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As more and more Silicon Valley powerhouses take to the limelight, I don’t think there’s a better time to be an introvert in business. Right now, it’s cool to be a geek because, hey, don’t they run the world?
Of course, that wasn’t always the case.
There was a time when you wouldn’t wear your introvert-ness on your sleeve, in case you get mocked or beaten up. It used to be considered close to a plague, rather than a badge of honour.
As a child, I was always uncomfortable under the spotlight and preferred to play by myself. I was an only child for 12 years before my little sister was born, which meant I had plenty of time to hone my imagination with action figures and crazy storylines.
I don’t know if it was just how Asian kids were brought up, to shy away and keep quiet, but I always avoided and hated making mistakes.
And being the centre of attention will put you up for some serious scrutiny and judgement. In my mind, I was better off being an unknown than someone who did something wrong or stupid.
Creating my dual personality
When I was about 10, I figured out a trick to make myself stand up and speak up. If I had no choice but to speak in public or in a crowd, I might as well volunteer to go first so I can get it over and done with quickly.
If we had to share a story, recite a poem or solve a maths problem in class, I’d be the first to raise my hand and volunteer. Then I can sit back and relax after I’m done, instead of anxiously avoiding eye contact with the teacher or feeling nervous the whole time waiting for my turn.
After some time, it did wonders for my personality. I had created an “on” and “off” switch that controlled my persona in public. I could be the Alvin who was social and outspoken or the real Alvin who preferred time off from people.
Until today, I’m still uncomfortable when I don’t know anyone in social situations. I don’t think that characteristic ever goes away for an introvert. But I could easily push myself out of my comfort zone with a flick of my internal switch.
The characteristics that help introverts shine in business
In the last 5 years, I’ve used the “on” switch more than my entire life since I started Relab, a digital design agency in Melbourne, Australia.
In this business, it’s all about who you know.
I had to force myself to meet people, build a network and pitch for projects. Every time I attended meetings, presentations and networking sessions, I’d deplete my energy with all the talking. Afterwards, I would be semi-lifeless because I was trying to be the best version of myself in those meetings.
Now that I’ve fully embraced my introvert qualities, I know exactly what makes an introverted entrepreneur successful.
1. We’re great listeners
I guess the upside of not having the gift of gab, is that we can listen better than extroverts. Personally, I also hate unclear and messy information, so I make it a point to pay attention in meetings.
I recall one successful project where my listening skills came in handy. It was a government based project with multiple stakeholders.
A typical meeting would consist of a hundred ideas and opinions being thrown to the table by different individuals. Everyone wanted something different. Filtering and navigating through it would give anyone a massive headache.
I don’t think I would have survived each meeting if I wasn’t able to sit back, listen and take in everyone’s input. My team weighed all the pros and cons of each idea and opinion and managed to design a solution that was a happy medium for all.
Introverts have this amazing ability to listen and observe, which makes problem solving easier because we understand the problem or premise thoroughly.
2. We highly value personal relationships
I guess it is to do with the fact that we don’t usually have a lot of friends. We rely on a handful of solid and reliable relationships in our lives, most of them nurtured from an early age. It’s why I highly value 1-on-1 conversations and individual opinions.
In my line of work, I’ve met many personalities, from alpha males to quiet and sensitive intellects. Usually, I’ll fine tune my communication to complement their personality.
When I’m with a soft-spoken person, I’ll balance it out by being enthusiastic without going over the top. The idea is to build a natural synergy, so the other person is comfortable talking, sharing and disagreeing with me.
3. We tend to be genuinely empathetic
One of the downside of being an introvert is that we’re sensitive and tend to overthink. We may stress over insignificant details, encounters and conversations. A slight nod or a smirk may send us questioning the motive or meaning behind it.
The upside is that empathy comes easy for us.
I’ve done many big-scale projects involving multiple service providers and contractors, with different responsibilities and goals. My best approach is to always think about other parties, which helps me plan the big picture, foresee risk and minimise trouble for the whole team.
I’ll always ask: “How do we make the other party’s life easier and more efficient, so we can all be successful in this project?”
4. We’re our own best critic
Introverts are often insecure and critical of themselves. However, being critical also means you are fully aware of what you’re good at and what you lack in. If you can channel the quality positively, you can be a master at personal growth, which is a hallmark trait of successful people.
Like most creative types, I used to romanticise or idealise all my work to the point that I would push back deadlines, just so I can make it perfect. I know now that the best outcome comes from having different points of view. Nowadays, I love collaborating with our clients because this also eliminates all the time I used to spend wrestling with my mind trying to perfect my work.
So, don’t hold back.
I know how scary it is to start a business, what more for an introvert in a business that requires a lot of networking, selling and collaborating. It’s easy to feel discouraged when you look at or are facing someone who speaks louder or quicker to reply and respond than you. People may brush you aside or overlook you because you’re quiet.
But that’s okay.
You can use that energy as motivation to prove others wrong. I suspect introverts make up more than half of the world, and some have been doing mighty fine with the unique qualities they possess. Why not take a chance?