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

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, now out in paperback, isn’t a particularly soulful exploration of the inner mindsets of the more introspective among us—who happen to comprise at least a third of the human population—but its scientific and empirically based analysis provides a surplus of information that lends insight into the importance and impact of the introverted personality in a variety of practical settings.

With the premise that the introverted disposition faces distinctive challenges in the “Culture of Personality” which pervades our world, the author (herself on the shy side of the spectrum) lays out a series of scenarios that provide invaluable understanding of the rewards that are reaped from tapping the unique thinking processes of introverts, especially in the workplace.

The introversion/extroversion model can be summed up by a concept put forth by the eminent psychologist and analyst Carl Jung in the 1920s, which says that introverts derive their energy from solitude, while extroverts need their batteries constantly “charged” by social stimuli. (In other words, the introvert is the first to leave the party, while the extrovert has to be dragged away.) To quote Jung, from his essential Modern Man in Search of a Soul, “One cannot be introverted or extroverted without being so in every respect.” (“Ambiverts” may disagree.)

Quiet, however, under-elaborates on the Jung theories and psychological perspectives in general; Sigmund Freud merits only one mention. Even the venerable Myers-Briggs test, so familiar to many in its gauging of introverted/extroverted traits, and based on the Jung blueprint, is also glossed over. (A makeshift quiz to assess your personality type does appear in the introduction to the book.)

So the focus is largely on areas like “groupthink” and brainstorming and how introverts function in business/work settings, where as one executive put it, “it’s so easy to confuse schmoozing with talent,” or as Cain writes, “our reverence for alpha status blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise.” Alpha status, in the form of motivator and self-help king Tony Robbins, is detailed in the chapter “The Myth of Charismatic Leadership,” about one of his empowerment seminars. A more unpretentious form of authority is exemplified by self-described introvert Warren Buffett, in the entry, “Why Did Warren Buffett Prosper?”

One of the most illuminating discussions revolves around the work of developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, whose studies with children and the biological foundations of introversion, and what he called the “low-reactive/high-reactive” (low=extrovert, high=introvert) basis of behavior, as well as its correlation to temperament and personality, have contributed enormously to the field. (Interestingly, in the 1998 book, Galen’s Prophecy, Kagan noted that “Carl Jung’s descriptions of the introvert and extrovert, written over 75 years ago, apply with uncanny accuracy to a proportion of our high- and low-reactive adolescents.”)

Along these lines, writer David Dobbs, in an article in The Atlantic, speculated on what he called “the orchid hypothesis.” It proposes that “many children are like dandelions,” says Cain, “able to thrive in just about any environment. But others, including the high-reactive types that Kagan studied, are more like orchids; they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent.”

One aspect that Quiet leaves unexamined is the issue of health-related differences amongst introverts and extroverts, and whether, as might seem intuitive, the more outgoing, gregarious, and voluble qualities of extroverted individuals would accrue to their benefit. Perhaps not, as Cain briefly alludes to in the chapter, “The Communication Gap.” “Scores of studies have shown that venting doesn’t soothe anger; it fuels it,” she says.

The book (which is extremely well researched, with almost 50 pages of notes) also reminds us of notables throughout history—from Albert Einstein to Eleanor Roosevelt, and with a particular emphasis on civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks—whose innate preference for solitude nevertheless resulted in outsized achievements.

It’s Einstein who quite modestly summed up the perseverance of many like-minded introverts, and their indelible contributions to society, when he once said: “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.”

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