Notes on Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain

I read this book shortly after its publication, in order to write a review of it for my side gig. I have to admit I didn’t take my time, and not much of it really stuck, although I was impressed by how scholarly and accessible it is.

Since then, of course, the book has become something of a conversation-starter all over the country, especially in workplaces, and Cain has become a champion for an interesting cause. Also since then, I’ve grown to admire other writers who call her a friend and colleague (most notably Adam Grant). I haven’t seen her TED Talk yet, because mostly I don’t care for TED Talks, but I think I’ll give it a look when I get through this re-read.

2020 is my year of finishing unfinished books (2019 was my year of re-reading long-loved titles from my past), so I’m starting with Quiet, a book I technically finished but didn’t actually finish since I read it so quickly. Here will be some notes for posterity.

8 thoughts on “Notes on Quiet by Susan Cain

  1. 2020 is my year of finishing unfinished books (2019 was my year of re-reading long-loved titles from my past),…

    For what it’s worth, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about your reaction to the books you re-read. For example, do you think of the books differently? If so, in what way? Did you get anything new or surprising from the experience? If you rather not get into this, that’s fine, too.

    By the way, I don’t know if you’re still reviewing business books, but I would be interested in hearing what you learned from these books. For example, what were insights or information that stood out to you the most? Are there any ideas or principles that seem to appear again and again? What things did you disagree with?

    1. I’m a little hesitant to get into my takeaways on the business books. Whenever I’ve brought up some of them, your tendency has been to dismiss them with a “that can’t work in the real world” kind of reaction. Since I’m not armed with the books whenever this happens, I can’t point to specific research or anecdotes highlighting the assertions. This puts me in the weird position of having to defend ideas that aren’t mine, with no evidence from the people who make the assertions. It’s a little stressful. I’m not really sure what’s a better way to share the stuff I’ve gleaned while welcoming disagreement and avoiding the stress at the same time.

      Additionally, my inclination is to embrace radical ideas, especially those which encourage people to act as their best selves, while yours (I know you don’t want to hear this) is to insist on people’s darker tendencies, a leaning toward getting away with whatever they can. This gets a little depressing. Is there a way to have the conversation without my feeling that we’re all incapable of elevating ourselves to higher ideals?

      Two examples, which I suspect you don’t remember, which is fine because I wouldn’t have expected these conversations to be significant to the participants.

      I mentioned how Pixar’s philosophy is to solve problems, not to blame people, as when one person accidentally erased a ton of work. You insisted that unless someone is personally accountable, such mistakes will happen again, and people aren’t encouraged not to make them. I (and Pixar) insist that without the fear of being “in trouble” for a mistake like this, the person who makes it is likelier to own it immediately, which leads to better problem solving, and that pride in one’s work and belief in the team motivate them not to make similar mistakes.

      I also mentioned how some companies have no-firing, no-layoffs policies. You felt that without the possibility of firing, people regress to their baser tendencies, mostly to get away with whatever they can. I insisted that when you know your company believes in you and is willing to work with you on shortcomings, your inclination is to do better for your employer and your teammates, and then to stick around longer, rather than seek opportunities elsewhere.

      I suppose we can have the conversation if I just stay away from the more radical ideas, and stick to topics I know you favor, like what good leadership looks like according to successful leaders. There is a lot of this in my reading.

    2. It’s a little stressful. I’m not really sure what’s a better way to share the stuff I’ve gleaned while welcoming disagreement and avoiding the stress at the same time.

      Since I know you feel this way, what I can try to do is just listen to what you’ve gleaned without really expressing my opinion, especially when I disagree with it. I think I’m a little better at doing this now, as long as I remember that you’re not interested in a debate.

      Additionally, my inclination is to embrace radical ideas, especially those which encourage people to act as their best selves, while yours (I know you don’t want to hear this) is to insist on people’s darker tendencies, a leaning toward getting away with whatever they can.This gets a little depressing. Is there a way to have the conversation without my feeling that we’re all incapable of elevating ourselves to higher ideals?

      If I advocate for having some lines that can’t be crossed–and if they are, some negative consequence should occur–do you think that is equivalent to believing that people aren’t capable of elevating themselves to higher ideals? If so, then I think if I express my position on this, the conversation will be depressing for you, and we should just talk about other things.

      I suppose we can have the conversation if I just stay away from the more radical ideas, and stick to topics I know you favor, like what good leadership looks like according to successful leaders. There is a lot of this in my reading.

