Review - Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

I can't recall who first recommended Susan Cain's recent book to me, but whoever you are, thank you! Quiet reads like a comprehensive vindication of a sometimes misunderstood style of moving through the world. As someone who has identified as introverted for many years, I have often felt like something was wrong with me for living according to the hallmarks the author describes. Cain gives voice to these doubts in her book and then gives cheerful definitive answers to them. I'd summarize the thesis of Quiet like this: "American culture under-appreciates introverts and celebrates/idealizes extroverts. This is a foolish prioritization because introverts contribute to the world in many positive ways already and are poised to contribute more." She explores this argument through stories, research, and personal insight. Several of the 12 chapters in Quiet could stand alone as self-contained essays (the introduction, no. 6, and no. 11 come specifically to mind). Others build upon each other quite naturally (1-3 and 8 form one natural grouping, and 4-5 with 7-9 lean into each other nicely). As such, I found the book to be interesting and engaging, but not necessarily a page-turner. It's one that could easily be set down for a week or two and then reengaged later with few consequences to a sense of global understanding.

One of the two most valuable bits Quiet offered me personally I already mentioned. Vindication -- or more precisely, validation. In my mind, vindication seems to presuppose underlying anger connected to injustice. While some introverts might have that experience, I do not. I'm not convinced there has been a conspiracy against me or others with my temperament. I'm not convinced our culture has intentionally sought to block the way for those like me who relish observation, take time to craft retorts, and cherish time spent alone. In short, I don't feel particularly attached to my identity as an introvert. My ego hasn't been bruised by the apparent systematic rejection. And as such, vindicated isn't my gut response. Validation is. This related emotion speaks softly, "You are good enough as you are. You are worthy. Well done. You're just fine." Validation doesn't require a negative experience beforehand or even adversity. It simply blesses unsuspecting pilgrims walking through the world with a cool cup of water, a gentle breeze at ones beck, and a word of encouragement. "Keep the course," it says, "you're on the right path."

When I was in college, I studied classical Greek for almost three years. One summer, I spent 6 weeks in Athens taking intensives on the ancient language. Along with about thirty classmates, I worked full days translating, memorizing, and studying through one of the hottest summers on record. About a week in to our coursework, a group of fellow students organized study groups during off hours. This was in addition to the 5 daily hours spent in class, throughout which students were required to participate verbally and via up-front demonstration. Class time itself felt like an expanded group-study session that already plodded forward at an outrageously slow pace, not a step quicker than the weakest scholar could handle.

I did not attend the extra study-session. And I felt guilty for it the entire time. At one point an uber-outgoing coed of mine pleaded with me to join it, insisting that as more natural students, it was our duty to help tutor the others who were struggling. She and I both were accustomed to earning "A's" but were very different in how we preferred to study. The underlying judgment in her request was something like: if you work alone, you're not only anti-social and lame, you're selfish for not sharing your wisdom or insight with everyone else.

Honestly, I kind of resented the insinuation that leaning into the study habits I knew worked best for me was a selfish course of action. Furthermore, the judgment itself is a red herring.  And how convenient for an unconscious extrovert to tie moral-superiority to her style of moving through the world! I was in school preparing for a life of service, just as they. I actively gave (and still give) myself fully to ministry for others, just as they. I see my life through the lens of how I might best serve the world, just as they. Choosing solitude over the demands of the crowd isn't selfish. In fact, it rather resembles portions of Jesus' style (see Luke 4:42, etc).
I can still hear defensiveness in my reflection on this scenario. Susan Cain's book helps me lay it to rest just a bit more.

The second most valuable bit I gleaned from her book came from her discussion on parenting in light of born-in temperament styles. As the father of two sons, I was already thinking about their personalities in light of the book's arguments long before she broached the topic explicitly in the final chapter. This phrase cut me particularly close to the bone:

"If you're an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain. As a child you might have overheard your parents apologize for your shyness. Or at school you might have been prodded to come "out of your shell" -that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and some humans are just the same.”

