As I’m sure is true for many creative introverts, my childhood wasn’t stereotypical.
Until a teenager, I was relatively social- some would even say loud! But after some family issues, I embraced my introverted side. This all culminated in sixth grade when I started junior high.
Technically I wasn’t without any friends in this time. I had one and we fought every week. My parents? I could barely communicate with them- and not in that “angsty” teenager “you don’t understand me” sense.
I went through almost all my teenage years without any true friends. So I threw myself into video games, books and movies- it was lonely.
Whenever I did have to go to a public place like high school or college or the workplace my anxiety would skyrocket. I’d wake up every morning fretting “uggh- again, I have to deal with these people for NINE hours.”
The only time I was comfortable was on my own. But comfort did not translate to happiness.
Keeping completely to yourself without expressing your feelings to anyone is extremely damaging. In my case, it served to magnify my difficulties, insecurities and family struggles.
Nobody understood the challenge I had with loneliness. Being alone was my preference to an extent, but I still needed people in my life and didn’t know how to express it. At one point I even seriously considered ending everything, thinking maybe it would be easier. I’m glad I didn’t.
Strangely enough, I slowly started to fumble my way through basic psychology and social skills- learning how to get along with people.
I’m a bit of a fringe case but I’m definitely an introvert. If you care to know, my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI for short) is INTP.
The clearest explanation I found of the Myers-Briggs assessment is that it’s an “introspective questionnaire created to indicate differing psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.”
My particular personality has been deemed the “warm robot.”
Therefore, I wasn’t so great at establishing and maintaining relationships but I could detach myself emotionally and experiment socially. As an inexperienced teenager without much research this process was more complicated than need be, but it did prove successful.
A key revelation I had was that it’s a bad idea to too heavily force yourself into social situations. For example, I once experimented with how many friends I could accumulate and how often I could get invited out. That lasted a bit over six months until the concept of “quality over quantity” sunk in.
Once I started to reach a critical mass, I realized “I don’t enjoy this… I’d rather be home.”
But I continued experimenting- constantly learning new lessons and progressing to more challenging goals. Almost too quickly things started snowballing!
Years following high school I started to take my dream career more seriously and really develop my skills. Though after learning about the reality of the business, I concluded it wasn’t wise financially.
I got a new job that could be seen as the WORST possible change for an introvert. Why? I became an outside sales rep and my income would rely completely on my social skills.
Background for the uninitiated: you don’t need a salesperson for a Snickers bar. It’s a small purchase and people already want it. You do need sales people for large investments- especially when many companies offer many options.
If people don’t trust you, they don’t buy from you.
That’s how sales works. You’re never selling the product. You’re selling yourself. Success is completely dependent on your ability to communicate.
Even for an extravert, it can be extremely difficult to develop the right skillset. There’s often either not enough training, poor training or none at all. I was extremely fortunate to have the mentor that I did since experience aside, he had quite the personality and a good heart.
When we started training he told me to keep my current job until he was absolutely sure I could do this. That’s actually what he told everyone because most people washed out . Based on his successful experience selling and training, he could tell whether someone had potential and had no qualms showing them the door if they didn’t.
Somehow, thanks to his guidance, I made the grade.
He recommended I start full time- and what a year that was! Despite having no previous experience and being a shy introvert I did remarkably well.
I wasn’t only paid in commission- I also really honed my understanding of people and how to get along with them.
But after the high of that initial year, I began to fall out of love with the job. Part of it was that I was no longer passionate about what I was selling; though the bigger issue was that I started to hate my living situation.
I’d learned about a key to happiness not many speak of: “where.”
It had to do with the people in my life, the travel or recreation options and almost everything else about living where I did.
After giving it some thought, it seemed obvious that the root causes of my disinterest were baked into my country and I couldn’t escape by moving to another state. So after reading a very special book (Vagabonding by Rolf Potts) I decided traveling could help me reset and I could return with my passion renewed.
So I left.
I planned to travel for a month or two but wasn’t sure I’d survive even that long. The situation was very stable for the first month of my trip. I was staying in a quiet Airbnb in Japan. But after I started to build my travel skills I became more and more adventurous.
Especially did this prove true in Thailand.
Southeast Asia is far different from East Asia, which was where I’d been traveling up to this point. Japan and Korea are quite westernized and more developed than many parts of China and their southern neighbors. Spending a week in Hong Kong helped me adapt to what I’d run into, as it’s similar in its chaos and the way people express themselves.
But Hong Kong is not Thailand. It didn’t even come close.
That country was completely unlike anything I’d ever experienced; nothing could have prepared me for the different situations I found myself in. After having been in Bangkok for a just couple days there was an emergency with my Thai host and I had to leave his place quite unexpectedly.
I had nowhere to stay for the next several days and couldn’t even afford to put myself up in a hostel.
