Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
I hated fourth grade. It felt as if I were trapped in a classroom with thirty loud-mouthed, chest-thumping aliens. On the worst day, Miss Z, our well-meaning teacher, asked me to stand in front of the class and read aloud a story I’d written.
I read in a whisper. As the giggles from my restless audience rose in volume, I lost my voice altogether. Miss Z lost her temper—“hush right now!”—and finished reading the story for me. But nobody listened to her, either, and I knew she’d humiliated us both.
Now, decades later, I wish poor Miss Z could have received a little validation from Susan Cain’s Quiet, an inspiring paean to the underrated abilities of introverts like us.
That’s right—I’m an introvert. No doubt Miss Z was, too. Ditto for Sir Isaac Newton, Mohandas Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Wozniak, and Rosa Parks. “Without introverts,” Cain writes, “the world would be devoid of: the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming,’ …Google, Harry Potter.”
Yes! Quiet makes clear that introverts aren’t just shy, overly sensitive, geeky nerds, even if there’s overlap among all these labels. Take little Martha. Even in fourth grade, I had strong opinions and a professor dad who encouraged them. End result? These days, nobody would say I’m at a loss for words. Yet, I’m still overstimulated by crowds. Making small talk drains me. I hate parties; I’d much rather stay home and read a book.
Despite quibbling among psychologists about what an introvert is, most people understand the distinction between quiet thinkers and social butterflies. Cain refers to introversion and extroversion as the “north and south” of personality. (Carl Jung emphasized the introvert-extrovert dichotomy in the 1920s.) It’s one of the most basic divides in behavior and emotional style, a difference that’s at least partly hardwired.
The trouble is, introverts aren’t great at selling their own cause. In chapters that range from “When Collaboration Kills Creativity” to “Why Did Wall Street Crash and Warren Buffett Prosper?,” Quiet demonstrates that we’re often unfairly judged as antisocial dreamers, wet blankets, or too timid to take business risks.
Cain, another proud introvert, is at her best when she explores the rise of the American “Extrovert Ideal” in the early 1900s and its cultural impact. She opens her second chapter with an amusing account of attending a Tony Robbins seminar. She’s told by a pumped-up registration clerk that all attendees need to bring their own food, because “we’ll be working fifteen hours a day, 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., with only one short afternoon break. Tony will be onstage the entire time and I won’t want to miss a moment.”
A former Wall Street lawyer, Cain has a sharp eye for the relentless extroversion of self-help gurus or, say, the Harvard Business School. Any introvert who’s had to navigate those waters (as I did in the 1990s at the Harvard Business Review) will applaud the way she skewers the constant domineering certitude of many CEOs.
Beyond business settings, though, the Extrovert Ideal has infiltrated much of American society, from schools to Christian ministries. Cain reports on a visit to Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, where she interviewed a pastor who felt out of step with the back-slappers around him. “The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with extroversion,” he told her. “The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people.”
As for American college classrooms, a Taiwanese immigrant whom Cain describes as “one of the most, jolly, extroverted people I’ve ever met” appeared shy when she first arrived at UCLA in 1979. This woman recalls her shock at how much professors encouraged her fellow students to spout “nonsense.” She remembers thinking, “Oh, in the U.S., as soon as you start talking, you’re fine.”
Cain has lots of useful advice for anyone trying to fit in with big talkers and glad-handers. But ironically, her book often sounds like a management magazine—slick, heavy on the three-step solutions, too much of a gloss on complex social issues. As an introvert reader, I would have preferred a quirkier, more personal tone. And I couldn’t help questioning her explanation of why, for example, teachers like their students to work together in small groups. (No, it’s not just to train children to be corporate team players.)
Still, Quiet’s journey across extroverted America provided enough telling anecdotes and insights to keep me with her. And Cain saves her best advice for last. “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional,” she concludes. “The secret of life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.”