Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Where Ideas Come From.
In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. But, as author Susan Cain argues, introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated.
About Susan Cain
Susan Cain is a former corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant — and a self-described introvert. At least one-third of the people we know are introverts, notes Cain in her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Although our culture undervalues them dramatically, introverts have made some of the great contributions to society: Chopin's nocturnes, the invention of the personal computer, to Gandhi's transformative leadership. Cain argues that schools, workplaces and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, and that this bias creates a waste of talent, energy and happiness.
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ALISON STEWART, HOST:
This is the TED RADIO HOUR, from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. Today on the program, we're asking where ideas come from. One place to start is TED.
(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS SPEAKERS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Everything we think we feel...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We've had to believe in impossible things.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...infinite possibility, and that sense of potential. And I realize the mystery...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And we've had to refuse to fear failure.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Persist. We've got to persist through failure. We've got to persist through...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The miracle of your mind...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What is a conscious mind?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Can contemplate the meaning of infinity.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: And I thought that was an idea worth spreading. Thanks.
STEWART: Writer Susan Cain shared a big idea at TED earlier this year, although she prefers listening to speaking.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SUSAN CAIN: That's a lot harder for me because as honored as I am to be here with all of you right now, this is not my natural milieu.
STEWART: Susan Cain, like an estimated one-third of the people we all know, is an introvert. And she makes a powerful argument that we live in a world that undervalues introverts and their ideas. We'll talk to Susan in just a minute but first, let's hear the start of her 2012 TED Talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CAIN: When I was 9 years old, I went off to summer camp for the first time, and my mother packed me a suitcase full of books - which to me, seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity. And this might sound antisocial to you, but for us it was really just a different way of being social. You have the animal warmth of your family sitting right next to you, but you were also free to go roaming around the adventure land inside your own mind.
And I had this idea that camp was going to be just like this, but better. Camp was more like a keg party without any alcohol. And, on the very first day, our counselor gathered us all together and she taught us a cheer that she said we would be doing every day for the rest of the summer to instill camp spirit. And it went like this. R-O-W-D-I-E, that's the way we spell rowdy, rowdy, rowdy. Let's get rowdy.
So I couldn't figure out, for the life of me, why we were supposed to be so rowdy - or why we had to spell this word incorrectly.
CAIN: But I recited the cheer. I recited the cheer along with everybody else; I did my best. And I just waited for the time that I could go off and read my books. But the first time that I took my book out of my suitcase, the coolest girl in the bunk came up to me. And she asked me, why are you being so mellow? Mellow, of course, being the exact opposite of R-O-W-D-I-E.
And then the second time I tried it, the counselor came up to me with a concerned expression on her face. And she repeated the point about camp spirit, and said we should all really work very hard to be outgoing.
STEWART: Susan Cain, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.
CAIN: Thank you. It's such a pleasure to be here, Alison.
STEWART: Do you remember at that point what you felt like?
CAIN: How did I feel? You know, I know that I had a kind of sinking feeling, but in a way like I think even by then, you know, I was about nine at the time, so I had learned to take those kinds of moments in stride. So it's like, you know, a moment of deflation and then you kind of keep going. And, in a way, to me that was the point of telling the story. Like I - you know, I was telling one story among many that I could have told.
Like I - I think as a quieter child you're constantly having moments like this and so you learn to adapt to them. And you're not even kind of aware consciously of what you're adapting to, but it's what they add up to over time, in a way, that was the point of my talk. Because over time they add up to this sense that your preference of how you want to spend your time is somehow wrong. And - and you know, in my case that led me into a kind of career path that wasn't even really right for me.
You know, I ended up becoming a Wall Street lawyer for a long time. And it - that is partly because I had sort of learned to not trust my own instincts.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CAIN: And I was always going off to crowded bars, when I really would have preferred to just have a nice dinner with friends. And I made these self-negating choices so reflexively that I wasn't even aware that I was making them. Now this is what many introverts do, and it's our loss for sure, but it is also our colleagues' loss and our communities' loss. And at the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the world's loss. Because when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.
A third to a half of the population are introverts. A third to a half. So that's one out of every two or three people you know. So, even if you're an extrovert yourself, you know, I'm talking about your co-workers and your spouses and your children and the person sitting right next to you right now. All of them subject to this bias that is pretty deep and real in our society. We all internalize it from a very early age without even having a language for what we're doing.
Now to see the bias clearly, you need to understand what introversion is, and it's different from being shy. Shyness is about fear of social judgment. Introversion is more about how do you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation. So extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive, and their most switched on, and their most capable when they're in quieter, more low-key, environments.
