According to Myers Briggs, I’m an introvert. This actually surprised a few people (friends and colleagues included) but not me – I’ve always been a bit shy and reserved. I’m happy in my own company and find crowds and meeting new people overwhelming. Sure, I can be the life of the party, give a presentation and mingle and network with the best of them – but I find it draining and regenerate afterwards by spending quiet time by myself.
It became pretty clear to me fairly early on that schools, employers and the corporate world in general recognise and reward extroverted behaviour much quicker than the subtler introverted approach. Susan Cain talks about this divide between introverts and extroverts in her book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. I highly recommend this read for introverts and extroverts alike. For those of you that don’t have the time (or need further persuasion), I thought I’d share my key take-aways with you:
- Not all great leaders are extroverts
If you think of great leaders, Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton or Jordan Belfort types spring to mind. They are charismatic public speakers with a vibrant, commanding presence – competitive and motivated, they project success. We have been led to believe that this is what leadership looks like. Quiet presents a pretty convincing alternative. Susan says that a typical introvert is more inclined to listen than talk; to be the connector and collaborator of the group. This means that, rather than dominating a group situation, introverts are more likely to encourage others to take initiative. Isn’t that what the best leaders do? Facilitate rather than dominate? Bring out the best qualities in individuals to contribute to a team’s success? Despite common misconceptions, introverts do not make second-rate leaders – Hilary Clinton and Bill Gates are an encouraging testament to that fact.
- Collaboration can kill creativity
The rise of the open-plan, no doors office environment is a prime example of the corporate world catering to the extroverted. Once upon a time, job advertisements required you to be able to work “independently and as part of a team” – now it seems employers see these as mutually exclusive skills. Sure, there are benefits to working in a team. Group brainstorming is a valuable problem solving technique – but its success relies on the existence of a non-judgemental environment and the confidence of the contributors. On the other hand, solitude is a safe space to breed creativity. Some of the world’s most brilliant inventors were extreme introverts, preferring to work alone – take, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll and Einstein for example. The corporate world needs to recognise that there is a time for collaboration and a time for independent reflection – both stimulate creativity and to different extents for introverts versus extroverts. It’s the whole “if a tree falls down in a forest and no one hears it…” debacle – there is a mentality that achievement only counts if someone else acknowledges it. Introverts, by nature, tend to look inward for strength and energy but also for reflection and approval – this means that we are much more likely to understand, but also value, quiet achievement (the forgotten cousin of success) than most.
- Fake it when you need to. And then stop.
Last year, my sister asked me to be maid of honour at her wedding. Of course I was honoured (pun intended) and excited, but pretty quickly my reaction turned to terror – this required a speech. I’ve never liked public speaking. I did a drama elective in Year 9 (mainly because it seemed to have a smaller theory component than music) and had to do a monologue as an army soldier. I remember crying for days in the lead up and eventually Mum felt so sorry for me that she wrote me a note to get out of it. No such luck for the maid of honour speech. The week before the wedding, I wrote my speech and rehearsed it every night. While the best man gave his speech on the day, I downed a couple of glasses of champagne (there’s a fine balance between liquid courage and slurred embarrassment, but I got it right). The actual speech was a blur but people laughed and applauded in all the rights spots. Afterwards, several people came and told me what a great speech it was – no one had picked up on my nerves. I watched the wedding video a few weeks later and I could see why – I couldn’t see them either. It was the first time I really believed that I could fake it and get away with it.
In Quiet, Susan talks about this in terms of having “A Free Trait Agreement” with yourself – an agreement where you can act out of character some of the time in exchange for being your true self the rest of the time. The key message being: don’t get lost. Know your “restorative niche” – that place where you go when you want to return to your true self. For me, that’s home, watching a movie or hanging with my nearest and dearest – those people who know and love me for me (the real me, not the shiny plastic version). Post wedding speech, that place was hugging my smiling baby sister at the bridal table.
- Pay attention
I love it when you read something that just clicks. Perhaps that’s why I loved Susan’s book so much. She summarised part of her story like this:
“It took me almost a decade to understand that the law was never my personal project, not even close… Once I realised this, I had to make a change. I look back on my years as a Wall Street lawyer as time spent in a foreign country. It was absorbing, it was exciting and I got to meet a lot of interesting people whom I never would have known otherwise. But I was always an expatriate.”
Hoorah! Another ex-lawyer who has taken the plunge into a more creative and fulfilling career – and survived (not only that, but made millions from a bestseller). As common as this story is now, I’m still not sick of hearing it. To discover your own personal project in life, Susan suggests simply paying attention – to what work you gravitate towards, what you envy and why. When I was working in a law firm, I often sought out the work that no one else wanted – the business development task, team communication or training powerpoint. I enjoyed it (who wouldn’t, when the alternative is a due diligence report?) and it seemed to come easier to me than other lawyers. What do I envy? I envy those with lifestyles rather than jobs or careers – doing something on a daily basis that pays the bills but also sits so naturally with their interests and talents, that it never feels like work. Why? I think “work life balance” sets the impossible goal of keeping all the balls in the air at the same time – and if I wanted to be a juggler, I would have joined the circus (the non-corporate type).
At the end of the day, we are who we are – all we can do is play to our strengths, whether that is giving charismatic sales pitches or crunching numbers or web codes. But Quiet reminded (and reassured) me that there is a place for both introverts and extroverts at the top – and, as they say, it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for!