The Power of Being an Introvert in a World That Can't Stop Talking
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In more recent decades, as the importance of who you know has increased even more in proportion to what you know, so has networking and making a "good" (i.e. extroverted) impression grown ever more pertinent to getting ahead. In the contemporary paradigm of how to succeed in business (or just about anything else, it seems) without really trying, personality trumps character every time.
Just how pervasive the ethos of extroversion has become emerges from Cain's visits to such varied institutions as the Harvard Business School and Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in southern California. At Harvard, where study groups and group socializing are a way of life, she meets introverts who feel pressured to spend as little time alone as possible-and to talk up as often as possible. At Saddleback Church, she interviews a cerebral evangelical pastor who struggles to find a comfortable role for himself in an organization that expects its leaders to be enthusiastic and outgoing. At both places, it seems, sociability is viewed as a higher virtue than solitude.
One of the most disheartening aspects of the culture of extroversion, Cain finds, is the credence it gives to the widespread assumption that it's always better to work/study/think/brainstorm as part of a team or in groups than to go it alone. But research tells a different story. For instance, in theory, offices that do away with doors and private spaces will promote team bonding and cooperation. The actual outcome is higher turnover of employees, who are less productive (because of the increased noise and interruptions) and more insecure (because of the worry that others are eavesdropping on their conversations).
Then there's the idea that we learn more efficiently from one another in groups than individually. In some cases, perhaps, but study after study demonstrates that creativity, innovation, and expertise are much more robust when work is pursued in solitude with deliberate focus. As for the highly touted process of group brainstorming, psychologists have repeatedly shown it doesn't work, for three reasons. As Cain explains, "The first is social loafing; in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking; only one person talks or produces an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehension, meaning the fear of looking stupid in front of one's peers." The result: what Cain calls "The New Groupthink," a style of learning that encourages conformity, while discouraging marching to one's own drumbeat.
Ultimately, the extroversion bias finds its most distressing manifestation in parents who worry that their quiet, introspective children aren't measuring up to their ideal of successful (i.e. outgoing) personalities. Rather than pathologizing their children's temperament, Cain wisely advises Mom and Dad to "step back from their own preferences and see what the world looks like to their quiet children." Recognize that the social whirl may stress out your kid, even if it stimulates you. Cain also suggests strategies for adult introverts who are seeking to make their way in a world of extroverts. Many are lessons in self-confidence or pep talks on letting go of self-consciousness. These include getting used to socializing by starting in small doses; finding places to decompress before and after speaking in public; scheduling brief, private, quiet times into your day; thinking of yourself as a "fake" extrovert and playing the role.
None of these tips is profound, and Cain can overstate her case. Her examples of great introverts in history can seem to include every admirable person ever born. I wish she'd delved further into how time and experience can affect temperament over a long life span. She uses herself as an example of someone who, through practice, has learned to mold an outgoing exterior to cover up a natural reserve. As someone who's gone on a somewhat similar journey, I wanted to ask how much was "overcoming" reserve, and how much was simply a matter of learning, with time and practice and positive feedback, to be less self-conscious and less awkward socially? Rather than new insights, Cain just seems to be recycling Dale Carnegie.