Our brains are capable of some amazing feats. Yet, they work in different ways that can reflect in our personality. For instance, some of us gain contentment from putting ourselves out there in the crowd, while others prefer a quite room all to themselves. We’re a species of extroverts and introverts. One is not better than the other – just different.
However, when running a design business, you might think that being an extrovert is preferable. If you’re predisposed to going out and making new connections, that would seem to be an advantage over those who aren’t as keen on networking. But that’s not necessarily the case.
Consider that some of the world’s most successful people are introverts. We’re talking about the likes of Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and JK Rowling – to name just a few. They’re proof that you don’t have to be extroverted in order to find success.
Recently, I attended a talk at WordCamp Lancaster (US) that really shed some light on the subject. Aaron Campbell gave a fascinating presentation on succeeding as an introvert. Campbell, who leads the WordPress Core Security Team, spoke from the heart – having discovered that he fits into this personality type. There was some terrific insight into how our brains work, as well as adjustments that introverts can make to help their careers better fit into their comfort zones.
He was kind enough to sit down with me and share his story, insights and some sound advice for those of us who are introverts.
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Tell us a little about your background in web design.
I started pretty early, transitioning from running a Bulletin Board System (BBS) to doing things on the web in the early 90s. I remember when GeoCities came online in the mid-nineties and really gave everyone a playground on the web. It was game-changing. Not because it was my introduction to it, but because there were suddenly other people being introduced to it and I could find people to talk to about HTML! At that time, and for a while after that, it was just for fun. I enjoyed the ability to create, and code – straight HTML in the early days of the web – was the medium that my brain worked in.
In 1999 I found myself transitioning, rather unexpectedly, into web development as a career. My parents’ company needed software to help manage it. They shipped cars through the southwestern US, had an office in San Diego and wanted to open another in Phoenix, and moved thousands of vehicles using only whiteboards on the walls to track them all. I thought I’d help them find the software they needed but when we couldn’t find anything that fit, I somehow found myself saying “I’ll just write you something”. It was an extremely uninformed offer – I had no idea what I was getting myself into – but I built the software, web based, and loved it.
I’ve been doing web development in some form or another ever since.
When did you realize you were an introvert? Had you already started your business at that point?
As a kid people had labeled me shy, rather than introverted, but shy and introverted aren’t the same and as it turns out…I’m not very shy. I didn’t realize I was an introvert, or at least I didn’t start to label it as such, until I had been in business for several years already. At that time, more than now it seems, being an introvert was looked at like a disadvantage. Like you were less – less likely to succeed, less of a leader, less capable. So I was somewhat reluctant to accept it.
What sort of challenges did this create for you as a freelancer?
People often say “it’s not what you know but who you know”, and there is a lot of truth to that, good or bad. Especially in the early stages of freelancing, I needed to make those connections. I needed to get people to hire me, or convince people to send me clients, and it was exhausting. While I was “succeeding“, it was taking a ton of energy and I wasn’t sure I could sustain that level of output. Looking back now, I can see that it was mostly because I was trying to act like an extrovert, but at the time it just felt like I was slowly failing.
In your WordCamp Lancaster session, you mentioned that you sought advice from others. What type of advice did they offer, and, did it help?
I wish I had sought advice from a wider variety of people. Instead, I sought out those that appeared to be particularly successful at the one thing I felt like I was struggling most with – interacting with people, especially in larger groups, with seemingly no effort. Basically I consulted a bunch of extroverts, and the advice I got was the opposite of helpful. “Become an extrovert” was the message and I spent well over a year, probably closer to two, trying to do just that. It was extremely unhealthy for me, not to mention unsuccessful.
It seems like, as time has gone on, you’ve become much more comfortable with who you are. How have you adapted your career to better play to your strengths?
I made a lot of small adjustments along the way and even now I’m still learning and trying to constantly adjust my career to better fit my strengths. At the beginning, as I first started to accept that my strengths were not necessarily the exact same as some of my mentors, the changes were slow and tentative. As a full-time freelancer, I tried to change my focus from local small businesses to larger, more complex projects. Not because they paid better – at first they didn’t – but because the projects better fit with my strengths as an introvert. They reduced the number of energy-consuming in-person meetings and increased the amount of time that I spent focusing on writing code or solving a problem – things that kept my brain both engaged and relaxed. But making changes is never easy, especially in your career where making a change often means letting go of something that’s working and sustaining you.
It’s important to realize that “climbing up” in your career is a bit of a misnomer. It gives the impression there are only three options – up, down, or stagnant – and people even talk about it as a “ladder” which further enforces the “one path” concept. But the truth is, there are many different ways “up”. Choosing the right direction – the one that’s right for you is not the same as the one that’s right for someone else – is just as important, more I’d argue, than just moving up.
Looking back, adapting my career to better play to my strengths was just as much passing on opportunities as it was choosing them.
You’re in quite an important position right now as the WordPress Security Team Lead. How has being an introvert meshed with the responsibilities and interactions that the job requires?
When it comes to security, I think calmer heads prevail. My introverted brain, preferring to be on the calmer side, lends itself to that. Also, most security work is done behind the scenes. People don’t see it, you don’t get credit or accolades, there’s not a lot of buzz – and I’m good with that.
You speak at a lot of conferences. Do you find those engagements to be stressful?
Not any more, although they definitely take a lot of energy. They used to be stressful, when I wasn’t so aware of the energy it took (or didn’t allow myself to admit it). Running out of energy – feeling exhausted but still feeling the need to perform – is highly stressful. Expending energy, even large amounts, isn’t bad though. We make tradeoffs with our energy all the time, spending energy to get back something that we deem worth it; walking miles because you’re at a mall and enjoy shopping, staying out late with friends because you value your time with them, even making dinner because you’re hungry and want to eat. Life isn’t only about conservation of energy, but I find that spending it purposefully helps. And for me, conferences are a place I enjoy spending some of my energy.
What advice would you give to other designers and developers out there who are introverts?
When I was younger, G.I.Joe was famous for telling kids that “Knowing is half the battle”. When it came to succeeding as an introvert, this was absolutely the key for me. Read up on why introverts and extroverts are different. There are a couple great books that I highly recommend as well; The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Being introverted isn’t worse than being extroverted (nor the reverse), they simply have different strengths. Don’t try to change who you are or succeed how someone else does, you’ll burn out. Instead work to succeed by leveraging your own unique strengths.
Introverts Can Succeed
Many thanks go out to Aaron Campbell for taking the time to share his wisdom! I have to say, his session was inspiring. As someone who is also an introvert, I found myself identifying with his struggle and buoyed by his self-awareness.
For those of us who are in the same boat, Campbell shows us a path forward. By better understanding our own needs, we can make adjustments that lead to both success and happiness.