Have you ever felt perfectly qualified for a job, but lost it to someone who’s less experienced but more outgoing? Or have you ever put in 10,000 hours at your craft only to see a peer who’s just starting out get more recognition?
Have you ever waited politely for your turn to speak in a meeting only to have someone talk over you anyway? If so, you’ve probably felt this uncomfortable truth: playing by the rules doesn’t always get you ahead.
When I was in grad school, my classmates and I competed for the same jobs. Although we had our rivalries, we generally respected one another and could discern who was serious about design and who was just dabbling. I remember interviewing for an internship and losing it to a classmate who most of us agreed was a dabbler—she had a weak portfolio and didn’t seem to challenge herself much. I know that sounds like I’m being a sore loser, but it revealed a valuable lesson: the thing my classmate had that I didn’t, was confidence and easy-going charm. It didn’t hurt that she was also cute and exceptionally well-dressed.
I realized then that being good at my craft was only one aspect of how I’d find success. Of course, the ability to project confidence is a valuable skill to have in business, and it shouldn’t be ignored. However, it’s unfortunate that this strength is valued so often over others.
It’s a sad fact, but things like hard work, consistency, moral integrity, humbleness and even talent aren’t always rewarded in this culture. Sometimes, extroversion is a much more powerful force.
This reality is playing out on a grand scale in the current presidential election. Donald Trump has zero qualifications, but he does have ego, reckless bravado, and machismo in spades. Horrifyingly, this has convinced millions of Americans that he’s somehow right for the job.
Meanwhile, the lesson that I learned in grad school continues to present itself in my work life. I care a lot about what I do, but I have a hard time distilling my enthusiasm into compelling elevator pitches. I tend to understate the successes that I do have, so people don’t always register my ambition.
Sure, I could push myself to be more of an extrovert. When people ask me what I’ve been up to, I could prepare a handful of boast-worthy accomplishments so I’m ready to fire back with confidence. I could trumpet my work more fluidly on social media. I could watch more TED talks that help me hone my power posture. But is this authentic to who I am? Is it possible to get ahead according to my own rules?
The answer is yes. Introverts can have just as much success as extroverts, but we need to define our own version of success. For me, that meant starting my own business instead of continuing to sell myself in the corporate world. Needless to say, I’m much happier working on my own terms than feeling constant pressure to be someone who I’m not. While self-employment isn’t always as glamorous as being part of an award-winning agency, it is a different kind of success. I can choose to work with clients whose principles align with mine, and that has a value all its own.
Even though I believe in my definition of success, I do feel occasional pangs of resentment when I see chest-puffery win out over talent. When this happens, I remind myself that I stand for something different, and that’s okay. I also remind myself that the individuals whose natural tendencies get rewarded are not the problem. Plenty of extroverted people deserve the success that they get, so try to focus your critique on the game, not the players.
The most important advice that I have for fellow introverts is this: don’t back down.
Just because you prefer speaking only when you have something important to say, or you value a few solid relationships over a hundred superficial ones, you are not weak. Your voice is important, and you should make sure it’s heard. Find the places where you feel most comfortable—in one-on-one conversations, in your work, in writing — and kick ass in those places. When people do take notice, the substance of your efforts will be appreciated.
Do you struggle with playing by the rules? If you identify as an introvert, how do you feel living and working in a world that’s made for extroverts? Have you struggled with defining your own version of success? Share your insights in the comments, I’d love to hear them.