      I was just genuinely interested in your biggest takeaways, the most insightful things you learned, and any sort of patterns or consensus over ideas. When we talk I’ve generally seen this as an opportunity for debate, but if I don’t engage and just focus on what you’ve learned, maybe the interaction will be more fruitful and pleasant.

  2. Perhaps thoughts on re-reading stuff would be good for a separate topic. I’m getting back to Susan Cain now.

    From the intro:

    Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality — the “north and south of temperaments,” as one scientist puts it — is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

    Cain cites our choices of friends and mates, how we make conversation, how we resolve differences, and how we show love. How we choose our careers and whether or not we succeed at them. How likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from mistakes, place big bets on stock markets, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.”

    She mentions the neuro-physiological aspect of these personality types, which are recent observations, but says, “Poets and philosophers have been thinking about introverts and extroverts since the dawn of recorded time”

    The intro is framed around the relationship of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks — extrovert and introvert.

    “We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts,” she writes, “which means we’ve lost sight of who we really are.”

    One-third to one-half of Americans are introverts, depending on which study you look at. One out of every two or three people you know.

    She mentions that the stat can be surpising because so many of us pretend to be extroverts, and some of us even fool ourselves, until some major life event jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.

    This is where she brings up a phrase she returns to repeatedly: the Extrovert Ideal:

    The omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypical extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all to often we admire one type of individual — the kind who’s comfortable putting himself out there. Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.

    There’s a quote here that, according to Kindle, has been highlighted by 13, 786 people, that basically says introversion, sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness are second-class personality traits.

    I didn’t highlight this sentence, but the one right after it: “Intoverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

    Certainly true, and as I grew more aware of it, I adjusted my teaching style to accomodate for the different types. As a student who has always hated group work, beginning in my fourth or fifth year teaching, when I assigned group projects (since some student do thrive in groups), I offered a “solo option” for people who preferred to work alone.

    Before I did it the first time, I expected all the super students to go solo, but it was about fifty-fifty. Some chose to work with other super students, which might be expected since they tend to hang out together, but a lot just worked with whoever they were friends with.

    Most students chose to work in groups. It was something like 3 to 1 in favor of groups.

    My math curriculum (I didn’t create it) was based on the very (backed by research) premise that students learning math in groups learned it and retained it better. I made it work by assuring students that quiet participation was still participation.

    We also switched groups every unit, not to mix them up (because I have always hated the justification for group work we were always given: you have to learn to work with all types to prepare you for the real world) but to find the best fit for each student.

    I can’t say what I did would have even been feasible at other schools. My math classes were tiny. I never had more than 10 students in a math class. This was of course by design. Smaller classes demanded (and enabled) knowing my students well enough to see what worked best for each one — it was the expectation.

    But this isn’t about my teaching; it’s about trying to make my piece of the world, the classroom, more accomodating to introverted students while not losing the extroverted students. If one of every two or three students was in a wheelchair, of course the actual physical construction of classrooms would be different, as would be the materials and methods. If one of every two or three students is an introvert, something similar should be considered.

    She mentions science, but I won’t get into it too deeply here because I know she details it in the rest of the book — this is still the intro. But science backs up this concept of the Extrovert Ideal. Talkative people are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Similarly, fast talkers vs. slow talkers.

    Without introverts, Cain asserts, the world would be devoid of the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” Chopin’s nocturnes, the Cat in the Hat, Charlie Brown, Animal Farm, E.T., Google, and Harry Potter.

    It’s a powerful illustration but something of a fallacy. These people got there first; it doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t have gotten there later if introverts didn’t happen to go there. Although I suppose they would look different because they would have been arrived at by different humans.

    And here we get to the real thesis of the book, which is that introversion isn’t something to make excuses for, but to celebrate, because introverts by their very nature bring talents and other assets to whatever situation they’re in.

    This is true of the workplace, which Cain probably cites more often than any other setting in this book, as it is true of diversity in general, which is something to keep in mind in a book like this. Other books I’ve read discuss the power of diversity; this one focuses on one often underrepresented (or unconsidered) kind of diversity.

    This struck close to home: “Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favor of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners.”

    Important point: there is no all-purpose definition of extroversion or introversion — there are almost as many definitions for these terms as there are personality psychologiests. They generally agree on a few general things.

    Also, “We can’t say that every introvert is a bookworm or every extrovert wears a lampshade at parties any more than we can say that every woman is a natural consensus-builder and every man loves contact sports … this is partly because we are all gloriously complex, but also because there are so many different kinds of introverts and extroverts.”

    “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, though, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.”

    Okay, that’s the intro. My notes aren’t as detailed in the rest of this book. Intros tend to be great for highlighters, though, since they kind of tease what’s in the rest of the book.

