Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

susan cain

“A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh. I prefer to think that the planet needs athletes, philosophers, sex symbols, painters, scientists; it needs the warmhearted, the hardhearted, the coldhearted, and the weakhearted. It needs those who can devote their lives to studying how many droplets of water are secreted by the salivary glands of dogs under which circumstances, and it needs those who can capture the passing impression of cherry blossoms in a fourteen-syllable poem or devote twenty -five pages to the dissection of a small boy’s feelings as he lies in bed in the dark waiting for his mother to kiss him goodnight.… Indeed the presence of outstanding strengths presupposes that energy needed in other areas has been channeled away from them.” — Allen Shawn

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain looks at how our lives are shaped by personality. Specifically she explores how where we land on the introvert-extrovert spectrum influences our choices, friends, conversations, careers, success, and even love. “It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.”

It’s also one of the most exhaustively researched subjects. It’s not just scientists who’ve contemplated this, they are a rather recent addition. Poets and Philosophers have been “thinking about introverts and extroverts since the dawn of recorded time.”

[T]oday we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts— which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts— in other words, one out of every two or three people you know.

Surprising? That’s because most introverts, like myself, pretend to be extroverts. I’m what you call a “closet introvert.”

It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal— the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual— the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.”

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.

The extrovert ideal is alive and well.

Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking , more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent—even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas.

But, like anything, it’s a mistake to embrace this ideal without thinking. Without introverts, we wouldn’t have: the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, Chopin’s nocturnes, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Peter Pan, Orwell’s 1984, The Cat in the Hat, Charlie Brown, Schindler’s List, E.T., Google, Harry Potter, or Farnam Street.

In How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are, the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc^2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”

Cain argues that it is not in spite of introversion that people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Gandhi and Rosa Parks achieve what they do, but, in part, because of it.

As society moves unconsciously toward an extroverted world—one of open offices, team everything, and organizations that value “people skills” above competence—introverts will have to adjust. But things like creativity and “innovation” will suffer.

If you’re an introvert:

you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favor of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers.

After taking my MBTI, one of my professors defined introversion as “where you get your energy.” If you’re extroverted you get energy from being around people, and if you’re introverted you get it from being alone. But is there more to it than that? What exactly does it mean to say someone is introverted?

In 1921, psychologist Carl Jung had published a book, Psychological Types, that popularized the terms introvert and extrovert as the foundation of personality.

Discussing Jung’s work, Cain writes:

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

The MBTI is based on Jung’s work. But, you should know, there is no consensus on any of this. There are “almost as many definitions of introverts and extroverts as there are personality psychologists, who spend a great deal of time arguing over which meaning is most accurate.”

Still, today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle , or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.

(Introverts) prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

Whenever I tell someone I’m introverted the first thing they inevitably say is “you can’t be an introvert. You’re not shy.

Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not. One reason that people confuse the two concepts is that they sometimes overlap (though psychologists debate to what degree).

The bus to Abilene
Here is one particularly amusing anecdote from the book: The bus to Abilene. And this applies to everything from meetings to how we make decisions.

A well-known study out of UC Berkeley by organizational behavior professor Philip Tetlock found that television pundits—that is, people who earn their livings by holding forth confidently on the basis of limited information—make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random chance. And the very worst prognosticators tend to be the most famous and the most confident—the very ones who would be considered natural leaders in an HBS classroom.

The U.S. Army has a name for a similar phenomenon: “the Bus to Abilene.” “Any army officer can tell you what that means,” Colonel (Ret.) Stephen J. Gerras, a professor of behavioral sciences at the U.S. Army War College, told Yale Alumni Magazine in 2008. “It’s about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go— I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, ‘I think we’re all getting on the bus to Abilene here,’ that is a red flag. You can stop a conversation with it. It is a very powerful artifact of our culture.”

The “Bus to Abilene” anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate action—any action.

A lot of organizations want to encourage innovation with “positive” action. They hold up Google, Twitter, and Kickstarter as models of innovation. In a well-meaning attempt to encourage innovation they inevitably come up with a process that relies on presentation skills to sift ideas.

In his book Iconoclast, neuroeconomist Gregory Berns explores what happens when companies rely too heavily on presentation skills to sift ideas. “He describes a software company called Rite-Solutions,” Cain writes summarizing his work, “that successfully asks employees to share ideas through an online ‘idea market,’ as a way of focusing on substance rather than style.”

(In Quiet Cain describes the company) Joe Marino, president of Rite-Solutions, and Jim Lavoie, CEO of the company, created this system as a reaction to problems they’d experienced elsewhere. “In my old company,” Lavoie told Berns, “if you had a great idea, we would tell you , ‘OK, we’ll make an appointment for you to address the murder board’ ”— a group of people charged with vetting new ideas. Marino described what happened next:

(Cain quoting: Iconoclast) Some technical guy comes in with a good idea. Of course questions are asked of that person that they don’t know. Like, “How big’s the market? What’s your marketing approach? What’s your business plan for this? What’s the product going to cost?” It’s embarrassing. Most people can’t answer those kinds of questions. The people who made it through these boards were not the people with the best ideas. They were the best presenters.

In his memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, Steve Wozniak writes:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: 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.

Of course introverts are not necessarily more creative. The most creative or innovative people tend to ask questions, display a healthy disrespect for authority, a natural irreverence, and a stubborn streak. This suggests they may not work well as part of a team.

In explaining why introverts have a creative advantage, Cain writes:

[T]here’s a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage—an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck once observed, introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”

In the end, creativity and innovation in organizations is about accepting and even encouraging differences. I’d caution organizations not to move too far towards the extroversion end of the spectrum (open offices, everything done in teams, promoting based on social skills above competence) without giving consideration to the effects that may have on some of your most creative people. A lot of things are better done by individuals than teams. It’s ok to have offices. It’s ok to have quiet. It doesn’t work for everyone but it works for some of your best and possibly most misunderstood employees.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is an interesting look at how letting the extrovert ideal run wild is a bad idea for creativity, decision making, and cognitive diversity.