Three Cheers for Introverts

(Adam, you listening?)

By Susan Cain:

(CNN) — The theory of evolution. The theory of relativity. The Cat in the Hat. All were brought to you by introverts.

Our culture is biased against quiet and reserved people, but introverts are responsible for some of humanity’s greatest achievements — from Steve Wozniak’s invention of the Apple computer to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And these introverts did what they did not in spite of their temperaments — but because of them.

As the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”

Introverts make up a third to a half the population. That’s one out of every two or three people you know.

Yet our most important institutions — our schools and our workplaces — are designed for extroverts. And we’re living with a value system that I call the New Groupthink, where we believe that all creativity and productivity comes from an oddly gregarious place….

In fact, we’ve known about the transcendent power of solitude for centuries; it’s only recently that we’ve forgotten it. Our major religions all tell the story of seekers — Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha — who go off alone, to the wilderness, and bring profound revelations back to the community. No wilderness, no revelations.

This is no surprise, if you listen to the insights of contemporary psychology. It turns out that you can’t be in a group without instinctively mimicking others’ opinions — even about personal, visceral things like who you’re physically attracted to. We ape other people’s beliefs without even realizing we’re doing it.

Groups also tend to follow the most dominant person in the room even though there’s zero correlation between good ideas and being a good talker. The best talker might have the best ideas, but she might not. So it’s much better to send people off to generate ideas by themselves, freed from the distortion of group dynamics, and only then come together as a team.

I’m not saying that social skills are unimportant, or that we should abolish teamwork. The same religions that send their sages off to lonely mountaintops also teach us love and trust. And the problems we face today in fields like economics and science are more complex than ever, and need armies of people to solve them.

But I am saying that we all need alone time. And that the more freedom we give introverts to be themselves, the more they’ll dream up their own unique solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

 

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://christianlifehacker.wordpress.com Scott

    As an introvert in an extroverted Evangelical church culture, I have experienced suspicion and and even dislike from extroverts. They thought I was mean because I was quiet. How does quiet equate with meanness?

  • Kyle

    I’m the variety of person who consistently tests on the border of the introversion-extroversion distinction, and I find this idea that solitude is synonymous with being physically alone very curious, because that’s not the full story as I experience it, and a number of famous creative extroverts have challenged this connection as well. Creative extroverts will often claim that the stimuli surrounding them facilitates intellectual connections, hypotheses, and hypothesis-testing through real-time engagement (as opposed to detached analysis), for we all know that stumbling upon a great idea is not strictly the domain of the removed conscious mind, which favors the imagery of a man pensively rubbing his chin by candlelight, tomes swallowing his desk, the next great thing bubbling to the surface almost mechanically through sheer will power. Does a great idea need to be worked and reworked and expanded upon in private? Sure, but most people, and even most extroverts, understand this and allow for this in their passionate pursuits. Warhol did. Newton did. Franklin did. (They weren’t “party animals”, but who is? Actually, Warhol was.) What I’m arguing here seems unreasonable through this article’s rubric because I don’t believe that we’re fated to instinctively mimic the behaviors of those we’re around any more than one is fated to mistake the beliefs of others for his own when he’s alone and finally “liberated” to allegedly pursue his own personal genius (correlation between depression and introversion?). Being “alone” in a crowd is not only possible, it happens regularly, and many great extroverted leaders are object lessons in this. I also would have loved to hear more about how to make work and educational environments more extrovert-friendly. Are they not by their very nature collaborative, dialogical, and operating within certain time constraints, i.e. the school or work day, assuming that sharing a location is a value?

  • Kyle

    Sorry, that should have read: “I also would have loved to hear more about how to make work and educational environments more INTROVERT-friendly.” I swear I’m thoughtfully typing this alone and not in the throes of some party.

  • http://revdrdre.com Dennis

    thanks for this! I say AMEN!

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    The author’s evaluation just doesn’t mesh completely w/ my observations. For instance, at my college, seminary & in some of my wider family discussions many of the most creative thinking comes out of sessions where healthy debate, points, counter points, new info, revisiting old info in light of new info, etc. all come up in open exchanges. Some might consider those involved in those exchanges gregarious, passionate and extroverted; however, the fruit of those type of healthy interactions are provoking new thoughts, broader ideas, connecting diverse threads into unexpected patterns, & seeing further horizons. Whether one is an active listener to such a discussion, or a participant, ISTM such healthy & constructive interchanges can be like tilling the good ground for seeds to grow for all thinking persons in those “alone” working, producing times – whether they present as extroverted or introverted in a group. There’s often a tendency to polarize people on every aspect of their persona, to over-categorize (or divide), to sanctify one or the other. ugh to that tendency.

