Monday, April 8, 2013

The power of introverts

I am an introvert.

Today, I embrace this but for a long time in my life, I've felt that it was a shortcoming. I was always envious of extroverts like Kenneth who can take the stand, speak off the cuff and command the crowd without going into brain freeze or feeling like they're gonna throw up.  If I am booked (reluctantly) for a public speaking event, I have sleepless nights and count the days till it's over.

An introvert friend of mine who's super bright, shared with me that in school, she would almost never raise her hand even though she knew the answers. She would fight an excruciating internal battle just to have the courage to volunteer information, by which time, some other less inhibited classmate would have beaten her to it, causing her to berate herself for her inaction.

I empathise completely.  When I was in sec 3, I was picked by the teacher to represent the class in a vocabulary competition. I turned it down because it was to take place in the hall in front of the entire school. Horrors. When the event took place, I was safely in the audience, quietly giving all the correct answers in my head, with mixed feelings.

It was therefore such an enlightenment to me when someone sent me a TED video last year featuring Susan Cain.  She had written a book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" and the video addresses the same topic.  It basically talks about the importance of introversion and how we should recognise its value instead of fighting it.  Do watch it, it's eye-opening.

Sharing her own story, Cain got the message growing up that somehow her introverted style of being was not ideal, so much so that she even became a Wall Street lawyer instead of a writer because she wanted to prove that she could pass off as an extrovert.

At work, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions even though they may actually be smarter and more likely to deliver better outcomes because they listen to other ideas more readily instead of "putting their own stamp on things".  We hear it all the time - Asians systematically lag behind their American counterparts in climbing the corporate ladder because the former prefer to work quietly behind the scenes (except perhaps for the more vocal Indians), while the latter, among the most extroverted personalities in the world, impress with their presentation skills.  In school, emphasis is now placed more on presentations and group projects instead of individual work - again the bias towards extroversion.

Cain goes on to explain how the world may be losing out simply because this bias causes us to suppress introversion which is critical to creativity.  She's not advocating that we all become introverts or that introverts are superior, rather that it's important to have a balance where we can come together to exchange ideas while still retaining the space and time for solitude and reflection.

Cain's message resonated strongly with me. In my corporate life, I accidentally ended up in public relations and marketing which often conjures up a gregarious, outgoing person, something I am not.  Where other PR personnel might attend social functions, meet as many people as possible and make their presence felt, I shied away from such events and preferred to take the personal approach, fostering deeper relations with each person. To me, the best compliment I ever received from a journalist was that I was "real".

However, when I was working at a polytechnic, my boss told me, "you seem to be rather introverted for a PR Manager".  He might as well have substituted the word "ineffective"  for "introverted" because that's what was implied.  I resented somewhat that my personality trait could predicate how well I did the job but a niggling part of me thought that maybe he was right, that I was inferior because I wasn't an extrovert. Not surprisingly, I left soon after.

Compare this with another boss - the one I had at the SSO - who being an extrovert, didn't comprehend my fears but accepted it as just a quirk that could be overlooked in light of my other qualities. In fact, she cleverly managed this to her advantage. She would undertake all the public speaking engagements if I would do everything else. I happily accepted. Win-win.

Why am I sharing all this?

Because as parents, I feel we're often guilty of the same bias towards extroversion, to our own detriment.  I used to keep telling Lesley-Anne, an introvert, to "speak up" and volunteer more for leadership positions. While I believe it's more than ok to nudge our kids out of their comfort zone, at some point, I realise that I was merely projecting my own wishes for her not to be an introverted as I am.  The danger with this is that our kids start to think that their introversion is a deficiency and try to force themselves into the extroversion mold instead of making the most of their introversion gifts.

It takes a good balance, as mentioned by Cain. I still want Lesley-Anne to step up but I also acknowledge that there is more than one way to be a leader.  Instead of say, trying out for student counsellor (which thrusts one into the limelight), she signed up for a community service stint to give tuition to needy kids.

Encouraging our kids to embrace the leadership style most fitting with their personality traits is by far, the most constructive way to go and leads to a healthier self-esteem because it plays to their strengths.  Ultimately, as Cain puts it, the world wins.   


CE said...

This for sharing yr thoughts. It's a good reminder. I feel that as long as one could express his idea, thoughts clearly regardless of the communications mode (be it public speaking or written form) or even language, that's is already a merit.

Anonymous said...

I believe intrinsic personality plays a part and experience can also mold the personality changes with time, the quantum of change depends on the willingness of self.

Whether introvert or extrovert, they all have their own strengths and can contribute differently. One good example is LKY versus GKS. LKY is the extrovert and GKS is the introvert but they worked well as a team to the benefit of Singapore. I believe they also enjoyed this modus operandi personally and forged a great friendship.


monlim said...

QX: I agree, an extrovert and introvert can be a fantastic team, as I found with my SSO boss. It's a matter of finding where each person's strengths complement the other's and using them to make things happen.

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