HOW Keynote Speaker Susan Cain: A Case for Introverts

We mythologize the solo creative genius, at home at his drawing board making art that transforms the world.

Creativity thrives in introversion, and vice versa—yet we think of introverts as social oddballs, a little loopy, up in the clouds of their own thoughts.

Here at HOW, we’ve published countless articles trumpeting the power of collaboration in the creative workplace. And while we’re not suggesting that everyone retreat to their corners to work alone, forever, we have embraced the idea championed by Susan Cain: Great work happens when introverts and extroverts embrace each other’s tendencies, when collaborative processes preserve space for solo thinking and ideation.

Cain, newly announced as the opening keynote presenter at HOW Design Live in Boston, made the case for introversion in her widely watched 2012 TED Talk. Sparked by the thunderous response to her talk about the power of quiet, Cain went on to launch The Quiet Revolution. The site is the hub of a network of Quiet Ambassadors—trained facilitators within businesses large and small who work to mentor quiet leaders, retool processes and build cultures that make sure introverts’ voices aren’t lost.

In her TED Talk, Cain provides a helpful context for introversion: “It’s different from being shy. Shyness is about fear of social judgement; introversion is more about how you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation,” she says. “Extroverts crave lots of stimulation; introverts feel most alive, most switched on, most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.”

Among the 10-point Quiet Revolution Manifesto, several items stand out as particularly relevant to creative professionals:

2) Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

5) Staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

6) One genuine relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

A longstanding business culture that rewards people who speak their minds and have charismatic personalities has led to a glut of extroverted managers and corporate execs; Cain hopes to clear the decks for those whose quieter approach means they may otherwise be overlooked for leadership roles. Introverted managers, for example, are more likely to give their teams free rein to develop and pursue ideas instead of imposing their own. 

Introverts are essential for creative teams. “People who are good at exchanging and advancing ideas also have a strong introverted streak,” Cain says. That’s because solitude—sitting alone with one’s ideas, going off into the wilderness to ponder great questions—is essential to the creative process. Solitary work is an antidote to group-think. Ignoring the introverts around us means we’re missing some important voices with valid thoughts and innovative concepts.

While offices are designed for extroverts—with open floorplans and ping-pong tables—the ideal workplace enables both in-their-head types and life-of-the-party types to thrive. “Culturally, we need a yin and yang between these two types,” Cain says in her TED Talk. “The key to maximize our talents is to put us in the zone of stimulation that’s best for us.”

It’s rare to find someone who’s a total introvert or extreme extrovert; most of us self-identify somewhere along the continuum. To find out where you land, take Quiet Revolution’s self-assessment quiz.

If you’re an introvert, you’ll find inspiration and reassurance, and if you’re an extrovert, you’ll find understanding and balance in Cain’s HOW Design Live keynote: Quiet: How to Harness the Strengths of Introverts to Change How We Work, Lead, and Innovate.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear the never-before-assembled lineup of keynote presenters at this year’s HOW Design Live—speakers including Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, Dorie Clark, Nick Law, Sagi Haviv and other bold thinkers. Plan your HOW Design Live experience and register today