Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I think it can be argued that this will be one of the most influential nonfiction books of this decade (it came out in 2012.) I say that not only as an introvert, but as one who has seen how confused and muddled introversion has been – not only among extroverts of the general public, but also among those who should have a firm grasp on the subject, namely psychologists and introverts, themselves.
Introversion is frequently confused with a number of different conditions and temperaments with which it may or may not occur in large overlap. The most common mix up is with social anxiety, which can occur in conjunction with introversion but can also occur in extroverts. While social anxiety may be more common among introverts, it’s important to note that – like any anxiety – it’s possible to reduce it through various approaches (but one will still be introverted if one was to begin with.) I believe Cain’s book (and the wave of books and talks that have come since) has done a great deal to reduce the confusion about what characteristics are in fact highly correlated with introversion and which ones are just lumped together in the public consciousness because they seem to involve being less adroit in social situations (i.e. everything from shyness to Asperger’s.)
There is a growing change in approaches to introversion, and I think it owes a lot to this book. The go-to advice for introverts of: “just behave more like an extrovert” is on the decline, and is increasingly being replaced with a clearer understanding of how introverts should manage their time and efforts to get the most out of life. [It should be noted that, if one is talking about pretending to be more extroverted for a short time frame and for a particular purpose, said advice is not so bad.] However, as advice for how to arrange and conduct one’s life day in and day out, it’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s not just a disaster for the introverts. If one is responsible for leading or managing a business, it’s a recipe for under-performing a firm’s potential. If you’re a teacher, it’s a recipe for turning smart kids off of school. And, if you’re a parent, it’s a recipe for handicapping your child. More and more, business leaders are beginning to realize that there are gains to be had from allowing employees to tailor their work schedule and mode of conducting business to their temperament. Educators are finding that a more balanced approach to lessons reaches more students with greater effectiveness.
The book is organized into eleven chapters. It begins with an introduction that not only sets up the topic but also tells the story of Rosa Parks – one of modern American history’s most well-known introverts. [The story of this civil rights leader is no doubt told in part to try to break the stereotype of the introvert as a milquetoast person lacking lead in his or her pencil.] Cain employs stories about renowned introverts from Albert Einstein to Mohandas Gandhi to Steve Wozniak to Brian Little. The latter might not be so renowned outside of academia, but he’s included because few who attend the lectures of this award-winning professor would suspect he’s an introvert.
Chapter one discusses this world made for extroverts that introverts find themselves living in. The second chapter rebuts the myth that leadership and extroversion are inextricably linked, discussing examples of introverts who excelled in leadership (of course, there are no shortage of examples of extremely charismatic and gregarious individuals who’ve once and truly run enterprises into the ground.) Chapter three discusses the breakthroughs that have often come about through solitude and a work environment that allowed individuals to focus on tasks for long periods at a time without interruption or distraction (instead of the standard work approach that involves a constant refrain of “collaboration” and which breaks up work days willy-nilly with meetings of dubious usefulness.)
Chapters four and five focus on two lenses through which researchers have investigated introversion. Together, the chapters ask whether temperament is destiny, and, if not, to what degree and how one can move beyond it. The first lens is “sensitivity.” In this case, the word sensitivity is not being used as it’s most commonly used these days – meaning becoming highly emotional about trivial events. Rather it’s about how aware one is of subtle stimulation, and – given there are limits to processing stimuli – how prone one is to becoming overstimulated (since one takes in more.) The second lens, which one might relate to the first, is “high- versus low-reactivity.” That is, chapter five focuses on a study that observed how responsive children were to stimulation and what influence that had on the children’s temperament. [Note: it should be pointed out that these factors aren’t considered synonymous with introversion, and there are some who bemoan the fact that they have become so with the popularity of Cain’s book.]
Chapter six explores a famous mixed couple (extrovert and introvert,) Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. While Eleanor was highly introverted, she is often considered one of the most influential first ladies of the twentieth century. (Which isn’t to comment on the controversial claim that toward the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, she was running the show because he was ill and lacked the energy to comply with the intense energy demands of the Oval Office.) The contrasting nature of this power couple yields interesting insights.
Chapter seven shows how an introvert’s more cautious approach to risk and reward often leads them to come out on top in turbulent times, while more reward chasing extroverts may get stuck in a cycle of buying high and panic selling low. The 2008 economic downturn was clearly fresh in mind when Cain was preparing this book, and there was lots of material about those who best weathered the storm and why. Warren Buffett, a noted introvert famous for his cautious but profit-making investment strategy, is used as an example.
Chapter eight shows how the extrovert’s world is not universal while discussing Asian approaches to education. This chapter shows the inversion between Eastern and Western approaches. Famously, there is Laozi’s saying: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.” This is in stark contrast to modern American institutions, which often overestimate the intelligence of those who yammer and underestimate the intelligence of those who hold their tongues.
Chapter nine explores the question of when and how introverts should behave in a more extroverted way. This is the chapter that discusses Brian Little – the Professor who is a veritable scholarly rock star but who knows how to manage his introversion. His story provides a nice example of how introverts can get the job done without necessarily appearing awkward, overwhelmed, or run down — if they learn how to manage their time and interactions. Chapter ten discusses the differences in approach to communication and how it can be managed.
The last chapter may be the most important. It’s about recognizing introversion in children and helping them get the most out of a world in which the decks remain stacked against them. The chapter is titled “On Cobblers and Generals,” which refers to a story that begins the chapter. In the story, a man who enters heaven asks St. Peter if he can speak with the world’s greatest General. St. Peter points out a man who the recently departed man happens to recognize as a man who mended shoes for a living. When the man points out that there must be some mistake, he’s told that the cobbler would have been the greatest military mind in history if only his talent had been recognized and nurtured.
As is no doubt clear, I found this book to be tremendously well-written and beneficial. I would recommend it for anyone who is a leader, a parent, a teacher, or a person – be they introvert or extrovert – who would benefit from knowing how a misunderstood segment of society clicks.
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