The Happy Introvert: Leveraging Our Strengths
By most any measure, we seem to make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles these days. Movie plots, television leads, sports stars, political beliefs, pharmaceutical commercials… even our social media feeds tell us that to be great is to be bold, to have value is to have audacity, and to be happy is to be outgoing.
I’m totally onboard with the belief that our personality traits play a fundamental role in driving our actions, but as an introvert, I found myself wondering what I might be missing. The results were shocking. Here is my favorite:
“Think of extravert and introvert brains as Microsoft Word. You have a document full of great things. When the extravert brain hits “save,” the document saves in full clarity and its exact location is remembered so that it can be opened and reopened again and again. There might even be a few popups and push notifications prompting one to reopen and have more fun.
“When the introvert hits “save,” however, the file might get a little muddled. No one is exactly sure where it saved to, and whether or not it gets opened again is of no real importance.” (Jacki Christopher)
I clearly understand that by definition, extroverts share their lives with others more openly, but one study claims introverts tweet more frequently(albeit from fewer locations). Sounds rather desperate. Other studies show extroverts:
- Use entertainment technology more (which they say brings extroverts more happiness);
- Do less compulsive buying;
- Laugh more;
- Have higher life satisfaction; and
- Are happier later in life
And a commonly used description for a non-extrovert is neurotic. That’s right, neurotic appears to be the opposite of extrovert. So I guess I have that going for me…
What’s an Introvert to Do?
I’m glad you asked. The popular recommendation is that introverts are happier when they act more like extroverts. (I’m really not making this stuff up).
As for me, I believe that introverts are happier when they resist the urge to Google extroverts and happinessand instead go read a book.
Perhaps there’s more afoot here. For starters, personality traits are difficult to measure directly. A common method for attempting it is a questionnaire; a set of questions designed and written by those testing a specific and often narrow assumption. Respondents provide subjective answers based on their memories or feelings and could hide true responses (consciously or unconsciously) based on their desired self-image. Moreover, wouldn’t an extrovert rate all experiences, especially the enjoyable ones, higher than an introvert? That alone seems to create a bias in the science.
The Extrovert Ideal
Introversion (along with it’s cousins sensitivity, compassion, and shyness) is quickly becoming relegated to a second-class personality trait. In fact, many personality tests rather simply measure degree of happinessusing activities like socializing and interacting with the outside world. Happiness, in other words, is too often scored on extroversion.
In her bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain identifies this bias as the Extrovert Ideal – “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams, and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all to often we admire only one typeof individual – the kind who’s comfortable putting himself out there.”
That puts a lot of pressure on introverts to act differently. Our extroverted parents, friends, and bosses often admonish, cajole, and judge us when we’re not talkative, enthusiastic, or energetic enough. Introverts living in an extroverts world are, as Cain puts it, “like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.”
Introverts are Cool Too
“Be a loner,” Albert Einstein famously advised. “That gives you time to wonder, to search for the truth. Have holy curiosity. Make your life worth living.”
I like this idea – that a life worth living may be one spent largely in solitude because I rather enjoy time spent with myself. I have a fundamental need to belong and connect with others as well, just maybe a little less than others. I tend to think of it this way: We all need food to live. How much and what kind of food we consume are a matter of personal preference, but we all find eating rewarding. The same is true with socializing.
When it comes to prizing my introversion, I’m not alone – somewhere between one-third to one-half of Americans are considered introverts (essentially one out of every two or three people you know). So if you’re not an introvert yourself, there’s a good chance you’re raising, managing, married to, or coupled with one.
Despite the overwhelming attention that introverted and extroverted personality types have received, there is no evidence that either presents any tangible competitive advantage. Extroverts, however tend to socially reward one another more and have created educational systems and workplaces environments to institutionalize enthusiastically working with others.
Of course that’s not to say that we introverts (that’s me and Einstein) don’t prize our time with others or take our working responsibilities seriously. “Although I am a typical loner in my daily life,” Einstein once said, “my awareness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has prevented me from feelings of isolation.”
As an instrument rated pilot, my favorite thing to do was to fly alone at night. Stars above. Lights below. The vibration of the engine and the airflow on the yoke. Even the radio traffic felt more alive. My amplified awareness evaporating into memories soon after touching down.
At home, I prefer to spend my free time surfing and scuba diving – both rather solitary pursuits – just me and the sea. When I want to get away, I push my personal limits alpine climbing – a literally breathtaking yet frozen endurance sport where the nearest teammate is often 20 yards away down the rope line.
