The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

April 12, 2013

Marta Mossburg, columnist: Great contributors often get overlooked

— Those who watch “Jeopardy!” know the guests tend to be slightly odd by modern standards.

Ill-fitting suits on men, if they wear them, and out-of-date, shapeless dresses on women make frequent appearances. Many contestants come off as shy. One recent winner cried after the final question because he had been trying to pass the entrance test to the classic quiz show for decades and winning was a life-long dream.

It is part of the charm of “Jeopardy!” — an anachronism in a world full of exhibitionist reality shows — whose questions bow to pop culture but remain decidedly partial to the cannon of western knowledge. The people who get on the show and especially those who win repeatedly are really smart. But if you listen to their biographies, they are not particularly successful in life. A recent winner who amassed more than $100,000 in a week was an office supply sales assistant who loved trains and called herself a “bibliophile.” Other recent winners include a substitute teacher and assistant librarian. Plenty of lawyers and doctors are on the show, but you don’t often see those accustomed to the limelight, or who appear natural talking about themselves.

Susan Cain understands these people, many of whom are not identifiable by their appearance or demeanor like the examples above. The author of the best-selling 2012 “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” also thinks America’s hyper-extroverted society should pay more attention to introverts because they are some of the most creative and innovative people in the world. Not to mention the fact that you are probably married to one, related to one or work with one, because introverts make up at least one third of the population. She cites Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin among them.

Cain charts America’s change from a “Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality” in the 20th century, largely aligned with the rise of industrial society and cities where “Americans found themselves working no longer with neighbors but with strangers” and in environments where making a good first impression became paramount.

And she shows how the culture that emerged prizes those best at generating attention for themselves and their ideas. It’s important to note that the book does not disparage extroverts, just seeks to show how modern U.S. life could be fuller and more productive if our most important institutions and activities were more attuned to those who shun self-promotion, don’t naturally enjoy group activities and don’t want to be a celebrity anything.

One of the most powerful chapters described how large corporations use teams and have almost all adopted open work spaces to encourage collaboration among employees — as have schools, to prepare students for the new world. They have done this despite reams of evidence that people need solitude to be their most creative. Not everyone plays piano, but the main thing that distinguishes the best players is they practice the most on their own, for example. And in many fields, solitude is the best environment for serious study that allows people to “identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress and revise accordingly.” Besides, she shows how open-plan spaces create lots of issues — from lowered productivity and memory problems, to higher rates of sickness and high blood pressure.

One of the studies she cites is called the “Coding War Games” that assessed over 600 computer developers from 92 companies. Each person was required to create and test a program and was assigned a partner from the same company. But the partners worked separately and didn’t communicate about their work.

The purpose of it was to identify the qualities of the best performers. It turned out that people from the same company performed about equally despite working separately. The high achievers were the ones who had the most “privacy, personal space, control over their environments, and freedom from interruption.”

This all makes me wonder if the U.S. would be more financially stable if those we elected to office did not succeed because of their personality or mastery of social media but because of their life’s work and if charisma was not a necessary attribute for CEOs of public companies or other large institutions. Structurally, it seems impossible to choose different types of people for those positions. But ignoring Cain’s insights means we will live poorer, diminished lives individually and collectively.

Marta H. Mossburg writes frequently about national affairs and about politics in Maryland, where she lives. Write her at marta@martamossburg.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.

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