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One of the most popular recent talks on TED has been Susan Cain's presentation on the value to be had from valuing, rather than discriminating against, introverts in our education system, workplaces and social lives. Her thesis is laid out in her new book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking" which I'm looking forward to reading (in a cave somewhere).

Carl Jung was never a fan of X Factor

Cain highlights the need to recognise that sometimes the best ideas and contributions to society come from time spent in reflection, isolation and solitude - the conditions in which introverts typically thrive and recharge. This, she argues, runs counter to the dominant culture that emphasises gregarious group-based collaboration, action over contemplation and charismatic rather than facilitative, unassuming leadership.

Her immediate calls for action are for us all to...

  • "stop the madness" for constant group work in offices and schools
  • "go to the wilderness" - seek space for contemplation
  • to share "what's in your bag" i.e. those inner thoughts, ideas and resources that might change the world, and otherwise go undiscovered
  • Some of the comments and critiques of her argument I've seen suggest that she is making too much of a binary distinction, and that we are all capable of operating in different degrees along the extraversion/introversion spectrum depending on the context. From what I see, this is a view she readily acknowledges and, as she points out, some of us would be classed in psychological terms as "ambiverts"; comfortable playing with both these facets of our personality.

    The point is perhaps more that we are all aware of an innate preference, or tendency to either look within, or without, for strength, creativity and productive activity.

    Jung, who pioneered this psychological distinction, highlighted the contrast between his own introverted tendencies and the extroversion of his  contemporary and collaborator Freud. It was that contrast which may have made their collaboration so potent, but also ultimately unstable.

    We need to learn and work in places that can allow us freedom to express that preference as we need, in order to get the most out of ourselves and those around us.

    I agree partially with Cain's view that workplaces and schools tend to favour and select for  majority extrovert attributes, but at least on the work side I think it varies greatly between professions and industries. People are drawn to the nature of the work by virtue of how they can express their tendencies. And even once there, people adapt or 'hack' their immediate environment to suit themselves, whether by wearing headphones in open plan offices or building a screen of pot plants, or conversely seeking social stimulation in office banter.

    One (critical) reading of Cain's argument is that we should all be allowed to "revert to type". But that would be missing the subtext, which you can pick up in what she says about her own experience (e.g. speaking in public). What's more interesting is that relationships, personal development and growth, and by extension performance at work and school, is just as much about forcing ourselves away from what is comfortable and instinctive. It's about developing a capacity for ambiversion.

    We develop this in part instinctively through emulating and learning from the people we know and love. It seems common for example, for introverts to marry extroverts and vice versa, as the two sides seek a complementary side to their personality.

    But it would be interesting to see how this could be made a more conscious strategy in our school systems and workplaces, and thereby create a more balanced approach to harnessing people's creativity and productivity. Work-based psychometrics like MBTI, derived from Jung's work have been around for a long time but if many people's experiences of school and work are anything to go by, we've still got some way to go to create environments that favour both cave-dwellers and stage-seekers.




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