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Achieving a Balance Between Extroversion and Introversion

I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or team-work…for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.
–Albert Einstein, quoted in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

A new book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking has rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list. The author, Susan Cain, is a former Wall Street corporate lawyer. I got an early taste of Susan’s ideas by watching her TED talks presentation here. I’ve often thought there should be a sort of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for legal practice that guides lawyers into career paths in the law according to their personality type. Perhaps corporate law, real estate law, and litigation for extroverts and tax law, intellectual property law, and estates law for introverts.

Cain defines an introvert as someone who recharges his or her energy by being alone rather than by being with others.

One theme of the book is that Western society is biased toward extroverts. In the 1800s, the U.S. had a culture of character that emphasized honorable private behaviour. This began to change slowly when Dale Carnegie and others introduced the culture of personality, one that emphasizes the impression that you make on other people. Self-help groups such as Toastmasters have reinforced this cultural change process. Meanwhile, other parts of the world such as Asia remain dominated by a culture of introversion.

Cain visits extroverts in their natural habitat in three places: Harvard Business School, a Tony Robbins seminar, and the 22,000-member Saddleback church in California. At Harvard, she observes that those who speak up get heard, regardless of the quality of their ideas. Confidence often trumps substance. At the Tony Robbins seminar, attendees are encouraged to remake themselves as extroverts. At Saddleback Church, she finds that non-expressive, introverted worshippers feel alienated.

Cain also attends an annual gathering of highly sensitive people at Walker Creek Ranch in California, which she enjoys at first, but then the constant deep and meaningful conversations make her yearn for balance.

She criticizes what she calls “the New Groupthink”, which “elevates teamwork above all else” and encourages collaboration as a means to creativity. This way of thinking now permeates even the school environment. In fact, research has shown that creativity is a solitary pursuit. Brainstorming works less well than pooling together ideas that have been generated individually. Many expert performers engage in “deliberate practice”, which requires deep concentration on areas that are just out of your reach and is best undertaken alone. Open-plan offices are stressful and have negative effects on productivity and memory.

Introverts have the advantage of being not as highly reward-sensitive as extroverts and thus less inclined to overconfidence. They are what Cain calls “buzz-killers”. She argues that the Great Financial Crisis (“GFC”), as it is known here in Australia, happened in part because cautious introverts gradually were pushed out of decision-making roles in the financial system over a 20-year period.

It appears that most lawyers are, in fact, introverts in an extroverted world. Introverted lawyers have several options to cope in situations that require them to be gregarious. They can adopt the persona of an extrovert as needed and then recover in their downtime. “Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.” Introverts who are able to read social cues and modify their behaviour accordingly are particularly good at posing as extroverts.

Or they can use their natural skills in fields that are usually dominated by extroverts. Cain describes one of her corporate law negotiations where she managed to turn a battle of egos into a search for solutions and subsequently was given job offers by several parties in attendance. She also tells the story of an introverted knife salesman who broke sales records because he asked questions of his prospects rather than trying to persuade them to buy knives. He said, “They buy because they feel understood.”

It takes both extroverts and introverts to make the world go round and to balance each other out. However, perhaps, as this book hints, the pre-GFC era represented the high water mark for extroverts in Western society and the pendulum is beginning to swing back in favour of introverts.

Comments

  1. Melanie Bueckert

    As an introvert myself, I have definitely considered posting this on my office door, or hanging it in a place of prominence in my office.

    In all seriousness, though, there is an obvious need for introverts and extroverts required to work together for a common purpose to take the time to understand the key differences between their personality types, so they can better relate to one another and work together more effectively. This is not something that is taught in law school – but hopefully it’s a life lesson people have figured out by the time they enter law school, or at least by the time they leave.

    I’m not sure I agree with Darryl that lawyers’ practice areas ought to be influenced by their personality types; rather, I would suggest that their choice of practice setting should be considered in light of their introversion or extroversion (as the case may be). Speaking from an introvert’s point of view, it seems to me that private practice partnerships are geared towards extroverts, who are fuelled by interactions with people (whether clients or their law firm colleagues). On the other hand, I think government practice (featuring more limited client contact) has an allure for introverts. I would also suggest that legal research and law librarianship are areas where introverts shine. But this may also explain why the legal research practice area doesn’t have the prominence some may wish it had within the legal profession.