Susan Cain on Improving Creativity and Productivity with Peace and Quiet

Posted by Herbert Lui

The crowd grew silent as the next speaker stepped onto the stage. Acclaimed TED speaker Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts, started her presentation off with the usual suspects: three points that we should know about.

  • One-third of people are introverts.
  • Too much time is spent in meetings.
  • People think most assertive talkers have best ideas and charismatic people make for best leaders.

She then asked the audience to break into groups of six and chat about a moment when they felt introverted. “What were you thinking? What were you feeling?” she probed.

Then she broke into a grin, and confirmed that she was just joking. “But who was already thinking of excuses to leave the room so you wouldn’t have to do this exercise?” she asked with a laugh.

She contrasted introverts like Larry Page, J.K. Rowling, and Warren Buffett, with extroverts like Oprah and Bill Clinton. She illustrated the importance of privileging both styles equally, and even from a corporate standpoint, making full use of an introvert’s abilities.

Comparing it to her earlier statistic, she mentioned that the most recent study on introversion and extroversion showed that the world is divided in half. Introverts are not necessarily shy—they’re not always discomfort in social situations—but merely just stimulated differently from extroverts. They work less effectively in public spaces; for example, people in general may think more about self-presentation, or are more anxious and less likely to form meaningful relationships with co-workers in public spaces just because they know other people can hear them.

Cain told her own story of becoming a corporate lawyer to prove she could be bold and assertive, but she realized that being an introvert has great power and responsibility. “It’s not just our loss: it is the world’s loss,” she said.

Designer Philippe Starck was used as an example of someone who worked in solitude, and was quoted to do so because he wanted to be “thinking, not repeating what everyone else is saying.” Studies have shown that people naturally start to mimic opinions of people around them; that’s why artists like Starck don’t read magazines, watch TV, or even talk with people.

She also pointed out that the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice required to master something was usually done in solitude, or in close company of one other person. This is because the focus required in deliberate practice is intense, and can’t usually be achieved in an environment with a lot of distraction or stimulus.

As she closed her speech off, she shared four pieces of actionable advice:

  • Abolish meetings every Tuesday. (How good does that sound, by the way?)
  • Design office spaces mindfully. (Like Steve Jobs at Pixar.) Consider the need for more solitude.
  • Make meetings as structured as possible.
  • Write stuff down when brainstorming.
  • Make use of online interactions.
  • Hire and promote more thoroughly. What kind of message are you sending with your promotions? Is it working?

Her TED talk shared some similar elements as this speech that I didn’t get a chance to mention. Have a look if some of this stuff sounds interesting.

This post is part of a series comprehensively examining The Art of Leadership 2012 in Toronto. Have a look at Marcus Buckingham and Chester Elton’s keynotes.

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Herbert Lui

Herbert Lui

Herbert Lui loves startups, creativity, and innovation. He has been actively blogging about technology and consumer electronics since the summer of 2007, and still enjoys every minute of it. Herbert immerses himself in everything he wants to learn more about. He studies Consumer Behavior at the University of Western Ontario. In whatever spare time he has, Herbert can be found with his friends... more



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