Susan Cain Article: The New Groupthink

by David Mein

I want to use this post to draw your attention to this (kind of old) opinion piece by Susan Cain, the author who has become somewhat of a star among introverts* with her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts. Much of what she covers in her piece, called The New Groupthink, can be found in Quiet, and basically documents how the modern obsession with group work is harmful to creativity.

She begins with the work of two researchers who have found that creative people are often introverts. This is related to the fact that they see themselves as independent and individualistic, not as “joiners.” In Cain’s words, making a reference to the very introverted Isaac Newton, “a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head.”

To bring home the point of the connection between solitude and creativity, she first uses examples of famous religious figures, like Moses, Jesus, or Buddha, who went off by themselves and came back with wonderful insights. She goes on to use the example of Steve Wozniak, aka the other guy who invented Apple Computers, who was often overshadowed by the more outgoing Steve Jobs. For Wozniak, the hard work of creating something from nothing happened when he was alone. He said in his memoire,

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.

As for what Cain is referring to when she talks about “groupthink,” she illustrates that with examples from our schools, work life, even religious life. She brings up the new fad of open-plan offices. She mentions one video game development company that found switching from an open-plan office to cubicles increased creativity in their workers. The former creative director of the company even said “it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody.”

I graduated high school in 2004, and I haven’t had a real job since then, so if this new group think really does exist, I’ve been kind of sheltered from it. But, even if I can’t vouch for the veracity of what Susan Cain is writing about in her piece, I can appreciate the message. In her closing paragraph she says,

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

She recognizes the need for group work along with individual work. Her point is not to get rid of group work, but that it is over-emphasized, and we need to find a balance that brings about the most creative environment. In other words, we need to recognize that not only is it okay to be alone, but a state of solitude is where some of our best work is done.

*In case you happened to have read my last post, There’s no such thing as an introvert, I want to assure you I’m not being hypocritical by continuing to use the word**. The point of my last post was that there is no one is completely introverted or extroverted. That doesn’t change the fact that there are many people who find themselves more on the introvert side of the introvert-extrovert scale and who call themselves introverts.

**Okay, maybe I’m being a little hypocritical.

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