Quiet: Recognizing introversion at Princeton
Have you ever felt guilty when, after several hours at a party, you wished you were spending the time watching a movie or reading a book? Do you feel compelled to fill in the gaps in your conversations with small talk, even if you are perfectly happy with a bit of silence? Do you feel like you do your best work alone, but are somewhat ashamed to admit it? If so, then you are likely a typical Princetonian introvert. While exceptionally thoughtful and creative in solitude, you feel a dire need to conform to the patterns of extroverted peers. And while you enjoy company, your preference for quiet and for loyalty to a few close friends feels like a liability that, if not dealt with decisively, will hold you back from being the successful person you want to be.
According to recent psychological research from Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, about one out of three people are introverts, defined as people who primarily focus energy on the inner world of thoughts and feelings. Their counterparts, the charming, outgoing extroverts, focus their energy on the outside world. Extroverts often have a gift for communication, for navigating unfamiliar situations and for motivating others to action. The merits of being an introvert are less well-known, but equally powerful. Introverts tend to be patient, thorough and able to dissect complex problems, including human dilemmas.
In an ideal world, everyone can be a great friend and an inspiring leader by playing to his strengths; no one should feel the need to ‘be extroverted’.
Yet at Princeton, what we usually see is that bold and talkative people dominate the center of attention, are most successful in having their ideas heard and are most likely to be recognized as leaders. In this environment, it’s easy to undervalue, misunderstand and even malign the qualities of the introvert. How often have we made the assumption that our quiet friend doesn’t talk because he lacks confidence, has little to say or just doesn’t like people very much?
Changing such a mistaken stereotype can be as simple as recognizing and appreciating differences. We often forget that great leaders need not always command the center of attention. They can listen and ask questions. They can think before they act. And they can learn from people who are different.
We introverts have many areas where we are naturally weak. Most of us feel quite uncomfortable when thrown into a room full of strangers. It’s sometimes difficult for us to start or keep up a conversation with you if we’ve only met a couple of times. We’re not good at giving orders or handling direct confrontation. Sometimes, we even hesitate to ask for help when we need it. There are countless domains where these skills are as vital to success as academic ability; yet sadly, the wealth of academic support available at Princeton contrasts with the dearth of resources that help introverted students adapt to a demanding work or social life. What’s worse, often we don’t even realize there is a need for such introvert-targeted resources.
Take just one example: freshman orientation. OA, frosh week and ’zee group study breaks are among the best opportunities for new students to meet one another. Yet these golden opportunities often cater to the needs of extroverts for experiencing lots of excitement and meeting many people at once. Though well intentioned, we often overlook the introverts’ need for quieter, relaxed settings, and forget their tendency to withdraw from overstimulation, especially in unfamiliar social environments. In our academics and career planning, it is even more crucial to be sensitive to these personality differences.
Of the perhaps 500 quiet-loving people in my class, some have indeed adapted to expectations and learned to be as outgoing as their extroverted peers. Some have come to embrace the personality and gifts they were born with. Still others, I feel, are struggling with feelings of guilt and inadequacy — for having few friends, for preferring time alone, for shying away from parties or conversations where they would be judged according to standards which are not their own — ashamed of a natural part of their personality, because we have done so little to validate who they are.
Remember that introverts are people for whom quiet is natural. Remember that the works of individuals like Einstein, John Nash, Gandhi, Warren Buffet and J.K. Rowling were the product of introverts; of men and women who were intensely passionate about their projects, who preferred one-on-one chats over wide social gatherings and who advanced their causes through conscience and empathy for all humans.
Let us strive therefore to actively recognize each other for who we are and the gifts we possess. Let the University be the leader in empowering all students, both introverted and extroverted, to earn a cherished place in the world and in our hearts.
Think about the statistics: One out of every three people we know are introverts. What does that tell us?
Cosmo Zheng is an ORFE major from Newtown, Conn. He can be reached at email@example.com.