I recently read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan McCain.
I also watched her TED talk not too long ago, loved her message, and bought the book. She had me in the first minute, at the bit about taking a suitcase full of books on holiday as a child.
Cain charts the rise of the 'extrovert ideal' in Western cultures, and how we 'innies' find ourselves exhausted trying to live up to the alpha, gregarious, outgoing expectations of the modern world. And it's tough, she says, when people assume we all need to be in open plan offices, working collaboratively, and that the best ideas are the ones we can defend and persuade other team members of in a focus group.
It always feels good when someone else vocalizes how you feel but don't want to admit. When Cain says she prefers to work alone independently on something for a while, I get that. At college, I sometimes feel like I am ready to say something in class about three minutes after the topic changed. I enjoy teamwork - it's just that I like to know what my bit is and get on with that myself. On the other hand, I'm only too happy to dwell on an essay question for a few weeks and feel ideas percolate, and reflect on experiences in a journal.
It's not a self-help book really, though I suppose you'd find it in that general area of Waterstone's. And it does suggest how society might better harness the contributions of introverts, and how in turn introverts can cope better with roles that require them to step out of themselves.
One fascinating insight was the evangelical's dilemma: does God love introverts? Cain went to Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and met with local pastor Adam McHugh, an avowed introvert. McHugh demonstrated how some churches make extroversion a prerequisite when recruiting clergy, and implicitly teach extrovert characteristics as Christ-like.
But, says McHugh, evangelicals need to cater for the introverts in their pews, and they might do that by promoting listening as well as talking, incorporating silence and mystery into worship, and aim to include in their ranks some reflective, quiet leaders who can bring other perspectives.
Cain and McHugh go to church together, and compare notes afterwards:
"Everything in the service involved communication," he says with gentle exasperation. "Greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing. There was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation."
It seems that "If you don't love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love." (p. 69)
Back when I was testing a vocation to ordained ministry, leadership was one criterion for selection that I constantly questioned. If by leadership they meant alpha male style, nope, not for me. Apart from leadership, what of all the visiting, the meetings, the coffee and conversation after services?
Would I cope?
Cain claims that introverts particularly need to believe in what they do; it's not the fun and excitement of a job, but the values and convictions that drive us. I'm sure extroverts have values as deep-running as any introvert, but the idea is that extroverts can get energized by the process of launching a product whether or not that product is something of personal value to them. Introverts find it harder to get revved up about a project they wouldn't choose to be involved in.
Cain gives three key steps to choosing a career or project, that gave me some comfort those first weeks at college:
1. Think back to what you loved to do as a child, and what you wanted to do when you grew up. I wanted to be a doctor. I was fascinated with people and how we work. But as I got older I realized I liked books and words and ideas more than test tubes and dissection.
2. Pay attention to what you gravitate to. As a teacher, I loved to provide pastoral care and see people develop. As a student, I loved words, stories. Politically, philosophically, whatever you call it, I'm drawn to big questions, and to mystery. I like the idea of being counter-cultural and subversive, and I feel a responsibility to make a difference.
3. What makes you jealous? We envy those who have what we desire. I feel pangs of jealousy when I hear of people getting their writing published, involved in fresh liturgy, pioneer ministry, privileged to be there to pray for people at the deepest points of human need.
I think I've chosen well to be here.