Group projects. Collaborating. Brainstorming. Networking. Teamwork. Small talk.
If these words strike a certain kind of fear into your heart like they do mine, chances are you’re an introvert; you love people, but you’re not at your best when expected to work at lightning speed while surrounded by coworkers or students in over-stimulating environments. Instead, you value quiet solitude to think and reflect more deliberately.
Many people consider introversion a weakness to overcome. But in her New York Times Bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, and her widely viewed TED talk, lawyer-turned-writer Susan Cain makes the case for introverts. Solitude, she argues, is essential to creativity. A third to half of all people consider themselves to be introverted, yet we live in a world that caters to extroverts, from the classroom to the office.
It hasn’t always been this way, explains Cain, citing cultural historian Warren Susman’s observation of a general shift from a “Culture of Character” or inner virtue to a “Culture of Personality” or outer charm. He traces this change to the turn of the twentieth century, when traits like formality and reserve fell out of favor and, with the emergence of Dale Carnegie’s self-help empire along with the film and advertising industries, an emphasis on more outgoing and gregarious personalities emerged. Cain observes that since then, the “New Groupthink” mentality has steadily taken hold, extolled by everyone from teachers to corporate managers to popular leadership gurus. Today, the ideal personality seems to be that of the highly sociable extrovert.
However, as Cain points out, some of the greatest thinkers and change agents of our time have been introverts, including but certainly not limited to Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak, Warren Buffet, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. So how can this be?
A study Cain describes in Quiet that assessed the work of more than 600 employees (computer programmers) could be very telling. Shockingly, factors like their experience, salary, and amount of time spent on tasks had no correlation to the quality of their work. Rather, those who worked in environments that provided “privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption” were consistently the top performers by far.
And this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the office, as Cain explores. Research psychologist Anders Ericsson coined the ability to intensely concentrate in solitude and without interruption as being “deliberate practice,” which he considers necessary for achieving excellence. Many of the world’s top inventors, musicians, students, and even athletes partake in deliberate practice, as it allows for the awareness needed to constantly self-monitor, identify personal shortfalls, and continuously upgrade one’s performance as needed, resulting in a superior end result.
So where do education and lifelong learners factor into all this? As far as platforms allowing for this kind of deliberate and autonomous process, today’s online learning environments can be ideal. They typically allow students to work independently and privately, as is often needed to achieve breakthroughs. After a busy day, online students can carve out a restorative niche (another one of Cain’s terms) to be alone and focus deeply, at one’s own pace, while participating in their courses.
Plus, online learning puts all personality types on an even playing field. In a physical classroom, introverts often have great ideas, but they aren’t always heard above their more outspoken, extroverted classmates – but in online courses, all written discussions are on equal footing, no matter the author.
From the office to the classroom and beyond, regardless of which personality type you consider yourself to have, Cain teaches us that you can do your best work by either embracing or strengthening the power of your own solitude. Doing so may allow you to reach new personal breakthroughs. After all, “in a gentle way,” said Mahatma Gandhi, “you can shake the world.”