A Noisy Problem With Susan Cain’s Quietness
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
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