Since her book was first published last year, Susan Cain has been a sensation. The book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has been on several best seller lists, including the New York Times, as well as a best book selection by everyone from People Magazine to Kirkus Reviews.
The reason is because Cain has given voice to a class of people who are underrepresented in American society today. Her thoroughly-researched and well-written work has touched so many introverts, giving them reasons for their feelings and hope for a brighter tomorrow. I just finished reading the book, and I confess that I’m a fan.
Classic works of writing have staying power because they have levels of meaning that speak to a variety of people at various stages in their lives. My feeling is that Quiet will prove to be such a book because along with achieving the stated purpose of the work–to describe the power of introverts–Cain has exposed as myths some popular beliefs currently in circulation. So rather than doing yet another book review, I wanted to highlight some myths that–intentionally or not–Cain deflates.
I would like to present Susan Cain: Myth Buster!
1. Multitasking. You have to look no further than the latest advertising for some new gadget or service to get the message that successful people are those who can use multiple devices and information streams, often simultaneously. The idea is that allegedly you can do more in the same amount of time if you have the skills, energy, drive, and technology. But multitasking is a myth. “Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time,” Cain says. The research shows that people make more errors and are less productive–not more–when they try to do all these things at once. According to one source, “when it comes to higher level tasks,” such as substantive work and high-concentration activities, “we just can’t do it.”
2. Catharsis. Anyone who has read a Greek play in school knows the concept of catharsis. Catharsis, as first described by Aristotle, is the “emotional purging” that occurs when watching a tragic play or reading dramatic literature, according to poet and literary critic Donald Hall. The concept is that passions are not to be ignored or suppressed but rather expressed and thus directed and released. Except that it doesn’t really happen that way. The expression of passions such as anger actually leads to more anger. “Scores of studies have shown that venting doesn’t soothe anger; it fuels it,” Cain says. By expressing your anger, you create a negative space that can linger for days or even longer, requiring effort to repair the damage.
3. Power can only be gained by aggressive competition. The common concept of a powerful person is one who has ambition, seizing the reins of whatever endeavor he is in and refusing to let go. He (and I’m intentionally thinking of testosterone-fueled power) is aggressive, without empathy, and loud. But while this portrait may describe many powerful people, it by no means describes them all. As a prime example, Cain points to the Mahatma Gandhi, who in his lifetime had nearly the entire nation of India following his lead. As Gandhi demonstrates, there are paths to power that don’t involve aggressive competition. “Soft power is quiet persistence,” says one person she interviewed for the book. “Aggressive power beats you up; soft power wins you over.” I can think of others: the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela. And while Martin Luther King, Jr. was an ambitious and charismatic man, his nonviolent approach was very different from that of more militant civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X. As Cain points out, there have been many mighty civilizations in the history of our planet, each with its own path to power.
Myths that convey cultural values are important. On the other hand, myths that perpetuate untruths are dangerous because they lead people to believe that things cannot be changed. Essentially, they deprive people of their right to self-determination. We don’t need those kinds of myths. Thank you, Susan Cain, for destroying a few of them for us.