Monday, 22 October 2012

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

 This guest review comes courtesy of author Oran Ryan, whose book Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger is published by Seven Towers.

Susan Cain’s thesis in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (Penguin Viking, 2012) is a fascinating one. Happily it does not respond well to summarising. It is the type of book one buys and reads and re-reads over a long period to allow the ideas in it to percolate down. Then after absorbing it, one does not lend one’s own copy out. Rather one buys it as a gift for friends. For instance, the copy I am using right now was lent to me by a friend, who had bought a spare copy to lend out. Be warned though: Quiet is hard work at times. But its pleasures far outweigh the effort. (Being a big introvert, you would say that, I hear you say.)

Filled with research from disparate fields, Cain’s book is the product of a lifelong subtle analysis of the place of the introvert (she is clearly an introvert) in a complex, primarily urbanized, heavily populated, technologically advanced, society. This of course excludes many who live in quiet rural places where, if they are introverts, they have ample time to think and reflect on the meaning of things; and if they are extroverts they will be out making connections and forming groups and being as gregarious as their nature dictates. Though this does not hugely affect the thesis of the book, and if we take the premise around Quiet as read, and accept the context in which it is written, then Quiet is unputdownable.

It is filled with theory, with research, and with anecdotes linking the theory with the research. It’s also got great stories about polar-opposite personalities from history who complemented each other (I loved the stories about Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR), neuroscientific analyses of dopamine receptor predisposition in the brains of extroverts and the lesser significance of the same in the brains of introverts; philosophical reflections and positing of moral dilemmas of how and why extroversion became the new western cultural ideal – that we should all be go-getting jolly decent chaps, predisposed to endless teambuilding talks and afternoons at football matches and sporting chitchat and not get too heavy except when we work together in teams on assigned projects. This is an example of how the imposition of teamwork to the detriment of creative solitary work is a blight upon our society and a highly questionable pursuit. Team work then becomes the only way to go and one should never be alone to work out a thorny problem. Cain has a problem with this.

Following on from the ideal of never being alone – our recreational pursuits too, should never be solitary. We should retire to loud bars and clubs filled with music and breezy conversation and bond with our crew and be a ‘decent fellow.’ There’s something wrong, so our cultural values tell us, if we want to be alone. While fully honouring the completely indispensable place of the extrovert as tying so many strands of society together, Cain suggests that this cultural dynamic has mostly excluded the need for long-term solitary quiet and the enormous benefits that the introvert brings not only to culture and art but to science, to business and to psychological typologies of the introvert versus the extrovert. Rather than tell the tragicomic story of Vince Kaminski who as MD of research at Enron, kept telling the Enron top brass they were endangering the company (Page 165), I prefer the cooler, more prophetic story Cain tells a few pages earlier of her years in the 1990’s as a junior associate on Wall Street, analysing a portfolio of subprime mortgage loans – and finding all kinds of alarms going off in her head as she found one irregularity after another in the portfolio. Despite the legal team she was on, summarising their discontent at the company they represented buying the portfolio at whatever cheap price they were offered, their clients went ahead and bought the portfolio. “Yet it was this kind of risk-reward miscalculation that contributed to the failure of many banks during the Great Recession of 2008.” It was. Extroverts take risks. This risk-taking is indispensable for our survival. It needs to be tempered with the reserve and thoughtful long tern thinking an introvert brings to any deal. It’s not a question of IQ. It’s a question of approach.

Cain’s a philosopher at heart and she muses more than anything throughout the book on whether or not temperament determines destiny, and the role of free will in one’s life. In other words: if one’s brain is wired to introversion (or extroversion) can we choose to behave otherwise? What can we freely choose in life? For instance, like her I experience utter dread when facing a crowd, as I have to frequently, but am told by so many friends that they would never for a moment think I am anything other than relaxed and charming onstage. I have learned the techniques of being social, but it depletes me beyond imagining, and I need a long time to regain equilibrium afterwards. Likewise Cain puts herself through public-speaking courses and retreats, and reports back from her alma mater, Harvard Business School’s campus, where everyone’s on a mission and walking with a purpose and talking loudly in bars and clubs and socials about their next extreme sport expedition. Interestingly enough, one of the biggest misconceptions is that extroverts are more social, introverts more antisocial. It’s not how close one is to others emotionally. I am sure we all know of the boisterous, friendly, essentially emotionally distant extrovert. It’s a question of energy-sourcing. It is clear from Cain’s book that both introverts and extroverts need each other; and that all humans need that connection with each other – without which we are mere shells functioning in a vacuum of thought with no direction and no hope.

The final section of the book deals with communication, how introverts and extroverts communicate, the impact of race and ethnicity on the introvert or extrovert ideal whether in marriage or family, socially, in business, how teachers might relate to introverted pupils. The techniques described in these chapters are both clearly explained and replete with anecdotal evidence to bolster an approach which seeks to find a greater strength in complementarities, an acknowledgement, something well-summarised in the conclusion of the book, that though profound differences of approach and style and worldview and philosophies and ways of relating might exist between us, we have the tools to allow equally profound connections to continue between people who might otherwise simply not relate at all.

After finishing this book I wondered how the extrovert bias began in the first place, especially since Cain begins with a discussion around the origins of Dale Carnegie’s books and speeches at the turn of the 20th century. She writes of the rise of the “jolly decent fellow” (something I think that goes further back to the public schoolboy motif and back again to the British Empire’s need for good, decent administrators, but this doesn’t undermine her thesis). She talks too of the cliché of the sporty hail-fellow-well-met who fits right in and is always gunning for the next big thing; the team player, the essentially uncritical thinker who does well and works hard because (s)he does what (s)he is told. To my mind what is being described here is an essentially corporatist psychological type honed to fit into the increasingly internationalised world of big business and global corporations, where thinking is done from the top down and individualism is dangerous to the requirements of the system.

Without becoming Orwellian about it, anyone who has worked within these structures will see that what is being described here and what makes this book so timely and in its own way quite revolutionary, is the depth of the analysis and the fact that it offers real solutions to how this dangerous and destructive trend towards emotional and psychological imbalance might be redressed. This is an important book – and an enjoyable one.


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