It was a friendly crowd of students who greeted Susan Cain during her talk at Wharton on Monday, April 9. So when she challenged the idea of students learning in groups—an important aspect of the School’s and many B-schools’ curricula—Cain elicited laughter. But perhaps she also managed to get some of the attendees thinking differently about themselves, their classmates, their classes and their culture.
Cain’s main talking point was twofold: introverted people can be sources of incredible creativity and innovation for business and society at large, yet much of what they have to offer could be getting lost in a culture that celebrates, rewards and even demands extroversion.
“Culturally, we need a much better balance,” said Cain, a former corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant.
Yet she sees our world on the verge of an inflection point. She had three suggestions to facilitate this transformation:
1. “Stop the madness for constant group work,” she said. Employees and students need more freedom and privacy at work and school—particularly the one-third to one-half of any given population who are introverts. For the quiet types, it’s important for them to find time to be alone, think for themselves, and then return to the group with ideas and solutions.
2. Even when not actively solving a problem or working on a project, it’s important for introverts and extroverts to unplug and go to the “wilderness”—anywhere you can be comfortable and alone in your own head.
“Be like Buddha. Have your own revelations,” Cain told the audience.
3. Open up and reveal what’s in your “suitcases.” For Cain, suitcases are a metaphor for the treasures, memories, activities and thoughts that make you you. For extroverts, it usually is not a problem for them to share their personality with everyone around them. For introverts, it’s not so easy.
Why the need for this “better balance”? It’s not that introverts are smarter or have more epiphanies than extroverts. It’s just that businesses and schools might be missing out on introverts’ ideas simply because they’re not designed to encourage them.
One sign of real change in this regard is social media, Cain said. Social media does not require public speaking or face-to-face interaction for people to get their ideas out. And Cain foresees more and more companies using social media to mine ideas from their “quiet geniuses.”
Some corporations are also designing their workspaces to encourage alone time and individual thinking. Cain recalled her visit to Google’s New York offices, where “nooks and crannies” and quiet cafes make it socially cool to be focused on one’s mind and work.
Cain’s full thoughts on introversion can be found in her New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Please also see Cain’s talk at TED for a 20-minute discussion.