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A Noisy Problem With Susan Cain’s Quietness

March 29, 2012

It is March 2012 and I am in London listening to Susan Cain, who is a phenomenon in the world of current ideas. How influential is she? Well, in the one second it has taken you to read that sentence approximately thirty-two people have viewed her standout talk at TED. And a further 451 have viewed it on YouTube – in the last hour. Her book ‘Quiet’‘The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking’ – sits in the New York Times Top Five – and her piece in the New York Times attracted an astonishing 241 comments alone.

The Introverts Manifesto

Susan Cain. Sometimes 'tis good to be Quiet..

For someone who advocates the world of solitude, quiet and introversion – Susan Cain is big news and creating a lot of noise. At her recent talk at The RSA – she demonstrated why. She has a sparked a fascinating debate around her premise that the world needs more introversion – and less extroversion. More thinking – less talking. We need to spend more time in the chill out room – and less in the noisy bar. It’s proven a simple but wildly popular idea that attracts debate from all sides. In a slight paradox, whilst she promotes an introverted renaissance, she presents as a witty, cool, articulate and confident New York lawyer.  Which is no surprise, as that is what she was. Not exactly the shy introvert. Or is that because she has just ‘pretended to be an extrovert’ – as she tells it. The audience at The RSA loved her championing of the thoughtful, the  reflective, the introvert. And why not? After all – surely the best ideas are always those of the quiet person at the back of the room. Right? And in our modern noisy cluttered world – what good can conversation do? And as for those dreadful team meetings – surely that’s a problem of extroverts. Right? Or is it, as is often the case, when you look at things a little deeper – and have a quiet moment to think about, is it a bit more complicated?

In her book, articles and within her website – Cain proposes in her Manifesto that we need more introversion, on the basis that thinking alone is smarter and more effective. “There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.” Maybe she has a point. But she goes on to propose that the best ideas come from solitude and isolation. “Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.” – and; “Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.”  As somebody who advocates collaborations, alliances and partnerships – and whilst I love her style and the debate – I am never going to agree.

Three Noisy Issues With Susan Cain’s Quiet Thesis:

Firstly – there is an over simplification in her call for introversion that does not acknowledge more fully that we are in fact a mix of introvert and extrovert. Also, that people can be a noisy introvert or a quiet extrovert. It has more to do with your stimulation rather than your noise levels. People also can shift styles and sometimes balance the two. There is no right way or wrong way – we are just big apes trying to communicate, sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes introvert, sometimes extrovert. And not all introverted behaviour is the delicate thoughtful liberal arts librarian. That senior manager introvert in the meeting who may think they are being reflective, considerate and intellectual – actually may be perceived as passive aggressive, arrogant, smug and threatening.

Secondly – according to Cain, the dangers of ‘groupthink’ and those long, loud brainstorming sessions are somehow a justification for greater introversion. To be clear – I am not a fan of mad loud sessions of brainstorming. But I am a huge fan of purposeful collaboration and focused creativity. And there is a massive danger of bath water and throwing out here. Poor brainstorming, poor meetings and poor workshops tend to be managed by poorly organised people. It is not the process – it is the management. It is like saying ‘that pizzeria was awful – just proves Italian food is rubbish’. Or – ‘that lecture was awful, just shows how ineffective studying is’. A tad rash judgement – no? Meetings between people are tools that need to be managed. Conversation and listening is a skill. Most people long to find themselves in that ‘Hot Spot’ in their career. Working in small groups, over time, sharing ideas, building on the strengths of people, finding out something new. And making work mates and confidants along the way too. It was only when she was challenged on the importance of collaboration that she acknowledged how important it was.

And from a deeper sociological point of view – a world full of introversion that seems to be advocated by Cain, leaves me rather cold. Shyness and quietness has its place. Artists, poets, accountants, programmers and hairdressers – whoever we are, we all may need that time away from the hub. I don’t like parties or big family gatherings and can spend days absorbed in blogs and movies – switching off from the external. But Cain’s notion of ‘thinking alone’ – is a  road that can lead closer to the insular views of the Taleban and those  guys in the mid-west who build stockades, collect guns – and don’t like strangers too much. Am I exaggerating? Possibly. It’s a lack of empathy, a lack of trust, a lack of collaborative skills – and a lack of leadership and communication skills that are, in my experience, far bigger issues – than a lack of quietness and introversion.

