Essays & Confessions/Work/Life Balance

The “Professional Introvert”: What It Is And How To Handle Being One

By | Monday, June 15, 2015

work-stationIf you know me and my writing even a little bit, you’re no doubt going to be shocked by the following sentence:

I’m a little bit of an introvert.

Yes, this is the same Chelsea who is constantly railing against the prevailing internet Introvert Culture, where we’re made believe that introverts are these soft, fragile, hyper-intelligent beings who are being crushed against the relentless wheel of loud, desperate extroverts. I recognize that my admission might seem strange, particularly given the fact that I’ve publicly admitted, many times, to being basically a textbook extrovert — which I am. I gather my social energy by being around people, and tend to go a little stir-crazy if I go long periods without meaningful social activity. I charge my batteries by spending time with people, and though I don’t feel the need to be ~center of attention~, I don’t mind it. Public speaking comes easily to me, as does being thrust into new groups of people.

I accept that this does bestow me with certain privileges in the professional world, but ironically, it is in my professional life that I feel I have a distinct personality. Unlike the rest of my life, where I am a bona fide extrovert who just loves mingling with the world, I find that I am a Professional Introvert. I can work with others, and often give the deceptive impression that I love doing it because of my outgoing, generally-confident spirit. But I find myself profoundly in need of aloneness when working, to the point that I’ve always found it hard to work in office settings, or in group structures — even small ones. I’ve finally begun to accept that my extroversion does not carry over into my work life, and thought about how I can deal with it.

But first, what is the Professional Introvert? From my view, the PI is someone who generally feeds off of social and group situations in the rest of their lives but who, in work, finds it nearly-impossible to operate with the same collaborative spirit. They prefer to be alone, with headphones on, working through a project or problem without the help of others, and feel stifled by meetings and team approval. They often find it hard to convey their feedback properly without sounding harsh or curt, because their ideas tend to be formed in very concrete, isolated ways when it comes to work, and they don’t see the point of carrying on a long, convoluted conversation padded with compliments to make the medicine go down — which is often a tenant of corporate culture.

Their work energy is one that is at its humming, glowing peak during times of isolation, which can often mean early-morning or late-night, when they are free to reach their own conclusions without the constraints of a timecard or coworkers lingering around their desks. They tend to dread group projects or positions of management which demand constant interaction with others, not because they think their ideas are perfect or couldn’t benefit from others’ input, but because this work is structured as a constant stream of “checking in” and “brainstorming.” This tends to make them feel bound to a schedule on which they can’t operate, or forced to add a time-consuming human element to work that would be more efficient and effective if completed alone. Even if these people are the most socially active people outside of work, when it comes to completing a task or ideating something, they can almost exclusively do it alone.

In many ways, I believe I inherited this from my father, who has worked from home for the past 30 years as a freelance illustrator. His schedule — 5 AM to about 3 PM — has been a lifelong routine, and his ability to operate alone, doing the bulk of his illustrating before regular office hours, has been the key to his success. Being able to reserve the later hours for the more demanding tasks of client interface and sales meant that his creative work could be handled with a freshness of mind — just him, a cup of coffee, and the early-morning birds. I tend to be more of a night owl myself, but over the years of off-and-on working from home, I’ve found that carving out similar spaces of solitude are essential to me.

Now, I don’t think that we are some oppressed minority — in fact, I would venture to guess that many more people than we’d acknowledge are introverts in the work environment. And yes, there are certainly Professional Extroverts, who are truly at their best in a collaborative, group spirit, who feed off the feedback and energy of their colleagues. And I don’t think that they are universally more advantaged in the workplace, but I do think they are more advantaged in an office space. Having worked in both cubicle and open-space offices, I can confirm that these setups — particularly the latter — benefit only those who enjoy spontaneous work conversation and interaction. In fact, the advent of the open-space office (marketed as an efficiency-booster, but often little more than a cost-cutting measure), can have pretty devastating effects on the isolated workers of the office.

