I recently finished the book Quiet, authored by Susan Cain. The book delves into the topic of the personality trait introversion, and explains what it is and how introverted people can orient themselves in a society that highly values extroversion. I won’t give a full definition of introversion and extroversion here, there are plenty of other resources for that, but to follow along with the rest of this post I think the following image explains one of the key differences between extroverts and introverts:
If you want to hear more about introverts and get a quick summary of the book you can watch Susan Cain’s TED talk below.
Even though I had quite a good understanding of introversion before reading the book I still enjoyed the read. The book has given me a greater appreciation for introverts, myself included, and some new ideas on how I want to navigate through life with my, somewhat limited, resources of social energy.
Working environments for introverts
Cain presents several examples of the connection between mastery and working in solitude. Achieving mastery through so-called Deliberate Practice involves deep concentration and as such requires a distraction-free environment.
As a software engineer, one of my favorite takeaways from the book was that quiet working environments yield better code. The book gives an example from an experiment called the Coding War Games that showed that programmers performed better in more private environments with less interruptions, which I suppose may not come as a surprise. These days, there’s overwhelming evidence that open office plans are a bad idea, but the sweet spot between an environment that offers peace and quiet and close collaboration among team members is perhaps yet to be found. In my current working environment, I sometimes wonder why there are not one but two doors into the room I sit in and why the extroverts that sit on the floor below me are still within earshot.
With today’s technology, peace and quiet at the office is just a pair of noise cancelling headphones away. Alternatively, in the wake of the pandemic, creating a tranquil workplace has become a DIY project with the surge of people working from home. As for myself, I prefer more conservative solutions of using walls and doors but I do understand that it is a delicate balance between wanting to shut out the noise while not cutting off communication, collaboration and the sense of community among your team members and colleagues.
Back in 2012, when I was working for Westermo, the norm was that developers sat in small rooms housing 1-3 people. Today, I’m not sure I would be able to find a workplace with that setup if I were to look for one. I find it much more likely that the average office room has had one desk too many crammed into an already crowded room for the sake of productivity. With that said, I see many benefits with my current kind of working environment. It is quite the buzz at the office and I enjoy it a lot, I’m just not sure it is the optimal place for me to be in if I want to write code to the best of my ability.
Education for introverts
The book spends a fair amount of time discussing schools and education, how to raise your introverted child and support them throughout their years at school where teachers reward extroverted behavior like engaged participation in group discussions and such. However, I remember my time at university quite clearly and that was quite an okay environment for introverts (and we had a few in my class) as well as for extroverts. Linköping University simply doesn’t favor extroversion over introversion when it comes to academic success.
There was however one part of my life as a student where I wish I would have had as good of an understanding about my introverted personality as I have now; the student reception, i.e. the first two weeks at university where older students teach you all about student life through various festive activities. Those activities weren’t a great match for me (the reception is a non-stop joyride with people everywhere) and I think my introversion and also my shyness got the best of me. It certainly didn’t live up to the hype of being the most fun time of my life.
If I could redo my initiation period at the university I would have told myself this: ”All righty, time to put some free trait theory into action and apply my best extroverted self for the next two weeks. It’s gonna be uncomfortable and energy draining, but I’ll probably get to know some nice people that I can build long lasting relationships with.” Well, I did build long lasting relationships with nice people during my time at uni, but it wasn’t thanks to the reception so I feel that it was a bit of a missed opportunity.
Free trait theory, i.e. the theory that our personality traits aren’t completely fixed but somewhat changeable, is discussed in some detail in the book and if you want to learn more about that I recommend checking out the work of Dr Brian R Little.
I think it is important to remember that introversion-extraversion isn’t an either-or trait and that we are all placed differently along the introversion-extraversion spectrum. Furthermore, it only makes up a small part of a person’s personality and I think the book does an okay job of giving a glimpse into other personality traits, e.g. from the big five personality traits. However, I do believe introversion-extroversion is one of the more easily noticeable traits in yourself as well as among friends and colleagues. Knowing whether a person is more of an introvert or an extrovert can give a better understanding of that person’s preferences and help build a better relation to them.
With that, I hope I have piqued your interest in the topic of personality. The book mentions that ”solitude is the catalyst for innovation” and it is in my solitude that posts like these come to life and it is a very enjoyable process all they way from the idea stage to publication. After publication the enjoyment is getting company by some anxiety, as I get to explore extroverted territory.
If you want some discussion points, reflect upon the following questions:
- Is your workplace designed for extroverts?
- Is our schools and educational institutions biased against introversion?
- To what extent should the introverted minority adapt to an extroverted society using pretended extroversion?
- In what situations are introverted leadership preferable over the extroverted ditto, and vice versa?
Weekend Wednesdays (in Swedish) — A previous post of mine where I discuss the benefits and drawbacks of working on Saturdays while having the day off on Wednesdays. From an introvert’s perspective, I think the focus time you get from working on Saturdays is a big win.
LiUtopia (in Swedish) — Another post of mine in which I propose a solution that would give students access to private, single-person study rooms. I still think it is a great idea but have yet to see it happen. To me, this post is a case study of how introverts imagine their utopian study environment.
Deliberate Practice — Not really exclusive to introverts (but introverts may possibly be more inclined to engage in it) deliberate practice is a big topic on its own. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has a nice list of books about Deliberate Practice if you want to learn more.
Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams — Written by Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister, this book describes the Coding war games experiment mentioned earlier and probably a lot more interesting stuff about the software engineering industry. I haven’t had the chance to read it myself yet, but if you have I’d love to hear what you thought of it.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking — I rated it 3/5 but I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to understand humans better. It’s easily digestible and keeps you interested throughout the whole book while also being very well researched. If you prefer listening over reading, Cain has plenty of podcast episodes available.