Susan Cain on Solitude and Quiet

A prelude to her new book, this deeply insightful op-ed piece by Susan Cain for the New York Times illuminates a number of different threads of thought.

“SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink…”

In the column, Cain discusses the shortcomings of enforced and relentless collaboration, explaining and demonstrating why open plan offices and team brainstorming may not work.  Her insight illustrates why redesigning offices to foster flexible working and collaboration only succeeds where it includes places to hide and to avoid interruption.

It also explains why a culture that is favourable to home-working can be so successful: people can use the office to collaborate and their quiet home space to think.

However, Cain’s insights also suggest that – with technology – we are never truly alone with our thoughts; a circumstance that makes achieving the benefits of solitude a decided challenge.  She quotes psychologist, Hans Eysenck that introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” 

Reading that made me reflect on Twitter and LinkedIn updates and news-feeds and Instant Messenger pop-ups and email pop-ups.  Last year, the Economist’s Schumpeter column had a piece on the tyranny of distraction.  It’s an area that Nicholas Bate regularly exhorts us to tackle.  And, of course, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows covered this in depth.

Finally, Cain also observes that online collaboration often does work because the screen removes the inhibitions and behaviours that damage face-to-face collaborations, one of the observations picked up by HBR blogger, Andrew McAfee.

All in all, a rich and insightful read.  I’ve ordered her book: “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” (not yet published in the UK but there are a handful of US copies available through resellers).

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About Andrew Munro

An independent business consultant, interim manager and writer, Andrew operates through his company, Burning Pine Ltd (http://burningpine.com).
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