  3. Also, “We can’t say that every introvert is a bookworm or every extrovert wears a lampshade at parties any more than we can say that every woman is a natural consensus-builder and every man loves contact sports … this is partly because we are all gloriously complex, but also because there are so many different kinds of introverts and extroverts.”

    Building on this, as I read your post, one question came to mind: How many people are extreme extroverts or introverts–i.e., people who strongly exhibit qualities of one of the categories, but not much of the other? My guess is that these people are fairly uncommon, and that most exhibit traits from both categories, while slightly leaning towards one category over the other. Does the author provide an answer to this question?

    1. Interesting question, because in the very next sentence after this quote, Cain writes

      As Jung felicitously put it, “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

      It’s a spectrum, and because personalities are so complicated, even the most extroverted among us may exercise caution before action (I think that’s you), and the most introvted may be talkative and enjoy taking risks (that’s me).


    Chapter 1: The Rise of the “Mightly Likeable Fellow”: How Extroversion Became the Cultural Ideal

    A short, manageable chapter, much to my gratitude. Only 15 pages.

    Cain tells the story of Dale Carnegie, whose parents were farmers living in poverty at the turn of the 20th Century when he was growing up. He was shy and awkward. When it was time for him to go to college, his family actually moved closer to the university, so he wouldn’t have to spend money on housing and food.

    As a frosh, Carnegie noticed that students who won campus speaking contests were seen as leaders. He entered a bunch of the contests and lost them all, but he kept at it until he became an excellent speaker. Then he started coaching others, who also did well, and the Carnegie Institute grew from this. An empire built on winning friends and influencing people by presenting yourself a certain way.

    Cain uses this story to illustrate how urbanization was the switch, shifting us from a country valuing character above all to a country valuing personality above all.

    I like this framework. It reminds me of how Neil Postman used emerging technologies (the printing press first, then television) to frame our shifts in how we talk about (and therefore think about) important ideas.

    When we were a rural society, everyone knew everyone, and your relationships were built on being of good character, because you were stuck with the people in your town. As we moved into cities, we worked with people we didn’t know, and we lived away from the people we worked with, so quickly selling yourself as a kind of person was rewarded above actually being that kind of person.

    There’s more to it, but this is the gist of this chapter:

    Carnegie’s journey reflected a cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the twentieth century, changing forever who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children. America had shifted from what the influential culture historian called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality — and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover.

    A cool metaphor Cain points out is in self-help books, which she says have always been popular. She calls The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) a kind of self-help book, which I think is stretching things.

    However, she cites self-help books of the nineteenth century, which were “less religious but still preached the value of noble character … like Abraham Lincoln.”

    By 1920, popular self-help books focused on outer charm, rather than inner virtue. Knowing what to say and how to say it. Creating personality creates power. Having command of manners to establish your reputation.

    She also examines (not extremely deeply; just enough to make a point) the way consumer good were advertised. Buy this thing not because of what it does, but because of how it makes you look.

    I like this quote:

    But with the advent of the Culture of Personality the value of formality began to crumble, for women and men alike.

    Rather than paying a call on a young woman, for example, a gentleman learned how to toss flirtatious lines to get women’s attention, and if he was too timid around women he risked being thought gay.

    Cain goes into the emergence of the Inferiority Complex and how it emphasized gregariousness as the norm. Quietness was a complex, an abnormality. And colleges began emphasizing outgoingness as preferable. A Harvard provost said in the 40s that Harvard should reject the “sensitive, neurotic” type and the “intellectually over-stimulated” in favor of boys of the “healthy extrovert kind.” A few years later, a Yale president described the ideal Yalie as not a “beetle-browed, highly specialized individual, but a well-rounded man.”

    This is where we started to get the idea of well-rounded extracurricular activities as desirable to colleges.

    In the Fifties, a pharmaceutical company released an anti-anxiety drug that became the fastest drug in American history; by 1960, a third of all prescriptions were for this drug or another, similar drug.

    This all wasn’t invented in 1900s America. Cain points out the very system of education in ancient Greece as an example, continuing with the Romans for whom the worst punishment was banishment from the city, and extending to America’s founding fathers with their oratory skills, and even the style of religious evangelism which favored loud, showy sermons. She cites an Andrew Jackson campaign slogan when he ran against John Quincy Adams for the presidency (a general vs. a professor): John Quincy Adams who can write / And Andrew Jackson who can fight.

    The fighter beat the writer. This uncomfortably reminds me of our last two presidents.