Not all the time, you know, these things aren't absolute, but a lot of the time.
STEWART: In your TED Talk, you talk a lot about bias, and it made me wonder, from your research, did you find that there's a bias against introverts, or is the bias towards extroverts?
CAIN: Oh, gosh, that's such an interesting way of asking the question. Yeah, you know, I think it's a little bit of both. But absolutely there is a bias towards introverts per se. I mean, you know, I think introversion is often seen as being inferior and, in some cases, pathological. I mean like literally in the field of psychology even, the DSM, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, has all these different categories of various forms of mental illness.
And some people in past years have put forward the idea that there should be a category for introversion. You know, which - And then other psychologists responded by saying, you know, half the profession would be considered mentally ill if he said this, because a lot of us are introverts. But yeah, I think that's often the way it's seen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CAIN: So the key then to maximizing our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us. But now here's where the bias comes in. Our most important institutions are schools and our workplaces. They are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts' need for lots of stimulation. And also we are living through this belief system.
We have a belief system right now that I call the new group think, which holds that our creativity and our productivity comes from a very oddly gregarious place. So if you picture the typical classroom nowadays, when I was going to school we sat in rows. You know we sat in rows of desks like this, and we did most of our work pretty autonomously. But nowadays your typical classroom has pods of desks and four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other.
And kids are working in countless group assignments, even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you would think would depend on solo flights of thought. Kids are now expected to act as committee members. And for the kids who prefer to go off by themselves, or just to work alone, those kids are seen as outliers often, or worse, as problem cases.
And vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert, as opposed to an introvert, even though introverts actually get better grades and are more knowledgeable. According to... that's according to research.
OK. Same thing is true in our workplaces. We now, most of us, work in open plan offices, without walls, where we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our co-workers. And when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsize risks, which is something we might all favor nowadays.
And interesting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they're much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas. Whereas an extrovert can quite unwittingly kind of get so excited about - about things that they're putting their own stamp on things, and other people's ideas might not as easily then bubble up to the surface.
STEWART: In your TED Talk, you describe some of the great results that introverts get.
STEWART: And in a world where people like to measure things, I'm wondering why they don't get credit. I'm curious why that is.
CAIN: Yeah, you know, I think that the individual introverts who attain great levels of success, they get all the credit in the world. I think that we just don't realize often, or we don't think about the fact that they're introverts when they do it.
STEWART: Got you.
CAIN: So, you know, you look at Larry Page running Google, Stephen Wozniak who created the first Apple computer, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi, all these transformative leaders who were introverts. That's not the first word that we use to associate them with. But in fact when I started looking at a lot of these people's life histories, you realize that what - they did what they did not in spite of being introverts, but because they were introverts.
You know, there was like a - there was something about their quieter way of being that actually helped them achieve what they did. And that was what was so interesting to me.
STEWART: For the record, though, Susan, you do not hate extroverts.
CAIN: Oh my gosh, no, not at all.
STEWART: Being facetious a little bit.
CAIN: No, you aren't being - you're being facetious but people actually...
STEWART: Have they asked you that?
CAIN: Oh yeah, yeah. And sometimes people ask me that in all seriousness. And so I'm really glad you brought it up, because it's not that at all. You know, I'm married to an extrovert. Many of my best friends are extroverts, and I really love the company of extroverts. So that's not my point at all. For me this is really analogous to the women's movement in the 1950s or 1960s, where the point was to raise up women. The point wasn't to bring men down.
But the point was to have a society where we had more of a yin and yang between women and men. And I have the same goal for introverts and extroverts. I think we need much more of a yin and a yang. I think that the best groups and the best partnerships often function effectively when you have introverts and extroverts working together. So what I'd like to see is a world where we're valuing both kinds equally.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CAIN: Now, this is especially important when it comes to creativity and to productivity. Because when psychologists look at the life of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them. And this is because solitude is a crucial ingredient often to creativity.
So Darwin, you know, he took long walks alone in the woods and emphatically turned down dinner party invitations. Theodor Geisel, better known as Doctor Seuss, he dreamed out many of his amazing creations in a lonely bell tower office that he had in the back of his house in La Jolla, California. And he was actually afraid to meet the young children who read his books, for fear that they were expecting him to be this kind of jolly Santa Claus-like figure and would be disappointed with his more reserved persona.
Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer sitting alone in his cubicle in Hewlett-Packard, where he was working at the time. And he says that he never would have become such an expert in the first place had he not been too introverted to leave the house when he was growing up. Now, of course this does not mean that we should all stop collaborating. And case in point is Steve Wozniak famously coming together with Steve Jobs to start Apple Computer.
