It was my older daughter’s sixth birthday party; she had invited almost her entire first grade class over. Shortly after the kids were in through the door, our daughter decided she couldn’t handle them all. She came up to us complaining there were “too many people,” went upstairs to her room and locked the door. We spent the rest of the evening entertaining the dozen kids by ourselves while our daughter had a most pleasant birthday party all by herself in her room. Author Susan Cain explains there is a reason for my daughter’s reaction to her birthday party. She is a “high-reactive,” a person who doesn’t do like too much stimulation.
An interesting research experiment outlined in Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, follows babies’ reactions to external stimulus. “The four-month-olds who thrashed their arms like punk rockers did so not because they were extroverts in the making, but because their little bodies reacted strongly—they were “high-reactive”—to new sights, sounds, and smells,” Cain writes. “The quiet infants were silent not because they were future introverts—just the opposite—but because they had nervous systems that were unmoved by novelty.” These “high-reactive” babies grow up to be children who need a lot of time to decompress after school, need time alone to be creative and explore. They are introverts, not anti-social, Cain explains. There is a big difference.
After that first grade episode, we realized that both our daughters, like us, need a lot of time to wind down and that loud, gregarious parties are just not our thing. In short, we too are introverts. We still love to meet people, but we like small group parties much more, where we can actually talk and exchange ideas with others.
Susan Cain’s new book should be essential reading for all who interact with introverts—and since more than a third of us are introverts, that probably means everybody. Her book is especially liberating when it talks about introverted children who need time to explore and learn and be creative instead of being forced into situations they find unpleasant.
Cain explores the “Extrovert Ideal” as it came to be the standard for success in America. According to this “Extrovert Ideal,” you pretty much had to be outgoing, alpha and an extrovert to get anywhere. This same ideal has permeated every aspect of American society—the workplace, homes and even schools. “Groupthink” has the “potential to stifle productivity at work and to deprive schoolchildren of the skills they’ll need to achieve excellence in an increasingly competitive world,” Cain writes from research she has carefully studied. Even at work, “open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover,” she writes.
Particularly telling is Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s advice for how to succeed: “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.”
Of course, all this doesn’t necessarily mean a prescription for people to button themselves into pigeon holes and plod away without interaction. Instead, Quiet makes the case that it is time to recognize that the one way of doing things might not be the best option for everybody and in fact, even yield poor productivity outcomes. She encourages us to instead “actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments.”
Quiet also explores how introverts have adapted to everyday life where the focus is on extroversion (they self-monitor and adjust temperaments accordingly). Another interesting chapter is devoted to the differences in cultures where introversion is actually the ideal. Asian American kids in Cupertino, California, Cain points out, do remarkably well partly due to the fact that introversion and a quiet persistence are what the culture values. Sadly, Cain also points out what these same students have found: “Meritocracy ends on graduation day. Asians start to fall behind because they don’t have quite the cultural style for getting ahead: too passive, not hail-fellow-well-met-enough.”
Quiet is a wonderful (if too pedantic) book that gives us a lot of insights into what makes introverts tick and why it’s necessary to give them the space to flourish. Some of the best ideas in the world, the best innovations, Cain points out, came from introverts—not as a result of crowd-sourcing.
“I think, therefore I am,” Descartes once said. After reading Quiet, I am pretty sure Rene Descartes must have been an introvert—and proud of it, too.