I took a bath the other day. That’s not remarkable, but baths for me usually mean one thing: I need to escape. Retreat. Hide from the world. Nothing terrible had happened. Giving in to the lure of the bathtub simply means I’ve been overexposed – too many people for too long with too little downtime. In the tub, the outside world still exists, my obligations remain, and the bathroom door may even be knocked open (thanks to Cookie the cat, who insists on free access to all corners of the house.) But the hot water enveloping my body acts like a narcotic anyway, and I finally relax. No one can bother me here.
James Taylor knows what I mean (or perhaps I should say songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King). In his classic “Up on the Roof” Taylor sings about retreating to his city rooftop at the end of the day to escape the rest of the world.
“When this old world starts a getting me down,
and people are just too much for me to face.
I’ll climb way up to the top of the stairs and all my cares just drift right into space.
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be and there the world below don’t bother me, no, no.”
And James Taylor is an introvert.
At least that’s what one would conclude after reading Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In Quiet, Cain affirms something that many of us have known in our hearts for years: we’re introverts in an extroverted world. That doesn’t mean we’re shy (although some are). It doesn’t mean we hate people (we love to socialize in small groups). And it doesn’t mean we can’t succeed in business without really trying (we tend to bring thoughtful, focused thinking to tasks). But it does mean that we need time alone to recharge. Extroverts, in contrast, get energy from being around other people (think Bill Clinton). So in a world full of classrooms, conferences and cocktail parties, some of us will need a break at the end of the day, while others might seek out more.
Cain is an introvert herself and in Quiet she combines personal observation with scientific evidence to reveal truths that on reflection seem somewhat self-evident: That starting in school and continuing on into the workforce, Americans are encouraged to be extroverted regardless of their personal inclination. That, in reality, one-third to one-half of all people are introverts, many of whom, in response to constant pressure, have learned to act extroverted. And that introverts (such as Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks) can turn this skill on when needed, so long as they can recharge later.
She also debunks some prized myths of the modern workplace – such as the idea that brainstorming results in more and better ideas than people could come up with on their own (studies show that it doesn’t) or that open floor plans stimulate creativity (instead they reduce productivity, impair memory and increase stress). She notes that wildly successful introvert Steve Wozniak created the first Apple computer by working alone in his cubicle for months, and argues that the 2008 financial collapse might have been averted if Wall Street titans had listened to the introverted analysts among them.
Of course no one is completely either or. All of us are somewhere on the spectrum of introversion to extroversion. The secret to a happy and productive life is figuring out where on that spectrum you fall, and seeking out sufficient space to recharge when needed– whether it’s in the bathtub, on the rooftop or elsewhere.
So watch Cain’s TED talk here, and if you find yourself saying “yes, finally!” then get her book (now available in paperback) and immerse yourself in a gratifying release of recognition and self-appreciation. After all, as another famous singer used to say: “I gotta be me.” Thanks to Susan Cain for giving the rest of us permission.