Establishing a computer company that would forever change the computer industry required long bouts of deep thinking and laser-like concentration. But as an introvert, technology titan Bill Gates was well suited to the task. He’s in good company. Some of the world’s most famous game-changers—Albert Einstein, Steve Wozniak, Mother Theresa, Mark Zuckerberg, and J.K. Rowling, to name a few—can also be categorized as introverts.
An introvert, put quite simply, is someone who draws energy from his inner world, says Wendy Gelberg, career coach and author of The Successful Introvert: How to Enhance Your Job Search and Advance Your Career.
Introverts are energized by their ideas, mental images, and memories, and by solitude or being with a select trusted few. Introverts take time to reflect before they speak or act. They see ideas as vivid, concrete things. Introverts are the quiet deep-thinkers; the good listeners; the focused, deliberate types. They prefer depth to breadth—one-on-one conversations rather than group small talk, a few deep friendships to lots of surface ones, knowing a lot about a few subjects rather than a little about a lot of subjects. They’re often described as reserved or private.
In contrast, an extrovert gets his energy from the external world and from being around other people, says Gelberg. Extroverts are the outgoing types, the group-oriented ones, the people of action. Because of this, they tend to have a larger network of friends and enjoy situations that put them in constant contact with others. And, in contrast to introverts who prefer to crystallize their thoughts before saying them aloud, extroverts arrive at their thoughts by verbalizing them. In essence, they think out loud. That outward-orientation applies to action as well. Extroverts may move into action before thinking through a clear strategy.
The characteristics of extroversion and introversion lie on a continuum: Very few people are exclusively one or the other. We may change the balance in response to life circumstances and culture.
Don’t confuse introversion with shyness, says Nancy Ancowitz, business communication coach and author Self-Promotion for Introverts. Shyness is social anxiety, and although some introverts are shy, the same can be said of extroverts, she says.
Still, it can sometimes feel that our culture universally favors extroversion, but it's helpful to know this wasn't always the case. In her TED talk, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, discusses how we in the U.S. were once a culture of character, prizing good deeds and what a person was (Abraham Lincoln was a symbol of this). But as people flocked to cities at the turn of the century for the rise of big business, our culture became one of personality. Suddenly the premium was on what you showed, for example, charisma and magnetism. (See the Input Output interview with Cain, How to Succeed as an Introvert.)
In today's world—with its focus on talky self-promotion, thinking and working in groups, and ever-expanding social media requirements—provides much pressure to conform to that extroverted personality "norm." But it only takes a glance at the introverts who changed history to know that many of the traits that characterize introverts can be powerful advantages.
So if you’re an introvert, own that power. “Take stock of your quieter gifts as an introvert—researching, gaining expertise, attentive listening, writing, building deep relationships," says Ancowitz, "and use them to your advantage to position yourself as an expert in your field and get the recognition you deserve.”
On that note, here are three career areas introverts may find challenging, along with ways to reframe how you see them and tips for tackling the challenge. (See also The Introvert’s Guide to a Job Search, which goes into detail on that unique challenge.)
Dealing with an Extroverted Workplace
As an introvert, "you may love people, but ‘in doses,’" says Ancowitz. Add to that a need for solitude and quiet focus to do your best work and it's not hard to see why an extroverted workplace—with its group seating and lack of privacy—can pose particular challenges to an introvert.
If your workplace allows it, ask your manager to allow at least a partial telecommuting arrangement for you, or propose a quiet room option that people can use when they need to step away from the noise. If that's not possible, or on the days when you are in the office, Ancowitz recommends using noise blockers, such as listening to your iPod (if appropriate in your office) or earplugs, or by using a white noise machine.
In addition, you may want to create a sense of boundaries around yourself, for example, by discreetly putting physical barriers, like books, between you and your office mates. And some people find it helpful to use a mirror on the desk so you can see people approaching from behind, says Ancowitz. You may also wish to occasionally slip away to work in a quiet space, such as a conference room, or to a nearby coffee shop or park, to give you the thinking time you need. And be sure to get out for lunch if possible.
Standing Out and Being Heard
Both extroverts and introverts can be creative and smart, but introverts tend to focus on just doing rather than talking about what they're doing, says Ancowitz. It's the introvert’s "my work will speak for itself" mentality; you believe the right people will see what you're doing and reward you appropriately.
