The Value of Solitude

Though Susan Cain’s current Amazon ranking suggests I should have heard of her earlier, I recently enjoyed her NY Times article The Rise of the New Groupthink. The title pricked my interest immediately.  But I’ll have to keep my comments brief, or I’ll never post them at all.

The article is about the value of introversion.  I think labels can at times box people in, but this one is useful to me, because it explains so much about how I see the world, and helps me to feel confident that there is a value to seeing it this way.

I was the kid who waited until the block table was empty so I could construct what I wanted to.  I had grand dreams, and I can still remember the palpable irritation (which I knew even back then to hide) when after I began a building, a group of kids would soon swarm over, crying, “Ooohh, we want to help!”  It meant there would soon be not nearly enough blocks or the freedom to build anything I wanted to.  This is probably why I repeated pre-K for not “socializing.” And the lesson took. Even now, writing this, I feel sort of scrooge-ish about it.

But the article confirms that introversion has its benefits, particularly where creativity is concerned.  Ms. Cain says:

“Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.  And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.”

She then goes on to offer the story of Steve Wozniak, often left in Steve Jobs’ shadow in the Apple Computer story.  But he’s the one who actually built the first Apple compter: “If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done–the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing–he did it alone.  Late at night, all by himself.”  Mr. Wozniak was going to give away what became the first Apple computer for free, until his friend Steve Jobs convinced him otherwise.

Mr. Wozniak says of his work,

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me…they lived in their heads.  They’re almost like artists.  In fact, the very best of them are artists.  And artists work best alone…I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take.  That advice is: Work alone…not on a committee.  Not on a team.”

Words to make an introvert’s heart sing!

Of course, most introverts do know they need a Steve Jobs or two in their lives.  And they’re grateful for them.

Susan Cain says,

“Some teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information and build trust. [Honestly, sounds like management-speak to me.]

But it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite…open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted.  They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. [Thinking about Apple’s Chinese factories at the moment.]  And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.

Most introverts seems to know this instinctively, and resist being herded together.”

[Comments in brackets are mine.]

A lot of the article is about business management, but solitude is also better for learning. Only when you’re alone, can you “…go to the heart of what’s challenging to you.  If you want to improve, you have to be the one who generates the move.  Imagine a groups class–you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time,” says psychologist Anders Ericsson.

Furthermore, the article says brainstorming is actually one of the least effective ways to generate ideas, because people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work, or instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own, and succumb to peer pressure.

I can remember thinking exactly that in the third grade, and when I read recently about teamwork being all the rage in schools, I wondered how well I’d do in the newer classrooms.  (And immediately after wondering this, I succumbed to peer pressure and felt that something must be wrong with me.)

But there’s hope for introverts: Reading, and also (if done well) collaboration on the internet.  C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know that we are not alone.”  And the internet is a place where, as the article puts it, “We can be alone together.”  When you read this post (assuming you’ve read this far down) you are perfectly at leisure to comment or not, and to think about your comment for as long as you like. Or go write a post of your own. Because it’s not that introverts want to be forever isolated.  They just want to share their ideas with someone who appreciates them.  At least they want to share them some of the time.

If you like, you can join the masses and read Ms. Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  I may.  But it may be enough for me just to know that someone sees the power of solitude.

And I also suspect that Ms. Cain has an extroverted publicist.


Espresso lessons

Because it’s funny, and because it’s cathartic. Perhaps because Dustin Hoffman’s Italian accent and sense of humor are pure New York. But most likely because I’m hoping fixing espresso for an Italian isn’t a requirement for residency.

Books 2011

My reading for 2011 took a serious dip this year once the move to Italy became a sure thing, but here’s the list:

I read so many more of the books on this list during last winter than this spring, summer or fall that just looking at it reminds me of cold and lamplight.  And this year reading even the early books required a certain amount of discipline.  Scanning the list, I can tell that I gave myself a higher than usual number of easy books just to keep the habit going.

My favorite book that wasn’t a re-read (i.e., C.S. Lewis) was The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr.  Among other things, it takes one on a very readable tour of  the biochemistry of memory.  And it encourages sitting still and, you guessed it, reading.  If you were thinking of reading this book and wanted a recommendation, you have mine.  His blog is interesting, too.

Oh, and I really enjoyed Borges. Thinking of his stories reminds me of the orange seats on the one train in NYC, because I read them while making the rounds to all the doctors before we moved. Funny how books pick up associations with the places where you read them.  Maybe the association was especially strong because both the stories and my location when I read them were maze-like.

And Italian Neighbors was good preparatory fun for moving to Italy.  While Anglo-atheist Tim Parks has a perspective on Italy that may not match that of his Italian Catholic neighbors, he describes some of their peculiarities with a freshness and humor that is helpful to anyone moving in from the outside.

During the past two weeks in Georgia, I’ve been able to start reading again.  I have three books going that I started before the end of the year, but in typical Christmas vacation fashion I also picked up a quick read at my parents and finished it off at midnight last night.  It was a book about a famous trial that took place in the time (the 1940s) and place (the Chattahoochie Valley in Georgia and Alabama) where my parents grew up.  The protagonist embodied many of the contradictions of the South during Jim Crow and Prohibition.  The book was not my typical reading, nor was it that well-written, but it fit my mood.  After three months in urban Italy, it was fun to experience a bit of reverse culture shock.

My goals for 2012?  Finish what I’ve started (a modest goal, don’t you think?). Read along more often with Sarie’s Western Lit class. Maybe tackle the medieval volume of Susan Wise Bauer’s history series. Toss in some modern fiction now and then.  Keep reading and rereading spiritual classics. And no doubt I’ll need to learn to read in Italian.

Will it all get done?  I don’t know, but it’s fun to make goals and then see how they change as the year wears on.

What are your favorite reads from last year and reading goals for 2012?