Book Review: The Power of Introverts vs. Extroverts

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Most people think of extroverts and introverts in simple terms: introverts are afraid of social situations, and extroverts live to be the life of the party and the center of attention. The reality is much more nuanced. Susan Cain’s well-researched book on the subject, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking examines the differences between the two, specifically how society prizes extroverts and frowns on introverts.

ExtrovertAn extrovert is defined as one who is recharged by socializing, risk, and taking action. Extroverts get antsy when alone for too long and not enough is happening. An introvert is one who recharges with quiet and solitude, who has less tolerance for stimuli, is more cautious and thoughtful. Extroverts can party all night long; introverts prefer a good book in a quiet place.

Our society prizes extroversion, and introverts are pressured to be like them if they want to succeed professionally and socially. Motivational speakers like Tony Robbins preach that extroversion is the ideal, what Cain refers to as “extroversion on steroids”. If you want to succeed, you have to be out there, in perpetual motion all the time, always moving forward, don’t stop to smell the roses.

In the workplace, extroversion is highly encouraged, sometimes to the detriment of productivity and morale, a point Cain makes persuasively. Solitude is a more powerful generator of innovation than brainstorming or working in teams (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak did his best work late at night with no one else around). We’re told that working in close quarters with others is the key to heightened productivity, teamwork and success, so much so that corporate cultures have revolved around this belief for decades, designing their workflow, procedures and office buildings to foster this concept.

However, repeated studies, of diverse types of groups over decades, have shown that teams that worked closely together performed measurably worse than teams that were allowed more solitude. People formed better, and had more successful and productive ideas on their own than in a group. People in brainstorming sessions were found to believe they produced better results than they really did. Not only that, but people in a group had no idea how much they were influenced by extroverts in the group, even if the extroverts reached erroneous conclusions. Sometimes such a dynamic can have disasterous consequences.

Gordon_GekkoCain submits that a primary factor in the 2008 stock market crash (and the resulting economic devastation) was the dominance of extroverts, energized by an ever-expanding financial bubble, drowning out the more cautious voices of introverts. Indeed, some of the most brash dealmakers ended up the biggest losers, while the more quieter, careful traders fared much better. The point is not to demonize extroverts, but to argue that introverts can provide an important counter-balance to the energetic, frenzied pace of extroverts.

Cain also tackles the issue of when introverts act like extroverts and vice-versa, making the point that “…introverts are capable of acting like extroverts  for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.” In other words, acting like an extrovert to do an utterly unfulfilling job is a recipe for failure. Cain offers insight to guide introverts to careers where this dichotomy would not be so ironic and stressful.

Near the end of the book, she also examines relationships of introverts-extroverts, the conflicts that can arise when these two types become partners, and also helping children who are introverts in an educational system that emphasizes extroversion.

Cain’s book is at times heavy with lots of research, and some of it can be a bit of a slog, but the underlying points she makes are very relevent today: our assumptions about work and society (teamwork, open offices, rah rah enthusiasm is the only way to succeed) are provably false. As someone who needs solitude to recharge, who does his best work when it’s quiet, I found this book compelling, insightful and validating.

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