Finally though – it’s Cain’s views on creativity and innovation that I struggle with most. The myth of the creative genius locked away in the laboratory – suddenly emerging, triumphant – is exactly that – a myth. Invention extends from exploration, pioneering, sharing of ideas and openness to new things. If you want to go somewhere quick, you go alone but if you want to go somewhere far and unknown – you go together. There is a reason why capitalism emerged in cafes. It’s why winning teams focus on 121 communication skills – and why offices are increasingly looking to encourage casual interaction in squishy chairs and get people away from sending emails and holding messy meetings. As Matt Ridley has pointed out, ‘ideas have sex’ – and economic and business history is littered with examples of pioneering that was only achieved by the accidental mixing at just the right time. Lennon needed McCartney. And Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak. Director and actors. The bass guitarist and the drummer. The copywriter and the designer. The manager – and his team. The best of creativity and innovation is about collaboration.

Susan Cain is correct. Life is often too rushed, too noisy, leaving little time to think. We need to logout the system at times – but we should not disengage from the world of conversation and ideas. We may require some peace and some introspection to think through a question and a problem – but building a better solution to complex problems is achieved through a blending of talents, insights and knowledge.  It’s not about rah-rah summer camp cheers, noisy brainstorms and poor meetings. Collaboration is about the collegiate, community, it’s about comrades and team mates – it’s about conversation and listening. And at a guess – although she may not like to admit it, looking at her great presentation style, I reckon Susan Cain would actually be a great team player too.

Thanks to The RSA Events and Susan Cain.

For Susan’s full article in New York Times, see The Rise of the New Groupthink – NYT (versus seclusion and immersion).
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain – review
(guardian.co.uk)
The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance (scientificamerican.com)
For more on collaboration, partnerships and innovation please see Benchstone Limited and andrewarmour.com

15 Comments
  1. Don’t want to be an apologist for Susan Cain, but within her RSA talk, she made all three points that you do. Were you guilty of filtering your listening through your own collaborative preferences.

  2. Andrew Armour permalink

    Thanks for your comment John – really appreciated

    An interesting point. My read and recollection is that Cain only addressed these points AFTER I asked the questions and challenged her assumptions regarding insular thinking V collaboration and the over simplification of her premise that fabulous thinking and solutions extended from ‘Quiet’.

    She did not correct Jon Ronson when he commented during the initial interview that ‘us introverts have all the best ideas’ – she just played to the gallery. It was only when I mentioned that Lennon needed McCartney and that Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak – that she explained the collaborative dynamic. This is just scratching the surface of the role of symbiotic relationships, dynamic collaborations, open innovations..

    Its all very well to say ‘ah, yes, that’s a good point and you’ve raised a good question’ after her talk, her articles and her website do not bring that balance and shade to the argument. Woluld she have explained about Jobs-Wozniak-Ives dynamic – if I had not raised it? Maybe. But somehow, I doubt it. She did not go on to discuss creative teams in agencies, rock bands and jazz trios – or sports teams dynamcis – so I’m not holding out that she’s a fan of smart team work. Her very premise is that society is full of too much team work and noise – and we need to embrace introversion.

    She claimed she was ‘not a polemecist’ – which is a tad disengenuous as her website clearly has a manifesto claiming that ‘solitude is a catalyst for innovation’. This is a massive statement and extrarordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    After the talk I had five people approach me (all of whom are experienced in the area of innovation, coaching and product development) – who were clearly frustrated with her lack of balance and over simplification of the complexity involved in solving problems with a variety of personalities, skills and behaviour. Some found the naievity of her argument just amusing – but others were quite disapointed at the ‘pop sociology’ of her approach that could be a really misunderstood message to people.

