WHEN I WAS four years old, I ran away from home. I had to get away from my mother, who was so vivacious and talkative that I felt overstimulated just by being around her.
My destination was the house next door, where an elderly couple who always doted on me lived. Not only was their house much quieter than ours, but also they had a plywood scale model of a building complex under their bed. It was beautifully crafted, although unpainted, and I never tired of them bringing it out for me to see. The man was an architect and for years that was what I wanted to be too.
I had some serious parent exchanging to do so I planned well for the journey. I found a large brown bag from Von’s grocery store and threw in all the essentials: a pair of underwear, a t-shirt, two bright copper pennies that I had been saving for an emergency such as this, a stuffed dog named Woofie, and some canned goods (although I could not read the labels and had no clue how to get them open—that was what new parents were for).
Thus prepared, I left the house. Dad was out and Mom was cleaning, so my daring escape was fairly easy. The bag, however, was too heavy to carry, so I dragged it across the rough pavement of the driveway. By the time I got to the curb, a hole had appeared; halfway to the neighbors’ house, the bottom fell out and everything spilled into the street. Devastated that I was never going to make it, I sat down on the curb to figure out what to do. I can still see the sun glinting off the golden pennies, their image becoming blurred and then washed away by the tears in my eyes.
I sat there and cried, feeling discouraged—unloved and unappreciated by both sets of parents. I was sliding deeply into the despair of having no one to love me when I felt my mother’s arms picking me up and holding me to her breast, soothing me and telling me she loved me more than anything in the world. Ever alert, she had noticed my absence within sixty seconds and, by her warmth and sweet words, made all the hurt and fear go away.
She carried me back into the house and sat with me for the longest time, stroking my back and holding my head against her chest, making me feel like the most special and wanted little boy who ever lived. Dad soon came home carrying my precious belongings from the street and joined us where we sat. He put his arms around me and said beautiful things too.
Never again did I question their love, nor did I entertain the thought of leaving them for a quiet space and pieces of plywood.
Even today, I look back on that moment as the time when I learned what love was, and commitment, and the willingness to drop everything to make a difference in the life of a child.
DURING MY ESCAPE, I discovered that I am an introvert. I did not know the word then, but I did know that I did not like being around other people all that much. The noise was too emotionally stimulating. I much preferred to live inside my head, looking at books and thinking.
As I grew older, this personality trait became a problem; society had designed the world for extroverts. As Susan Cain points out in her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “Many of the most important institutions of contemporary life are designed for those who enjoy group projects and high levels of stimulation.” In contrast, most introverts prefer less external stimulation and more silence.
In reading her book, I saw other traits that described me with uncanny accuracy:
· listening more than talking, and thinking before speaking
· expressing myself better in writing than in discussions
· detesting conflict
· hating small talk, preferring deep conversations
· concentrating on one thing at a time, working slowly, and being able to focus deeply on the task at hand
Introvert children are encouraged from a young age to develop strategies to make themselves appear more extroverted. Relatives admonish shyness. Strangers bend over backwards to coax a smile or a giggle. Educators urge quiet children to be more expressive.
My first recollection of developing and implementing a plan to overcome what I perceived to be a weakness and appear more extroverted, happened one Friday afternoon in 1953 when I was ten. My teacher told our Los Angeles public school class that each of us would have to pick a current event and report on it—without notes, standing in front of the room—that coming Monday.
I was terrified. But that afternoon, I calmed down enough to come up with an approach. I looked in the newspaper and found an article about our new president that interested me. I cut it out along with Eisenhower’s picture and underlined the main points. I then walked into our garage and—amid the scent of engine oil—rehearsed the points out loud twenty-five times. Over the three chilly fall evenings that remained before Monday, I memorized my script.
The results astounded me. On Monday, I stood at the front of my classroom panning my vision from the floor to the walls to the ceiling—anywhere but the faces of my audience. My memorization diluted my fear, engaged the class, and at the end, put a beaming smile on my teacher’s face. The strategy shifted my focus from the external world, where I was nervous, to the internal one, where I was confident.
