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.


6 thoughts on “The Value of Solitude

  1. Oh, my goodness, Laura! I wish I had time to sit here and list the ways this post resonates with me. Especially being in school again, where everything is set up *against* introversion and independent learning/doing. And yet, I am determined to continue to learn in my own way and to dig to answer my own questions and to follow my interest and curiosity. This has demanded a lot more of me (because I first need to make sure I’m checking off the boxes of course-expectations, which includes a tremendous amount of group work; ever tried writing a group paper–argh!). It has been extremely rewarding for me, personally and intellectually, to pursue my education by answering my *own* questions and enjoying going wherever those questions lead me. I think and write (just because I want to, or I can’t help it) about my *own* learning, and I often check out books from the library that are not assigned for class just because I have become curious about something (and I either read the books entirely or find only what I want/need from them) My way of learning is vastly different from the school way of learning (I really don’t like school, but I love learning, and I think this is because I am an introvert and school is, increasingly, for extroverts), and I’m making a real effort not to abandon my own way for the sake of “doing school.” I have made the mistake of trying to explain this to one or two people who think I am silly and that I should just do what I need to do to get through and have that diploma in hand. But I think you will get it, Laura. Thank you for writing this post. I will read it again later.

  2. It was very amusing that the very day my husband and I started reading The Introvert Advantage together, Time magazine arrived with an article on introverts in which Cain’s book was mentioned. The same day my daughter sent a link to an article by Cain, and now you are introducing me to another article by her. All this affirmation of introverts is quite heartening!

  3. Susan, I wrote about this partly because I knew you’d like it! Also, we’re facing much that same sort of quandary around here with classes and requirements.

    Amy, hi! I’m glad you stopped to comment, and I hope you like the links.

    GretchenJoanna, it is heartening to hear we’re not maladjusted after all, isn’t it? But I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that we’re reading all these articles in quick succession. For one thing, our society is changing so that people are rarely truly alone with their thoughts, so that has some people willing to consider the alternative. But for another, I think books these days are preceded by a blast of publicity and strategically-placed articles, and Ms. Cain’s agent seems to have pulled some really good strings for her. This is actually the third article I’ve read about introverts, referencing her book, this week!

    How do you like The Introvert Advantage?

    1. I read The Introvert Advantage quite a few years ago and it was very helpful. Someone else must be reading my original copy now, because I had to order another one so that my husband and I could read it together this time. He is recently retired from the job he had most of his life, and that is making us think about the social interactions around new friendships and activities.

      I wonder if the confusing use of the word *shy* on Time’s cover, in reference to the article about introversion which pointed out that shyness is not the same thing, was intentional — willing to confuse the issue in order to get people to buy the magazine. That article does point out that there is some overlap of shyness with introversion, and I know that there are as many types and levels of introversion as there are people….

      1. Yes, I bet they did that to sell more magazines! Shyness is perceived as a problem (buy now and find the answer!), whereas introversion may be just fine.

        Or maybe some introverts get so tired of being misunderstood that they eventually become shy of saying what they think! But that sounds a little like an excuse, or at least it would to me if I were thinking it about myself, so I won’t put that out there as a legitimate theory ;-).

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