Conversations with Susan Cain
This month, Pulse struck up a conversation with an unlikely source: an introvert. Susan Cain is the world’s leading expert on unlocking the potential of introverts in the workplace—and she’s an introvert herself. After more than a decade spent practicing law, Cain wrote her bestseller on introversion, Quiet, in 2012 and presented one of the most-watched TED Talks ever.
Cain will speak at the opening General Session of #ISPA2019 on September 11 at The Venetian Resort. You can learn more about the General Sessions at attendISPA.com.
Pulse: Tell me a little about yourself and your career before you wrote Quiet.
Susan Cain: So, okay…a little about myself. I am the author of Quiet and the chief curator of a website called Quiet Revolution (quietrev.com). And before I wrote Quiet—before I became a writer—I was actually a Wall Street lawyer for almost a decade. And then I quit that. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was four years old, so I quit the law and took up writing, and wrote all kinds of things. A play, a memoir, poetry and so on, and then started writing Quiet. And I’ve been doing that ever since—I’m also right now working on my next book, which is on a completely different topic.
P: What drew you initially to a career in law?
C: The thing that draws most people: the desire for a stable life in which I could support myself. Once I started practicing, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I really felt that it was not what I was meant to be doing. I had that sensation very strongly. Even at the same time that I was working 16-hour days and was engaged with it in some ways, in other ways it felt like the wrong career for me.
P: Was it as a lawyer that you first began thinking about the ideas that would lead to Quiet?
C: Yeah, but not with any understanding that I would ever write about it. That, I had no idea. But the whole time I was practicing as a lawyer, I was always drawn to what would be called the softerskills side of things. I was always serving on every committee in my firm that had to deal with mentoring, professional development or gender issues. I thought a lot about the ways in which people behaved very differently in meetings and negotiations and so on. But in those days, the main explanation for those kinds of differences tended to be gender and culture and so on—which I do believe are important—but at the same time, personality differences and differences in temperament are incredibly powerful and no one was talking about it. So, ultimately, I thought I needed to.
P: So—how does introversion tie into gender and culture? How does it stand apart?
C: About half of men are introverts and half of women are introverts, so there’s no difference in terms of numbers. The difference is the way it plays out. For men, the problem is more often the cultural pressure to be the alpha guy. And for women, there’s kind of a new cultural pressure where, on one hand, you’re not supposed to be the docile, quiet 1950s woman, but you’re also not supposed to be too assertive. So, there’s an increasingly narrow tightrope to walk.
P: After writing Quiet, you gave one of the most popular TED Talks ever despite a fear of public speaking. How did you conquer that fear?
C: I had a fear of public speaking all the way through the time that I practiced as a lawyer, and I just suffered through it. When Quiet was coming out, I really knew I wanted to get this message out and I didn’t want my fear to get in my way. I researched the psychology and I found out that the way to overcome any fear is to expose yourself to the thing you fear… but you have to expose yourself in very small and manageable doses, so I started practicing public speaking in safe environments like Toastmasters or seminars for people with public speaking anxieties. I didn’t start by giving a TED Talk, and when I did give the TED Talk despite all those efforts I was still completely terrified. The amazing thing is that since then, ever since that TED Talk, I now have a career as a public speaker. Like, right this minute I’m actually in a taxi on my way to San Francisco to go give a speech at a company conference. That’s what I do all the time and without any fear, which I never would’ve thought that possible.
P: Do you still identify as an introvert?
C: Totally, it hasn’t changed my personality at all. I think we acquire all kinds of skills that we then layer over our temperament and personality.
P: Could you talk more about Quiet Revolution and it’s mission?
C: Quiet Revolution is community website with a gigantic amount of resources for anybody who is interested in the topic, from the point of view of parenting, workplace issues, education or just personal issues. Everything on it is free; tons of resources there. And then in addition to that, I go out and I work with companies and educators of all kinds to help them harness the talents of the introverted half of their employee or student populations.
P: In the big picture, why is it important to Get introverts involved?
C: To me, it’s a gigantic waste of talent, energy and happiness to have a workplace that’s biased against any particular group. This happens to be a group that constitutes half of the workplace—probably more than half when you’re talking about the spa industry. This can be changed by raising awareness and making a few small changes. Given how easy it is to do it and how easy it is to make an impact, there’s nothing to lose!
P: What advice do you have for spa directors who are leading a team of introverts?
C: In general, make sure that you’re getting people the time they need to recharge, which will then help them to be their most present selves when they’re on. More broadly, I’m a big believer in the idea of ‘user manuals,’ which is where you ask each employee to produce their own user manual of what their colleagues should know about working with them. How do they work at their best? When are they happiest? What tends to set them off? And you can ask for your colleagues’ help in putting this together, because sometimes they’ll know things about you that you don’t realize yourself. Then, distribute those user manuals around and use them as a way of getting team members to talk to each other and really know each other better.
P: On the flipside of that, what advice would you have for an introvert trying to stand out in their workplace?
C: The best thing is to do your work well, be as present as possible, and if you feel that you’re being spoken over in ways that are making you uncomfortable, get into the habit of speaking from a place of deep conviction. Practice it in fake situations, like, if you just watched a movie on Saturday night, tell someone what you thought about the movie. Tell your friends and tell them really deeply from your gut, because if you’re talking from that place then people will listen.
P: Lastly, if you’re an extrovert, what can you do to empower the introverts on your team?
C: Well, we know that in your typical meeting we have three people doing 70 percent of the talking. So, you want to make sure that’s not happening, you want to make sure that you’re hearing from everybody. If you’re making a decision, you might go around the room and invite everyone to speak… now you’ve heard from everybody instead of only hearing from the most dominant people.
Hometown: “The New York area.”
Bucket List Travel Destination: “Oh gosh… Morocco.”
Personal Motto: “What comes to my mind is ‘be kind.’ I don’t know if that’s a mantra, but that’s the first thing I thought of.”
Ideal Day Off: “Exercise, work on my next book, hang out with my family, and I’m happy as a clam.”
Favorite Color: “Green.”
Favorite Spa Treatment: “Massage.”