The Power of Introverts

We learnt about the MBTI personality test in OB, one dimension of which assesses whether a person is more extroverted or introverted. These terms are now widely used in everyday speech, having been adapted into popular culture. However, some misconceptions exist with regards to these two terms, which I would like to clarify.

(1) People are either pure extroverts or pure introverts
If a person gets a result of ENTJ, he might be inclined to think that he is an extrovert, whereas if another got a result of ISFP, she may believe that she is an introvert. However, reality is rarely black and white. To quote Carl G. Jung, the psychiatrist who popularised the terms in the early 20th century, “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.”  Such a strong statement from the proponent himself lends weight to the fact that the terms “extrovert” and “introvert” are actually extreme ends of a scale and most people are actually different degrees of ambiverts, who exhibit both extroverted and introverted tendencies in a complex interaction between biology and situational factors

mno2(2) Extroversion refers to how outgoing a person is, whereas introversion is the same as shyness
Introversion and extroversion actually relate to the source of person’s energy; those with introverted tendencies tend to recharge by spending time alone, while those with extroverted tendencies tend to gain energy when being social with other people. Research has shown that such differences are actually wired in the brain. For extroverts, stimulation runs through a much shorter pathway where taste, touch, visual and auditory processing takes place. However for introverts, the stimulation tends to run through a longer pathway in areas associated with memory, planning and problem solving. Introverts’ tendency towards deep thought explains why they usually think carefully before speaking and tend to be more creative, while extroverts’ multi-sensory processing have made them known for their spontaneity and charm. The two orientations actually mirror the difference between right and left handedness, which also has a neurological basis.


Let us now move on to weightier subject matter. I chanced upon an excellent TED talk “The power of Introverts” by Susan Cain recently, inspiring the title of this post. Being a “self-confessed” introvert herself, she was able to bring across a few salient insights that I wish to share with all of you.

I think many of us would agree that our culture has a not-so-subtle bias towards extraversion, conditioned into children from an early age and reflected in the architecture of institutions. Classrooms and workplaces are mostly designed for extroverts, with clusters of desks and open plan offices where everyone is subject to the constant noise and gaze of each other. This is done even though research has reported that on average, introverts actually get better grades in school and move on to deliver better leadership outcomes at work! Given that a third to half of any human population tends towards introversion, that’s a pretty big group to discriminate against. So why does this cultural bias continue?

In fact, a major cultural shift occurred around the 20th century because of society’s transition from an agricultural economy to the world of big business. Instead of working alongside familiar people that they had known all their lives, many had to prove themselves to a crowd of strangers. It is under such circumstances that qualities like magnetism and charisma suddenly became hugely important. It has caused subversion from the original culture of character to a culture of personality. Such a change continues to have an indelible impact on the current generation.


Susan Cain advocates a better cultural balance, especially when it comes to creativity and productivity. After all, solitude is a crucial ingredient to creativity because it shields one from groupthink in the crucial initial stages of idea generation. A case in point would be Steve Wozniak, the inventor of the first Apple Computer. He admitted that he had invented it while sitting alone at his desk in Hewlett-Packard and would never have become an expert if he had not been too introverted to leave his house while growing up. Furthermore, examples of transformative leaders who were self-described introverts include Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi, helping to dispel the notion that great leaders must always be extroverts. In fact, introverted leaders are often superior managers because their hands-off approach helps subordinates’ ideas to surface instead of unwittingly pushing their own ideas through.

I do not advocate abolishing group work altogether – many complex problems in our world do require teamwork to solve- but I believe that what is needed is a greater awareness of the merits of introversion and more freedom for introverts to be themselves and contribute to society in their own unique way. (:
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Transcript of Susan Cain’s TED Talk –

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