In junior high, a similar process helped me to do particularly well in Spanish. Grammar and pronunciation had rules, and sometimes, even the exceptions had rules. For two years, I listed and rehearsed the rules, and soon I found myself speaking the language. My teachers—Ms. Romero and Mr. Mendoza—shook their heads at what this gringo kid was able to do.
Skinny and bespectacled, I became a process fanatic. In high school, I created a process for every class – to learn the valences of chemical atoms, reconstruct the history of the United States, and solve quadratic equations. I broke each task down, put it back together as a series of steps, and then completed those steps in order.
This allowed me to interact with the world and get predictable outcomes without having to focus too much on people. I only had to complete the steps I had identified, and results would appear at the end. People came to me with praise, which was not as emotionally disruptive as having to interact with them to get outcomes.
All this compensated nicely for something that, at age four, I had decided was wrong with me—that as an introvert I did not have what it took to “win” in life on my own. Without a process in hand, I had had to improvise, failing often, and that was scary. But with a procedure of some kind I could get results, and that made me feel safe.
The more processes I created, the more my grades soared. I became co-valedictorian of my high school class, went on to graduate magna cum laude from Stanford, and was accepted to the Harvard Business School.
I concluded that using processes was a terrific way for me to “win.” Never mind that I had almost no friends, was socially inept, and got nowhere with girls. I had my lists of steps and believed those were all I needed to navigate the minefields of a world that constantly pushed me to be more extroverted. I was convinced that my lists would bring me security and ultimate success in life.
MY THEORY IS that as a quiet child you, too, decided early on to cover up what you believed was wrong with you—that you were not outgoing enough to succeed in an extroverted world. You likely created a “winning recipe” of some kind that allowed you to feel secure by projecting more sociability than you really felt, and thereby acting in a more acceptable way than if you allowed your authentic self to come out.
Thousands of winning recipes exist for introverts. We embrace things like: be diplomatic, be thorough, be likable, be relentless, be dependable. The list is as extensive and varied as the entire introvert population. That Friday afternoon in 1953, I discovered my own winning recipe: be methodical.
I believe that all people, not just introverts, have a winning recipe of some sort. Extroverts tend to use theirs to compensate for any defect detected in childhood that they believed would prevent them from “winning” in life. Introverts, on the other hand, tend to compensate for something much narrower: simply not being outgoing enough to succeed in the world.
An introvert’s winning recipe is ultimately about safety. It parades as a safe way for you to be more successful in the world. That is a large part of the hold it has over you. In situations where the recipe is inappropriate, or otherwise does not work, you will likely feel defenseless. When you are in that state, despite how often the recipe has failed you in the past, it will still make a loud claim to be your safest strategy for success. You’ll see how this has played out many times throughout my life in the pages of this book.
A recipe may work for a while when used in a narrow domain, as mine did in school. But when used as a general guide to living, a recipe eventually causes self-harm. It creates distant relationships, generates drama from unintended social missteps, and prevents you from feeling fulfilled. It is an attempt to cover up who you really are, so it ultimately does not make you feel any safer. Because of this, the recipe itself is a major barrier to attaining a feeling of safety in your life.
If you are a dissatisfied introvert, your recipe may be the main reason why. In order to recognize this, it helps to expose a contradiction:
· You built the recipe to help you create a safe path through a scary, extroverted world.
· Yet, the recipe is a tool for hiding your introversion so you can appear to be something you are not.
· As a result, engaging in the recipe is unnatural, uncomfortable, and locks in the very anxiety you have designed it to overcome, leaving you feeling dissatisfied. To become a satisfied introvert, you must first feel secure as an introvert.
THE PURPOSE OF this book is to help you find safety as an introvert in an extroverted world and gain more satisfaction in life. The best way to do that is to detach from your recipe as much as possible.
