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The Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi

Rosa Parks. Mahatma Gandhi. Warren Buffett. From the American Civil Rights movement to the protests against British rule for Indian independence to one of the most successful businessmen and investors, these three figures share something very interesting in common: they are all introverts.

The word “introvert” tends to have a negative connotation in today’s society, at least in the western world. Unfortunately, we relate introversion with being antisocial, nerdy, and a bookworm. It is easy to misinterpret a preference for a deep one-on-one conversation in a quiet café instead of small talk amongst many people in a crowded bar as being “less social” when it is, in fact, merely a different way of social interaction. Thus, not only are these conclusions untrue, but they are also vast oversights and do not do justice to the psychological and social developments that have yielded these personality types and the vast qualities harbored within them.

From a macro view, it is not hard to see why these connotations exist: in our society, we tend to value – and even put a premium on – an outgoing, confident, popular person, whether it is in business, politics, or our friend groups. However, with our affinity for these qualities, or as Susan Cain calls “The Extrovert Ideal” in her breakthrough book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, we can easily overlook the significant role introverts play in society, even in all the same areas that seem to be dominated by outgoing people.

In fact, as Cain documents with extensive research and case studies, introverts possess many characteristics that allow them to succeed and excel at an array of tasks, even those for which we assume success to be limited to extroverts. From their critical and deep thinking, to their persistence, humility, and diligence, to their ability to listen and be aware of others’ thoughts and feelings, introverts have an innate way of viewing and interacting with the world around them at a profound level. This often-overlooked approach and demeanor, when coupled with a passion for success, allows many people to quietly rise to the top, affecting change in their own way, whether it is in the business world, politics, entertainment, education, etc.

Therefore, it is not a coincidence that many of these characteristics appear in some of the most successful people in the modern world. In fact, the CEO’s of the 11 “great” companies in Jim Collins’s book Good to Great exhibit many of these qualities, in addition to their business savvy and industry knowledge, and not the characteristics we typically associate with the “corporate leaders” who run multi-million (or billion) dollar companies. For these CEO’s and many other successful people, their humility, persistence, and ability to tap into the ideas and feelings of those they manage, perhaps even deferring to them instead of promoting their own agendas, allow them to achieve unparalleled, sustained success.

Cain explores the sociological trends toward extroversion, a deviation from the culture of character that existed centuries ago to the culture of personality that evolved with the industrial revolution and the emergence of corporate America, in which people marketed and sold themselves through their personality to get ahead. Interestingly, however, the views of introversion and extroversion differ across the globe, with western and European countries tending to favor the Extrovert Ideal while Asian countries fostering the qualities we tend to associate with those who are introverted.

Nevertheless, there is no term that can be applied absolutely to one’s personality. In fact, the words “introvert” and “extrovert” themselves are almost unfair to use because each person and their characteristics are so complex; they simply cannot be embodied in one distinct label. Our personalities are the combination of our inherited temperament, our upbringing, the various situations we face on a daily basis, and all the other natural and environmental factors that influence our personal development. However, most of us can tell where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum when examining characteristics such as sensitivity, nervous system reactivity, outgoingness, shyness, empathy, guilt, anxiety, and many other personality traits and social preferences.

The important part though, is that no matter where we fall on that spectrum, whether one enjoys being the center of attention and giving inspiring speeches to a large crowd or cherishes a more intimate conversation and exploring complex problems and deep topics, it is imperative that we are aware of the two sides of the spectrum and respectful of everyone’s disposition. In only this way can we develop a society that allows one to be his or her true self, whether an introvert or extrovert, cultivating the many different and unique talents, skills, and qualities that each individual possesses.