Some of your best students are introverts. What have you done for them lately?

Book coverI’m going to stray a bit from the mandate of this blog with this one and talk about a book that really isn’t directly about student affairs or higher education. I just finished Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World The Can’t Stop Talking. It’s a relatively deep exploration of temperament,  the dominance of “The Extrovert Ideal” in western culture, and the loss to society when those who appreciate solitude simply cannot escape, or rise above, the noise.

I didn’t choose to read this book out of professional interest. But there are some definite takeaways for student affairs practitioners, especially those working in student leadership or career development, and particularly for those who have fallen prey to the leadership = TEDTalk phenomenon. Cain is always quick to point out that many of her best friends are extroverts. Extroverts need not feel threatened by her call to recognize the needs of, and tap into the best of, the introverts in your life. But she is saying that forcing introverts to play in an environment designed for extroverts is a missed opportunity.

She uses many examples in the book — including an amusing peak inside Harvard Business School where students “practically go to the bathroom in teams” and  the relentless focus on group work causes them to constantly overlook the best ideas — to make her point that the balance has tipped, in both classrooms and workplaces, too far toward the characteristics of the extrovert.  Quick reflexes, self-promotion and public speaking are are valued above contemplation, analysis and listening.

Business is starting to catch on. A recent article in Forbes featured a study that warned employers to “be wary of the extrovert” because they talk too much, listen too little and “don’t contribute as much as people think they will.” Those of you working in career development will want to be on top of this wave, helping your students, whether extroverted or introverted, recognize and articulate the value they bring to a team. The good news is, we can all learn to adopt the traits of extroversion or introversion in a given situation. Introverts can learn to speak in public. Extroverts can learn to listen.

Case in point: ironically, Cain herself has an immensely popular TEDTalk. She taught herself, out of necessity to promote her book, how to hold a crowd’s attention and make her point, which she does very well. She ends it (spoiler alert!) with three calls to action: 1. Stop the madness for constant group work. Teach kids to work together, yes, but also teach them to work alone.  2. Go to the wilderness, unplug, and find solitude; and  3. Introverts: make your contribution to the world.

I wish I had read Cain’s book earlier. Recently, my team at OCAD University was planning a leadership development retreat for our peer mentors. We only had a day to work with. We planned some outdoor activities: low ropes, a climbing wall, etc. to build trust and teamwork skills, and some indoor activities: a role-playing leadership group simulation to teach collaboration skills. We also came up with the idea of including a reflective walk in the woods. But we couldn’t fit everything into the schedule and something had to go. Can you guess what got sacrificed?

Deanne Fisher, @deannefisher

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