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Before I learned what it means to be an introvert, followed by me realizing that I am one, I spent many years worrying that something was wrong with me. I stood back as a theme emerged in how grown-ups, teachers, coaches, guidance counsellors, room mates, doctors, employers, friends, team mates, relatives, neighbours, co-workers, and partners described me:
• Too shy
• A bit difficult
• Too sensitive
• A man of few words
• Not masculine enough
• Not aggressive enough
• A person with hidden leadership qualities
• And the list goes on…
When I think about what fuels the world’s weariness about the introverted personality, much about how that weariness gets expressed is framed by a belief that introverts need to “break free” from their shell, thus bursting into the preferred human personality type:
Nowhere is this more evident than in the professional world, which is designed to facilitate the success of the bold, brazen, energized-by-people extroverted personality. The ever-popular open concept office trend in itself speaks volumes about the personality preferences of the professional world. As an introvert, I am keenly aware of just how peopled-out I can feel at the end of the work day, which leaves me with less energy to socialize or network outside of work than I would like.
There are, of course, ideas to the contrary that introverts have certain advantages, like good listening skills, the ability to thrive on their own, and the preference to think before they speak. We’ve all heard success stories about famous introverts, e.g., Mark Zuckerberg and Emma Watson. But did their introversion genuinely bring about their success, or was it something they had to, for the most part, work around?
I haven’t arrived at an answer to this question at this stage in my professional life as a writer. While it’s true that I have learned to see the value in my introverted self (for the most part), I haven’t completely mapped out how I can use my quiet personality to forge ahead professionally. I'm proud of the success I've had thus far, don't get me wrong. But my tendency to over-think has left me wondering about the limits to success as an introvert in an extroverted professional world.
Defining what success looks like would be an obvious place to start. There are my teachers’ voices, identifying “hidden” leadership qualities on report card after report card, that leave me to consider a leadership role as a possible measure of success. Is it something I would do? Absolutely. I could be great at it. But would it be necessary to "unhide" my leadership qualities? That's something I'll need to think more on.
There were also my years spent working in the hospitality industry while plucking away at a creative writing degree — years filled with repeated suggestions that I relax and smile more. Technically speaking I was very good at bartending and serving. But since I lacked the bubbly personality that customers and managers expected — which is true of many customer or client-facing roles — that's one element of being a professional introvert where I'm lacking.
This isn't to say that there aren't strengths and opportunities introverts can and should capitalize on. Roles that require creativity are ideally suited to introverts. Taking stock, I recognize three particular strengths and opportunities that have been integral to my success, and I would like to recommend them to any of my fellow humans (introverts and extroverts alike).
Top 3 Strengths and Opportunities to Capitalize On for Success in the Professional World
1. Good listening skills.
This is the introvert's gold star, claim to fame, secret power — the one that always makes the top of the Why Introverts Rock lists. So I'm in agreement on this one.
Not only are we good at listening during one-on-one convos, we're also good at "listening" with square quotes — that is, taking everything in that's happening around us. The professional world is fraught with power dynamics and tricky relationships that don't make it into your Employee Guide. It is only a very skilled "listener" who can get a feel for what's actually happening around them.
But actual listening skills are super important too. Check out my list on how to be a good listener.
2. Follow your curiosity.
Curiosity is not specific to any personality type, but it's something I believe everyone, especially introverts, should chase after. Extroverts tend to have the upperhand when it comes to opportunities for following their curiosities, because they are out there "in the world" more often. Introverts, on the other hand, can lean towards keeping their curiosities private and hidden.
But resist that tendency. Follow your curiosity. Head in the direction it compels you toward. My willingness to indulge my curiosities has been a defining factor in my success in all areas of my life.
3. An introvert-extrovert duo can change the world.
There is an incredibly powerful effect that results when an introvert and extrovert pair up — not only in the professional world, but all the way through to the romantic world. Whereas extroverts have a tendency to think quickly and respond on the spot (sometimes to a fault), introverts tend to step back and mull over what just happened before speaking (also sometimes to a fault). These two seeming opposites can complement each other like vodka and pineapple juice, and likewise challenge each other to push beyond the limits (or over-limits) of their personalities.
Like most things in life, the answer to my professional-introvert angst is likely neither this or that. Answers are always in-between; they're always a little bit of both. My quiet personality holds me back in some ways, but pushes me ahead in others. So what's a professional introvert to do?
Keep at it. Ask questions. Be curious. Listen.