Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Western society tends to favor extroverted personality traits to introverted ones. A result is that many of our most important decisions (when to go to war, how to invest our retirement funds, etc.) are made by the extroverts who occupy the top positions of companies and governments.

Although relatively new (about the last 150 years), society’s bias toward extroverted talent permeates almost every aspect of professional life, including office layouts. With the laudable goal of improving teamwork and collaboration, open office floor plans have left those of us who require more solo cerebral focus with few places to “be,” which has taken a significant toll on our effectiveness.

Cain, a self-described introvert, lays out several solutions that leaders in business and government might adopt to improve the productivity and well-being of all of their team members—extroverts and introverts alike. Her discussions about finding and facilitating each individual’s ideal balance of group and solo (or one-on-one) activities were specially helpful. Most introverts can pretend to be extroverts for some portion of the day (and should be to some extent). But too much feigned extroversion will result in unhealthy stress and burn-out, which are avoidable if we’re just free to find and achieve the right activity balance.

I’m an introvert in a lot of ways, but not in every way. “Quiet” has helped me to acknowledge and want to foster some of my introvert qualities that I might otherwise try to mask. It has also helped me to be more cognizant of the valuable qualities of others that might otherwise go unappreciated when juxtaposed with certain unmissable talents of the many extroverts (about 2/3 of the population) around us.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human NatureThe Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This book is for people who wonder where the taboo against human nature came from and who are willing to explore whether the challenges to the taboo are truly dangerous or just unfamiliar.”

Pinker wrote those words in 2002, but the taboo of acknowledging human nature unfortunately continues today, making The Blank Slate as necessary as ever.

Pinker is always fun to read—informative, witty, and thorough. The Blank Slate is no exception. The Blank Slate is an invaluable resource for those looking to understand (and defend) the reality and far-reaching effects of human nature. Minds are not merely blank slates upon which lived experiences mold our traits; people are not born as "noble savages" only to become corrupted by societies; and we are not merely bags of meat controlled by a “ghost inside the machine.” Instead, our minds come pre-wired with features that largely define our individual personalities, desires, character traits, etc. It’s our genes that do almost all of the legwork in making us who we are.

The motivations behind those who would like to treat human minds as blank slates are understandable. A blank-slate mind, the proponents surmise, means we can have a truly even playing field, and that to the extent that the field is uneven it is because of factors that can be remedied by the right public policies. A blank-slate theory of the mind (i.e., a denial of human nature) makes us feel in control (as leaders, parents, and members of society). But, as Pinker lays out, a blank slate is a very bad metaphor to use for the mind.

Proponents of the blank-slate position fight hard against findings that show the innateness of human nature in molding individual behavior. Their aversion to human nature is based on a misguided notion that states that if differences among individuals are due to genetically inherited traits, then this fact could be weaponized by racists and other bigots to justify discriminatory practices and perpetuate policies that they see as causing systemic inequality.

The truth, however, is almost completely the opposite. Denial of human nature is not only unnecessary to avoid discriminatory policies and behaviors, but actually serves to promote certain types of unwanted discrimination. For example, blank-slate proponents equivocate when confronted with science about heritable traits that bolsters progressive policies, like findings showing the innateness of homosexuality. I.e., they seem to say that it’s fine to say his gayness is an inborn trait, but not his intelligence or temperament. Pinker satisfyingly eviscerates these contradictory notions and others like them, explaining how a theory of mind that fully embraces human nature is best equipped to promote equality—creating a default where we treat each individual as an individual.

For me, the most readily “usable” content is Pinker’s chapter on children. Pinker describes a particularly negative and lasting effect of the blank-slate position as follows: “The theory that parents can mold their children like clay has inflicted childrearing regimes on parents that are unnatural and sometimes cruel. It has distorted the choices faced by mothers as they try to balance their lives, and multiplied the anguish of parents whose children haven’t turned out the way they hoped.”

While motivated largely by laudable goals (e.g., fairness, equality), the denial of human nature is, and always has been, bad science. And it turns out that pretending that our minds are blank slates doesn’t actually help achieve those goals anyway.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical TalesThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully written and memorable. Sacks brings his readers into the rooms of his patients in a way that feels almost too familiar. But even when things get especially weird, Sacks always steers the narrative with great care and tact. Sacks clearly adored his work and his patients.

Brains are such funny things. We’re all just a few chemicals or altered connections away from being almost entirely different versions of ourselves. And some of these changes make for really good writing.

This review also appears in Goodreads.