    Cain has a really interesting opinion on the topic of introversion – which is lovely and she has a great personal style. But she is by no means an expert in creative problem solving and the complex team dynamics required for sustainable open innovation – a topic which has a vast amount of research and rigour – that disagrees with her on virtually every point.

    From a personal perspective, my ‘filter’ bias is indeed that the power of conversation, adaptation, sharing and collaborative innovation – is much more valuable to social and business progress than personal isolation and introspective thinking.

    And quite happy with that!

    Thanks again.

    Best,

    AA

    Andrew Armour

    • As an ambivert, I would naturally suggest that a combination of isolation and collaboration would be most likely to achieve best results. And not just because the reality of collaboration is generally far removed from its potential.

  3. Andrew Armour permalink

    John –

    You are 100% correct.

    Anyone who has worked in the creative industries, engineering, business development and leadership would agree you need the different styles, noise levels and a time for ideas and a time for knuckling down.

    Its the lack of shade in Cain’s argument that frustrates.

    According to Bulleting of Psychological Typ – 46% of business relationships fail because of an absence of trust, care and understanding – not through a lack of the technical business skills or effieciency. Likewise, Gibbs and Humphries point out that nearly 70% of business alliances fail (as you say, reality ‘removed from the potential’). And Lynda Gratton has pointed out that the organisations best at innovting – are thost that are ‘Hot Spots’ – of openness, conversations, fluidity and fast decision making.

    Its not the technology, the complexity of the situation or the commercial model that prevents innovation and progress. Its the lack of people and conversation skills – that prevents the kind of atmosphere that encourages nimble x-organistion trust, understanding, creativity and cooperation.

    As an aside, this is exactly the kind of situation that has been consistently described to me and colleagues from a whole range of organisations recently and it seems to be such a recurring message we are hearing..

    And in response to it, we’ve created a 1-2 day Workshop programme called ‘CollaborativeEdge’ – to help encourage smarter conversation and problem solving skills across an organisation. The kind of cultural change that is needed cannot just be instructed from a Leadership team tucked up on away days and conferences. It has to be part of essential skills training as a whole so that the individuals inside the business can maximise the ‘collaborative advantage’.

    Best,

    AA

  4. All great points – yours and some of the comments. I have not read the book yet but I have watched the video 2 or 3 times. Susan Cain has taken the introverts main stream and in a global way and I am so grateful for that – I coach introverts!

    I’m an INTJ, so you can have some context or reference.

    My main issue is with her suggestion to put less emphasis on groupthink as she calls it, through having less group work in the work world. I agree with your points and piggyback onto why this approach of more alone work IS a bad idea.

    I love collaborating in my business. There is little way and few ways one individual can make it easily and successfully in business these days. Collaborating brings a variety of types of people together where they can pool their strengths. This increases the possibility of success because you aren’t blinded or stilted by your own style but instead, you can bring the best of each style into play for the success of a project, a team and other stakeholders.

    Still, on the whole, Susan’s message is an excellent one. Bravo Susan Cain.

  5. Andrew Armour permalink

    Thanks for your comments Pat.

    I agree – it is great that she has raised the debate.

    What is sad though – is the lack of debate or awareness of the role of conversation and listening.

    By way of example – There are 335 million internet search result pages on ‘Personality’ and just 89 million for ‘Leadership Skills’. As for conversation and listening – the core of human interaction, collaboration, creativity and development? There are 7 million and 11 million respectively.

    To put this in context: There are 15 million pages on ‘Clown Skills’. :-)

    That’s right. More information and interest (according to Google search) in comical wigs, funny shoes and flour balloons – that human conversation.

    We don’t need more introversion with less conversation to enable us big apes to understand others, create ideas and solve problems.

    We need more of it – and of better quality.

    ‘The conversation I want is one where both participants enter into it on the basis that they will leave it a different person’ – Theodore Zeldin.

    Best,

    AA

  6. I LOVE that quotation. It’s worth sharing, and if someone listens, all the bettter.

  7. I’ve looked through 20 different sites on this and A Noisy Problem With Susan Cain’s Quietness Andrew Armour's Benchstone Blog is definitely the best. Thank you!

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