Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, By Susan Cain

In short, Susan Cain’s Quiet is the definitive owners guide to the introverted personality, and as such, is a must read for anyone who is, or loves, an introvert.

As an undergraduate, and again as a graduate student in Psychology, I enjoyed the required courses on personality theory. Even if most of the theories discussed in them seemed to reveal more about the inner life of the theorist than of the world as a whole, I found them fascinating and, at times, even amusing. While not one of these theories ever grabbed me by the ears and demanded my full attention, let alone my devotion, I would be remiss if I did not admit to at least finding some of them more intriguing than others.

Freud, in particular, intrigued me. Despite the fact that modern Psychology, and Psychiatry have been rather careful to separate themselves from many of Freud’s claims and assumptions, the truth is, he still holds an important place in the discussion, because he was the first one to devise a systematic approach to explaining the inner workings and architecture of the mind as well as what to do when a person suffered trauma due to a failure in those inner workings. He made the first mental blue prints based on the thinking and technology of the day. And while much of it has since come to be rejected and even laughed at, without his groundbreaking work, we may never have come to have the work of all those who came after him, perhaps none more than Carl Jung.

Jung’s work built upon Freud’s Psychoanalysis and expanded it to include ideas beyond Freud’s comfort or tolerance. However, while Jung’s ideas were rejected by Freud, they were ultimately embraced by not only the field of Psychiatry but also by Anthropology, Archaeology, Theology, Literature, and Philosophy, just to name a few. So it is surprising that while Carl Jung’s name almost immediately springs to mind when someone mentions the collective unconscious, it is rare that his name is even anecdotally tied one of his best-known and commonly discussed concepts, the notion of introverted vs. extraverted personalities.

Today, these terms are used so frequently that they are often stripped of their meaning and therefore usefulness. At best they are used to explain differences to the way people approach life, and at worst are used as overgeneralized stereotypes that label people and impose judgment without understanding. However, as Cain explains in her book, Quiet, regardless of how, or even if, the terms are used, both of these approaches to life are alive and well in the world today. And more importantly, the world is better off for having both of them in it.

The problem, as Cain explains it, is that our current western cultural value system operates on an idea she has called the “Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” This means that in a climate of networking, team building, cooperative learning classrooms, group projects, and ever-increasing competition for ever-decreasing limited resources, it can be difficult for introverts to survive, let alone thrive. Moreover, it can also mean that introverts are often overlooked or judged as less capable because of their quieter and less aggressive mannerisms. Over the course of a lifetime, it can become easy for many introverts to begin to thinking that their very nature might actually be a liability to their success and possibly even to their happiness.

In Quiet, Cain not rejects this ideas, she seeks to disprove it by describing, defining, and detailing the (inner) nature of the introvert and the hidden strengths of the quieter half of the human race. Throughout the book she offers scientific, as well as anecdotal, evidence to support her claims. I really appreciated the inclusion of the scientific data, and not just because I am a recovering data junky, but because it lends an element of validity and credibility to the author’s claims. All too often in books written for the lay audience about psychological topics or phenomenon, the data is all too often left unmentioned, or worse yet non-existent; and I hate that. Without at least some data, or the inclusion of a scientific discussion, we are left with nothing more than a lot of hand waving and slogan shouting. However, the deft manner in which the author was able to weave together data collected from scientific research, anecdotal stories from both famous and anonymous introverts alike, along with her as her own life experiences managed to assuage any fears I may have had on this score. But then, on top of that, to be able to view that tapestry against the backdrop of my own life experience and have it resonate with familiarity was as mind blowing as it was liberating.

I especially enjoyed Cain’s discussion about highly sensitive/reactive individuals. No, this does not mean people who burst into tears because you disagree with them, or who send passive aggressive notes because you forgot their birthday in 1972. Rather, it refers to research that suggests that some individuals simply seem to be more sensitive to stimuli than others and that those individuals tend to be introverted. Again, this may sound like some sort of psychological fancy talk for over reacting, but Cain manages to dispel such concerns by discussing the physiology of the findings using both cutting edge fMRI technology as well as experiments easy enough to do in one’s own kitchen, using nothing more than a drop of lemon juice. Now, while the fMRI was fascinating and exciting to me, the lemon juice experiment is the real moneymaker in terms of explaining this concept the most easily. Highly sensitive/reactive individuals produced more saliva when a drop of lemon juice was placed on their tongues. VERY simply put, perhaps overly so, this suggest that highly sensitive/reactive people simply process more of the world’s onslaught of stimuli than others do, and as such, it may explain their need for quieter, less populated surroundings. It has also been suggested in more recent research (that is far more complicated than would be reasonable to discuss here), that such individuals may also process that information more thoroughly, but may also be more prone to anxiety.

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Through Quiet, Cain’s citation and discussion of numerous scientific studies helps the reader to understand what, and perhaps why, we have introverts, and begins to hint at what such individuals have to offer the world in terms of innovation, scholarship, and even leadership; not just as stereotypic shy but iconoclastic inventor, mousy librarian, or wild haired scientist with no social skills whatsoever. She begins to build an idea, based on this research and her own personal experience, that suggests that contrary to common beliefs and understanding, introverts can make wonderful leaders. Despite being quieter and less aggressive than their extraverted brethren, introverts tend to listen better, and think longer, before making decisions, and as such often were able to lead quietly, gently, and effectively; even if later such efforts required some much needed quiet alone time to recover.

A few noted famous introverted leaders:

  • Rosa Parks
  • Bill Gates
  • Gandhi
  • John Quincy Adams
  • Stephen Wozniak
  • Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess)

I have been an introvert my entire life, but this book helped me to start thinking of it as a strength rather than a liability. I can give it no stronger endorsement than that. It is well written, soundly researched, and logically presented. I highly recommend it.

If however, the plethora of scientific research presented alongside the author’s arguments is off putting instead of than stimulating for you, the author has also written a much less data intense version of this book intended for teens called Quiet Power. In Quiet Power, Cain has taken a much more casual approach to the material, but it is equally well thought out and written. I have already had two of our four children read (and love) it, and will gladly have the other two read it when I no longer have to compete with Harry Potter for their attention.

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