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Secrets of a super successful introvert

By Susan Cain, Oprah.com
updated 7:40 AM EST, Mon February 6, 2012
Introverts are great at conversing with others because they listen -- and respond -- well.
Introverts are great at conversing with others because they listen -- and respond -- well.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Introverts tend to quietly get their way by negotiating well
  • Although introverts talk deeply, they work alone
  • Using quiet commitment to achieve goals is successful for introverts

(Oprah.com) -- I was in a terrible hurry, running late for a business meeting in Philadelphia. I'd spent more than $100 for my train ticket from a vending machine at New York's Penn Station -- but in my haste had grabbed only the receipt, which I now presented to the conductor.

"You need the ticket," he said.

I apologized and explained that the receipt was all I had.

"The rules are the rules," said the conductor. "Either you pay the fare or you leave the train."

I'm constitutionally opposed to following rules for their own sake; plus, this man was treating me rudely. But I'm not confrontational, so I wasn't going to let my annoyance show. Instead, in my most neutral voice, I asked a question (like many introverts, I'm forever asking questions): "Is there any way you could bend the rules just this once?"

"Why would I do that?" the conductor snapped. "How do I know you're not cheating me? You could have picked that receipt up off the floor!"

That's when I realized it wasn't the rules he was worried about; he feared I was making a fool of him. Suddenly I saw the man not as belligerent and officious but as human and vulnerable, and my focus shifted to How can I reassure him that I'm not trying to take advantage?

I pointed out my credit card number on the receipt and showed him my card so he could see that the digits matched. Instantly his posture softened. He mumbled an apology and proceeded down the aisle. And I made it to my meeting on time.

Encounters like this one happen to me a lot. When I graduated from Harvard Law School almost 20 years ago, I believed that success belonged to the table pounders of the world, and that my soft-spokenness was a liability. But over the course of my career -- first as a Wall Street lawyer, later a negotiations consultant -- I have learned that introverts, thanks to their tendency to speak quietly and reasonably, to ask questions, and to listen to the answers, can make unusually strong negotiators. My introverted talents have helped in a range of tricky situations, from navigating mergers for corporate clients to convincing my kids to eat their broccoli.

And striking deals isn't the only thing introverts do well. Some of our most transformative leaders have been shy or introverted: Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks. All of them were more focused on their causes than on their egos. In fact, many of the most spectacularly creative people across a broad variety of fields have been quiet types who enjoyed solitude, from Frédéric Chopin to Charles Darwin.

Instead of worrying that I'm too introverted, I now worry that our culture is not introverted enough. In today's overscheduled, hyperactive society, we celebrate the alpha approach (consider the rise of reality TV stars, for example) and dramatically undervalue the quieter aspects of our natures -- which, by the way, even the most gregarious of us possess. If you're ready to empower your inner introvert, read on. Based on research in personality psychology and dozens of interviews, I've identified six strategies for nourishing the unique strengths that come from your quieter reaches.

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Talk deeply

Many introverts find chitchat, which requires jumping quickly from subject to subject, overstimulating. They seek out deep, serious conversations in which they can focus on a single topic of mutual interest. Follow their lead. A study by University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl, PhD, found that the happiest people have twice as many substantive conversations as the unhappiest and participate in far less small talk.

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Work alone

Steve Wozniak, an introverted engineer, cofounded Apple Computer with Steve Jobs and invented a personal computer that would transform the industry. His collaboration with Jobs was central to his success, but he did the hard toiling work -- and advises others to do the same. "I don't believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee," he writes in iWoz. "Not on a committee. Not on a team."

The advice sounds unconventional, but scientists are beginning to recognize that solitude is a catalyst for expert performance. When you're alone, explains K. Anders Ericsson, PhD, a research psychologist who studies excellence, you can make headway on the tasks that are most challenging to you personally. "If you want to improve what you're doing," Ericsson told me, "you have to be the one who generates the move. But in a group, you're the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time." The psychologist Adrian Furnham, PhD, puts it even more bluntly. "The evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups," he writes. "If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."

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Read more

Science tells us that social connections make us happier and healthier, and science is right. But there are different kinds of social connection. Reading, for instance, can be a deeply social act, putting you inside other people's minds. The introverted writer Marcel Proust called reading "that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude." And studies suggest that reading makes people more empathetic and improves social skills by helping us better understand our fellow humans.

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Listen well

Wharton School associate professor of management Adam Grant, PhD, says that one of the most effective leaders he ever met was a highly introverted two-star general in the U.S. Air Force. The general's subordinates respected him because he listened to them. It turns out that listening is key to good leadership: New research by Grant and his colleagues has revealed that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts, because they're more likely to consider other people's suggestions. The press, says Grant, is full of advice for introverted leaders -- to smile more and improve their speaking skills. But in at least one important regard, introverted leaders should keep doing what they do naturally: encouraging subordinates to take the initiative. Extroverted leaders, are you listening?

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Get away, small scale

Introverted psychology professor Brian Little, PhD, is a brilliant speaker whose lectures at Harvard often ended with standing ovations. Onstage, he acted like an extrovert because he wanted to get his message across dynamically. But by the time class was over, Little would feel so spent that he sometimes raced for the nearest bathroom stall to recharge. He knew his own limits, and he respected them. Extroverts might not crave refuge as strongly as introverts do, but in an overstimulating world, it's good to find what Little calls "restorative niches" to clear your mind. These minibreaks help you relax so you can gain access to your deeper feelings and insights.

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Use quiet commitment to achieve your goals

Just as I did with the train conductor who wanted me to pay for my ticket twice, many introverts use a form of power so subtle that power almost seems the wrong word. Instead of taking strong stands in a loud voice, they make insightful suggestions in a gentle tone. Instead of holding forth at a meeting, they make alliances behind the scenes. Instead of calling attention to a problem, they work at it, carefully and doggedly.

Foothill College communication studies professor Preston Ni calls this style soft power, and contends that even someone who's not outwardly charismatic can lead if she is committed to her cause. The introverted Mother Teresa wielded soft power, and so did Gandhi, who had been a shy man. "In the long run," says Ni, "if your idea is good and you lead with your heart, it's almost a universal law: You'll attract people who want to share your cause. Soft power is quiet persistence."

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