At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts – Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak – that we owe many of the great contributions to society.
In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture. She also introduces us to successful introverts – from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Passionately argued, superbly researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how they see themselves.
Q: Why did you write the book?
A: For the same reason that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Introverts are to extroverts what women were to men at that time – second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent. Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, and many introverts believe that there is something wrong with them and that they should try to "pass" as extroverts. The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and, ultimately, happiness.
Q: What personal significance does the subject have for you?
A: When I was in my twenties, I started practicing corporate law on Wall Street. At first I thought I was taking on an enormous challenge, because in my mind, the successful lawyer was comfortable in the spotlight, whereas I was introverted and occasionally shy. But I soon realized that my nature had a lot of advantages: I was good at building loyal alliances, one-on-one, behind the scenes; I could close my door, concentrate, and get the work done well; and like many introverts, I tended to ask a lot of questions and listen intently to the answers, which is an invaluable tool in negotiation. I started to realize that there's a lot more going on here than the cultural stereotype of the introvert-as-unfortunate would have you believe. I had to know more, so I spent the past five years researching the powers of introversion.
Q: Was there ever a time when American society valued introverts more highly?
A: In the nation's earlier years it was easier for introverts to earn respect. America once embodied what the cultural historian Warren Susman called a "Culture of Character," which valued inner strength, integrity, and the good deeds you performed when no one was looking. You could cut an impressive figure by being quiet, reserved, and dignified. Abraham Lincoln was revered as a man who did not "offend by superiority," as Emerson put it.
Q: You discuss how we can better embrace introverts in the workplace. Can you explain?
A: Introverts thrive in environments that are not overstimulating – surroundings in which they can think (deeply) before they speak. This has many implications. Here are two to consider:
(1) Introverts perform best in quiet, private workspaces – but unfortunately we're trending in precisely the opposite direction, toward open-plan offices. (2) If you want to get the best of all your employees' brains, don't simply throw them into a meeting and assume you're hearing everyone's ideas. You're not; you're hearing from the most vocally assertive people. Ask people to put their ideas in writing before the meeting, and make sure you give everyone time to speak.
Q: Quiet offers some terrific insights for the parents of introverted children. What environment do introverted kids need in order to thrive, whether it's at home or at school?
A: The best thing parents and teachers can do for introverted kids is to treasure them for who they are, and encourage their passions. This means: (1) Giving them the space they need. If they need to recharge alone in their room after school instead of plunging into extracurricular activities, that's okay. (2) Letting them master new skills at their own pace. If they're not learning to swim in group settings, for example, teach them privately. (3) Not calling them "shy" – they'll believe the label and experience their nervousness as a fixed trait rather than an emotion they can learn to control.
Q: What are the advantages to being an introvert?
A: There are too many to list in this short space, but here are two seemingly contradictory qualities that benefit introverts: introverts like to be alone – and introverts enjoy being cooperative. Studies suggest that many of the most creative people are introverts, and this is partly because of their capacity for quiet. Introverts are careful, reflective thinkers who can tolerate the solitude that idea-generation requires. On the other hand, implementing good ideas requires cooperation, and introverts are more likely to prefer cooperative environments, while extroverts favor competitive ones.
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