Susan Cain’s TED talk “The Power of Introverts” is a fascinating 20-minute lecture describing how a world that undervalues introverts creates a waste of talent, energy, and happiness. She begins with a description of her first time at summer camp, armed with a suitcase full of books “Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity…you have the animal warmth of your family sitting right next to you, but you are also free to go roaming around the adventureland inside your own mind…I had a vision of 10 girls sitting in a cabin cozily reading books in their matching nightgowns.”
When her camp counselor told her “We should all work really hard to be outgoing,” Cain put her books away and cheered along with the other campers. Later she describes how many people, places, and experiences reinforced a feeling that a quiet and introverted style like hers was not quite right. In spite of her natural tendencies, she became a corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant instead of a writer—though she has returned to her roots with the publication of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Cain says that one-third to one-half of our population is introverted: “They feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments…a lot of the time.” When introverts are forced out of their quiet, contemplative, and, often, creative ways, it’s our community’s loss. Schools, workplaces, and our whole idea of leadership are biased towards extroverts:
“When I was going to school, we sat in rows…and did most of our work pretty autonomously. But nowadays, your typical classroom has pods of desks—four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other. And kids are working in countless group assignments. Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members. And for the kids who prefer to go off by themselves or just to work alone, they are seen as outliers often or, worse, as problem cases. And the vast majority of teachers report believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert, even though introverts actually get better grades and are more knowledgeable, according to research.”
Cain’s talk has lead to some interesting discussions among our faculty, staff, and administrators. Our librarian Derek Anderson has ordered several copies for the library, science teacher Liz Gottleib brought the TED talk to our attention, and Director of Admissions Dan Babior is organizing small group discussions to see how Cain’s thesis operates at Marin Academy.
I’m an extrovert—my energy comes from the company of others. But I understand Cain’s main takeaway—it’s about the balance between introverts and extroverts and the continuum in-between.
At MA we pride ourselves on collaboration, but this doesn’t only mean group work. Individual creation is often just as important in the classroom: purposeful collaboration involves working together as well as individual preparation and contribution. Our modular classrooms and 80-minute classes allow for many different approaches beyond the traditional models of teaching and learning.
Cain ended her talk with three calls to action:
- “We need to be teaching kids to work together, for sure, but we also need to be teaching them how to work on their own. This is especially important for extroverted children too. They need to work on their own because that is where deep thought comes from in part.
- “Go to the wilderness. Be like Buddha, have your own revelations. I’m not saying that we all have to now go off and build our own cabins in the woods and never talk to each other again, but I am saying that we could all stand to unplug and get inside our own heads a little more often.
- “Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there. So extroverts, maybe your suitcases are also full of books. Or maybe they’re full of champagne glasses or skydiving equipment. Whatever it is, I hope you take these things out every chance you get and grace us with your energy and your joy. But introverts, you being you, you probably have the impulse to guard very carefully what’s inside your own suitcase. And that’s okay. But occasionally, just occasionally, I hope you will open up your suitcases for other people to see, because the world needs you and it needs the things you carry.”
I look forward to more discussions about our diversity as a community and how we can continue to improve the learning experiences of all of our students—introverts and extroverts alike.