Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

Introversion and creativity:
a book review of Quiet

QuietI 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].”

Wow.

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.

6 thoughts on “Introversion and creativity:
a book review of Quiet

  1. Thanks for sharing this book Melanie. I can’t wait to read it. I too lean towards the “I” and see the present culture valuing the “E”. I wonder how orgs like Google have structured the creative flow? Are all their creatives working independently the majority of time? I would also think creating a “safe” collaborative environment is a top priority. Ok, got to read this one!

    • Cain spends quite a bit of time relaying sort of the “history of creativity at work” and how we got to the presently popular “open office” that is supposed to enhance both productivity and creativity. (It doesn’t.) She does mention Google and describes how they’ve designed their workplaces to balance private space and public space. That is, workers can work in isolation, but when they have to check their mailbox, or go to the bathroom, or grab a snack, they will be naturally encounter people because of where those spots are located. And introverts don’t mind this, because they know they can always go back to their offices to work on their projects. There’s no forced collaboration. It’s really fascinating.

  2. Sounds like a very interesting book!

    And I think you’re right–to value one over the other (introvert vs. extrovert) just seems wrong, and it happens all the time. And I agree our culture promotes that. I like it when I see businesses & organizations that don’t just cater to one side & thoughtfully change their methods to improve creativity & productivity on both sides. It would be unwise not to, from all angles. I haven’t read the book, but is there some theory behind round table meetings for extroverts? Since I lean more on the other end, I wonder if there is something useful for them doing all the talking; meaning, maybe their ideas come more from talking it out & some of us others prefer to avoid the distractions for deeper thinking?? I don’t know. What I did love about one group I was a part of, was that the leader herself was so well balanced she really led our discussions & activities to stretch us all in all areas. I also very much appreciate a leader who sees the wheels turning in the active quiet participant in the room (who doesn’t feel so quiet in her head; in this case mine), and allows & credits you when you share that one line profound thought from another perspective. I think that’s important. Not to say introverts have the ideas & extroverts voice them better, but introverts don’t want to be apart of the drama if their ideas are then just credited to the person who now won’t stop talking about it. Am I making any sense? Situations like those can really alter or negatively impact a group’s creativity process.

    I do think being on either side of the pendulum is a gift. I wish I had the gift of gab to just confidently speak in front of large crowds without fear, but I don’t. That is where extroverts excell. However, again not really ‘knowing’, i probably need to read the book to fully understand the definitions here! I think it all depends on the person & the topic. Working with a lot of physicians day in and day out, I think it’s safe to say they are probably more introverted but forced to deal with the personal, social side of medicine. They can also lead very interesting seminars and talk for hours in depth on a topic in their field. So, I hate to stereotype personalities etc. and some of them can be very humerous & lighthearted which is so necessary in high stress, critical areas to keep the calm without ever losing the focus. Am I extroverted for sharing too much or introverted for over thinking it?? LOL

    • The author went into quite a bit of detail about the style of leadership taught at Harvard Business School. Students there are actually graded on how vocal they are in class and how successfully they can persuade members of their work teams. Only recently have people begun to realize that this style of teaching can create skilled presenters without necessarily creating skilled leaders.

      It may be true that introverts need to learn better presentation skills, so that we will have a chance to hear their thoughts. But there are far more resources available for people who want to develop “extroversion characteristics” than there are for people who should learn to listen, or wait, or make sure they’ve heard from a variety of perspectives.

      What’s kind of funny is, I’ve already heard a couple comments from people who came to me one-on-one to thank me for this post—they are introverted enough not to feel comfortable leaving a public comment, but they found another way to express how much this topic resonates with them!

  3. Interesting post.

    I test out at almost 100% introvert. I would argue that an introvert can and needs to learn to behave as an extrovert occasionally. Likewise an extrovert can and needs to learn to behave as an introvert occasionally. That is not to say that we need to be something we are not, rather we are missing critical parts of self growth by only doing either introverted or extroverted things. Introverts need people and extroverts need self reflection to be all that God has created them to be.

    In college I dreaded going to mingling events. They didn’t make any sense to me. I had to work myself up for “game night” for a week and then needed several hours completely alone afterward to recover. After forcing myself to go to social events for more than 10 years I find myself more and more comfortable with them, even enjoying them a little. I’ve met wonderful people and formed relationships that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I still stutter step a little before going to one and still need some down time after them but believe I’m better off having learned to exhibit extroverted traits. All this said, I don’t think I’m anymore extroverted than I was before. The thing that still gives me the most energy is having time to myself to think.

    • You’re absolutely right, Joel. We do need each other. And what I think is so important about Cain’s book is that she makes that case very strongly. Although the title of her book suggests that she’s “pro-introvert,” she really is simply a voice for introverts who feel drowned out in our pro-extrovert culture. That is, it’s far more likely that introverts will be pushed to “speak up” or “join a club” or “get out more” than it is that extroverts will be pushed to reflect or consider or wait. (In most Asian cultures, the opposite is true.)

      It is probably more likely that introverts are attracted to Cain’s book, but extroverts will get just as much out of it. A Facebook friend of mine is an extrovert, and she wants to read it in order to better understand her introverted husband and daughter. I think that’s a great idea, and I hope to hear her review after she’s read it. I wonder if extroverts find themselves fascinated by the same findings introverts are!

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