    Fast-forwarding to today when Social Anxiety Disorder is a pathology listed in the DSM-IV. This part really resonates with me because I taught students with SAD and, like many of the abnormalities in the DSM, it’s only a disorder because of the contexts in which people who have it exist. In a world more accommodating and more celebratory of introversion, a person who’s anxious in the company of others isn’t pathological, the way a person in a wheelchair isn’t disabled if stairs don’t exist in the world, and people with learning disabilities don’t have disabilities at all if they’re in the right learning environment.

  5. Chapter 2: The Myth of Charismatic Leadership
    (The Culture of Personality, a Hundred Years Later)

    In a much longer second chapter, Cain explores three instances of modern American culture where the Culture of Personality is nurtured: a Tony Robbins self-empowerment seminar, Harvard Business School, and Saddleback Community Church (or whatever it’s called — the megachurch where Rick Warren is the pastor).

    One reason the chapter is longer is the extended narrative. Cain actually attends a Tony Robbins event, then hangs around at Harvard Business for a few days, then attends a service at Saddleback. The narrative is very well written, and it’s interspersed with the social science stuff.

    There’s no question that the Tony Robbins event is training in extroversion, or at least in extroversive behavior.

    This made me smile:

    Greeters wearing UPW (“Unleashing the Power Within”) T-shirts and ecstatic smiles line the entrance, springing up and down, fists pumping. You can’t get inside without slapping them five. I know, because I try.

    This would have been me.

    Robbins leads the participants (packing an arena in Atlanta) through a role-playing simulation where they introduce themselves to each other.

    This exercise seems designed to show how our physiological state influences our behavior and emotions, but it also suggests that salesmanship governs even the most neutral interactions. It implies that every encounter is a high-stakes game in which we win or lose the other person’s favor. It urges us to meet social fear in as extroverted a manneras possible. We must be vibrant and confident, we must not seem hesitant, we must smile so that our interlocutors will smile upon us. Taking these steps will make us feel good — and the better we feel, the better we can sell ourselves.

    A lot of this might seem like a no-brainer to any of us who went to college and entered the professional world. But it wasn’t for me. I had to figure this stuff out, and I spent my last semester of school teaching myself how to do these things. Even today, before entering a professional setting (or something similar), I spend a few minutes coaching myself. “Look people in the eye,” I say softly. “Shake hands. Say it’s nice to meet you. SMILE.” I don’t need as much self-coaching now as I did then, but I still do it.

    When I used to teach communications skills to ninth-graders, I spent a unit on the in-person formal introduction, teaching these young men and women how to introduce themselves in a social setting. I coached the handhake, the smile, the looking-in-the-eyes, and even the smalltalk. Then one day I invited people in the front office for a stand-up social (sodas and ice in plastic cups) so my students could demonstrate to themselves and each other what they learned. It was the kind of instruction I know I needed but never got.

    Which is weird, because many people in recent years have complimented me on my phone etiquette. My parents taught me how to speak politely on the telephone, a thing that’s second nature now. I don’t remember them ever teaching me how to meet people.

    Cain is careful to point out that Robbins means well, and that many people get a great deal out of his pricey seminars. One of Cain’s friends says Robbins improved his business and made him a better person, and when the friend delivers his own seminars, he’s not really acting anymore — he is the person he wanted to become when he first attended.

    As you might imagine, Harvard Business School is like elite extrovert academia. Cain describes the students she sees as carefully dressed, all discussing their next pub crawl or recounting their last travel junket.

    When they ask me what brings me to campus, I say that I’m conducting interviews for a book about introversion and extroversion. I don’t tell them that a friend of mine, himself an HBS grad, once called the place the “Spiritual Capital of Extroversion.” But it turns out I don’t have to tell them.

    “Good luck finding an introvert around here,” says one.

    Again, Cain is careful to point out that Harvard Business School works. It graduates leaders in business. But she cites an activity all first-year students do on their first day. It’s a group activity called the Subarctic Survival Situation.

    In the scenario, your group has crash-landed a float plane in the subarctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border. The groups have salvaged fifteen items from the plane, stuff like a compass, sleeping bag, axe, and so on. Then they are asked to rank them in order of importance to the group’s survival. Students rank the items individually, then they work together to rank them as a team.

    They score their rankings against some expert’s to see how well they did. Then they watch videotape of their team’s discussions to see what went right or wrong.

    They’re supposed to work collaboratively. “The group fails,” writes Cain, “when any of its members has a better ranking than the overall team. And failure is exactly what can happen when students prize assertiveness too highly.”