As a parent, I get the opportunity to nurture the innate gifts that come with (at least one of) my boys' introversion. And I inherit the responsibility of guarding his heart from a culture that naturally will tell him that he must be different in order to be right. Cain gives a fleshed-out and and pragmatic solutions for working with our children who align more tightly to the introvert end of the spectrum. The discussion she has about over-stimulation, apparent shyness, and novelty was almost worth the price of admission for me. It immediately brought be me back to the way my oldest son waited outside the house for 20 minutes when we went to a friend's dinner party. In the moment, I was embarrassed by his behavior but let it be. Looking back on it, I respect him for standing up for himself, recognizing his limits, and being self-aware. Next time, I hope to express these affirmations and help protect him from the potential judgment of others.

As a whole, I can't recommend Quiet enough - for introverts and extroverts alike. (And I suspect that the experience of working through her material for an extrovert might not be nearly as gratifying.) This dynamic points to my primary critique. As a quite sensitive introvert who's personal calling in life is about inclusion of all people at the table, I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable at times with the way that Cain tended to 'pile on' criticisms for the blind spots of extroverts. Sure, American culture has shifted so that extroversion is our seeming ideal, therefore making introverts the target of unreasonable criticism. However, introverts do have liabilities that come along with their temperament just as much as extroverts. A quick reading of the book might lead one to imagine that it's a one way street and that western culture has got it all backwards: the extrovert ideal shouldn't just not be the ideal, but it's actually bad. While introversion far from being a problem is actually the ideal. I don't at all think this is Cain's primary message or her innate belief. But there are moments when she comes across that way.
If you're an extrovert, read it with grace and generosity. You and the world will be better for it! If you're an introvert, read it with diplomacy and charity; relish in the compliments but stay humble. You and the world will be better for it!

The following is an outline that very briefly describes the content of each chapter. It might be useful in deciding whether or not you want to read the book (or for me, for future reference:)

Introduction: The North and South of Temperament -- The cultural ideal of extroversion and how we define introvert and extrovert.
1. The Rise of the Mighty Likable Fellow -- The historical culture shifts that paved the way for extroversion to become the celebrated temperament.
2. The Myth of Charismatic Leadership -- On teams, introverts have a great deal to contribute if they're heard. In fact, they often have the best ideas and can become great leaders.
3. When Collaboration Kills Creativity -- The most creative people don't create best in groups. Teams should temper required in-person collaboration, encourage deliberate private practice, and keep group sizes small to allow for introverts to bring their best to the table
4. Is Temperament Destiny? -- We are born with unchangeable temperaments largely in place. How we are led and nurtured as kids can impact how varying degrees of reactivity matures into adulthood.
5. Beyond Temperament, The Role of Free Will -- Regardless of how sensitive we are to environments, we do well to align ourselves in "optimal levels of arousal". We can stretch built-in temperament, but up only to a point.
6. Franklin was a Politician, but Eleanor Spoke out of Conscience -- The added value of being an extra sensitive person, eg. An introvert. Introverts tend to feel emotions stronger, are more sensitive to guilt but also empathy. Extroverts and introverts tend to complement each other in these gifts.
7. Why did Wall Street Crash and Warren Buffet Prosper -- The different ways extroverts' and introverts' brains process stimuli helps to explain some differences in their typical behavior patterns. A key aspect of this has to do with seeking a rush from accomplishment vs. delaying gratification and problem solving.
8. Soft Power Asian-Americans and the Extrovert Ideal -- Differences between cultures who place introversion as the ideal instead of extroversion.
9. When Should you Act more Extroverted than you Really Are? -- Because we have the ability to stretch our temperament to a degree, we also have the ability to overdo it. Certain social and professional situations call for traits most naturally possessed by the opposite temperament. No matter if a person is naturally introverted or extroverted, he will need to adapt to be successful.
10. The Communication Gap -- Different temperaments have different social needs and understand or feel intimacy differently. An intimate relationship will look different for an introvert than it does for an extrovert and mismatched friends or couples need to compromise with one another to maintain health.
11. On Cobblers and Generals -- Parenting introverts in light of the content in the rest of the book. This chapter explores shyness, shame, school, and how parents can best usher their children through a sometimes painful season of life.