Quiet by Susan Cain, was recommended to me by a friend. It’s been around a while, it was first published in 2012. The book is ground breaking in that it attempts to explain the world from an introvert’s point of view, in an accessible manner. That, and more importantly, Cain explores the notion of introversion and extroversion, and the cultural phenomenon in the west which privileges extroversion.
We live in times where the social norms and expectations are as strong as ever. A quick gander on any social media platform provides a raft of evidence to support that. And in our times extroversion as a personality trait is generally seen as the better, the preferred trait.
So much so, Cain points out, that office spaces are generally open plan, problem solving and ideas generation take place in brainstorms and focus groups. She shows how in the work place there’s little opportunity for quiet reflection, in the school room even less.
Cain is an introvert herself. But this book is much more than an anecdotal account of life as an introvert. This is a well researched exploration of what it means to be introverted.
Cain shows her reader how the extrovert ideal came to prominence, the biology of personality and temperament, including an interesting chapter on how Warren Buffett, an introvert, used those attributes to avoid getting caught in the financial hype that lead to the Global Financial Crisis. He was one of the few to prosper through that period.
In a fascinating chapter titled When Collaboration kills Creativity she discusses the importance of being able to think deeply, of day-dreaming, and significantly for me the research into the effectiveness of brainstorming. From the earliest stages of my worklife, brainstorms were presented as the best way to come up with new and innovative ideas. The idea is that in a non-judgemental environment participants will be able to generate solutions that wouldn’t otherwise have been identified. The research shows the opposite is the case. Research again and again concludes that more ideas and more innovative ideas are generated by people working and thinking on their own. Nevertheless, brainstorming is a strategy that continues to be widely used.
She suggests this is because “… brainstorming makes people feel attached. A worthy goal, so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principle benefit.” (89)
To me there were several weak points in the book:
1). When discussing parenting she emphasises the parenting strategies of the mother. In these time of co-parenting, it seems to me the fit between both parents and their children is significant.
2) Cain’s cross-cultural discussion struck me as thinly researched. I wasn’t convinced that she was well-placed to pursue that line of thought.
3). I have a hunch that personality is likely relatively fluid, moulded by life experience.
Nevertheless, all that said the final section of the book is particularly useful. Here she outlines coping skills for the introvert in a noisy world. She presents strategies for parents of introverted children, concluding with a general treatise which emphasises the importance of self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
“Love is essential; gregariousness optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest. Work with colleagues you like and respect. Scan new acquaintances who might fall in to the former categories or whose company you enjoy for its own sake. And don’t worry about socialising with everyone else. Relationships make everyone happier introverts included, but think quality over quantity.
The secret of life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others a lamplit desk. ” (P264)
A month after finishing Quiet Guardian reviewer John Ronson couldn’t get it out of his head. Although, and I think he may well be correct, he argues that the ambivert, a person sitting in the middle of the two traits, is likely more common than Cain discusses. Read his review here.
Watch Susan Cain’s TedTalk: The Power of Introverts (BTW, when I watched it, this Ted Talk had had well over 23,000,000 views. That’s quite something.)
And here is her Q&A a year after her TED Talk and, in case you’re wondering, despite a year in the media spotlight she was not feeling in any more extroverted.
Opening Sentences: Montgomery, Alabama. December 1, 1955. Early evening. A public bus pulls to a stop and a sensibly dressed woman in her fifties gets on.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2013) Susan Cain. Penguin Books
Categories: On Books