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Song of Solitude: The Introverts' Manifesto


 

We all know the stereotype of the extroverted personality: someone who is the life of the party, dynamic, the center of attention, someone who is creative and charismatic. Then there is the introvert: the photographic negative, the person who is odd and isolated, creepy and potentially dangerous.

As a resident I was taught about Eysenck’s theory of personality, in which extroverts and introverts are framed in terms of emotional stability and response to consequences. I learned that introverts were easily demoralized and sensitive to failure, while extroverts shrugged off criticism and weren’t deterred by negative consequences. I had a chance to listen to lectures by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae, creators of the NEO five factor personality inventory, and learned that extreme introversion and extroversion traits tended to be both heritable and fixed. Of more personal relevance, I learned that being an introvert in a training program surrounded by extroverts was a challenging environment to learn in.

With this background in mind, I was intrigued to read a new book by former Wall Street attorney Susan Cain entitled, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” While I get bombarded with requests from publicists to review books, this was the first time I was ever tempted to request a review copy for myself. But I didn’t. As an introvert of the highest caliber, that would have felt far too pushy. Besides, after reading it, I think Cain deserves every penny she gets for writing this book. I bought and downloaded a Kindle version.

The book began with an anecdote about a young female attorney left to her own devices for the first time in the context of a high-pressure mediation session. Her opponent, a loud and blustery fellow, began the session with demands and an attempt at intimidation. The young introverted attorney remained calm, and focused on facts and logic as she firmly and consistently made her points. The session concluded successfully with an agreed settlement. The next day, the opposing attorney offered her a job. Of course, that young attorney was Cain herself.

Cain used that example to illustrate the powers of the introvert: intense powers of concentration, a tendency to rely upon logic rather than intuition, good listening skills, and a sense of caution. She discussed the transition of American society from one based upon individual character to a society that valued self-promotion and personal flair. She used examples from Harvard Business School and a charismatic megachurch to illustrate the way that higher education and religion have shaped themselves around extroversion-centric ideals.

Fortuitously, shortly before this book came out, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about reform in higher education. He encouraged the use of more group educational activities, stating that businesses value the ability to collaborate more than GMAT scores and college transcripts. I hope he reads Quiet, since some of the students and researchers interviewed for this book are from Harvard, as is Cain herself, and the impact of forced collaborative learning is described vividly in the book.

In later chapters, Cain gave examples of successful introvert-extrovert teams to illustrate how introverts can thrive when extroverts allow them to express their natural strengths. The first examples she used were the founders of Apple Computer, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. Wozniak, whose autobiography I was reading coincidentally at the same time as Quiet, was the self-effacing genius who spent his high school years holed up in his bedroom designing computers he couldn’t afford to build. Jobs was the master showman and sales pitchman who fascinated the media at every quarterly reporting season when he announced each new product with a pseudo-humble signature statement, “Oh…and just one more thing.” Together, Jobs’ extroversion and Wozniak’s quiet intellectualism created a company that now makes up most of the value of the S&P 500. Cain presented other case studies of introvert management strategies to conclude that introverts are most successful and productive when they aren’t forced to behave and work like extroverts.

The book did a good job of drawing the distinction between pathology and personality vulnerabilities, but at times it had the oversimplified feel of a planned rebranding campaign. Cain’s own website has a banner logo promoting the book, which exclaims: “Join the Quiet revolution!” as though introversion were about to become the next biggest thing since Napolean Dynamite donned nerd glasses. Nevertheless, extroverted readers looking for information on the care and feeding of their favorite introvert will find this book to be a useful guide.

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