  • TJJ

    Great piece. I totally agree.

  • http://bigcircumstance.com/ Dave Faulkner

    Cain’s TED Talk The Power of Introverts is well worth a look, not least for the beautiful story 14 minutes in about her rabbi grandfather’s ministry as an introvert.

  • Diane

    Ann,

    I rely on conversation and interaction with other people to stimulate my ideas–but as a good introvert, I go away and process the ideas on my own. I imagine the classic extrovert getting ideas from a discussion and immediately jumping into action, with very much less of that “reflective” step.

  • Gary Lyn

    I’d like to sugggest that the article is based on a common misunderstanding, or a limited understanding, of introversion/extroverion. Introversion is not a preference for solitutde while extroversion a preference for presence of others. Introversion is not being quiet and shy, while extroversion is being outgoing.
    Introverts are people are energized by being along, and therefore, have their energy drained by the presence of others. Just the opposite for extroverts. But that has nothing to do with comfort and abilityt to interact with others.
    I worked on staff of a church with a minister who was an extrovert. I am an introvert. If you watched us on Sunday morning, you would see the same level of engagement and interaction. The only difference: at 12:30, he was ready to gather a group and go to lunch, while I was ready for some quiet down time or a nap.

  • http://www.mwerickson.com Matt Erickson

    Thanks for passing this along. Interesting article. Thanks, too, #7 Dave, for the TED talk reference.

  • Gary Lyn

    That should read, people who are energized by being alone. sorry for all the typos. Forgot to check.

  • NW

    Wow, the “no wilderness, no revelations” line is certainly true for me.

  • Kyle

    Ann (#5), beautifully put.

    Gary (#9), that’s a wonderful point, and in many ways a great supplement to what I was proposing in #2 about the kind of environment that supports reflective thinking, and how solitude is included or excluded from that environment.

  • http://thefallencleric.com David Flowers

    I agree with Gary, but I don’t suspect it’s the article that is based on misunderstands, but rather some of the comments that have sprung from it. It seems to me that Cain simply assumes that the reader knows the real (and not the “pop”) definition of introversion and works from that basis. I am an introvert, a licensed counselor, a pastor, and an instructor in a graduate counseling program, and I did not see Cain grossly oversimplifying. Her points, as brief as the article was, are valid, which is not to say they could not be expanded upon and that exceptions could not be found to what she said. But that is always the case. She is correct in saying that most institutions (meaning the cultures of most institutions) are designed for extroverts. The only place where I saw any real error was all of my reading has suggested that only about 25% of the population are introverts, which more fully explains a) why most institutions and organizations are designed around extroversion; b) why most introverts often feel alone and misunderstood; and c) why most extroverts in fact do not understand introverts and can remain in this ignorance for long periods of time. Introverts (like left handers!) live in an extroverted world and we have to adapt or die. Extroverts are large enough in number so as to be able to assume extroversion is “normal.” Which, statistically speaking, it is. Having said these things, I agreed with most of what Gary said, and I thought Kyle’s observation about how I and E lie on a continuum is critical.

  • http://thefallencleric.com David Flowers

    BTW, no claim that my background invalidates anyone else’s opinions! Just trying to be clear where my perspective is coming from.

  • http://www.thoughtfulpastor.wordpress.com Christy Thomas

    Unfortunately, a snippet like this does not do justice to the book that Cain wrote called “Quiet.” The work is simply spectacular–one of those that I hated to see end. Her research and writing style bring the reader into the world of the introvert and validate it in a way that I have never seen before. Many who are introverts have powerful stage presence and superb people skills–but they see the world quite differently and operate on different principles than extroverts. The section on raising children who are introverts (particularly when one or both parents are more extroverted) is well worth the price of the book. Frankly, as a deep introvert with a strong public presence, this is the first piece of research I’ve seen that explains my life patterns in such a cogent–and sympathetic–way..

  • Rachel

    ahhh, so nice to be understood and appreciated!!! now I want some alone time! ;)


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