I first thought about the powers and challenges of introversion some 26 years ago, when I began my freshman year at Princeton University.
From the minute I set foot on campus, I saw that college could be an extraordinary place for introverts and extroverts alike. A place where you were expected to spend your time reading and writing. A place where it was cool to talk about ideas. A place where there were so many people, each doing his or her own thing, that you could create your own brand of social life. If you were an introvert, you could find friends with common interests and enjoy their company one-on-one or in small groups; if you were an extrovert, the social possibilities were endless, just the way extroverts like them.
I was an introvert, and I thrived.
Not that it was always easy. At Princeton, as on many campuses, many social and academic structures seemed designed for extroverts. I wondered why the cafeteria was arranged so that the large circular tables, where the most gregarious students sat, were located near the sunny windows, while the booths for quieter chats were off in the shadowy margins of the room. I wondered whether any of my classmates longed to munch on a tuna sandwich behind a newspaper as I did, instead of being expected to participate in a social free-for-all three times a day. I learned to praise Princeton’s excellent seminars, and to participate in them, but privately I preferred lectures where you could soak up knowledge and think your own thoughts instead of having to perform them out loud.
Most of all, I wondered whether I was the only one who felt this way.
Today, after interviewing hundreds of current and former college students, I know the answer: I wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot.
Did you know that one third to one half of the population is introverted? That’s one out of every two or three students on campus. But most schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are organized with extroverts in mind—even though many of the achievements that have propelled society, from the theory of evolution to the invention of the PC, from van Gogh’s sunflowers to The Cat in the Hat, came from people who were quiet, cerebral, and sensitive. Even in less obviously introverted occupations, like finance, politics, and activism, some of the greatest leaps forward were made by introverts: Eleanor Roosevelt. Al Gore. Warren Buffett. Gandhi.
This is no coincidence. There are specific physiological and psychological advantages to being an introvert and I’ll share them with your students through the lens of my book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I’ll tell your students how we can all learn from the introverts among us, including how to be more creative, think more carefully, love more gently, and organize our schools and workplaces more productively. Quiet also challenges contemporary myths of human nature, including the belief that creativity is fundamentally collaborative, and our preference for charismatic leaders.
But Quiet offers insights and advice for extroverts too, and it gives all students the license to talk about a social dynamic they’ve been living and breathing but never given voice to. Introversion/extroversion is as fundamental a difference between people as gender, yet until now we’ve lacked the vocabulary—and the cultural permission—to talk about it.
I’ve never presented the ideas in Quiet without getting people buzzing about whether they and their friends are introverts or extroverts, and what that means for their relationships, career choices, and life paths. Quiet is sure to spark animated discussions across campus, from the psychology and social-science classroom to the dorm room and dining hall.
I’ll be conducting an international speaking tour this year, and I look forward to continuing these discussions at high schools and colleges nationwide. I invite you to contact me through my blog, ThePowerOfIntroverts.com, to discuss opportunities.
Quiet will prepare your students for careers working alongside introverted and extroverted colleagues, bosses, and employees. And it will help them to understand the people they care about most: their classmates, their family, their partners, their children—and themselves.