The Power of Quiet, or Productivity and Its Discontents

I’ve posted about Susan Cain’s book Quiet before, but it’s still on my reading list. The above is a posting from Andrew Sullivan’s blog explaining the central premise of Cain’s book. Below is Cain’s TED Talk on the subject. What I find most interesting about Cain’s premise isn’t that introversion is better; rather, Cain’s argument is that both qualities are necessary for creativity and productivity, and that our social, business, and educational systems over-emphasize extroversion (and group collaboration) over the need for individual solitude. 

While I’m still interested in reading Cain’s book, I think a lot of her talk is directed at business culture, who use group work and collaboration in order to get more things done. A lot of what she’s saying other productivity experts talk about when discussing the need for meditation, yoga, and prioritizing tasks. Isn’t it strange to be in a world where we have productivity experts and self help guides on how to be more productive? I sometimes feel like we’re all being trained to be automatons, working to produce more and more…what exactly? In the academy, I at least have an idea of what I’m supposed to be producing–scholarship–but by far and large, a lot of what productivity experts discuss I’m at a loss about. Why do we need to be so productive? And why do we beat ourselves up when we seem to fall behind the productivity metrics we’ve put in place to measure all of this producing? And, again, what are we making?

My dissertation director, Linda Hughes, had a wonderful metaphor for the need to work through an idea–you were percolating it. Ideas need time, and just churning out work for the sake of producing more pages, etc. didn’t necessarily produce what you needed. (See the ridiculously long chapter two draft that got cut in half in the finished version.) The collaborative project I’ve been working on has taken a long time, but in taking that time, we’ve all learned and discovered so much. I wouldn’t have wanted us to be more productive or faster in making the project. Percolating, collecting information, and learning from it has made the project what it is. And I think the emphasis on productivity means we all think what we produce has to be perfect from the get go. I’ve talked two students away from panic this week by telling them to stop trying to be perfect. They were both so worried about getting it right that they had become frozen, and I can only suppose that they had been told or gleaned along the way that being productive as a student meant being perfect. I have my own moments of perfection panic, which is why I have a note to myself on my desk to work for messy. Perhaps the real point of learning to embrace introverts and extroverts is to stop trying to be so damn productive and so hideously perfect.


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