This makes my top 10 list. Here’s why.
With her book, Susan Cain gave me a gift as lasting and substantial as any literary work I’ve read. Every now and then you read something that reaches you, touches you deeply in ways you could not imagine. Quiet does that for me. Cain has transformed my thinking as well as my attitude and interactions with others.
I am an introvert. My husband says hermit is a better description and the irony is that he’s an introvert too. He bought this book and dropped it in front of me without saying a word.
How’s that for quiet action?
As proof of my own bias from societal influences, I bristled at the title. But now I know better. Our culture perceives introverts in a negative vein and like the proverbial half-empty glass, an introvert is viewed as anti-social and taciturn. The very moniker of introvert is offered up as some kind of explanation for wayward behavior.
This book did wonders for me. Cain explained that introversion does not mean shyness and it’s the first time I understood the term, because the stereotype of an introvert as reticent, awkward, and withdrawn never made sense. As a lawyer and graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, Cain wrote this treatise and it appeals to my analytical side. She constructs a powerful argument using research from psychology and neuroscience and along the way, she shares poignant, funny, and thoughtful stories.
I’ll share my key take-aways.
- Introversion is about stimulation. Introverts prefer environments that are not overly stimulating and extroverts prefer activities and social interaction. There are misconceptions about shyness, sensitivity, awkwardness but Cain debunks these. Introverts often thrive on solitude, preferring reflection, contemplation, and a rich interior life. “Solitude for some people is the air that they breathe.”
- One third of us are introverts, maybe more.
- There is no correlation between the best talker and the best ideas.
- The myth of charismatic leadership. Agrarian society gave way to industrialization and business, where personality, charm, and outwardly social behaviors were exalted. The charisma of the salesman and the business leader replaced the humility and virtue associated with the culture of character. Abraham Lincoln was the embodiment of virtue. Tony Robbins whose “zeal to sell and be adulated by thousands of people at once is not seen as narcissism or hucksterism, but leadership of the highest order.” Welcome to the Culture of Personality. (p. 42)
- Collaboration can kill creativity. Cain argues that the New Groupthink elevates teamwork above all else, insisting “creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place.” It has many powerful supporters, educational and corporate are just two. She uses convincing examples and explains that 40 years of research has shown that “performance gets worse as the group size increases.” (p. 88)
- East and west. “In the west we subscribe to the Extrovert Ideal, while in much of Asia silence is golden.” Buddhist monks are contemplative and meditate regularly. Cain wrote about their inner peace and “off the charts happiness levels, as measured in brain scans.” (p. 190)
The volume of examples and ingrained institutional/societal bias against introversion is staggering.
- 1950 White House Conference on Children and Youth slogan – A healthy personality for every child
- The Organization of Man by William Whyte, 1956 bestseller – “Save for a few odd parents, most are grateful that the schools work so hard to offset tendencies to introversion and other suburban abnormalities.”
- Harvard Business School – One student called the school the “Spiritual Capital of Extroversion. “ Another said, “This school is predicated on extroversion; your grades and social status depend on it.” ( p.44)
So what does this mean for introverts? Good news. Cain’s “Quiet Revolution” is growing and I’ve observed that personally in my local schools. [See reference in this Writing Primer] Perhaps people will respect introverts when they understand them better. Collaboration has value, but many people do their best work alone.
If you’re not sure which camp you fall into, take this short quiz on Cain’s website [quiz link]; it’s deceptively simple and revealing.
I give this book my highest recommendation. If you’re an introvert, get the book. If you’re an extrovert, watch the TED talk [TED video link]. It might change you.
In my case, it did.
I don’t feel guilty when I decline social invitations. I love, need, thrive on solitude because it’s when I do my best thinking; I relish meaningful conversation with friends; I love a life of contemplation and reflection.
As Cain predicted, I have a newfound sense of entitlement to be myself.
Two quotes from the book
Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their head. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to best be able to design revolutionary products if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.” Stephen Wozniak (p.74)
When you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” then make sure to answer, that there’s another word for such people: thinkers. (p. 7)