I mentioned in my first blog of this year that my books-I-want-to-read list included Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which is now available through Amazon.com. I have read it now, and I was really fascinated by it. It’s enlightening—not just for business leaders, but also for schools, parents, and anyone who’s in a relationship with an introvert or an extrovert!
Introversion is normal, too
Cain’s revelations are both logical and surprising—surprising, I think, because American culture places such a high value on extroversion, so we have come to assume that extroversion is normal and desirable. For active Christians, this culture of extroversion is reinforced in our churches. (If you dread “mutual greeting” time or “passing the peace,” you may be an introvert.) For example, in a section titled “Does God Love Introverts? An Evangelical’s Dilemma,” Cain writes:
Like [Harvard Business School], evangelical churches often make extroversion a prerequisite for leadership, sometimes explicitly. “The priest must be…an extrovert who enthusiastically engages members and newcomers, a team player,” reads an ad for a position as associate rector of a 1,400-member parish. A senior priest at another church confesses online that he has advised parishes recruiting a new rector to ask what his or her Myers-Briggs score is. “If the first letter isn’t an ‘E’ [for Extrovert],” he tells them, “think twice. …I’m sure our Lord was [an extrovert].”
So all that pressure you’ve been feeling to “speak up” or “be social” or “exude confidence”—that’s not in your head. That pressure is very real. Our culture values extroversion, and there is a whole industry of resources for training people to be more extroverted.
That’s why Cain’s book is so important. She cites numerous studies that show extroversion is not better than introversion. In fact, to value either trait to the exclusion of the other is to put ourselves—our businesses, our churches, and even our personal wealth—at risk. Consider, for example, that the 11 high-performing companies profiled in Jim Collins’ famous book Good to Great were all led by introverts, not extroverts, a fact that is often overlooked by businesses using the book as a manual to greatness.
Introversion and creativity
All of this serves as interesting context for the most surprising learning I got from the book: the idea that collaboration can kill creativity. As a “creative” in a variety of roles in my church life and my work life, I’ve always heard that “brainstorming” and “teamwork” and “synergy” are essential to creativity. But Cain presents findings that reveal just the opposite: people (extroverts as well as introverts) produce more ideas and better ideas when they work alone. In groups, only one person can talk at a time, so the others are sitting passively. Group members also suffer from social pressure to not look stupid, so they don’t express all their ideas.
On your own though, you can stay focused on the problem, free of any social pressures, generating as many solutions as possible.
That’s not to say that there is no place for collaboration. All of us need interaction for inspiration and new perspectives. But forced interaction can be harmful to the creative process. Throughout history, Cain cites example after example of amazing creativity that happened in isolation—from Isaac Newton’s awareness of gravity to Steve Wozniak’s invention of the personal computer that would become the first Apple.
Embrace your inner introvert
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Have you taken the Myers-Briggs personality test?
I took the test many years ago, and my personality line was right between the “E” and the “I,” though, if I recall correctly, it leaned toward “I.” So that means I’m comfortable in front of large groups, but I’m more confident if I’ve had time to prepare. And I enjoy being with people, but I’m more likely to find social interactions an energy expense rather than an energy investment. Having time alone is what recharges my battery.
Quiet, in effect, gives me permission to be alone without feeling that I’m anti-social, or selfish, or shy.
I’m just a little introverted.
And that’s a valid way to experience the world.