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Thought Leadership Friday, April 15, 2016

Self-awareness, not extraversion, is the key to a happy life

Learn how to be an extravert, advises the Sutton Trust in a recent report. If you are outgoing and jolly then doors will open for you. You will have better job prospects and a more successful life.

The Sutton Trust is recommending to the UK government that schools teach extraversion, because, according to research, being an extravert gets you places.

Extraverts earn more and seem to have a better chance in life than introverts. However to me the implication that if you’re naturally a quiet person, you’re also somehow a loser, a nerd, or a no-hoper, is wrong on so many levels.

"We found that highly extraverted people – those who were more confident, sociable or assertive – had a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job (over £40,000 per year) [...]" – The Sutton Trust report ‘A Winning Personality’.

What disappoints me is the possibility that quiet kids are seen as somehow 'less' before they’ve even so much as donned their first school uniform.

For a child to be told they’re too introverted is a heavy burden for them to carry. I should know - I’m what they call an ‘extreme’ introvert: one of those quiet types who are good with detail, want to dot every i and cross every t and won't rush quite so easily into the spotlight. People like me will never earn big bucks, according to this report. We live too much in our own heads.

 

The world needs introverts

But where would we be without Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates or JK Rowling, to name just a few (all mega-wealthy introverts, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed!)? Who would do the detailed jobs that some extraverts might run a mile from?

Okay, we might not tell the best jokes or be the life and soul of every office party, but we’re willing to do the nitty gritty jobs that extraverts find challenging. And someone with an outgoing personality might talk a good game at their interview, but that doesn't mean they'll always want to get their head down and crack on with the more solitary tasks.

The report says that traits like confidence, openness and resilience give extraverts the edge and that these are the things we should be learning in school, alongside more academic subjects. But we all possess these traits to some degree, wherever we sit on the introvert-extravert scale.

Introverts can be hugely confident and resilient, just in their own quiet way. Sure, openness may take a little more effort, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. Similarly, extraverts can be very quiet and detailed when required; they may just need to work a little harder at it. And let’s not forget the ambiverts who’ve learned very successfully to adapt to whatever situation life throws at them.

 

Are we giving quiet kids the wrong message?

After Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, a teacher in Iowa decided to carry out an experiment in her classroom to teach the kids about racism. She told the blue-eyed children that they were superior to their brown-eyed classmates, and she told the brown-eyed kids that they were less intelligent and poorly behaved.

The result? The blue-eyed children began to behave arrogantly and, after a short while, the brown-eyed children began to accept their lower position. This experiment proved that if we are told something often enough, especially in our formative years, then we’ll start to believe it to be true.

Looking at this kind of evidence, and my own experience of being told that my quietness was ‘wrong’, I believe it would be a mistake for schools to try to 'teach' extraversion. It could be so damaging to pupils’ self-esteem. Instead we should be teaching young people self-knowledge. If we know who we are at an early age we can begin to recognise the things we’re good at, and learn to put a bit more effort into the things we find difficult.

 

Developing self-awareness is key

In her book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’, Susan Cain tells a funny story about an academic friend of hers who, despite being highly introverted, eventually became a popular lecturer and a sought-after public speaker. She tells how he was able to develop the skill of public speaking even though it didn’t come easily to him - but because the effort left him exhausted, he would need to hide in a toilet cubicle afterwards to recover!

I recognise this from my own experience. Introverts do what are considered to be extraverted activities all the time, however we'll do them according to our own personal style, in a way that works for us.

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