I have a confession to make: I’m a closet introvert. Yes, I said it: introvert.
In business, this can be a dirty word. Introversion is usually associated with shyness, insecurity, and a sudden obsession with one’s shoes when attending parties. Unfortunately, these stereotypes are a complete misrepresentation of what an introvert actually is.
According to psychologists, introversion is simply a method by which one recharges their internal energies through reflection and/or solitude. In other words, introverts go quiet to get energized. For more on this see Susan Cain’s Quiet. Extroversion is also a recharge-driven behavior. The only difference is that extroverts tend to find their energy by interacting with larger groups of people. In other words, extroverts go social to get energized.
So why do introverts have to hide their true natures when attempting to build their professional networks? Or more accurately, why do we feel we have to?
Business is a networking game, entrepreneurship even more so. You have to know a lot of the right kind of people to be successful. And networking events are notoriously big, loud, social milieus. For introverts like me, who quickly run out of gas in these situations, these events can be harrowing. We develop this stigma that we’re not doing enough, talking enough, shaking enough hands, or exchanging enough business cards. It’s not that we’re shy, it’s that we worry other people will think we are. So we go against our own grain. We try to be even more outgoing. Of course, this is not the answer.
I had to learn this the hard way. I would burn out thirty minutes into a meetup or networking event, then go home feeling like a failure who didn’t have what it takes to make it as an entrepreneur. This happened several times before I finally accepted my true nature and discovered the secret entrepreneurial advantages introversion offers. Yes, that’s right: introversion is actually an entrepreneurial advantage.
Here are the three secrets I used to turn my perceived weakness into an enormous strength, building a strong, supportive professional network as a result.
1. Be Selective
You don’t have to go to everything. You don’t have to meet everyone. In fact, you shouldn’t. Not everyone is going to be helpful. When building your network, quantity is good, but quality is better. So when it comes to deciding which events to go to, be selective. Pick the ones where you have the greatest likelihood of meeting someone in your specific domain or who can help you solve whatever problem you’re currently working on. Go to the event with the goal of meeting that one invaluable person. Your focus is your strength. While others are exchanging their tenth business card with someone they are highly unlikely to ever contact again, you’re talking quietly with someone that will become a genuine colleague, advisor, or friend.
2. Take breaks
If things get a little “stuffy” in the convention center, the bar, or the conference room, step outside for a couple minutes alone. You’d be surprised by how well this works if you do it regularly. A 3-5 minute break for relaxing your breath and checking in with yourself can give you the mental stamina to make it through several hours of networking. So take a “smoke break” without the smokes. I like to find a quiet space outside the venue and pop in a breath mint. I take a few deep breaths and reflect on how things are going. Am I talking to the people (or person) I want to? Who should I talk to next? By the time I’ve finished the mint, I’m usually recharged and ready to head back in.
3. Invite others into your fortress of solitude, one lucky person at a time.
When Superman needed a power-up, he would fly off to his fortress of solitude, a magical ice cave in the middle of nowhere that only a select few ever got to visit. Who wouldn’t want to be one of those rare invitees? What a privilege that would be! Well, guess what? Your own personal fortress of solitude can be just as magical to those without your powers of introspection and contemplation.
When you include another person in what fascinates you, what makes you think, what drives you in your entrepreneurial passions, it can be a welcome relief from the people who brag about their accomplishments or tell silly stories about their last job. This is a mutual win for you and your guest. When you bring just one person into your world of reflection, he or she can be a catalyst for the conversation you already have going on in your head. And rather than expending energy to maintain it, you can even use that conversation to recharge yourself in the middle of a densley populated event.
Be selective, take breaks, and share your “solitude” with one worthy person at a time. With these three secrets, I’ve harnessed my inner introvert and used the strengths that come with it to form deep, lasting connections. You can, too. Try it. Then tweet me @HowWeLearn. I’d love to hear how it goes.