Susan Cain’s fame ironically stems from her introversion, which gives her first-hand appreciation of the value of quieter environments. And, her work has raised its profile, giving a voice to many introverts and validating their contribution to the world. The TED description to her famous talk “The Power of Introverts” explains this with: “In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. But, as Susan Cain argues in this passionate talk, introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated.”
As a result of that speech, her books, and the “Quiet Revolution”, Susan is possibly the world’s most famous introvert (or famous because of introversion)… This article describes her personal career transition from lawyer to writer, as well as celebrates the impact she has had, and continues to have, on the world. Read more to discover how she made her professional transition, the emotional aspects and the new skills she built during the change.
The key to maximising our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us… Extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they're in quieter, more low-key environments.”
It took Susan about seven years to write that book, a period she describes as “total bliss, because I was reading, I was writing, I was thinking, I was researching”. This included at least one major rewrite (on the advice of her editor) and repeated polishing. Susan describes herself as an INFP, which indicates why writing as a career (and in that way) appeals to her, and points to the emotional emphasis in her work.
Career Transition: the emotional impact
While now a very successful writer, Susan originally was a lawyer. This post concentrates on that career transition, and draws on Susan’s conversation with Ozan Varol (another introvert) on his “Famous Failures” podcast about her career change, including its emotional toll. As Ozan puts it: “It becomes really hard to risk your significance in a way, and pivot away from what you’re doing”.
Her original choice
As Susan mentions in her TED talk, she originally chose to study law: “I became a Wall Street lawyer, of all things, instead of the writer that I had always longed to be – partly because I needed to prove to myself that I could be bold and assertive too.” Just as well she pushed herself out of her comfort zone, because part of the reason why her book is so well-known is that she delivered such a knock-out speech (“out here, talking about it, talking about introversion”) to a large audience in person, which continues to reach a growing international one online. As she acknowledged in that auditorium: “as honoured as I am to be here with all of you right now, this is not my natural milieu… So I prepared for moments like these as best I could. I spent the last year practising public speaking every chance I could get. And I call this my ‘year of speaking dangerously’.”
How Susan made the career change
When Susan first left her legal career, she took a leave of absence, so she could go back if necessary. This choice gave her “psychological freedom”. She signed up for an NYU class on creative non-fiction writing, which she loved: she felt like she had truly arrived where she was supposed to be, which gave her further drive to continue along the path.
Susan also gave thought to how she was going to make a living, including a consultancy teaching people negotiation skills (given her legal background) in the evenings, combined with pursuing her passion for writing during the day. She began by writing a play, a memoir, and short stories for fun: “It was important to me to start that way, with no financial or professional pressure around it”. She also knew that each book would take years to write, and she didn’t want to feel like she had to churn out another book every two years just to have income coming in.
Indicative of her evolutionary, creative process, she didn’t have grand plans for Quiet when she began. “When I first started working on [Quiet], I thought that it was an odd and idiosyncratic project, so I hoped to make a book out of it, but at the beginning I had no idea it was going to become this gigantic thing. It felt much more like an idiosyncratic personal project.”
Learning new skills
In addition to developing her non-fiction writing skills, Susan also worked on her public speaking, as she told us in her TED talk. She expanded on this in her discussion with Ozan: “In terms of the speaking itself… I used to be flat-out terrified by it, and now the speaking is no problem. I’m quite comfortable with it, and I have ironically this career as a public speaker.”
For those who find it incongruous that an introvert can be comfortable with public speaking, she adds: “We’re all acquiring new skills all the time, and you layer those new skills on top of your personality. It might end up looking like a different picture, but the underlying person is still the same.” To us, this is a great summary of personal development – we are all capable of learning new skills, and assimilating them in ways that fit who we truly are. It’s about understanding, and improving, ourselves. And, in the process we learn gain even more self-insight.
Even if you’re not inclined to be the speech-maker, I would look for ways to put yourself more forward and give a short talk or two… There is something weird about public speaking where it has such a disproportionate bang for the buck in terms of your career visibility. There’s just something about being the person at the front of the room that will cause everybody to start thinking of you with way more authority than they ever did before. It’s actually a lot easier to navigate a conference if you’ve been a speaker because now suddenly you’ve got something to talk to everyone about, and everyone knows who you are, and they know a thing that you have in common having listened to you.”
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