(Adam, you listening?)
(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.