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It seems like most of the advice out there on how to succeed at work is really great—for extroverts. In fact, much of how the modern workplace is set up is really great for extroverts: Ideas are developed in brainstorming sessions. Offices are increasingly designed with open floor plans. People are encouraged to speak up at meetings.
So, what if you’re an introvert?
As an introvert myself—someone who recharges, feels most energized, and works best alone—I’ve had to navigate jobs that included frequent public speaking, meeting with new people, and performing customer service. And while I’ve largely had to learn by trial and error, it turns out there are specific strategies that introverts can employ to work effectively (and stay sane) in an extrovert’s world. I sat down with Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts, to learn more.
Find the Right Job
Perhaps the biggest key to career success—for any personality type—is “finding roles that fit your needs,” says Cain. Introverts often prefer positions that let them operate fairly autonomously or companies that allow them to work in quiet settings.
For North Carolina-based lab assistant Taylor Curley, “cerebral jobs,” rather than social ones, “have worked better for me, because I've had complex problems to solve. It would not be everyone solving the same problem, it would be each person assigned to a specific problem and then synthesizing the results. Also, jobs where I get time to myself have been very helpful.”
And yes, teamwork and collaboration on some level is part of almost any job—but, as Cain notes, “there are teams, and then there are teams.” Groups that operate with clearly defined roles for each participant are usually better for introverted workers than teams where brainstorming, project planning, and consensus-reaching is always done together.
Make Time for Yourself
No matter what type of job you take or what company you work for, Cain says that it’s essential to find the aspects of it that are introvert-friendly. While you may not be able to work in a closed-door office or work from home one day a week, you can marshal your energy in other ways with a little bit of strategizing. For example, if you find that a day of back-to-back meetings leaves you totally depleted, try to space those meeting out over the course of the week instead.
Taking periodic quiet breaks is also important. If you’re feeling overloaded by cubicle chatter, “go to the bathroom, step outside, do whatever you can to recharge,” says Cain. When I worked for a major retailer in my early 20s, I would often take my lunch outside or at a nearby coffee shop. Getting away from the office enabled me to de-stress and recharge much more easily than I could in the company break room.
Manage Social Commitments
Some of the most trying situations for introverts aren’t during the workday—they’re the cocktail parties or networking events afterward. And while it is important to put in the after-hours face time with your colleagues and contacts, Cain suggests taking care to keep your social commitments manageable. Don’t over-commit yourself because you feel guilty about saying no—it’s better to be selective and happy than unhappy and overwhelmed or exhausted. “During my book tour, I made sure that I had down time before and after public speaking engagements,” explains Cain. “It’s important to be able to feel entitled to that time.”
Also set realistic goals and expectations for when you’re actually at the event. “You don’t need to work the room,” she says. “If I have a good conversation with a few people, I consider that a success.”
Don't Be Shy (About Your Talents)
Most importantly, remember that introversion, like extroversion, is not only a natural leadership trait—it’s an immensely valuable one. Introverts are “persistent, diligent, and focused on work,” Cain says. “Give them a difficult problem to solve, and they’ll work harder and longer than extroverts.” Introverts also have “a creative advantage,” because “a crucial part of being creative is being able to go off by yourself and think things through,” she explains. And a Wharton study reveals that introverts actually make better leaders because of their ability to delegate successfully.
Yes, it’s important for everyone to step out of their comfort zone now and then, but first, follow Cain’s advice and “embrace your strengths.” Because it’s more important to be who you are.
Want more? Check out Cain’s inspiring TED Talk on the secret power of introverts.