The Social Network, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as a brilliant yet socially awkward student intent on finding a billion-dollar idea. Much of the focus of the film is on the interaction and subsequent legal proceedings between the geeky computer whiz and the outgoing Winklevoss twins — the Brooks Brothers-handsome Olympic rowers with old money pedigree and their own original idea. The film ends with Mr. Zuckerberg becoming the youngest billionaire in the world as a result of his work on Facebook, vanquishing his more socially established rivals and lionizing his entrepreneurial reputation.
“The statistics show that anywhere from a third to one-half of the population is introverted,” says Susan Cain, a self-professed introvert, Ivy League-educated writer, former Wall Street attorney and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “I equate this a little bit with the women’s movement, where the women’s movement was in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, people were going to a lot of consciousness-raising groups, and the point was to raise peoples’ awareness of bias.”
Awareness in the field of personality study usually reverts back to 1921, when the founder of analytical psychology, Karl Jung, introduced the idea that our personality traits are inherent. While nobody can be a pure introvert or extrovert, we tend to exhibit behaviors on one side of the scale more frequently than the other. That tendency defines whether we are considered more outgoing or inward-focused.
According to this Jungian trait theory, introversion and extroversion describe how individuals get energized to deal with their interactions in the world. Introverts tend to look inward to fill their reservoir of confidence, while extroverts fill their inner well by gravitating towards others in more sociable and active environments. While the terms may be relatively new in the fields of history and science, the concepts of introversion and extroversion in America predate Jung’s assertions by at least a couple of decades. But old or new, how they fit in the world is shifting.
“Until the turn of the 20th century, there was more room in American culture for introverts,” Cain says. “Really, what changed things was the rise of big business — that was really where the pendulum shifted and we suddenly started to admire people who were salesmen and people who could easily impress you at a cocktail party with charm and charisma.”
In her book, Cain says the need for charm and charisma has permeated all facets of the modern corporate world. In today’s marketplace, there are so many creative people working to develop ideas that there has to be some sort of natural weeding-out process. One option is the presentation of such ideas, and with that comes the potential for great ideas from introverts to be usurped by those from more gregarious personalities.
That’s where well-rounded individuals who can think on their feet while staying goal-oriented become assets. Richard Swanson, principal partner at The Swanson Group, an Illinois-based company specializing in strategic sales and marketing consultation, acknowledges the need for proper balance in the business world, where money and reputations ride on the efficacy of ideas and decision-making.
“I believe that listening is the best attribute,” Swanson says. “An individual that wants to learn will probably listen. And some people are so into themselves that they only want to hear themselves talk. They won’t be able to bring unity and be part of a strong team.”
One of the difficulties in today’s business culture for more inwards-looking professionals lies in not just self-expression but in interaction.
“When confronted with aggressive behavior, an introvert might be more inclined to say to themselves, ‘It’s not worth getting into a fight with this person over this initiative, idea, etc.,’ even though the guy with the aggressive behavior might be wrong,” he says.
But few business successes are determined by the quickest, or the loudest, talker. Success takes some combination of work ethic, smarts and creativity to go along with proper timing.
For introverts, it might just come down to what they are trying to voice. In some people, introversion seems to fade a bit when speaking about a subject they are passionate about.
“When I’m speaking about [my book], I feel really passionate and I feel like I know what I’m talking about,” Cain says. “But it’s become much easier because I have such a huge incentive. I think that it may not be that energizing or inspiring, [but] I think it’s always best if you’re doing it in the service of something you really care about, like work that you really love.”
As far as preparing for uncomfortable situations, it’s like anything else — practice makes progress.
“It’s really much more of an ongoing process that I’m still working with,” Cain says of her own work on becoming more extroverted.
Introverts can also tap their already-sharp skills of perception. Introverts are usually good listeners, and they tend to pick up on subtle nonverbal cues extroverts might overlook, while extroverts might forgo follow-up questions or miss making deeper connections due to their tendency to seek out further stimuli.
“If you don’t have the gift for chatter, focus on what you do have, a predisposition to watch and gather data,” Devora Zack writes in her book Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed and the Underconnected. “Tap in to your high level of focus, combine deep listening with well-informed questions, and you need never be at a loss for conversation.”
What else can introverts do to dip their toes in the pool of wealth tilted towards ebullient behavior types? Well, you could “fake it ’til you make it.” Research has shown that using techniques to act outgoing can help even extreme introverts take on and succeed in social activities inside and outside the workplace.
Barring that, or a Zuckerberg-like personal spark, introverts can only hope that performance over time can help to sway perceptions back toward the middle.
Like many of the big issues bandied about in the sphere of public opinion, the labels of introversion and extroversion tend to be categorized by the ends of the spectrum. The reality is that most of us are near the middle, with subtle tendencies to either venture outside our own realm or seek within the spark that allows for everyday interaction.
“Generally speaking, we tend to overestimate extroverts and underestimate introverts,” says Cain. “There’s a perception that extroverts make the best leaders. What I’m saying is we need to think about these things in different ways because introverts can also make really good leaders. They just approach it kind of differently.”
Swanson says he believes the fire is within us all to prove our mettle in an unforgiving world.
“It’s about confidence and knowing who you are and where you’re gonna go,” he says. “Is it an aggressive behavior? Sure. Is it more extroverted? Probably … but what matters more to me is the experience of being in a win/loss position, and those who know how to recover from a loss. If an introvert is bright and can show leadership qualities, they can be successful as well.”