“Inside was where she lived, physically and mentally. She resided in the horn of plenty of her own prodigious mind, fertilized by inexhaustible curiosity.” Tim LaHaye
“Solitude matters.” Susan Cain
Group work is the new paradigm of ‘successful learning’. It is generally assumed that groups can draw on various talents of diverse members and therefore synthesize better outcomes. Those of us who have written applications for jobs or universities know how important it is to have teamwork skills – virtually every employer asks for some kind of group work or leadership experience. According to the McKinsey application guidelines: “Leading people and fostering productive teamwork are critical to success […] to drive positive change within organizations.” Does that mean we all have to become ‘team players’, extroverts and strategic communications experts in order to be successful?
Just thinking about spending the rest of my life working only in groups makes me shudder. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy group work – quite the contrary, I absolutely agree that working with diverse people can be really enriching. I just recently had the honor of working within a group on a project about artificial intelligence. What I learnt from the physicists within two hours of group work is what I’d have never understood reading physics books for the rest of my life. And you can guess that also the outcome of our project would’ve been really poor had I tried to do it myself with my more than limited knowledge of physics.
I don’t want to discuss whether group work is good or bad. In many cases, group work can be effective and enriching indeed; in other cases, it can also be ineffective and repressing. Full stop. Nature of the beast. However, the problem I have with the current success paradigm is that it completely overrides the power of introversion. The ability to communicate effectively with the external world is clearly an important characteristic for career success, but it’s not everything. We tend to forget that we shouldn’t only focus on improving our communication and leadership skills to become wonderful ‘team players’ or even ‘team leaders’. It is equally important to work on our ability to think for ourselves. Introversion is a powerful tool if one knows how to make use of it. What I’m trying to emphasize here is that extraversion and introversion are both important.
Contemporary leadership research, for example the ‘Big Five’ personality chart presupposes that extraversion and introversion are some kind of a continuum. It is assumed that one is either an introvert or an extrovert (or somewhere in the middle). In contrast, contemporary psychoanalysis argues that in fact everyone has both an extroverted and an introverted side, while one of each is more developed than the other. Psychoanalysis also challenges the mainstream understanding of introverts being “shy” and extroverts being “outgoing”. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung argues that introversion and extraversion are attitudes defined by whether one primarily concentrates on internal psychic contents or external objects. This means that someone who’s physically alone can still be primarily concerned with external objects (let’s say trees or cars in the street) and someone who spends time with people can still predominantly focus on his or her own psychic activity. Thus, instead of personality traits, introversion and extraversion are two different though-processes.
From my experience, thoughts that originate from the process of introversion are much more creative than thoughts that originate from group work. Group work and conversations are usually analytical and require us to think vertically. In solitude, however, we are free to think in whatever way we want and can stimulate our ability to think laterally. Lateral thoughts uttered within a group can easily be destructed by another person’s vertical analysis. Or do you think Moses, Descartes, Picasso or Ghandi could have developed their powerful thoughts within a group?
Extraversion is important, but so is introversion. We need both. Universities and employers should not only ask for team experience but also for individuals who’re able to think for themselves. Spending time alone, sometimes, is crucial. Solitaire et Solidaire is what makes the artist a great one.