Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How to be a Successful Introvert

Creative writing and introversion - these are often linked in popular culture. The shy, bookish nerd who writes dark poetry. There’s one of these in every television show or movie about high school. If you write, you might even be one of them.

I’ll confess: I was a shy, bookish nerd in high school. I wrote dark but socially conscious poetry. For variety, I also wrote dark but socially conscious stories. I did well in school so my academic success often pushed me (unwillingly) into the spotlight. So did my writing, when I won a city-wide competition for my poems and essay. I had the shortest acceptance speech out of all of the award recipients and my brevity was awarded with a compliment and quote in the local newspaper.

The strange thing was that whenever I was called upon to perform in public, I enjoyed that role. I was no longer focused on the intimate conversational requirements of school but could disappear, in a way, in front of the crowd. I don’t see faces when I speak in public, I see a mass of faces that blur into none. For that reason, I am more confident public speaking than, say, meeting new people.

In recent years, I have been told that I am a very friendly and sociable person. Inside, I still feel like the shy nerd. I still describe myself as shy. If I can blend into the background and do my own thing, I will. But this is often impossible.

So how did I overcome my shyness and introversion?

Learn: Use your writer’s eye for detail to see what makes other people appear sociable, likeable and friendly. Start thinking about extroversion as a learnable skill. Yes, you may be naturally inclined to introversion but that’s no reason you have to feel awkward or ill equipped to handle social interactions. And for most of us, every day is jam packed with a multitude of social interactions, from dealing with coworkers to making purchases from a store. Think of these as learning opportunities.

Most extroverts fall into patterns. They greet people warmly every day. They make eye contact. They inquire about the other person’s weekend. They listen and respond to the other person’s replies. They engage that person completely. Attention to another person can’t be faked. You either are focused on that person and that conversation or you’re not. So don’t try to chat with a colleague during the busiest part of your day (or theirs!).

Challenge yourself: Sometimes it’s hard to change your stripes once you’re locked into familiar patterns of your own. Try breaking out of your ordinary routine and try out learned social behaviours in a new environment where the pressure may be lower.

Take a course. Visit a museum or gallery. Join a club. Pick something you’re already interested in or enjoy. It will be easier to connect with others who have similar interests or hobbies.

By doing one of these activities, you will also be throwing yourself into the ‘deep end’. New environment. New activity. New faces. But keep in mind that the stakes are lower when you step out of your usual paths through life. If you mess up (or think you have), you don’t have to take that course again or go to another meeting of that particular club. Revamp and try again later in a different venue. If you live in the city like I do, you have a virtually unlimited field of people to alienate!

Practice, practice, practice: Watch what works for extroverts you admire and try to emulate parts of their modus operandi. Keep what feels natural and ditch what doesn’t. Keep in mind that most of what’s new to you won’t feel natural the first time. Only practice will make social interactions run smoothly.

In the real world, we all put our feet in our mouths sometimes. Don’t let that get you down. Part of it may be a learning curve but some gaffes are just natural. Every one makes them, even the most dedicated extroverts.

I am still introverted. By this, I mean that I am happy and comfortable with my own company and fulfilled in the lonely task of writing. I think that trait becomes a writer. But I also enjoy interacting with the people I see every day, even making small talk, a chore I hated growing up. A brief conversation with an acquaintance can brighten my day and that’s the best reward for my changed behaviour.

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