Above or below the surface, surfing on or climbing through – the times I’m most engaged in the challenge are more accurately time spent in my own little world.
And that’s not all bad.
As a coach, I’ve seen firsthand the difficulty introverts have identifying their own strengths (and how powerful it is when they eventually do). The fact is, introverts have certain advantages. The trick is to make the most of who you are – all of you, not just the part you want others to see – and play to your strengths. Here are some tips to help you accomplish this in both your personal and professional life.
Introverts Have Certain Advantages
Introverts enjoy a few advantages. They are:
- Good listeners. Extroverts are often too busy talking to listen well.
- Introverts tend to think before they act.
- Introverts have rich inner worlds and often have vivid imaginations.
- Astute observers of the world. You may catch subtleties and details that extroverts miss.
- In sync with the times. While extroverts may have ruled in previous ages, many of today’s trends and technologies tend to favor introversion.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates told an audience during a Q&Athat “Introverts can do quite well” in a predominantly extroverted world. “If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert, which might be, say, being willing to go off for a few days and think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself very hard to think out on the edge of that area.”
Introverts and Their Careers
There is great value in aligning your career choice with your particular personal strengths, but don’t overlook the fact that all businesses rely on certain fundamentals (honesty, reliability, service, performance, problem-solving, cost management, etc.). Every organization values those who contribute to the mission, so don’t over-restrict your career choice based solely on your personality. Great folks are everywhere.
Of course, introverts have to put themselves out there and get noticed if they expect to get hired in the first place. At interviews, pay attention to your body language and the way you come across. Make eye contact, speak clearly, and be engaging.
When you have a job, seek ways to maximize your comfort. That may involve utilizing some options like occasionally working from home or closing your office door for a period. I tend to work best when I’m alone but in the company of others – in coffee shops or in public – for example. And sometimes just taking a short break to walk a bit helps. Remember: one of the fundamental qualities of introverts is the need to recharge so look for ways to work in some alone time.
Another way to gain almost complete control over your work environment is to be your own boss, but I’ll save that for another post.
The bottom line is this: introvert or extrovert, you should always play to your strengths. That doesn’t mean that you only get to do the stuff you enjoy and delegate everything else. It means that you should be setting boundaries to prioritize tasks and projects where your particular strengths may be leveraged to their fullest while also doing the same for others.
Don’t Isolate Yourself
Alone time isn’t the same as isolation, and introverts can sometimes fall into that trap. Isolation can be self-reinforcing, and finding the right balance can be challenging. If you get into the habit of staying home and not talking to people, you’ll probably feel less inclined to reach out to anyone. At the same time, when you’re not in circulation, people don’t think to call you or invite you anywhere. That doesn’t mean people don’t like you or care about you; they may think you prefer to be left alone.
To avoid or break out of this dilemma, take small but assertive steps to become more sociable. Stay in touch with close friends and family members. Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Invite someone out for lunch or a cup of coffee. Go to social events in your area. Join a group that shares your interests whether it’s art, staying fit, hiking, or talking about business.
Take Advantage of Modern Technology
“It has never been less important to be extroverted to be an entrepreneur,” says Gary Vaynerchuk. “Just look at every successful entrepreneur that everyone talks about like Zucks [Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook], and Ev Williams [Twitter], and Kevin Systrum [Instagram], and David Karp [Tumblr].” Business isn’t always done face-to-face anymore. “It’s about betting on strengths,” says Vaynerchuk, and he definitely has a point.
Introverts who find it easier to communicate in writing than in person can connect remotely with email, social media, texting, and messaging services. You can network professionally on sites such as LinkedIn and other social sites. You can’t live your whole life remotely, but you can utilize the internet and other technology as a buffer to help you connect and maintain contact on your terms and time.
Always Be You
Introvert and extrovert may be helpful labels for explaining certain tendencies in people,but neither term encompasses the totality of who you are. You can always change your behavior if you’re motivated to do so, but there’s no need to remake yourself entirely. If you want to make adjustments that help you function better in certain situations and don’t know where to begin, you may want to consider utilizing a coach. Together you can make the most of your introverted qualities while modifying the aspects that are holding you back.
Despite the prevalence of the Extrovert Ideal, you don’t have to be one personality or another to be happy – and you don’t have to act boldly or take remarkable action in order to have an impact and be successful. The only thing you have to be is you.
** Awesome Title Photo by @kcurtis113 on Unsplash