Susan Cain has become quite famous since the publication of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Her Ted talk is on line (I haven’t watched it) and she wrote a column for the NYT defending introverts at a time when a few critics suggested that President Obama is a poor leader because he is an introvert. After reading this book, I may now speculate whether certain public figures are extroverts or introverts, but I question whether this would be time well spent.
When I picked up the book I was looking forward to reading about people who weren’t always seeking the limelight. Cain describes Dale Carnegie’s environment at the turn of the 20th century: “America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.” We are certainly still in that age. Who isn’t a bit tired of this society of constant self-promotion, a lifetime of job interviews, PowerPoint presentations, and those people who tweet and post photos of every moment of their lives.
The book is a mixture of individual stories, the author’s own experience, and discussion of numerous studies and research. One thing we learn is that group learning and collaboration may not offer the best solutions because extroverts take over such processes and introverts don’t work well in such environments. Some of the best parts of the book are about children who are introverts. It is difficult for kids who are introverts to succeed in settings in which they are constantly encouraged to work in social groups, be it group learning, play groups or organized sports. Give such kids space to just be themselves by themselves.
Ultimately, the book left me unsatisfied in part because it felt unbalanced. After a couple of chapters, I hoped I was an introvert because Cain extolled the many virtues of introversion while making extroverts into big golden labs: cheerful, frenetic and not that smart. Extroverts made rash decisions based on insufficient information. Who wouldn’t rather be like Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Ghandi, or Warren Buffet? Introverts are reflective, they think before they speak, they’re the smart investors when everyone else is running off the cliff.
The other problem with the book is that by the time I was finished I wasn’t clear who truly is an introvert. Introversion and extroversion are biologically determined, but can be influenced by nurture as well. Introverts were described as highly sensitive types, more likely to be Asian, social but not gregarious, preferring to read a book in the evening instead of go out to a cocktail party. The only thing they all seem to share is fear of public speaking, as Cain uses this fear again and again in her case studies of individuals. (I suspect that some extroverts may have that fear as well).
The last chapter is packed full of platitudes of how to be a successful introvert which is probably the weakest chapter in the book. By then we already know that the best world is one that values and respects both types of people.