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Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts’

Happy New Year, all! As 2013 arrives, so too does the halfway point of those blissful six weeks called the summer holidays. One thing I really enjoy doing during the break is catching up on some reading that I otherwise struggle to find the time to do during school term. Currently at the top of my reading list are Susan Cain’s fantastic book Quiet: The Power of Introverts and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The former has been recommended to me by several colleagues and was also brought to my attention when I viewed the author’s passionate TED talk (accessible below). The latter was a thoughtful gift from my baseball-mad partner who has just returned from the US. I suspect this is a not-so-subtle attempt to further educate me in the intricacies of his beloved game.

Whilst I am yet to get stuck into Moneyball, I have just finished reading Cain’s Quiet, which is, without a doubt, one of the most refreshing, enlightening and thought-provoking books I have read. Cain explores the nature of introversion and extroversion and considers how in western countries there exists an ‘extrovert ideal.’ She argues that this ideal often dictates people’s perceptions about how success is achieved and what kind of people achieve success in their lives. Because it is perceived that extroverts gain more power, wealth, confidence, and so on, Cain, backed by wide-ranging research, suggests that introversion is often unfairly undervalued and pathologised.

The book considers extroversion and introversion as being on a spectrum, and each person will lie somewhere along that line – not all introverts will be entirely withdrawn all of the time, and most extroverts will have some degree of introversion about them. It looks at how many of the world’s great leaders have been introverts (including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Rosa Parks, and Gandhi) because of their innate ability to listen to others and take the time to consider prior to acting, unlike some their more headstrong counterparts. Of course, this is not to say that extroverts can’t be great leaders, but outcomes can often be very different. Introverts can also be fantastic public speakers, sales people and work in other highly communication-driven roles, but often bring their own distinctive strategies for rising to the challenge.

Cain also explores the cultural differences between western countries and Asia and how that affects which personality type is more highly valued. She undertakes a particularly interesting analysis of the clash of cultures that Asian-Americans often find as they try to balance the more introspective, reflective approach with an emphasis on listening, reading and writing that is valued in Asia with the more verbal western approach.

Finally, Cain looks at the implications of this refreshed perspective on introversion for education. Current educational trends champion verbal communication, constant group work and connection with others. But at what cost to those students who would truly prefer to work individually, and flourish that way? This is certainly not to devalue group work, but as an introvert myself, I know how exhausting and overstimulating it can be to be constantly working with others. Some children, teenagers and adults, just need time to enjoy solitude. Not loneliness. Solitude. To think. To reflect. To create.

Personally, I found this book incredibly refreshing and helpful. As I read, I found so many similarities between myself and Cain’s introverted subjects that it is becoming apparent that what I used to think was ‘something wrong with me’ (a tendency to prefer time at home alone over a social occasion, a preference to work on a task individually and in my own way, an aversion to large groups of people) may actually be a strength rather than a problem to be ‘treated’. Of course, there will always be occasions when I have to bring out my extroverted side – my role as a teacher requires that of me. But I feel more comfortable doing that at school because I love my job, which makes it far easier to take myself out of my comfort zone in order to achieve what I want to achieve.

So I suppose the lesson here is that, as educators, we will inevitably have both extroverts and introverts in our classroom. How will we cater for all of them? Extroverted students may come to our attention more quickly than their quieter counterparts, so Cain calls for some “[focus] on introverted children, whose talents are too often stifled, whether at home, at school, or on the playground.”

The following passage, found in the Conclusion of Quiet summarises beautifully the lessons that I will take from this wonderful book:

“Whether you are an introvert yourself, or an extrovert who loves or works with one, I hope you’ll benefit personally from the insights in this book. Here is a blueprint to take with you:

Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest. Work with colleagues you like and respect. Scan new acquaintances for those who might fall into the former categories or whose company you enjoy for its own sake. And don’t worry about socializing with everyone else. Relationships make everyone happier, introverts included, but think quality over quantity.

Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it…

Respect your loved ones’ need for socializing and your own for solitude (and vice versa if you’re an extrovert)…

Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to…

If your children are quiet, help them make peace with new situations and new people, but otherwise let them be themselves…

If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentles, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasms for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth-century art. They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow…

If you’re a manager, remember that one third to one half of your workforce is probably introverted, whether they appear that way or not…

Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality.”

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