Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, defends the introverts of the world in a recent TED talk. Cain is, by definition, an introvert. But her path to understanding what that meant was met with resistance from societal forces glorifying the ideal extrovert. There is nothing misguided in an introverted way of life. It is something to be as celebrated as extroversion. Begone silly stigmas of isolation and loneliness. The world needs the introverted, introspective, and thoughtful, too.
Her family grew up reading — they would read together and bring books on trips. That’s how they were social. She tells a story of going to camp at age 9. Her mother packed her a bag full of books to read quietly, the normal thing her family did on vacation, thinking camp would be the same, “I had a vision of ten girls sitting in a cabin reading books in their matching night-gowns.” But when she got to “Camp Rowdie” (as they spelled it), she was ridiculed the first time she read her book, for not being social and outgoing and not having enough camp spirit. So she put her books away, and didn’t get them out for the rest of the summer. (And she drives the point home by putting her bag under a table.)
Cain felt — had an intuition — that as an introvert she had value. But she didn’t know how to articulate that at the time, and so she became a lawyer. She wanted to be an author, but all her internalized notions about what is good made her reflexively choose the profession associated with extroversion, choose to go to a bar rather than a nice dinner with friends
While the world certainly need extroverts, it also needs introverts doing what they do best. It’s a bias that has no name. To understand it, we need to understand that introversion isn’t about not being social, it’s not being shy, it’s about how someone responds to stimulation. While extroverts crave social interaction, introverts are much more alive while they’re alone. Cain brings in her thesis with the insight that, “The key to maximizing talents is to put yourself into the zone of stimulation that’s right for you.”
We’re living in a culture that increasingly values group-think. We believe that creativity comes from a very oddly gregarious place. In the classroom, where Cain and her fellow students used to sit in rows, and to read and work alone, students are increasingly put in groups and asked to be committee members — even for solving math problems or creative writing. Kids who prefer to work alone are seen as problem cases, and graded accordingly. Teachers report, and believe, that the ideal student is extroverted. (“Even though introverts get better grades, and are more knowledgeable.”)
Solitude, as Cain says, is a key to creativity. Darwin took long walks in the woods and turned down dinner invitations, Dr. Seuss wrote alone, and was afraid of meeting the kids who read his books for fear they would be disappointed at how quiet he was. Steve Wozniak claimed he never would have become such an expert if he left the house. Of course, collaboration is good (witness Woz and Steve Jobs), but there is a transcendent power of solitude.
And the things we’re learning from psychology affirm this. We can’t be in a group of people without instinctively mirroring each other, and groups follow the most charismatic person, even though there is no correlation between being a good speaker and having great ideas.
Cain has three calls to action:
1) “End the madness of constant group-work.” (The audience applauds.) Offices need chatty conversations, and great spaces to make serendipitous interactions. But we need much more privacy, and more autonomy. The same is true — more true — for schools. Yes, teach kids to work together, but also how to work alone.
2) “Go to the wilderness, be like Buddha. Have your own revelations.” You don’t have to go build huts in the woods and be isolated, but we could all stand to unplug and be in our heads for a time.
3) “Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase, and why you put it there.” Extroverts, whose bags might be filled with Champagne bubbles and sky-diving kits, grace us with the energy and joy of these objects. Introverts probably guard the secrets of their suitcases, and that’s cool.
“But occasionally, just occasionally, I hope you will open the suitcase up.. because the world needs you and what you carry.”
It doesn’t matter where people fall on the intro- extrovert spectrum so long as each is able to settle in on their ideal environment. Introversion has nothing to do with social ineptitude; it is simply the circumstance of seclusion that introverts draw power and energy from. It seems particularly counter-intuitive that for all the momentum toward group-based society, we still revere the introverts, the individuals who seem to dominate the world on their own.