But it does mean that solitude matters. And that for some people it is the air that they breathe. And, in fact, we have known for centuries about the transcendent power of solitude. It's only recently that we've strangely begun to forget it. If you look at most of the world's major religious, you will find seekers: Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, seekers who are going off by themselves, alone, to the wilderness, where they then have profound epiphanies and revelations that they then bring back to the rest of the community. So no wilderness, no revelations.
This is no surprise, though, if you look at the insights of contemporary psychology. You know, it turns out that we can't even be in a group of people without instinctively mirroring - mimicking their opinions, even about seemingly personal and visceral things like who you're attracted to. You will start aping the beliefs of the people around you without even realizing that that's what you're doing.
And, groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas. I mean zero. So...
CAIN: ...much better for everybody to go off by themselves, generate their ideas - own ideas, freed from the distortions of group dynamics, and then come together as a team to talk them through in a well-managed environment, and take it from there.
STEWART: When was it that there was the shift away from introversion? I mean because if you think about historic, like Thoreau and - it was something that was thought to be special. He was thought to be someone who had time with their thoughts and that was OK. Was there a flip?
CAIN: Yeah. Yeah, there was a flip. And historians actually speak about the shift from the so-called culture of character to a culture of personality. And the shift really happened when we had the rise of big business. Because what happened is that, before the world of big business, we had people kind of living together in small towns, working alongside people they had known all their lives, right? And so they valued people, and they valued each other based on who they really were, you know, based on their inner selves.
Are you a good person, or are you not a good person? But then suddenly, in the era of big business, everybody's moving to the cities and they're no longer working or living with people who they actually know very well, and so what becomes more important are more superficial qualities of like, you know, are you magnetic? Are you charming? Are you charismatic? That's what started to matter. And then at the same time we had the rise of movies in general.
And movie stars who seemed to be like the - the exact embodiments of all these qualities that people are trying to assume in their day-to-day lives. So it was this kind of perfect storm that created the culture of personality and that's really the cultural heritage that we're living with today.
STEWART: You ask for a call to action in your TED Talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CAIN: And so I am going to leave you now with three calls for action, for those who share this vision. Number one, stop the madness for constant group work. Just stop it.
And I want to be clear about what I'm saying, because I deeply believe our offices should be encouraging casual, chatty, cafe-style types of interactions. You know, the kind where people come together and serendipitously have an exchange of ideas. That is great. That's great for introverts and it's great for extroverts. But, we need much more privacy, much more freedom, much more autonomy at work.
School, same thing. We need to be teaching kids to work together, for sure, but we also need to be teaching them how to work on their own. This is especially important for extroverted children too. They need to work on their own 'cause that is where deep thought comes from, in part.
OK. Number two, go to the wilderness. Be like Buddha, have your own revelations. I'm not saying that we all have to now go off and build our own cabins in the woods and never talk to each other again. But I am saying that we could all stand to unplug and get inside our own heads a little more often.
Number three, take a good look at what's inside your own suitcase and why you put it there. So extroverts, maybe your suitcases are also full of books, or maybe they're full of champagne glasses, or skydiving equipment. Whatever it is, I hope you take these things out every chance you get and grace us with your energy and your joy. But introverts, you being you, you probably have the impulse to guard very carefully what's inside your own suitcase. And that's OK.
But occasionally, just occasionally, I hope you will open up your suitcases for other people to see, because the world needs you and it needs the things you carry. So I wish you the best of all possible journeys, and the courage to speak softly. Thank you very much.
Thank you. Thank you.
STEWART: Susan, if people were to take this call to action very seriously and put it in play, leaders, business leaders, world leaders, what's one small thing that you think might change for the better?
CAIN: Oh wow. I can actually tell you a big thing that I think would change for the better. I think we'd all get a lot more creative and a lot more productive. I think that we're living with a kind of crazy idea right now that groups are the answer to all creativity and to all productivity. And there's so much research out there that tells us that this is wrong. You know, for inter - for extroverts as well as for introverts.
I mean there's 40 years of research on brainstorming that has found that individuals brainstorming on their own, produce more ideas and better ideas than groups brainstorming too. So I - you know, I think that groups play a role, but I think that if we started following a system where we sent people off to really draw on the riches inside their own head, and then come together as a group to share things, we would do really well with innovation. And everybody would be more productive.
STEWART: Susan Cain, thanks for being on the TED RADIO HOUR.
CAIN: It was my pleasure. Thank you, Alison.
STEWART: Susan Cain's book is called "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." You can find out more about Susan Cain's research, just go to our website ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.