Growing up, I wanted to walk, talk and be just like my older brother. At every one of his birthday parties, I would see how he fed off of the energy of playing soccer with a group of 30 or so kids. As he grew older, he would walk to the local park, strike up a conversation with complete strangers who were playing basketball and just start playing alongside them.
But soon enough, I realized that I was never going to be like him because although I enjoyed playing sports, I was an introvert. Instead of jumping into the action, I liked watching from the sidelines with my favorite Harry Potter book in hand or just staying back home, writing my own short stories.
Recent studies have shown that introverts make up about one-third to one half of the U.S. population. Author and former Wall Street lawyer Susan Cain defines introverts by their preference for "lower-stimulation environments where they feel most alive," as opposed to extroverts who "crave stimulation in order to feel at their best."
From world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein to Hollywood actress Emma Watson, introverts have influenced American society in a myriad of significant ways. Nevertheless, Cain contends in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking that schools and work spaces across the United States continue to favor the needs of extroverts over those of introverts.
During her 2012 TED Talk, Cain described how the education system is structured around the way extroverts like to work, which is in "high-stimulation environments."
"Nowadays your typical classroom has pods of desks of four or five or seven kids all facing each other and kids are working in countless group assignments," she said.
As I heard her say this, I thought back to my experiences working with Joint Educational Project (JEP) for USC, where I had the opportunity to teach a geology class to a group of fourth graders. Indeed, the class was set up so that the desks were all facing each other and kids were constantly working on group activities. I saw firsthand how the kids who preferred working alone were unable to do so because they were being talked to and surrounded by their classmates.
Later, I thought about my own classes at USC and how students are also taught to embrace all aspects of collaboration. We are placed in groups to somehow get our creative juices flowing from random forced interactions. In my journalism class, for instance, my classmates and I were placed in groups according to our last names and somehow expected to work together as a team. Although my group and I were able to successfully work as a team throughout the entirety of the course, I often caught myself longing to work on certain projects alone, especially the ones where we had the opportunity to choose the topic. Being an introvert who enjoys writing and coming up with new ideas, there are times when all I wanted to do was get lost in a project and see where my thoughts took me. Constantly working with others, though proven to be helpful and necessary in life, takes away from the "getting lost" process which, at the risk of sounding too ambitious, can lead to life-changing revelations.
"[The] same thing is true in our work places. Most of us work in open-plan offices without walls where we are subject to the constant noise and gaze of our coworkers," said Cain.
This couldn't be closer to the truth, seeing as 70 percent of Americans work in such offices envisioned to foster collaborative experiences. For years now, large companies such as Google, Goldman Sachs, American Express and Bloomberg have built office spaces that lack partitions. Moreover, in April, Facebook joined the club by revealing photographs of its Frank Gehry-designed building, which will be the largest open floor plan to date.
The hopes of many CEOs and powerful businessmen is that these work spaces will help spark creativity, which is for some reason thought to largely come from being in the presence of other employees. In designing offices this way, however, introverts are left without the moments of solitude that help them produce their best work.
As USC students, many of us may not frequent open-plan offices, but one thing that we do hear and are taught about is the power of networking. Even before we decide to apply to USC, we learn that it has one of the biggest alumni networks in the country. Additionally, once we arrive for our four-year trek through college, professors bring in speakers to our classes and push us to network. They say things like "you never know what will happen from striking up a conversation with them" or "they could be your future employer, so get to know them." We are basically told that our future depends on how many relationships we can make and the amount of business cards we can collect by the time we graduate. All the while, the importance of solitude, which leads to the development of our craft is either left out or at best, emphasized only on occasion.
I'm not arguing against collaboration, networking or even open-plan offices; all of these things have unmistakably helped us grow as a society. In the words of Cain, "where would be if Steve Wozniak did not come together with Steve Jobs and create Apple?" If not, the very computer I am typing on would not be here today.
Nonetheless, approximately half of the U.S. population is made up of introverts who prefer to contemplate first, work in small groups and spend time alone. Educators and employers need to recognize that not all their students or employees are extroverts who work best in "high-stimulation environments." The next step would be to start designing classrooms and workspaces that also provide introverts with the quiet and isolation they need to reach their full potential.
In an ideal world, introverts and extroverts would be able to learn and work together in spaces that favor both of their personality traits, however antithetical they sometimes may be. And maybe, just maybe solitude would be valued just as much as collaboration.
Republished from USC Annenberg School's digital news site Neon Tommy.