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February 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 5

Book Review / Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

How do introverts fare in U.S. K–12 schools? Not always well, believes Susan Cain, author of Quiet. For many quiet, reflective kids, creativity is stifled during school hours—and not because of standardized testing, underresourced schools, or dull assignments, but because U.S. schools are coziest for extroverts. As a student with an introverted bent moves from bell to bell, Cain says, "the structure of the day is almost guaranteed to sap his energy rather than stimulate it."
Many prognosticators these days assert that people are most creative when they collaborate in large, talkative, free-wheeling groups—that all of us together are more creative than any one of us alone. In Quiet, Cain calls this the "New Groupthink." Zest for collaboration is prevalent in corporate culture (think of the popularity of brainstorming and the universality of working in teams) and in U.S. schools.
Countering this drumbeat, Cain coalesces decades of research on introversion and "highly sensitive" kids (a term with a physiological meaning in neuroscience) to show why many classrooms and working environments are far from ideal for introverts. Often, they aren't even friendly. In the book's first section, "The Extrovert Ideal," she shows how, since the days of Dale Carnegie, sociability, confidence, and polished verbal style have been considered ideal features to cultivate in U.S. students and workers. Shy, reserved, or solitary aren't often compliments.
One of Quiet's most fascinating chapters is "When Collaboration Kills Creativity." Cain contrasts the push for group work and sociability in U.S. companies and leadership programs with the actual working habits of some of the top corporate leaders and inventors, like Stephen Wozniak, cofounder of Apple. She cites these statistics:
  • 70 percent of employees in U.S. companies now work in "open floor plans" in which no worker has any private workspace.
  • The amount of space per employee in U.S. workplaces shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.
  • A majority of U.S. 4th and 8th grade teachers surveyed in 2002 preferred to have students work collaboratively.
She then paints a picture of how Wozniak, although meeting occasionally with a low-key group of home computer enthusiasts, did almost all his work building one of the first personal computers in solitude. She quotes Wozniak:
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 same advice that might 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. (p. 70, italics in original)

How Introverts Operate—and How to Bring Out Their Gifts

In the section "Your Biology, Your Self," Cain draws on the work of developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan and others to explain what introversion is and why introverted children work better in small groups or pairs, with breaks between bouts of sociability, or alone. Brain scans and measures of indicators like heart rate and the release of stress hormones show that introverts are more physiologically sensitive to various kinds of stimuli—from a lemony taste to a crowded party—than extroverts are. Cain, who describes her own experiences as an introverted lawyer and journalist, highlights the positives about introverts, such as reflectiveness and loyalty to friends. Wisely, she stops short of implying that introverts are deeper or more intelligent than others.
Cain says a lot about how reserved kids and adults can learn to work gently with their own style so they can comfortably make their voices heard and pursue close relationships (including with extroverts). There's even a chapter called "When You Should Act More Extroverted."
Quiet will help teachers who hope to make classrooms more welcoming to introverted kids gain a greater understanding of how highly reserved children operate, how to respectfully coax them out, and how to help them learn to work comfortably in groups—in school and out.
Her first suggestion reflects a central message of Quiet: "Don't think of introversion as something that needs to be cured."
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain was published by Crown in 2012. $26.00, hardcover; $16.00, paperback.

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