Fortunately, a student and her family had invited me to stay with them in a small town near Ayutthaya (a few hours north of Bangkok) just a few days prior. I reached out to them and, being the life-savers they are, they agreed to meet me later that day.
Over the next few days we visited several historical sights including a monkey-filled temple- but even better than that was connecting with the family and others… Everything from helping Thai construction workers and having coconuts with them to simply spending time talking and eating with the family.
Only two nights in this small Thai town transformed these people from strangers to family. And that was just one experience.
That five months abroad caused some major lasting changes in me. So much so that just six weeks after my return to the US, I was on an airplane to move internationally! I’d come a long way from being that weird, quiet outcast and travel had felt like just the beginning of my real journey.
Living abroad is a bit different than just traveling. Not only is there a completely different language and culture in your day-to-day, but especially where I live in Vietnam chaos is everywhere.
In such an intense situation, you naturally get more comfortable putting yourself out there on a regular basis.
For one I decided to push myself further with my public speaking and performance abilities. I’ve participated in a storytelling workshop where I wrote a story and performed. It’s difficult enough to do well on stage as an introvert, but I bombed and learned some valuable lessons.
Next on the list is an improv workshop. The one crutch I’ve had- preparation- will be thrown away and I’ll really have to trust the process.
Another supportive family I’ve gained are my fellow jiu jitsu practitioners. I was a former gym class slacker and had been an “IRL”-averse gamer. So it really caught me by surprise how I could so enjoy focusing on internalizing the principles of this human chess game week in and week out.
That isn’t the only thing I’ve directed my focus towards.
Business has pushed me to grow past my comfort zone by necessity as opportunities present themselves regularly to people that are in the right places. I’ve had to be choosy with what I pursue and it took some time, but I’ve finally got a couple plates spinning.
In starting one venture in particular, it’s been impressed on me how the connections I’ve made and the way I’ve made them play such a vital role. As is true anywhere, I’m not sure how it’ll work out- doubly so in a country so unpredictable! But I’m still doing my absolute best to make it work.
With everything going on, it’s still hard to believe that this is real and to reminisce about how in this country I’ve tried crazy foods, hitchhiked, learned a language I didn’t think I could or would- and done so much more. What has this taught me?
Time and time and time again I would worry and be anxious about how things would work out.
Would I have money? Could I find someone to stay with? How can I get myself out of this misunderstanding? The last one’s especially tough with a language barrier.
But time and time and time again, it would work out. All that was needed from me was that I put forth my best efforts.
How can this apply to business?
Maybe you’re at work and need to share a complex presentation in front of a room of managers or executives. Maybe you’re an entrepreneur that needs to have a challenging conversation with your business partner. Assuming you truly try your best, it is in these situations that you really need to trust that it will work out.
Know that people are far more forgiving and understanding than you assume…but you have to move forward and you have to take action. Have the difficult interaction, trusting that the other party to the conversation will understand you.
Don’t let the fear of starting prevent you from doing so.
Related to that lesson is the second:
I won’t belabor you with any quotes or clichés, but I will say that they’re true. You can’t adapt to something you’re comfortable with and change- progress is borne from adaptation. For that you need to be in new, unique, novel situations… ones that make you feel uncomfortable.
Traveling does just that- it often forces you to see things from a new perspective. With the new culture and way of life, you’re surrounded by interesting new foods and experiences to try. And most of the time, you need to communicate with people in a language you’re likely not so good at.
Steeling yourself through travel is a great way to prepare for what are likely less stressful situations in a professional context. In the moment, it doesn’t always feel so great to push through but the feeling of accomplishment and growth afterwards is invigorating. That, in turn, propels you even further towards your goals.
But what if you’re not the right type of person for those goals? Consider this oft misunderstood concept:
It’s actually not most important to “fake it” to others, but to “fake it” to yourself. You may think “I’m not the type of person to have this conversation or to do x or y or z.” Okay, so pretend that you’re that person- other people won’t really notice.
Pretend enough and eventually you’ll “make it.” What’s “making it?”
Taking all this uncomfortable (see point #2) action is a big cognitive load, one that will inevitably lead to new connections in the brain.
It’s like the formation of hiking trail. In the beginning, it’s just another part of the forest but with enough traffic on the same route it gets worn down. People become used to walking that way and before long, it’s a new normal.
Act as if you’re a person you don’t consider yourself to be until that action and way of thinking becomes who you are. This is how to make lasting change.
Here’s the kicker: you don’t need to move or travel to another country for any of this!
As magnified as all of these experiences are living abroad, you can have the same staying in your home country. You just have to be open to the opportunities. And I hope reading about my experiences and some lessons learned can nudge you in that direction.
If it has sparked curiosity and you’re actually keen to use travel as way to speed up personal growth as a creative introvert, I created a checklist just for you.
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