Book Review: Quiet

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I bought Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, because several other books I read cited it and called it insightful and revolutionary. It turned out to be a book I thought had important content, but one that I quit reading.

When I read an awful book, I slam the book shut early and give up on it. Quiet was different. There were things that I thought were valuable, but there were many things that made me crazy. When I started questioning a lot of what she said, I stopped reading.

I’ve tried to reconcile my reaction to the book with the reaction that so many people had. I agree with the main idea as I understand it. Our society values extroverted behaviors more than introverted ones. Many of our current practices reflect that.

But there is value in both kinds of behavior. If you’re a business leader, both are important. We don’t hear that message enough. I think most people who read the book rejoiced to hear the message.

I’m a book writing coach. For me, it’s not enough for a book to make good points. The way the author makes the points and presents facts and research are important, too. That’s the lens I looked through to review the book.

The definitions of introversion and extraversion had several insights. One stood out for me. Some psychologists define extroversion “not in terms of a rich inner life, but as a lack of qualities such as assertiveness and sociability.”

Cain goes from that to changes in what we value in American culture. The core story she uses is the life and success of Dale Carnegie. Over the last 150 years, Americans have changed what we admire. It used to be people with a rich inner life, character. Now we value the ability to persuade. David Brooks discussed this shift in The Road to Character.  Michael S. Erwin and Raymond Kethledge discussed it in Lead Yourself First.

Cain describes how companies overvalue extroverted behaviors. The results are open-plan offices and popular activities, like brainstorming.

That was all great, but I noticed things that bothered me. The first one I recall was her discussion of “the bus to Abilene.”

She says that’s a term people in the Army use when people go along with things they don’t agree with. She doesn’t mention that “The bus to Abilene” is one take on the management classic, The Abilene Paradox..

That wouldn’t be a problem if she represented what Jerry Harvey said in The Abilene Paradox. According to Cain, “The “Bus to Abilene” anecdote “reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate action – any action. We are similarly inclined to empower dynamic speakers.”

But Jerry Harvey describes the Abilene Paradox as “The tendency for groups to embark on excursions that no group member wants.” Leadership, whether strong or dynamic or any other kind, is not part of the picture. The Abilene Paradox has nothing to do with introversion or extroversion. It’s not about following any kind of leader. That got my antenna up. I noticed more and more things that bothered me.

Cain describes the Harvard Business School as a culture that rewards extroversion. She compares that with the CEOs of top companies.

Cain moves on to introverts in evangelical Christianity. She and a fellow named Adam McHugh attend a worship service at Saddleback Ministries. Saddleback is a Baptist organization. Cain and McHugh go to Saddleback because it is “an important symbol of evangelical culture.”

They sit through a service. Then, Cain quotes McHugh as saying, “Everything in the service involved communication. Greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing. There was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation.”

Fair enough, but McHugh is a Presbyterian minister. He doesn’t worship at Saddleback. He’s part of one of a denomination that offers liturgy, ritual, and contemplation.

You can find those things at almost any Episcopalian, Lutheran, or Presbyterian church in the United States. Nobody is forcing you, introvert or extrovert, to go to worship services like the one she describes. You can go somewhere else.

Cain doesn’t describe or investigate much. She describes one service at one church. Why not discuss alternatives? Does Saddleback Ministries offer programs or worship services that don’t make introverts uncomfortable? Why not talk to some people at Saddleback instead of a single outsider who worships somewhere else?

Next, Cain talks about what she calls “the new groupthink” in schools. She gets many things right. There may be an overemphasis on group activities and grooming people for “leadership.” But she avoids any discussion of the positive benefits of group learning. She says that group learning is a change from traditional methods.

Those traditional methods are mostly lecture. Many see group learning as more effective.

I have grandchildren in school today. They do more group activities than I did growing up. They also do individual learning activities. What Cain is doing in the book is making the case for her points and ignoring any case for any other points. That’s a problem for me. It came to a head in her discussion of Steve Wozniak.

Cain describes Steve Wozniak as a successful introvert. She describes him visiting the Homebrew Computer Club, then going home to work on developing a computer. She describes his work habits. Yes, Woz is an introvert.

But then Cain links what Wozniak did to the work of Anders Ericsson. She uses the term “deliberate practice” in its common sense of “intentional practice.” She does not use it the way Ericsson uses it in his research. She does not mention that there are fields where Ericsson says you can use deliberate practice, and others where you cannot. She discusses nothing but what feeds her argument.

She calls what Steve Wozniak did when he was working on the very first Apple computer “deliberate practice.” That’s not what he was doing. What he was doing was engineering. He was trying to design a computer. He wasn’t practicing anything. It’s not an example of deliberate practice at all.

That’s where I stopped reading. I caught her misstating research and cherry-picking arguments on many things I know. That makes me wonder about what she says about things I don’t know. What else has she said that’s not true to the facts or the research?

Bottom Line

Quiet, by Susan Cain, is more like a political speech than like a dispassionate review of material. Several reviewers have referred to her excellent research. I don’t think it’s excellent at all. It’s cherry-picking examples. It’s describing things to make a point, whether the description is true to the original research findings or not.

The effective leaders I’ve known and studied didn’t succeed because they were introverts or extroverts. The build on their strengths and natural tendencies. They learned to do uncomfortable things well enough, and sometimes very well indeed.

The message of this book is that we need to honor both introverts and extroverts. We should support them and help them both be successful. I agree with that. I can’t agree with the way the author presented it.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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