The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

by Susan Cain

Crown Publishers, 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-45220-7.
Reviewed by Olga Livshin
Posted on 10/11/2012

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Creative Life; Nonfiction: Relationships

Although it's a non-fiction, not the genre I usually prefer, I think everyone should read Quiet, by Susan Cain. It's a portrait of introverts and their struggles for a niche in our extrovert-oriented society. I enjoyed this book immensely, maybe because I'm an introvert too and I recognized myself in many of the personality sketches of the book.

Quiet starts with the definitions of extrovert and introvert. Then the book segues into the uneven positions both temperaments inhabit in our Western culture, with its Extrovert Ideal. The author's fascinating historical overview specifies how and when the extrovert supplanted the introvert in our combined minds as the superior personality type. She also examines what is happening now at schools and workplaces.

According to the book, Dale Carnegie was one of those who brought the culture of gregariousness to the front of American consciousness. His publications read like manuals for salesmen. Or conversely, some may consider them textbooks for conmen. The titles of some chapters of his bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People are self-explanatory: "Making People Glad to Do What You Want" or "How to Make People Like You Instantly." Are there any differences between a successful salesman and a successful conman? Cain's book doesn't show them: extroverts sell primarily themselves.

Many psychological researches the author mentions were conducted on group activities, as our businesses and schools are geared towards team work and participation. But introverts don't perform best in groups. They listen more than talk, prefer solitude to parties and dislike conflict, so they are often considered the weakest in any group. The result: in most group discussions, the ones who win are usually the extroverts: the loudest, not the smartest.

Another research on groups indicated that peer pressure and fear of judgment frequently silence dissenting voices. In many test groups, as in real life, original introvert thinkers are pushed into mute corners, while assertive leaders (even expressing stupid or wrong ideas) end up victorious. And more often than not, frighteningly often, masses follow the volume, not the quiet expertise. Hans Christian Andersen was aware of this disturbing phenomenon when he wrote his tale "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Statistics utilized in Cain's book demonstrate that introverts outperform extroverts in academic studies all through high school and university, but then extroverts rapidly gain power in the workplace, because our society favors aggressiveness and risk taking, both extroverts' traits, for management slots. Knowing who are in command in most companies, the financial crash of 2008 shouldn't have been so much of a surprise. Shouldn't we learn from our mistakes? the author asks. Shouldn't we strive for balance, where both personalities have their places?

Cain's book also reveals that group pursuits were not always dominant. Before the 20th century, introverts were very much respected, and their traits—thoughtfulness, quietness, sensitivity—revered. When the 20th century arrived, a forceful, energetic persona surged to the fore.

It didn't make our lives better. Cain argues that the mild disdain our society displays towards introverts might be destructive in the long run. Teamwork damages creativity, she states. Brainstorming in groups doesn't work as an idea-generating method; this has been proven by multiple studies.

Her book, based on overwhelming research, stipulates that the majority of the greatest achievements of the 20th century in all areas of human affairs—arts, literature, science, technology, even politics—were produced by introverts. The examples include Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Dale Carnegie (yes, him), Steve Wozniak (Apple) and Al Gore, Craig Newmark (Craigslist) and Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt, and many, many others. Cain not only tells their stories but explains why their success was inevitable. Her presentation proves that genius always works alone—be it music, science, or painting. Cain quotes many geniuses to get her point across.

The book is not only chock-full of citations and examples. It explores different aspects of introversion and its influence on the modern world. Written in a very clear, very persuasive voice, with multiple anecdotes that engage the readers, it also boasts just enough of science talk to make it authentic. Extremely interesting and highly recommended.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Susan Cain is former corporate lawyer. Her first book, the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, has been translated into more than 20 languages. Her writing on introversion and shyness has appeared in The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Oprah Magazine, and other publications. She has spoken at Microsoft, Google, the U.S. Treasury, and at TED 2012. She has also appeared on national broadcast television and radio. Visit her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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