Understanding the extroverted introvert...
That ‘gregarious’ person at work you always dump pitches, presentations and/or public speaking gigs on – do they really love it? Or did you just assume so?
Many years ago, mainly because my friends and my mum said I was funny, I completed a stand-up comedy course with the Amused Moose comedy club.
After ‘graduating’ from the course, I slowly started to realise (through a fug of pre-ban cigarette smoke) that I could actually make a room full of people laugh. It was a hobby, though. I was a practising solicitor, after all.
More and more, however, my life changed. My days were spent on Compromise Agreements and costs hearings at the High Court. My evenings were spent writing and performing (what can only loosely be described as) jokes often to ludicrously small groups of people. Glamorous it wasn’t. And I definitely had no designs on anything other than some fun and the opportunity to meet some new people. It definitely was not a career option.
Until I won a big, prestigious new act competition and got signed by the largest agent in the UK. After giving up legal practice I had officially swapped the law for the funnies. Suddenly, I was doing high-profile TV & radio work and gigging 5-6 nights a week at some of the largest clubs and festivals in the UK supporting some of the biggest names in the industry. I should have been in my element. But I wasn’t.
After hundreds and hundreds of shows, the grind of performing set in. Something wasn’t right. People would say to me, ‘you must be having the time of your life!’, ‘you’re a born performer!’ and 'this is what you're designed to do!'. I felt awful. The more I performed, the worse it got. Ironically, however, the better I did.
Why? I’ve thought about this a lot since forging a very happy career in L&D. The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that like many a professional comic, I’m an extroverted introvert. What does this mean? In simple terms, I subconsciously dial up on and hugely enjoy everyday ‘extroverted behaviours’ but I sustain my energy with introversion. Being by myself – drawing my energy from within. I like to plan. I think to speak. And I need a healthy balance to ensure productivity, to maintain optimism and to deliver on my feet. In tech terms, I’m a lithium and not a solar battery. Plug me in to the corner of the room on my own to recharge my energy levels.
One might assume, therefore, that stand-up comedy is a perfect job for someone that likes a hit of performance (extroversion) and then to hide away (introversion). It’s not that simple.
Forcing myself to get up (over and over again) and risk so much over such a short amount of time in front of people with very high expectations but very little patience was exactly the wrong kind of extroverted behaviour for me. Whether or not they laughed raucously or just stared (I do love the ambiance of a library), I felt the same; deflated. I’d run away and spend time by myself feeling dejected, low and over-analytical. Why didn’t they engage with the technical detail of that joke? It took me two months to write!
I’m no therapist but, recognising that something wasn’t working, I made a decision to focus entirely on using my experience and skills to become a facilitator and a coach. I’ve not looked back. I get the intellectual buzz of performing without any lows. Plus no-one throws bottles (bonus). I also have the ability to carve out down-time to re-energise, to prepare and to arm myself with the knowledge and skills I need to deliver ‘in the room’.
So, why the hell is this relevant?
There are various personality ‘typing’ tools in the market that take a very simplistic view of the way in which Carl Jung’s complex theory plays out. I’m no psychologist but it strikes me that we are not one thing or another. Perhaps my experience supports this. We aren’t ‘extroverted’ or ‘introverted’. Introversion and extroversion are much more subtle than that. Just like we don’t just (i) ‘think’ or (ii) ‘feel’. Similarly, we don’t love being on stage performing comedy just because we do it. Humans aren’t that easy to understand or read. Our behaviours are simply the tip of the ice berg…
Just because someone is ‘funny’, seems relaxed in certain group situations and displays some gregarious behaviour, it doesn’t mean they want to be thrust in front of people to present at work, to entertain a large group of clients or to lead a big meeting. There’s every chance they need quiet time to think, space to prepare and help to deliver – whatever that delivery looks like. It might also be their worst nightmare.
What’s the solution? Perhaps we should be focusing on traits and not types (something certain more nuanced tools aim to do). In this way we can avoid perpetuating the myth that extroversion vs introversion is about being either ‘the loud life and soul’ or ‘the detached, cold analyst’ which invariably leads to qualitative judgements...
Looking behind behaviours in this way might mean we get more out of people at work, helping them identify their best attributes and develop their weaknesses. Along the way, we’ll avoid treating people superficially – building relationships of trust along the way.
The next time you assume someone ‘loves’ public speaking, think again. Have you discussed it with them? Have you listened to what’s behind their answer? Are you displaying a respect for their choices? Most importantly, are you getting the best out of them?
And the next time you’re in a comedy club, watch how often comics rush straight out of the venue after they perform (even if they do brilliantly well). Now, you might appreciate why.