Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book review: Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Everyday I go to work in my company's corporate office, just outside of Sacramento. It's a relatively small office, but it's one of the most overwhelming places I spend my time. There are at least a dozen speakers situated over the rows of cubicles, and throughout the day they blast pop music into each work space. The phones ring incessantly, and my job necessitates extended conversations about boring topics with complete strangers. Relief comes only when I crawl into my car for a peaceful 45-minute drive home.

To some, that opening paragraph probably sounds like unnecessary complaining, but according to Susan Cain's book Quieta substantial minority--perhaps even half--of Americans know what an overstimulating hell everyday American life can be. These people are called introverts, and Cain argues that our modern society is constructed almost entirely without them in mind.

Introverts, for anyone who is unaware, thrive in quieter environments; they generally prefer small gatherings with close friends to big parties, loathe small talk and require time by themselves to recharge their emotional energy.

Quiet is a detailed investigation of of this often overlooked personality trait. In it Cain discusses at length how society became so extroverted and why that may not be a good thing in many cases.

What struck me immediately was how well Cain described introversion. I couldn't help but laugh as I read the anecdotes about her experiences at a Tony Robbins seminar and her time as a Wall Street lawyer. Both stories reminded me of situations in my life, both professional and social, when I felt alienated from the people around me or overwhelmed by some task I had to perform, usually in front of a lot of people. Being able to relate to the author made the book that much more enjoyable, but Cain uses her personal anecdotes to launch a discussion about introverts who made a lasting impact on world, many of whom you probably wouldn't consider quiet, introspective people.

When we think about introverts we tend to classify them as outsiders; they're the awkward kids who lack social skills, the others, the weirdos who never figured out how to get along in society. Cain disabuses her readers of this misconception very effectively. Introverts, though typically more reserved and withdrawn than others, often become prominent politicians, powerful CEOs, renown scientists, and successful artists--and they succeed because of their introverted personalities.

Citing study after study, Cain argues that introversion lends itself to the kinds of tasks that ultimately allow people to achieve success. Far from collaborating with others or drawing wisdom from crowds, designing a personal computer, to cite the prominent example of Steve Wozniak, requires the ability to sit alone and turn the concept into a functioning device that everybody can use. The same could be said of creating a timeless piece of music, an influential book or a successful business plan. The process necessitates intense focus in an environment with limited distractions. Such an environment is precisely where introverts feel most comfortable.

My favorite section of the book is the one in which Cain lays waste to the idea that collaboration-- teamwork, group activities, brainstorming, whatever you want to call it--is the source of progress. She notes that herding people into groups in hopes of making them more productive often hinders their productivity. Again drawing heavily on the published research, Cain argues that group settings usually favor outgoing individuals, and these aren't always the people with the best ideas, despite their comfort in the spotlight and ability to persuade others.

But if collaboration isn't a surefire route to good ideas, what Cain calls "the new group think,"why is our society so fond of it? Our teamwork fetish first came into fashion during the Industrial Revolution. It was during this period that people crowded into cities and it became necessary to live among and communicate with people you didn't know. The only way to function was to develop a charismatic personality. From this point forward, it gradually became necessary to sell yourself in job interviews, business transactions and even social interactions. What only naturally follows is a society that favors extroverts, people who thrive on interaction with others.

Nonetheless, this migration into cities didn't change the fact that half the population wasn't suited for such a crowded existence. And none of the open office work spaces and public school classrooms that followed did anything but push these people to live in conditions they weren't designed for. Forcing introverts to stare at their co-workers all day isn't going yield anything fruitful, after all.

So we know that the population is roughly split between introverts and extroverts, yet society is oriented toward only one of these groups. What do we do? Cain offers some good suggestions, all of which boil down to allowing people to function as they're best designed to. Don't, for example, make kids work in groups when they're doing math problems or writing essays, tasks that require sustained focus and little collaboration. Similarly, employers might think twice before tearing down the cubicles in their offices and grouping all of their employees into teams. And for the love of God, stop hugging people you hardly know. It's gross.

Okay, that last idea is mine.