Like many book bloggers, I am an Introvert. A top-notch one, in fact–there’s been time I’ve thought I’d make a good hermit. Although I perhaps like to talk too much… (which I admit, doesn’t sound particularly introverted, but let’s keep in mind it’s not that introverts don’t like talking, it’s the small talk, the pointless stuff, that we have trouble with–focusing way too much on a specific topic is much more in line with our inclinations). So I was intrigued when Susan Cain’s book on the topic came out, even if I didn’t rush to read it right away.
I’ve seen a lot of bloggers state things to the effect that they found affirmation in this book, that it let them believe that they could be who they truly are. Although I had a lot of “oh, that explains it!” moments while reading this, I never really felt that sort of affirmation–but then again, I have just enough of a “who cares” attitude that being an introvert in an extroverted world hasn’t much bothered me. Sure, there’ve been times I wished I was more outgoing–it certainly can make certain social situations much easier, but outside of my previous job, I’d never felt that I was out of place. (Regarding that previous job there seemed to have been too much emphasis on personality rather than competence–which, no, didn’t really work for them in the big picture.)
There were two things that surprised me about reading Quiet. First, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed reading this sort of thing. I’m not really sure, but I believe it could be classified as “popular psychology,” and AP psychology was one of my (many) favorite classes in high school. We read several selections from Forty Studies That Changed Psychology: Explorations into the History of Psychological Research as part of our required summer reading, selections I enjoyed so much I read several of the others. Second, I was surprised to find myself at times dismayed by some of the consequences of favoring extroversion, that is the “Extrovert Ideal.” I don’t just mean making introverts feel sidelined or out-of-step, but actual negative consequences:
- The cult of personality that developed in the U.S. in the first part of the 20th century appears to have led in part to high rates of use of anti-anxiety medications
- The extrovert ideal has led to developments in both classrooms and the workplace that favor teams and “team building”–while teamwork is not necessarily bad (and on big projects may be downright necessary–see: all those work deadlines of late), it leads to “group think”–team brainstorming has been shown to be less creative than individual brainstorming.
- Extroverts are far more likely to take big risks. Although we’ve all heard the phrase “high risk, high reward,” risk-taking can go much too far: ignoring clear warnings in favor of going for the big win. At least one expert believes it was the extrovert ideal (which pushed introverts in finance to behave like extroverts) that led to the 2008 financial crash.
Then there’s this interesting exchange Cain had:
“We want to attract creative people,” the director of human resources at a major media company told me. When I asked what she meant by “creative,” she answered without missing a beat. “You have to be outgoing, fun, and jazzed up to work here.” (Chapter 3)
Yeah. That’s the definition of creative.
That isn’t to say that introversion = good; extroversion = bad. Not at all. Rather, each has their place, but we (in the U.S. at least, perhaps the Western culture in general) seem to be skewed out of balance at the moment. Cain provided an example of balance–and the need for both introversion and extroversion–in Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Parks, an introvert could sit on a bus and show up to civil rights events, but she wasn’t a speaker. The extroverted King could use Parks as an example to rally the crowds. Both were needed, in balance.
Some other, random thoughts:
- I hadn’t made the connection between extroversion and the contemporary-style worship service. Here I’d thought my discomfort was related to music preferences, or, in some instances, a sense of “falseness” to the whole thing. But as a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, it makes sense I don’t like this style of worship. (And I still don’t like any song, religious or secular, that primarily consists of the same few words over and over and over again.)
- I was appalled by the section on the Harvard School of Business. If they are truly teaching their students “Don’t think about the perfect answer. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in,” (Chapter 2) it is no wonder that we have so many lousy CEOs. Sure, aggression may win points in battle, but studies that shown that introverts make more effective leaders. Probably because they know how to listen!
- I was kind of surprised to learn that people think that those who talk more are more intelligent. Has no one ever heard “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”?
All in all a rather fascinating book, and probably a good choice for extroverts wishing to better understand introverts. In some ways, I almost feel it should be required reading–it certainly seems a greater acceptance of introversion could make life better for introverts and extroverts alike. As with so many things, a balance.
(If you are curious, Cain presented a TED talk in 2012.)