Not all of us can work from home part-or-full-time, or be entirely freelance, so many of us need to navigate our Professional Introversion while still being in a structure (physical and managerial) that demands interaction with others. And for me, I’ve found that there are a few key points to navigating this need for solitary work while a) not offending your coworkers, b) acknowledging that sometimes group work is important, and c) not going insane. For me, particularly when I was in an open-space office, which can feel like you have 20 people living inside your brain at all times, I lived by the following rules:

  • Carve out your “alone work” times, where you can get in that zone and bang things out. If you can have this happen at home, that’s ideal, but I understand not wanting to sacrifice some of your home time to do this. That said, I always did my best work in bed at night, and a good friend would get her freelance work done early in the morning before heading off to her 9-5. If you must do it during work hours, though, the best times are always at the start of the day or just before lunch. They tend to be times when you can really be at the top of you game, mentally, and block out the world with your headphones. (We tend to work better when we’re feeling a little hungry or, at the very least, not full.)
  • Be honest with your coworkers about your need to take some time to yourself, work-wise, and ask that they not disturb you during your “crunch time.” Once you’ve decided what your isolated work time will be, talk to them about it, so you don’t get pissed when they accidentally interrupt it, and they don’t feel insulted when you get snappy with them for ostensibly no reason. Planning ahead is key here.
  • Interact with people in more intelligent ways when it needs to happen. I’m one of those people who prefers a key in-person conversation to a bunch of back-and-forths via email, because it takes a lot more time and concentration from your day than just sorting it out quickly. Some people are the opposite, and would therefore benefit from spending more time on a few key emails than having to constantly check in with colleagues in-person for a project. Whichever your preferred method of interacting with people — and it does have to happen — be smart about how you do it, and don’t stretch yourself too thin.
  • Invest in good headphones.
  • Come as prepared as you possibly can to meetings, which a) encourages others to do the same, and b) limits the amount of catchup you have to play in the first 20 or so minutes. My best and most thoughtful mentors in work have been the people who always do their homework, and who make the meetings we had to have productive and valuable, instead of frustrating time-wasters that everyone (even the Professional Extroverts) totally hate.
  • Consider your “work solitude” to be a form of compensation, the same way you would a salary, benefits, and commute. It didn’t take me long to reach the conclusion that my need to work alone made freelance work pretty much a necessity, as I had a hard time doing even basic collaborative work effectively and with the same gusto I did my solitary work. You might not be this extreme, but still might deeply value the time you get to be alone and work on your own terms at work, and that should be a huge consideration when choosing a job, and even a profession. If you are looking at the kind of job with constant, often-pointless meetings, or nonstop client interface, or a cloying managerial structure, is that really the job for you? Or, is it worth a tempting salary? Our needs in terms of work environment are hugely important to our day-to-day quality of life, and establishing our limits in terms of collaboration is a big component of that. If we can’t be honest about our limitations, we may be doomed to unhappiness at work.

Introversion and extroversion both have their benefits and drawbacks, and neither should be viewed as some kind of handicap. (I can confirm from my everyday social life that extroverts are not imbued with some kind of awesome life privileges — and, in fact, I’d argue that being an extroverted woman in particular is often the source of a lot of headaches.) But we can be smarter and more effective about acknowledging where we need people, and where we need solitude, and shaping our lives around that. Not all of us are meant to work in an office, and though we may not be able to avoid it, we can certainly be smarter about how we navigate that environment.

Hopefully, as online and remote work become more of a norm, we’ll be able to better accommodate the different work styles of employees, and acknowledge that face time does not always equal the most valuable or effective work. Being a Professional Introvert is something we definitely need to navigate, and not every employer will be understanding or accommodating. But knowing ourselves, and accepting that there isn’t something inherently wrong with our inability to ~gEt iNtO ThE tEaM sPiriT~, is a big first step on the road to finally working the way we were meant to.

Image via Pexels

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