Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking reads like a conspiracy theory and self-help book in one. She laments the compromises of an extrovert-laden society, the perils of extrovert leadership, and the dilution of education from knowledge to extrovert personality training.
Cain pulls from the stories of famous and successful introverts as she reinforces this idea that group learning and collaboration don't lead to productivity or innovation. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and the man who designed and built the prototype for the first personal computer gives this advice in his memoir:
"I don't believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee... Work alone. You're going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you're working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team."
Even to a hardcore introvert like myself, Wozniak's words sound extreme. I can't deny the synergy of a well-constructed committee. But I'll note that the most effective committees are led by introverts, gathering brilliant minds (not vocal heads), and then calling out and allowing synergy to occur.
Cain recognizes the value of shared brainpower in the creation of Linux, Wikipedia, and MoveOn.org, all online collaborations that form an empire of knowledge, vastly greater than the sum of their parts. Yet she admonishes the responses of educators rushing to group learning and businesses forcing open office plans, underscoring that these forced collaborations remove the common denominators of successful group work: asynchronous, anonymous sharing of ideas, among individuals with the ability to self-monitor and improve independently.
For anyone who's ever been stuck in an extrovert-controlled work environment, it's all you can do to stand back and watch the train wreck. I wonder how many Fortune 500 companies have come to financial ruin, with the lynchpin to their solvency outlined on a legal pad in some introvert's desk drawer.
Malaysia's botched search for Flight 370 reeks of ego-laden bureaucrats more focused on self-preservation than answers. There was secrecy, misinformation, international experts tiptoeing on hold to preserve diplomatic relations. It's easy to blame Thailand for waiting a week before mentioning their satellite footprint of the aircraft on the night of its disappearance, excusing their silence with the somewhat casual dismissal that "no one had asked."
But why had no one asked? Malaysian authorities were ceremoniously directing international search efforts, projecting a feigned air of competence, and holding so tightly to "confidential" information that who would think they didn't already have the satellite record?
And then, once this new information is made available, the flawed process is not re-examined or even acknowledged, we simply blame the introvert and move on.
"Why didn't you speak up?!!" the leader-extroverts demand, once again enjoying their martyred wax poetic on a sinking ship -- wringing hands, dramatic pacing -- over any real search for answers.
Cain even looks at how an emphasis on extrovert qualities has shaped spirituality in America, visiting a megachurch in California to quantify the experience: "Everything in the service involved communication. Greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing. There was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplations."
She recognizes there's a place for these communication-oriented spiritual exercises. Even so, in evangelical America, where extroversion is often seen as an indicator of virtue, faith is perceived as less genuine if not accompanied by a gregarious smile, proselytizing strangers, and a loud singing voice. As Cain concludes, "many evangelicals have come to associate godliness with sociability," which could cause introverts among them to question the authenticity of their own faith.
Research repeatedly indicates more is rarely better in terms of in-person group collaboration. The larger a group, the fewer and less creative its ideas. Moreover, repeated studies show an increase in performance when people work alone, especially when creativity or efficiency are of the essence.
Interestingly, the one exception to this research is online brainstorming, which values inherent introvert skillsets. In this case, the larger the group, the better it performs. (As an aside, it's never failed that when I do a Facebook call-out for advice, I get more diverse, experienced, informed responses than any amount of personal online research could procure.)
In a disconcerting analysis on the U.S. education system, Cain notes that it's primary goal has shifted from imparting knowledge to crowd control. And as a result, pod seating, group projects and presentations prevail, components more accessible to extroverts than introverts. This approach reinforces fallacies of groupthink, misperceptions that the person who speaks the best is the most intelligent, and individual learning is sacrificed under the guise of "preparation for the real world," where collaborative workforces are the way of the future.
But what if cutting-edge businesses are realizing group work isn't the way of the future? Many progressive companies are shifting from conference room brainstorming sessions to the more ubiquitous approach of online chat forums. They're doing away with open office plans, opting instead for versatile workspace that transitions from meeting rooms to enclosed cubicles, or rotating private offices accessible to anyone who needs a couple hours of uninterrupted work.
For me, the greatest takeaway in Quiet is Susan Cain's refusal to oversimplify this concept, forcing everyone into a camp of either introvert or extrovert. She creates a fluid spectrum along which people can adjust, intentionally or unintentionally, through a lifetime. She also dedicates an entire chapter to the valuable skill of "faking it," stories of observant introverts who have so learned the mannerisms of extroverts that they seamlessly interact with both worlds (and then hide in bathroom stalls in conference halls to recover).
About halfway through the book, Cain digresses into what reads as a series of research publications, citing examples of introversion and extroversion in animals, the roots of nature and nurture in child development, the role of ethnicity, politics, economics, and social activism. Perhaps it's all relevant to the issue; I just found it less interesting than her intense, somewhat combative pro-introvert rally through the first several chapters.
Nonetheless, she recovers with a couple chapters on how our career and relationship ambitions can complement our temperaments, and offers great advice for raising kids with tendencies toward introversion (notably: don't force extrovert behaviors). Overall, she writes with new perspective on a concept personal to everyone, and I enjoyed many "A-ha!" moments for myself, my work, and my relationships.
If you have an introvert in your life, share this book with them! ($2.99 on Amazon Kindle)