Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book could have been a bit shorter. It does make some excellent points, but it also has a lot of filler on it on the way to making the good points. If you are an introvert, and I will disclose that I am introverted, you will find yourself nodding often as you read it. There is going to be a lot of validation for you. If you are an extrovert with an introvert in your life-- a loved one, a family member, maybe a child who seems a bit too quiet or less social-- then this book will go a long way to explain why those people are how they are and also how to love and deal with them.
In addition, I would have rated it higher, but there was a lot in this book that I already knew. I've taken Myers-Briggs and done other exercises and studying to know quite well about my introverted nature. So a good amount of stuff in the book I already knew. Having said that, I did find a few things of interest, and I did learn some new things. It did give me some additional ideas on how to work in a world that, to quote the subtitle of the book, can't stop talking (or rather, a world that just can't shut the hell up). For many, I think the insight may well be how the extroverted ideal is way overrated and overvalued and how workplaces, if they wish to truly succeed, need to balance things by being inclusive with their introverted folks. Also, the parts on how a lot of group work is bullshit, which I have always known since childhood (just never had the evidence to back it up) will provide good insight. It is not that collaboration is bad, but most of what passes for it in current workplaces is horrible and even detrimental. The book does give other options to make things work better.
To those in the know, the book will likely serve mostly as affirmation and validation material, which in itself is not a bad thing. To those needing to learn, this is definitely a good resource, albeit it could have been a bit shorter. I did take some notes, which I may add to my blog at some point for future reference.
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My notes and reflections from the book:
As an introvert myself, this is one of many statements in the book that I can mostly agree with:
"Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions" (11).
That describes me quite a bit, and I will admit as I write this that I feel like I am taking a risk admitting it. Even in our profession, the gregarious extrovert ideal is valued above all. Whether it is the ideal of the public services librarian as outgoing and sociable to the social moments in an academic job interview (my three readers know what I am referring to. During such interviews, things like the lunch segment where you go out to eat, and you have to make all sorts of small talk with little substance in order for them to see if you are a good fit. It is what it is, and I can say I am pretty good at it by now. Then again, Cain does have a point about introverts who are very good at bluffing or passing). Overall, I do have pretty good social skills, but I do strongly prefer to devote my social energies to those that matter the most, namely family and my few very close friends. I do listen more than I talk, and while I do not have a horror of small talk, I often find it highly annoying and fake. That last is also a reason why I don't particularly see what the big deal with going to conferences to drink and schmooze, which seems to be another thing a lot in our profession seem to value more than the learning experience (yes, they may argue learning happens at the drinking party in the evening. To each their own I suppose).
There is a difference between shy and introvert:
"Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not" (12).
I've often said that I would rather not become a manager in my profession. Notice I use the word "manager" and not the word "leader." There is a big difference (a topic I have discussed a few times in this blog, and in the few times I've gotten comments, it is usually from people who feel the need to defend managers even when they are bad, but I digress. However, if you are one of those people who say, "oh yea?" this post is one example). At any rate, what I am trying to get at is that, if anyone ever put me in charge, this is the kind of leader I would aspire to be, a kind that is sorely missing in our profession, all flashy displays aside. This is a description of an introverted, effective U.S. Air Force wing commander. I think it is something a lot of library managers, and managers overall, can learn from:
" . . . people respected not just his formal authority, but also the way he led: by supporting his employees' efforts to take the initiative. He gave subordinates input into key decisions, implementing the ideas that made sense, while making it clear that he had the final authority. He wasn't concerned with getting credit or even with being in charge; he simply assigned work to those who could perform it best. This meant delegating some of his most interesting, meaningful, and important tasks-- work that other leaders would have kept for themselves" (56).
By the way, the theme of letting people do what they do best and getting the right people to work for you is a theme I have seen elsewhere. The basic point is that a lot of management boils down to hiring the right people in the first place. That is a crucial skill the manager needs to have, and one that, when it fails, can have catastrophic results for a workplace. The book that comes to mind now in regards to this is First, Break All the Rules, which I read last month (link to my brief GoodReads review). It's another book I took some notes from that I may or not post to the blog in the future.
Next, a lesson often missed in workplaces where groupthink is the norm:
". . . an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation" (74, emphasis in the original).
And here is an example to further argue about the importance of solitude, why it is good and often necessary:
"College students who tend to study alone learn more over time than those who work in groups" (81).
Solitude works because it is the time when you can engage in Deliberate Practice:
"When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful-- they are counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them" (81).
And why is Deliberate Practice best done alone? (also on page 81):
- Takes intense concentration.
- Other people can be distracting.
- Requires deep motivation. This motivation is often self-generated.
- It involves working on the task that challenges you the most (emphasis in original).
And again, why solitude and independent work are great:
"That's because top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption" (84).
Now, does your workplace love meetings, brainstorms, and a lot of group work? Well, it turns out a lot of that stuff does not really work:
"Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four" (88).
And if you are going to say, "but but, in brainstorm, no idea is a bad idea" or some other pablum, read the sections on this book about group work and get a clue. There are solid reasons why that little cliche does not work. So if you are piling all your workers into a conference room to brainstorm, say your strategic planning, this can help explain why some of the ideas are less than desirable, why some people may just hold back and not speak, even when you know they may have good ideas, and other issues. The exception is online brainstorming, say using e-mail or chat. However, the reason for that is that, in essence, you have people in solitude reflecting and then writing or sharing their ideas. By the way, the best way to make the online brainstorm work is to send all ideas to a group leader separately. In other words, don't do the thing where one person writes out an e-mail, then everyone, using a difference color font, just adds to it their own ideas and spreads. This simply makes you revert to the brainstorm in the conference room syndrome. Have the group leader instead collect the ideas, review, then share them with the group in a summary way. Cain thus gives insight, expanding on why online collaborations, which by the way seem to be the darling of a lot of twopointopian librarians (borrowing the term from the Annoyed Librarian), often fail:
"We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own. Instead we assume that the success of online collaborations will be replicated in the face-to-face world" (89).
Cain is not saying we should get rid of collaboration. It does need to be substantially refined, and flexible spaces that allow for collaboration in various forms as well as private work spaces are needed.
By the way, here is what I was referring to earlier in terms of some introverts' ability to pass:
"In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly" (209).
Very often they do it so well you can't really tell someone is an introvert. For what they value: their students, their jobs, their families, so on, they will rise to the occasion.
Finally, I thought the following can be useful for introverts who may out in the job market. Cain argues for the importance of restorative niches. Certainly, this seems like pretty good advice:
"Introverts should ask themselves: Will this job allow me to spend time on in-character activities like, for example, reading, strategizing, writing, and researching? Will I have a private workspace or be subject to the constant demands of an open office plan? If the job doesn't give me enough restorative niches, will I have enough free time on evenings and weekends to grant them to myself?" (219-220).