    One student Cain spoke to was in a group which included a guy who had spent lots of times in the northern backwoods. He had lots of good ideas about how to rank the salvaged items, but his group didn’t listen to him because he expressed himself too quietly.

    The student said his group’s action plan was based on what the most vocal people suggested. When the less vocal people put out ideas, the ideas were discarded, even though they would have kept the group alive and out of trouble. They just weren’t as convicted as the vocal group members.

    Cain draws the connection to the business setting. Assuming there are just as many good ideas among a company’s introverts as extroverts, the company that lets the extroverts lead the way is missing out on half its good ideas.

    If you’ve ever left a meeting and then immediately emailed the meeting’s leaders to add your thoughts because you couldn’t really get them in, you know what I’m talking about. I do this all the time, and I’m usually not a quiet participant in meetings. I just find myself acquiescing to the more forceful personalities, although I will usually find one space in which to insert my (usually contrarian) point of view, just because I feel someone should.

    A BYU professor studied the CEOs of 128 major companies and found that those considered charismatic by their top executives had bigger salaries but not better corporate performance.

    Cain cites a few very successful (based on company stock performance) CEOs who are introverts and explains how they lead the way they do.

    I like this part because it’s about Adam Grant, whom I admire enormously.

    What do introverted leaders do different from — and sometimes better than — extroverts?

    Adam Grant conducted two studies. In the first, he and his colleagues analyzed data from a top-five U.S. pizza chain. The weekly profits of stores managed by extroverts were 16% higher than the profits of those led by introverts, but only when the employees were passive types who tended to do their jobs without exercising initiative.

    Introverted leaders had the exact opposite results: when they worked with employees who tried to improve work procedures, their stores outperformed those led by extroverts by more than 14%.

    Extroverts do better than introverts when they are managing introverts. Introverts do even better than extroverts when they are managing extroverts. It makes sense.

    In the second study, Grant’s team divided 163 students into competing teams. The teams were supposed to fold as many t-shirts as possible in ten minutes. Each team also had two members who were actors (they didn’t know this). In some teams, the actors were passive, following the leader’s instructions.

    In other teams, one of the actors said, “I wonder if there’s a more efficient way to do this.” The other actor added that he had a friend from Japan who had a faster way to fold shirts. “It might take a minute or two to teach you,” he or she said, “but do we want to try it?”

    Introverted leaders were 20% more likely to follow the suggestion, and their teams had 24 percent better results than teams with extroverted leaders.

    When the actors simply did as they were instructed without suggesting an alternate method, teams led by extroverts outperformed those led by introverts by 22%.

    Cain says, “It’s … important for companies to groom listeners as well as talkers for leadership roles.”

    Cain takes a look at the relationship between extrovert and introvert leaders, citing Rosa Parks and MLK, and Moses and Aaron.

    Then she discusses this Malcolm Gladwell concept called Connectors. Some people, and they may be introverts or extroverts, have the ability to bring people together so they can connect. “Connecting people to fix the world over time is the deepest spiritual value you can have,” says the guy who founded Craigslist. He calls Craigslist not a business but a public commons.

    “Social media has made new forms of leadership possible for scores of people who don’t fit the Harvard Business School mold.”

    I’ve felt this for some time, but I would add that capitalizing on social media’s power takes a lot of this out of a platform’s possibilities.

    Cain interviews an introverted pastor, whom she meets at Saddleback so they can experience the worship service together.

    Saddleback doesn’t cater to world-famous leaders the way HBS does, but it plays no less mighty a role in society.

    Like HBS, evangelical churches often make extroversion a prerequisite for leadership, sometimes explicitly.

    I found this almost blasphemous:

    A senior priest at another church confesses online that he has advised parishes recruiting a new rector to ask what his or her Myers-Briggs score is. “If the first letter isn’t an E [for extrovert],” he tells them, “think twice … I’m sure our Lord was [an extrovert].”

    This hits super close to home:

    I can see how hard it must be, inside this world of luau worship and Jumbotron prayer, for Saddleback’s introverts to feel good about themselves. As the service wears on, I feel the same sense of alienation that McHugh [the introvert pastor she’s interviewing] has described.

    I also was grateful to read:

    McHugh finds practices like the mandatory smile-and-good-morning at the start of the service to be painful — and though he personally is willing to endure it, even sees value in it, he worries about how many other introverts will not.

    It’s easy to misread this, but if you try to hear it from an introvert’s perspective, it rings true:

    Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme … If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love.

    Although I have never felt this during a worship service (mature enough I am in my faith to realize my passive participation has nothing to do with how much I love Jesus), I still feel it whenever in groups, we go around and ask people what God has been telling us lately. “It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.”

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