Quiet: The Power of Introverts

You may not know much about Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who founded the field of analytical psychology, but you’re probably familiar with the terms “introvert” and “extrovert.” As he developed his theories in the fertile period between 1910 and his death in 1961, Jung used those terms to describe one of his concepts of personality types. While often misunderstood, the words have become part of popular culture.

Jung’s concepts of introversion and extroversion — often defined in multiple ways not always in sync with actual theory — led others to expand his ideas into “personality tests,” such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). If you’ve worked for any medium-to-large-sized organization in the last 60 years, you’ve probably taken some form of personality assessment as part of your employment screening process. The Myers-Briggs is only one of those assessments, but it’s the most closely aligned with Jung’s ideas on introversion and extroversion.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, if we choose to invest more value in one of these personality types than the other, we dismiss key contributions and lose important perspectives. In our relentlessly social, always-on, appearance-oriented culture—yes, it’s the system built by and for extroverts—the value of quiet is often overlooked and underappreciated. That’s Susan Cain’s premise in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking [New York: Crown Publishers, 2012]. And we can only hope that the world stops talking long enough to read this gem.

Why? Because Cain gives us the complete 360, a view encompassing the whole world, not just that of one personality type or the other. In the brief description that accompanies her very generalized opening introvert-extrovert quiz, she reminds:

… even if you

every single question as an introvert or extrovert, that doesn’t mean that your behavior is predictable across all circumstances. We can’t say that every introvert is a bookworm or every extrovert wears lampshades at parties any more than we can say that every woman is a natural consensus-builder and every man loves contact sports. As Jung felicitously put it, “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

But there is reason to care about these concepts because they have become increasingly embedded in our life as we’ve moved from an agrarian to an industrial to an information- and knowledge-based society. Cain cites the work of the influential cultural historian Warren Susman, who labeled our transition—particularly in the United States—as the shift from a “Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.” We’ve changed our emphasis from focusing on the virtues of private behavior (citizenship, honor, duty, work, morality, manners, reputation, integrity) to qualities that you either have or you don’t (magnetism, attractiveness, forcefulness, energy).

Why should we care? Because the kinds of ideas and inventions that have great potential to bring us out of the doldrums, ignite a creative fire, and jump-start any number of interesting futures and possibilities are often instigated by people who enjoy—and may actually need—space and time away from the madding crowd. In solitude, we have the opportunity for Deliberate Practice, a concept identified by the research psychologist Anders Ericsson as the “key to exceptional achievement.” Cain summarized Ericsson by saying, “When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful—they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.” Cain goes on to cite the story of Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak as an example of “Deliberate Practice in action.” In his memoir, iWoz, “he offers this advice to kids who aspire to great creativity:

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 may 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.”

That sentiment doesn’t mean you don’t need kindred spirits with whom to share ideas and talk shop, just like Woz found in the Homebrew Computer Club. But, after the conversations, he did bulk of the work that resulted in the first Apple computer and other ground-breaking inventions on his own, alone.

The society we’ve created for ourselves at this particular spot in history doesn’t seem to lend itself to providing support for the kinds of creativity, breakthrough thinking, and innovation we say we want—and that our world desperately needs. Cain notes:

As adults, many of us work for organizations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly. The scientists whose research gets funded often have confident, perhaps overconfident, personalities. The artists whose work adorns the walls of contemporary museums strike impressive poses at gallery openings. The authors whose books get published—once accepted as a reclusive breed—are now vetted by publicists to make sure they’re talk-show ready. (You wouldn’t be reading this book if I hadn’t convinced my publisher that I was enough of a pseudo-extrovert to promote it.)

Quiet helps us more fully understand the neuroscience behind the different ways our brains work to shape and express our personalities. In addition, Cain offers plenty of reasons why businesses should want to cultivate the power of introverts, who can provide much-needed balance in a one-sided world where extroverts currently rule. As her opening quotation from Allen Shawn states: “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.”

As long as you’re alive, you’re valuable and you have a contribution to make. Cain’s thoroughly readable exploration of introversion—and, by comparison, extroversion—through neuroscience, art, culture, business, and more, offers an accessible look at who we are and what each of us brings to the party.

©2012 Jill J. Jensen / Clarity from Chaos