Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) has been on my to-read list – and on my bookshelf – for some time now. My book club chose it for our April meeting, and once I picked it up, I read it quickly; it’s written in a clear, accessible style and makes a great deal of sense. Cain draws on a large body of research and writes about her own experience as well as that of others, and this mix of data and anecdotes makes for a perfect blend.

There are plenty of differences between introverts and extroverts, but one of the main ones has to do with stimulation. How much do you need to stay in your “sweet spot” where you’re neither bored nor overwhelmed? Introverts and extroverts feel comfortable – and do their best learning and work – with different levels of stimulation (noise levels, new environments, crowds of people, etc.).

Cover image of Quiet by Susan CainCain gives a bit of history about how, especially in America, we’ve shifted from a “Culture of Character” (in which “the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable”) to a “Culture of Personality” (a focus on how one is perceived by others). The “Extrovert Ideal” is now pervasive in the workplace as well as in schools, despite the fact that 1/3 to 1/2 the population is introverted and that there are actually disadvantages* to setting up schools and offices to suit only extroverts.

Can introverts fake being extroverts in order to fit in (and get ahead)? Sure, to some extent; but, Cain writes, “We might call this the “rubber band theory” of personality….We can stretch our personalities…only up to a point.” While an open floor plan office might provide just the right level of stimulation for extroverts, it’s likely to exhaust and stress an introvert unless s/he has the opportunity to recharge by working in quiet and solitude some of the time. (Open-plan offices have also been found to “reduce productivity and impair memory” – probably not what employers are after.) Likewise, working in large groups or teams in a classroom might be great for some kids, but others will do their best work independently. (Indeed, Stephen Wozniak has said, “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee.”)

*I found the following two pieces of information surprising and interesting:

(1) “…excessive stimulation seems to impede learning….the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking…turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.”

(2) “…group brainstorming doesn’t actually work….Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases. [Online collaboration is an exception.] We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own.”

A more balanced approach in schools and workplaces would benefit everyone, not just the introverts. (Cain’s section on the Wall Street crash is one example.) But if you’re an introvert and your school or workplace is set up to honor the “Extrovert Ideal,” at the very least, Quiet affirms that there’s nothing wrong with you; you just don’t happen to fit “the prevailing model.” Try to carve out “restorative niches” wherever you can, and don’t feel guilty if you’d rather be home with a book than out at a bar.




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