruption.
“It’s very common for introverts to describe themselves in the way that I did — marching to their own drummer. You know what you think and feel about things, and you tend to develop your own view of the world, which lends itself to disruption.”
Whitney: I agree. One of the first accelerants of a personal disruption framework is that a disruptor takes on market risk. Instead of taking on competitive risk, you take on market risk, which is you don’t know if there is a market, but if there is, your odds of success are six times higher. So, it’s amazing to hear you say that introverts are uniquely suited to disruption because they’re comfortable playing where other people aren’t.
Susan: I don’t even think [introverts] think about it in those terms — they just take it for granted because that’s just the way they live. They’ve been living that way from the beginning, in school cultures and work cultures where their way of doing things was not in keeping with the norm. When we first started Quiet Revolution, which is based around all these ideas, we did the thing that I think all companies ask themselves when they’re first starting, which is, “Who are our competitors? Who are our role models here?” And we kept scratching our heads; we couldn’t really find any.
Whitney: You’re building a company around the idea that we need to disrupt our view of introverts. Would you share an experience or two you’ve had where you’ve seen that these ideas are working, or how it’s made a difference as you introduce them to a particular community, whether it’s a school or a company?
Susan: One of the things we’re doing now is our Quiet Ambassador experience. Companies identify a cohort of people within the company who are passionate about these ideas, and they serve as ambassadors. [This] means that we train them in our methodology and our thinking, and then they take those ideas and implement them in their day-to-day life inside their companies.
I’m thinking of one young woman who was quite introverted herself but had this ambassador role. She [went] back to her team and said, “Hey guys, maybe we should think differently about the way we structure our meetings. We should sit down and have a team meeting about the way that everybody likes to work differently, and how we can accommodate each other’s preferences.” Not only did the team start to function better, but she herself came to be seen as a leader in a way that she hadn’t been previously.
We’ve [also] had schools, for example, dramatically rethink how they do class participation. One of the most common problems is from parents who say, “My child is doing great in school. They know everything, and they’re being graded lower because they’re not raising their hands as much as another child who is actually not as much in command of the material. It’s very frustrating.” So we’ve been working with schools to think about classroom engagement instead of classroom participation. It’s a much broader way of assessing how a student is interacting with the material and their peers.
“Introverts are uniquely suited to disruption because they’re comfortable playing where other people aren’t.”
Whitney: How are you defining “engagement”?
Susan: It can be things like raising your hand — that’s the classic one — but it can also be chatting with fellow students after class about what just happened, or participating in writing. “Are you showing the teacher — even through non-vocal signs — that you understand the material, and that you’re switched on?” It’s a more holistic way of thinking about the different ways people learn.
We do want our kids to leave school with the skills they need to make their voices heard, so I’m not saying that [raising hands] should be irrelevant, but we’ve gone overboard. It’s so lopsided right now in the way we think about these things.
Whitney: It also leads to a situation where sometimes people interview for jobs, and they get jobs they shouldn’t get because they’re just good at talking. And people don’t get jobs they should get, because they’re not so good at talking.
Susan: And it’s not just jobs; it’s also startup pitches. A good friend of mine who’s a VC guy in private equity is very attuned to these dynamics. He sees this happen all the time — somebody will come in and make a great presentation and everybody’s impressed, even though they haven’t really said anything.
Whitney: Give them $500,000!
Susan: Exactly. We really are trained that way.
Whitney: Do you think it’s possible for an extrovert to disrupt themselves and become an introvert?
“For all of us, we want to disrupt ourselves by acquiring skills that are not necessarily in our default skillset.”
Susan: Well, I don’t think they’re going to become an introvert, but I do think that for all of us, we want to disrupt ourselves by acquiring skills that are not necessarily in our default skillset. A lot of extroverts come up to me and say, “I would really like to be more comfortable with quiet. And I’d like to be more comfortable with my own company. So how can I do that?” I think extroverts need to stretch in those ways, the same way introverts need to stretch at a cocktail party.
All these things are acquirable. It’s much more liberating to think of these things in terms of skills, instead of in terms of basic personality. Because your personality is what it is, and you should love it and accept it. And then layered on top of that, you can acquire any number of skills. Some of them will be uncomfortable for you to use, but you can use them strategically, as long as you’re honoring who you really are. If you’re an extrovert who is not comfortable in your own company, and you know you’re going to spend all day in your own company, schedule the dinner out with friends afterward, to reward yourself.