Solitude as a Virtue, with Susan Cain

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The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: halfway through Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I embarked on a trip to the most sublime of all places — Grand Canyon.

I’ve been poring over Cain’s book for the past two weeks, unearthing the dearth of differences between introverts and extroverts, as well the symbiotic relationship of both personality types.

As I get older, I am finding solitude more and more enjoyable — finding delight in the quiet, beauty in stillness. At one point in my 20s, I remember going to work full-time, going to school full-time and leading a grassroots women’s organization. I didn’t think that I was doing too much back then, and I still found time to enjoy night outs with friends and attend family parties with my huge Kapampangan clan.

It wasn’t until I started meditating that everything changed. Those thirty minutes proved to be substantial and significant, in a time when even my own 30-minute lunch break felt like five seconds. Something started to shift, and I remember looking out my window by Lake Merritt in Oakland after a thirty-minute sit, feeling like a different person, refreshed and anew.

What I found within was not the most agreeable nor beautiful. Old wounds resurfaced, as well as things I’ve refused to name for a long time. It wasn’t until I started to cultivate a life of quiet that I learned how to see more openly, to look at the things I’ve ignored for so long just because they were intangible.

This life of quiet helped me understand myself even better, as I worked to nourish my own inner life. I started to see that understanding my own struggles and finding the courage to weather them that I was able to give to others even more, in ways that are more genuine and reflective of my intentions.

I used to detest Sunday evenings, afraid of the impending alone-ness of those times that depressed me. Being around people energized me and those Sunday evenings were too quiet, too slow for my own liking.

Suddenly, I started to look forward to those Sunday evenings — the quiet times it afforded me as busy weekends end and busier weekdays begin.

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In Quiet, Cain writes that we live in a society where the Extrovert Ideal is glorified. It is the name of the game: talkers are seen as smarter and the louder one is, the better. On the other hand, timid people are always encouraged to “speak up” and get out of their comfort zones, to contribute to the group with their ideas and opinions. They are seen as passive, attributing their “shyness” to a lack of conviction.

The premise then of Cain’s book is to dive deeper into the introvert’s mind and heart, as an introvert herself, and understand how introverts are more often than not misunderstood.

If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed. Yet studies in group dynamics suggest that this is exactly what happens.

I thought about this long and hard. I’ve been in several spaces where group discussions have been the norm, with collaboration and teamwork as revered ideals. For the most part, these discussions are fruitful as the synthesis of minds and ideas come into fruition.

I admit that in spite of being an introvert, I tend to enjoy group discussions and freely express my ideas. I am becoming more aware though of the space that I take up, and with the way I express my thoughts. It is usually the same people who dominate discussions — those who are forceful, aggressive and louder. And even if these are facilitated well, it turns out that these don’t make a huge difference because of the way introverts are wired.

Group discussions are one thing, as she illustrates other manifestations of the Extrovert Ideal in our society. From open floor spaces to brainstorming sessions, the message is clear according to Cain: there is an omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.

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While this belief is apparent, Cain references several studies of the highest-performing companies. What she found out was that companies which have weathered shortfalls and industry changes were led by people with similar attributes, described with the following words: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated. In spite of the prevailing narrative was a kernel of truth:

We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.

My trip started in Las Vegas with its abundance of buffets and neon lights. I’ve never been a fan of the city, as I always found myself being over-stimulated. I sought refuge in Quiet while it affirmed my need for a more spacious landscape. As I headed out of the city and into the desert, I felt at peace.  

Throughout the book were other examples of introverted luminaries like Marcel Proust, Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Wozniak, Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling.

In our time, Wozniak is one of those figures whose work has shaped the way we do our own work. He has done this not by engaging in the public or influencing policies, but by working by himself, late into the quiet night of which he describes as “the biggest high ever.”

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What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, […] it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly.

This doesn’t surprise me because in a way, I’ve been reading and learning about the lives of writers for so long. Writing is one of those endeavors that requires solitude, a submerging of the self within one’s self, away from the world. I wrote about this in a previous post that looked at the rituals and routines of creatives.

Most of the things that Cain writes in Quiet were so affirming, as she talks about quirks that I didn’t realize I shared with fellow introverts: she writes that it is perfectly fine to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

But what of situations and responsibilities that call for actively being and engaging with the public?

It turns out that there are plenty of introverts who can, for a lack of better term, “play extroverted roles” if the need arises. There are folks like Professor Brian Little, an acclaimed scholar and a speaker in the field of motivational psychology. While Little can give speeches and exude confidence on stage, he is a self-described introvert who needed to retreat into solitude to recharge. At one point, he retreated and hid in a bathroom stall.

So how did this introvert manage to do so well in the most-feared arena of all, public speaking? Little called this the “Free Trait Theory”:

Little believes that fixed traits and free traits coexist. According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”

In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.

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My trip took me to the deserts of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, barren and expansive as the ocean, at times eerily endless. It is in these places that I am able to think best, as these landscapes give me room to nourish my inner world. Upon entering Antelope Canyon, the curving lines on its cathedral-like walls blended with my own rhythm. I walked in each chamber, cooled by the shade these canyons provided amidst the glaring noontime sun.

There were other people on the tour with me, and my partner knew that beneath my wandering eyes and restful gaze was a world filling up to the brim.

I am thankful for people like Cain who took the time to understand introverts and their ways, for her generosity. I think all people could benefit from reading Quiet as it bestows the kind of knowledge needed for us to treat each other with compassion and kindness.

Most of all, it reveals what introverts have known all along: that our quietness and our preference for solitude contains worlds, multitudes.

If you’re an introvert, find your flow by using your gifts. You have the power of resistance, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up.

You enjoy relative freedom from the temptations of superficial prizes like money and status. Indeed your biggest challenge may be to fully harness your strengths. You may be so busy trying to appear like a zestful, reward-sensitive extrovert that you undervalue your own talents, or feel underestimated by those around you.

But when you’re focused on a project that you care about, you probably find that your energy is boundless.

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4 thoughts on “Solitude as a Virtue, with Susan Cain

  1. __ says:

    I have this book, but I haven’t read it yet, I’ve just watched the TED Talk. I just got out of a long-term relationship and I’m learning how to be content with the stillness and quiet of solitude. This makes me even more excited to read this book! Thank you.
    Your blog is fantastic, btw. Enjoying your posts!

    Like

    • Pia Cortez says:

      Thank you so much! This blog is not only a love letter to books, but also a way to examine & challenge my own beliefs and perspectives. I guess you can say it’s also a tool for introspection, in the hopes of becoming a better version of myself. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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