Sunday, January 4, 2015

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Image from Quirkbooks

This is a book every introvert needs to read. In her groundbreaking work, this former lawyer, once painfully shy, develops a powerful argument about the serious negative effects of the American cultural bias against introversion and in favour of extroversion.

Although extroverts get much more credit in leadership positions, introverts are thinkers.

Introverts have contributed great and visionary leadership -- think Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt. All were challenged by the need to be in the public eye, but faced their natural tendency to avoid the limelight because they were "driven to do what they knew was right."

"Solitude matters, and for some people it is the air that we breathe." Lonely creatives she mentions include Charles Darwin and Dr. Seuss. They couldn't have produced what they did without their essential periods of solitude. Spiritual seekers like Buddha and Jesus also went alone into the wilderness to contemplate, then re-entered the community to share the wisdom gained in solitude.

Over the twentieth century, the author explains, our most important institutions have evolved to greatly favour extroverts. With urbanization and industrialization, western cultures, especially that of the US, have moved away from respecting individuals of good character (often introverts); people of our era are increasingly impressed by personality (read extroversion.)

Though extroverted leaders may be admired for their pleasing personalities, an unfortunate feature they share is the tendency to "take outsize risks." Cain offers convincing evidence that extroverts control society's most powerful institutions, and connects this fact to disasters like the Enron scandal.

She discusses the power of introverts on a recent TED talk, and concludes with some advice for all of us, including "Stop the madness for constant group work." Whether doing their jobs or studying, introverts need a certain amount of privacy and autonomy. The world needs us, and we have the right to be valued for ourselves as well as for our very considerable social contributions.

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