There’s a meme that runs quietly around the Internet (whose origin I couldn’t locate in order to properly credit) that features the raised fist, ubiquitous symbol of so many protest movements, superimposed with a bold call to action:
Below, you’ll find the small print:
Separately, in your own homes.
It is, perhaps, our famed reticence to gather in groups that has led to the introvert’s preferences for solitude, for quiet, for one-person activities and thinking time being pushed to the margins in favor of the cultural dominance of open office plans, of widespread group collaboration and brainstorming, of spirited interaction.
In the TED Radio Hour podcast featuring Susan Cain and her famous The Power of Introverts TED talk, Cain makes the case for the loss not only to introverts but also the loss to colleagues, the community, and yes, the world, when the dominant working models favor only the working styles of our extroverted counterparts. “We need introverts doing what they do best,” Cain argues (as much as we also need extroverts doing what they do best).
Cain notes that the primary distinctive between introverted and extroverted personalities has everything to do with stimulation. Introverts, she observes, feel “most alive and switched on when in quieter, more low-key environments” while extroverts tend to thrive most in atmospheres with large amounts of external stimulation. There tends to be a bias, however, in the way our social, educational, and professional environments are structured (open floor plans, heavy emphasis on group work and collaboration, etc.). She considers it the new “Group Think,” this notion that “all creativity comes from an oddly gregarious place.”
The podcast references research that suggests that a “majority of teachers report the ideal student is extroverted” even though introverts have better report cards and and are perceived as “more knowledgeable.”
Cain does not call for a world that reverses the bias in order to punish or marginalize introverts. Instead, she encourages listeners to “look for a world that values both.” Collaboration is still needed, she explains, noting that Steve Wozniak was an introvert that worked alone in his cubicle at HP to create the Apple computer, and that he never would have become the expert that he was if he had not been “too afraid to leave his home as a child.” But to make the Apple computer successful, he still had to collaborate with Steve Jobs. History favors times of solitude that precede great revelations, she notes, and also suggests that contemporary psychological research reminds us that we cannot be in a group without mimicking the ideas of the people around us. The better model, she advises, is to have individuals work separately, “free from the distortion of group dynamics,” and then return to work as a team in a well managed process of sharing ideas.
Let’s face it: There will never be an introvert uprising. We would all think a revolution was a great idea until it was time to leave the house for the demonstration. But then we’d look back wistfully at the book on the sofa, the tea cup on the counter, and hang up our coat and hat and use the back of our raised-fist sign to mind-map some new idea before tomorrow’s team collaboration in the conference room.
What is your dominant personality style: introvert, extrovert, or somewhere in the middle? How do you find this affects your creativity? What kinds of environments give you the best chance for ideas to thrive? Give the podcast a listen and come on back to share your ideas with us. (We promise not to be too R-O-W-D-I-E.)
You can check out the podcast here:
For some further reading and listening, check out Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts:”
And you may also enjoy this short interview with Cain about her book:
Photo by Laurent Bartkowski, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.