The recipe is a coping mechanism that works in some situations, but you can't stay dependent on it. To feel truly safe, you must move beyond your winning recipe and take off on your own.
By accompanying me on my journey, I hope you will be able to see that engaging in the false security of your winning recipe can distort your life—especially if you apply it too closely for too long—and that it is never too late to put yourself back on track by detaching from the recipe.
That is a challenge, because every recipe has three striking features:
· It is static. It never changes, always operating with whatever key element you designed into it as a child.
· It is relentless. It brings early successes, becomes entrenched, and despite repeated failures later in life, it keeps insisting that it is your best bet for dealing with any situation.
· It is indelible. It is so deeply rooted that you can never fully get rid of it. That does not automatically make you its victim; you always have the choice to not listen to it. But the overwhelming temptation is to do as I did: listen so closely that you end up hurting yourself.
Fortunately, my story shows that the recipe is also escapable. Escape starts with exposure, since most introverts are asleep to the nature and toxicity of their recipes. For coaching on how to identify your own recipe, please visit www.thesatisfiedintrovert.com.
Once your recipe is out in the open, you will become more aware of the kinds of safety-related problems which it fails to solve. In this story, I illustrate four categories of events—solitude, fear, danger, and vulnerability—in which the recipe consistently kept safety out of my reach.
Seeing my recipe in action may help you to avoid blindly applying your own. In the end, yours will still be there. But the more you recognize it and detach from it, the more you will be able to render it harmless.
MY WORKING DEFINITION of an introvert is someone who prefers settings that are calm and have minimal external stimulation.
This preference is probably caused by a genetic disposition to be highly sensitive to dopamine—a neurotransmitter in the brain. We introverts get satisfaction from very small amounts of it. In large groups and other loud situations, our brains generate greater amounts of it than we can handle, and we feel overwhelmed. We then withdraw into ourselves, seeking quiet.
Extroverts, in contrast, prefer just the opposite: stimulating environments that usually involve being physically present with lots of other people. This appears to result from a genetic inclination to be relatively insensitive to dopamine. To feel satisfied, extroverts need a lot of it. And to produce it, they tend to seek the company of others in loud environments.
Because both introversion and extroversion occur along a spectrum, there is no clear point at which one tendency switches to the other. And since both tendencies are genetic, they are hard-wired into us. The whole purpose of a winning recipe for introverts is to make us more outgoing. But eventually, it bumps up against our genetics, so it cannot deliver sustained results over a lifetime.
Introversion is a significant piece of several theories of personality that you may have heard of:
· Enneagram. Three of the nine Enneagram types (4, 5, 6) are most likely to be introverts, while two others have partial introvert tendencies (1, 9).
· Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Eight of the sixteen personality types involve introversion in some way.
· Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs). About 70% of HSPs are thought to be introverts.
WHEN I FIRST succeeded with my recipe at age ten, I chose to become dependent and even fixated on it. This brought triumphs that helped me avoid some of the pain of being an introvert, so I used the recipe to overcome every major challenge I faced—first in academics, then in love and war, and finally in business.
The cost of doing so was high. The recipe did not make me feel protected when I faced almost every one of the events I describe in this book. In fact, it often made things worse. My obsession with it impaired what had been a promising life until it was almost too late to turn things around. Only by accident did I discover the tools that finally defused the recipe and allowed me to feel secure in my authentic, introverted self.
The story spans sixty years, takes place in more than a dozen locations across Latin America, Asia, and the United States, and plays out in the extrovert-dominated, high-performance environments of Stanford and Harvard, the US Army, and the competitive world of American business.
This book chronicles one particular winning recipe: being methodical. But it is a case study in what can happen when any introvert’s recipe is carried too far. And it shows the extent to which the hunger for the safety promised by a recipe can warp a life. Only after I distanced myself from the passion to live by it, did I find the security, satisfaction, and peace I always wanted.
For introverts and those who love them, this story is both a warning and a ray of hope.
 Cain, New York (Random House, 2013), p6.
 Cain, p11.