Susan Cain, a Wall Street lawyer and author, spoke on Ted Talks (2012) regarding the ‘power of introverts.’ Self-described as a ‘quiet revolutionary’ and an introvert, she describes how introversion is shunned in our society, giving the example of her experience at camp in which she was scorned for reading books. Cain claims to have become a Wall Street lawyer rather than to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, to prove to herself and to society that she could succeed as an extrovert.
Cain states that one third to one half of all people are actually introverts who feel most alive when alone in a quiet place. Yet Cain describes our society’s bias against introversion, giving the workplace example of open office spaces that promote extroversion but remove the opportunity for solitary, quiet thinking, and also the classroom example of desks arranged in clusters facing each other to promote discussion and group work even for activities that typically were best performed independently with quiet concentration. Cain observes that introverts are seen as outliers at best and even at times as problem students.
Cain cites Adam Grant of the Wharton School of Business, who evidenced that introverts can be better leaders in particular contexts because they make decisions more cautiously and deliver outcomes with less risk involved. Cain goes on to explain how transformative leaders such as introverts Eleanor Roosevelt and Gandhi took the spotlight, reluctantly, not because they wanted to do so for its own benefits, but rather because they felt compelled to do the right thing. Cain indicates that such introverted leaders have transformative power precisely because people can readily perceive that they were not leading due to any self-gratification from exercising power or control over others, nor from an enjoyment of being in the spotlight, but rather the opposite. Their reluctance to be in the spotlight was only overcome by the importance of the message they felt compelled to share.
Cain cited Carl Jung, who proposed and developed the concepts of introversion and extroversion. Jung (2016) believed that everyone lies somewhere on the continuum with introversion on one end and extroversion on the other, with most clearly predominantly more introverted or extroverted. However, a few rare individuals lie precisely in the centre between introversion and extroversion, so-called ‘ambiverts’.
Cain goes on to show that creativity is closely linked with solitude, providing the examples of Darwin, who experienced his epiphanies while on solitary walks in nature; Dr. Seuss who wrote his children’s books while secluded in his home office; and Steve Wozniak, who invented the first Apple computer while sitting alone in his cubicle at Hewlett Packard. Cain solidified her theme ‘solitude matters’, describing the transcendent power of solitude and citing examples of sages from many differing religions including Moses, Jesus and Buddha; she evidenced her conclusion that without solitude these and other sages would not be able to experience such revelations.
Cain contrasted this against the current social trend whereby group members tend to follow the most extroverted charismatic speaker, rather than the most thoughtful, considered, analytical solitude-seeking introvert in the group. Cain points to American culture which values of the ‘man of action’ rather than the quiet, thoughtful introvert.
Cain concludes with a call to action with three requests.
- Stop the madness of constant calls to group work for every task with every person regardless of their intro- or extro-version. To better provide a constructive atmosphere for introverts, Cain is seeking more freedom, autonomy and privacy at work and in the classroom.
- She believes that both extroverts and introverts need to not only learn to collaborate and work well with others, but that we also need to learn to work independently and at times to seek solitude for reflection and deeper thought, as this can lead to revelations.
- In Cain’s words, we need to occasionally ‘check our suitcase’. By this she means that we need to self-reflect upon what has meaning for us and to share it with others. Cain firmly believes that the world benefits from the revelations that occur when we seek solitude for reflection and deeper thought.
Cain’s description of ambiverts resonated so strongly with me that I searched for more information. Sol (2012) described taking many different personality tests, including the Myers Briggs test, which is based upon the work of Carl Jung (Briggs-Myers, 2016), and finding that some indicated that he was an introvert, while others found him to be an extrovert. Sol believes himself to be, and describes the Ambivert as the forgotten personality type (see Figure 1 below).
Figure 1: Introversion – Extroversion Personality Viewed as a Continuum (Sol, 2012)
Sol (2012) indicates that in spite of basing her classification system on the work of Carl Jung, who believed that everyone has an introverted and an extroverted side, Isabel Briggs Myers limited her system to an either/or introverted or extroverted classification. Sol points out that Jung believed that the qualities described as introversion and extroversion were present in all of us and manifested in varying ways depending on the context. Unlike Jung, Sol would have us believe that most people are ambiverts. Just as both Sol and Jung describe, I also believe that introverted or extroverted strategies are contextual and that each of us is more comfortable with particular strategies in each context. Certain tasks are more comfortable in solitary to remove distractions, for example activities that require deeper thinking or self-reflection, while other activities are better performed in a group context, such as having a party. Sol points out that “Jung would say that we all have “preferences” of what we would like to do, but we also have the capacity to be able to be both introverted and extroverted.” Although some have not attempted to develop either their introverted or extroverted capacity for some contexts where the one strategy they have practiced has worked well for them.
I definitely see myself as an ambivert. I really enjoy public speaking to large audiences but I also enjoy reading and/or writing while sitting quietly alone. Rather than dwelling on what I am or am not, I prefer to think of myself as a work in progress, as having mastered some skills while still needing work on others.
Granting that Cain has provided a well-evidenced argument for the value of introversion, and Jung’s view that we all have preferences for either introversion or extroversion for specific contexts, yet we all have the capacity for both introverted and extroverted strategies, it is likely most productive for each of us to identify which strategy is most effective for each context, and to develop that skill whether or not it is comfortable for us. We can all learn to speak up and contribute in a teamwork setting, rather than leaving all the talking to the loudest extrovert in the room. And we can all benefit from solitary time for deeper thinking and self-reflection.
Just as ambidextrous describes the ability to write with either hand equally well, ambiversion best describes the ability to adopt either an introverted or extroverted strategy depending on context, rather than an either/or limitation as Myers Briggs and other personality tests would indicate. I scored very differently on every such personality test, even when repeating the same test on a different day. This was not helpful to me at all. Instead, I would benefit from an understanding of which strategies I had mastered and which ones required more skill development, as well as an understanding of which skills were most helpful in specific contexts.
I commit to learn to identify which skills, whether introversive or extroversive, are most efficacious for specific contexts. I commit to self-reflection to aid in identifying which skills require more development, also either introversive or extroversive. I commit to study and to work at continuing to develop skills that improve my performance in all contexts that I value in my life, including my roles as husband, father, son, teacher, businessman, analyst, consultant and coach.
I commit to learning more about teaching students to develop their own introversive and extroversive skills and to become comfortable with taking different roles in different contexts. I will model the process and draw the students’ attention to it. I will facilitate their learning and draw their attention to the value of recognizing the advantages and limitations of both introversive and extroversive skills in specific contexts. It is my belief that this will improve not only the academic skills of my students, but also their self-reflective, work and life skills. This new awareness and willingness to act on it should improve my offering as an educator.
Barkley, E. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass: John Wiley & Sons; San Francisco, CA.
Briggs-Myers, I. (2016). Carl Jung & Psychological Types. MBTI Type Today. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator website accessed from: http://mbtitoday.org/carl-jung-psychological-type/
British Columbia (BC) Provincial Instructor Diploma Program (PIDP) (2015). PIDP 3250 Instructional Techniques: Supplementary Student Materials. Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology. Vancouver Community College: Vancouver, BC.
British Columbia (BC) Provincial Instructor Diploma Program (PIDP) (2015). PIDP 3250 Instructional Strategies: Course Assignments & Rubrics. Handout offered by Vancouver Community College: Vancouver, BC.
Cain, S. (2012). The power of introverts. Ted Talks February 2012. Accessed from: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html
Sol, M. (2012). Ambiversion: The Lost Personality Type. LonerWolf website accessed from: http://lonerwolf.com/ambivert/