Of course, in today's world, thinking that way is a gamble. "If you want to be seen as valuable, it’s up to you to manage your own career by regularly and consistently spreading the word about your accomplishments," she says. "Don’t rely on anyone else to do that for you."
This entails being proactive about getting the opportunities you deserve, says Ancowitz. In particular, maximize your ability to form those one-on-one relationships by building relationships with managers who will be your champion, and who may also "help spread the word about your wins." In addition, take opportunities to establish yourself as an expert by regularly writing or doing public speaking, for example, by giving classes about the work you do that interests others. And be sure to attach your wins by including the right people on your e-mails.
Meetings can be an area of difficulty for an introvert, as you may prefer to take turns talking. Unfortunately, that's not the norm in most workplaces. "You may need to interject to be heard," say Ancowitz. "Practice leaning forward, making eye contact with the leader or facilitator, making a friendly gesture with your hands, saying her or his name to get heard, and just jumping in. Also practice projecting and modulating your voice and pacing your delivery." She also recommends that you offer to chair or facilitate meetings; but if not, be sure to get an agenda. "It’s often a good idea to circulate your ideas and lobby for support before meetings. At the very least, be prepared to deliver your key points—and to address objections—confidently and succinctly," she says.
Extroverts can be terrified at being put in the spotlight in a public speaking way, but for introverts, talking to a crowd, even a group of coworkers, can feel like a fate worse than death. Yet as difficult as it is, public speaking is an incredibly efficient way for introverts to use their social energy and to brand themselves as an authority and expert, says Ancowitz. In the short time it takes to moderate a panel, teach a class, or give a speech, you gain visibility and respect, and, quite likely, a great career boost.
Gelberg recommends formal training, such as from Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization that develops public speaking and leadership skills through practice and feedback. She also suggests studying great speakers. "Don't be afraid to copy what they do well," she says. And if possible, try to arrange to speak at a time when your energy is high, and carve out time to unwind and be quiet afterwards.
On a specific note, Gelberg says that preparation is key. Practice to the point where you feel conversational about what you will say, so your thoughts are accessible. Anticipate questions, and be sure you know the purpose of your talk: Are you persuading, motivating, or simply providing information? In addition, visualize yourself—in detail—giving your speech, moderating your panel, or teaching the class. In sports psychology, athletes use visualization to create the blueprint of a winning performance so vivid it feels real, making it easier to match that in real life. See yourself letting your shoulders relax. Allow yourself deep measured breaths, and imagine yourself feeling that calm in front of your audience.
Remember: Your audience wants you to do well. Think of them as friends, not the judgmental enemy. And practice whenever you can—toasts at weddings, leading meetings, and so on.
In addition, here are tips for specific occasions Ancowitz offers:
Presenting at a conference. Videotape yourself practicing your speech (or have someone do it for you) so you can see yourself as others do. Otherwise, you may not be aware of how effectively you use your voice, what you do with your hands, or how you deal with your notes.
Moderating a panel. If possible, prepare your questions in coordination with the panelists in advance. This both creates rapport and buy-in. In addition, Ancowitz recommends distributing panelists’ bios in writing, rather than reading each person’s bio (“a big no-no”). Instead, either make a pithy remark you’ve prepared in advance about each panelist based on your research or knowledge of them, or ask them to briefly introduce themselves.
Giving a “class” in your area at work. In the weeks before your class, ask your manager and prospective audience members to e-mail you questions in advance, so you can better target their needs and interests. Also, try to arrange for a distinguished participant, such as your manager, to introduce you at the beginning of the class to add instant credibility.
In addition, give thought to ways you can make the class interactive, as if you had guests in your living room. Consider creating handouts. They can support your presentation, reinforce the learning process, and further your brand. (Don’t forget to add your name and contact information.)
On the day of, arrive early to help yourself feel comfortable in the space and arrange it in a way that suits you. (This also helps you feel like you “own” it, much as you would at your own house before guests arrive for a party.) Think about where you’ll stand and walk—you don’t want to stay in one spot—and how you’ll set up the class members if you have that option.
Remember, as an introvert, you have much to give—even if your flair is on the quieter side. In the words of your fellow introvert Abraham Lincoln, "Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of; the tree is the real thing."
For more career advice for introverts, see: