Book Review: Quiet

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Title: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain – winner of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2012 – nonfiction
First Published: 2012
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars (average rating on Goodreads: 4.02)
Format: Paperback, 271 pages
First line: Montgomery, Alabama. December 1, 1955. Early evening. A public bus pulls to a stop and a sensibly dressed woman in her fourties gets on.

I grew up as an only child and spent a lot of time playing on my own. I didn’t really mind. I had some great friends that I loved to play with and whom I really cared about. But I didn’t mind being alone in my room for hours on end. Sometimes I would actually feel a bit disappointed if I hadn’t been on my own for a while and someone stopped by or called asking me out to play. But I went anyway – it’s what you do. And of course I had fun – just in a different way. Especially if it was just me and another friend. I tended to be uncomfortable and insecure whenever I played with a group of children.

GitteI found this old photo of me as a kid enjoying a moment with my balloons. The picture is taken in my grandparents’ house, which was like a second home to me. I’m so in love with the dress – would love to have it today – in another size obviously.

In a way I still feel the way I did as a child. I need a lot of time on my own to read, blog, think, knit, watch a series or whatever I’m in the mood for. Over the years, I’ve come to understand and value this side of myself. Sometimes it makes me feel weird and I catch myself thinking stuff like “If only I could tell more jokes at dinner parties, if only I were a greater small-talker, more capable at getting my thoughts and opinions through, be more comfortable with a group of strangers …” and other times it feels like I’m in on a secret that no one else know but me. I know it sounds conceited, but there you have it.

Susan Cain’s book not only made me realize that I’m far from alone, she made me understand why I’m like this and see that it’s a good thing being an introvert. Not that it’s a bad thing being an extrovert – it has just as many strengths. But Cain argues that our education and work systems are designed for the extroverts – group work, open office spaces etc. – and that society could gain a lot from being more flexible, allowing introverts to dive in and concentrate on their own and to use their strengths.

This was a revelation to me. In school, at parent-teacher meetings, my parents and I were always told that my written work was good, but I needed to speak up more in class. That was really important. Looking back on my report card, almost every single entry stated that I should speak up more. I agree that you should encourage kids to be more outgoing and aid them in their social development as much as possible. And of course I should be encouraged to speak up in classes. But I think it’s a real shame there was never any focus on the things I could do well. I don’t mean that I wanted more praise, but perhaps encouragement to be even better at what I was good at.

I preferred working on my own. I disliked group work and I hated speaking up in class without having a lot of time to think it through at first – on my own preferably. And I still do. I was that way through primary school, high school, university and at heart I’m still that way in a work-related meetings – unless I’m properly prepared (which of course I always am ;-)). Maybe I could have been much better at what I do well if just one of my teachers had recognized and accepted my introverted nature – instead of trying to make me fit in with the extroverted ideal of the outgoing student constantly speaking her mind. There is a tiny chance that I would be a better employee to day – perhaps a better blogger even if I’d also been encouraged to improve my written proficiencies and work that required concentration. Let me stress again that of course I should be encouraged to speak up more and come out of my shell – my only point is that it’s a shame the focus was only on my “weaknesses” and not my strengths.

Susan Cain explains this issue much better than I:

Our schools should teach children the skills to work with others – cooperative learning can be effective when practiced well and in moderation – but also the time and training they need to deliberately practise on their own. It’s also vital to recognize that many people (…) need extra quiet and privacy in order to do their best work.
(page 94)

In spite of all this, I still consider myself a very social person. I love being with my friends, both one-on-ones but also larger parties. I love going to work and chat with my colleagues in our huge open-office space (14 people!), and I love sharing my ideas and work with other people, I love the friction of a discussion at a meeting where ideas are out on the table.

But! There’s a huge ‘but’ here. I need a lot of time on my own; otherwise I get grumpy and anti-social. Sometimes at work – or nearly every day – I put my headphones on and try to make the office disappear for a while. I need time on my own to think a subject through properly. And there are events that are just not for me: as a kid, I liked camp but the last day was always the best day – now I can see that even though I had fun, being social all day with so many kids at one time for several days in a row was a bit too much for my temper. As a teenager, I liked the idea of going to a music festival, but I just couldn’t enjoy all five days. And it’s the same way now. I love hanging out with my friends and going to parties, I just need to make sure I have almost just as many ‘days off’.

And I guess that’s the key – to recognize your own temper and shape your life thereafter. As Susan Cain cleverly puts it:

We often marvel at how introverted, geeky kids “blossom” into secure and happy adults. We liken it to a metamorphosis. However, maybe it’s not the children who change but their environments. As adults, they get to select the careers, spouses, and social circles that suit them.
(Page 253)

There was just one thing that bothered me about the book: do you see how Susan Cain uses the word “geeky” in the quotation above? That was just one of many hints that introverted are geeks who can’t dress right, whereas extroverts are often fashionably dressed. That may be, but all her other statements are clearly supported by research – this one isn’t! She just suggests it again and again. As an introverted bookworm obsessed with clothes, shoes, style and fashion, I must object from the bottom of my heart! This is the sort of cliché I would expect from – and did see a lot of in – Fifty Shades of Grey. But not here! Either skip these comments or give us some research! Hrmph!

But this was the only thing that bothered me. At one point, I thought perhaps Susan Cain spoke too much in favour of introverts and had too much focus on the introverted strength as opposed to the extroverted. But then I remembered that the book is about introversion. Even the title says so.

I’m really glad I picked this one up. It taught me a lot. It made me think “Oh, that’s me!”, and “So that’s why I felt like hiding when someone at the dinner party asked what I do for a living and all the attention was on me”. It made me accept myself more and not feel weird about needing to get some time alone. But it also made me aware that it’s sometimes necessary to act extroverted to reach one’s goals – to be a success in what you do, to get that boyfriend, or just to have a great party!

Would you like to know if you’re an extrovert or in introvert? Or maybe something in between? Take the test here. And if you´re interested in knowing more about Susan Cain’s book – without actually reading it – you can watch the TED below where she talks about introverts and extroverts:

Susan Cain

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Quiet

  1. I am also an introvert.

    Although I haven’t read the book you mention I have read others like it before.

    I don’t like it when those books about introverts that talk of it like you are a disease or something is wrong with you, and that being an extrovert is simply the “right” way to live and anything else is “wrong.” I happen to like myself the way I am.

    Funny your blog is about books and you talk about your time in school… when I was in school I remember I got in trouble for reading in class. The classes were boring to me so I just brought along a fiction book to read instead. I remember one time in History class the teacher saw that I was reading, I remember the book was “On the Beach”, which he thought was a good book to read (apparently he had read it before), although it had nothing to do with what the class was actually about. Another teacher thought it was good that I was reading, “The Boxcar Children” during recess. However most teachers didn’t like me, and I remember teachers screaming at me, putting me in detention, and so on because I wasn’t paying attention in class. (My algebra teacher was a good example of one who disliked me – I was very bad at math because I saw no use in learning it.)

    I was actually the class clown and liked to be the center of attention until about the 5th grade, but I know what you mean about wanting time alone. After I would go to a party at someone’s house I was always ready to leave in the morning, because I needed a break from being around other people all night.

    At my job I am a person who does his work very quickly and I have led teams before but I don’t like having to sit at a desk all day. What annoys me the most about having a job is taking orders from the boss. I am perfectly capable of thinking for myself and I don’t need people telling me what to do.

    Because of this I tried starting a business of my own last year, failed, and am about to try making it on my own again. I don’t know if it is an introvert trait that I feel I have to run my own business, or if it is just me, because I always feel like I need to be the leader and in control of the direction of my life. The biggest thing I have learned from my first attempt at business is that marketing yourself (and your blog) is important. I don’t like marketing because it feels like lying, but it is just something I am going to have to learn to get used to I suppose.

    I enjoyed reading your blog (I read some of your other posts too) – will be back.

  2. Hello Matt,
    Thank you so much for commenting! It’s so nice getting feedback.

    I can understand you’re annoyed that so many books focus on extroversion as the ideal. That’s exactly what Susan Cain’s Quiet rebels against – I think there was an entire chapter dedicated to this notion!

    Like you, I also had a difficult time staying focused in classes during school. I didn’t dare read a book like you did, but I tended to day dream a lot … and still do sometimes 😀

    I don’t know if being an introvert has anything to do with wanting to be you own boss and have your own business. Being an introvert or an extrovert is only one part of our personality and preferences. The desire to do your own work as opposed to someone else’s may have to do with other factors, like ambition, interests etc.

    A book you might find interesting is “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which explores what motivates us in work and what makes us forget about time and place in our work. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard so many great things about it. It might explain why you love doing your own work the way you want it done and on your own terms. I would really like to read it one day. I think I’m in the flow when I’m blogging – and sometimes at work fortunately 😉

    I don’t think you should consider marketing a bad thing. Drawing attention to your work / product /expertise is not lying. David Bowie once said in an interview that whilst writing and producing songs, he would do exactly what HE wanted (probably while being in the flow) and refused to consider what the audience might like, but when the product was ready, the way he wished it to be, he would do whatever it took to promote it. I quite like that take on doing your own thing and still try getting it out there.

    Again, thank you so much for stopping by – I enjoyed reading about your thoughts and experiences!

  3. Thanks, I’ll check out that book (I see there is an audiobook version too).

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