The introvert’s guide to navigating a professional world designed for extroverts

About a month into the economic shutdown that came as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I started to notice something that was, let’s say, peculiar. At least peculiar to me.

I’m an introvert. I certainly don’t deny that. The “stay at home” orders were really not a problem for me or my family. I work from home. My kids are all young and are homeschooled. We live far outside the city. You could say we were very much naturally prepared for the new-but-hopefully-temporary “normal”.

But the extroverts, they weren’t handling it so well.

“I’m going stir crazy!”

“We can’t just stay cooped up in the house forever!”

“I’m really not handling this very well. I need to interact with people!”

Who can blame them? Being forced into a situation so contrary to your nature isn’t ideal. It can smother your creativity, suppress your productivity, and suck the fun out of work.

In other words, extroverts were now having to experience what introverts deal with every single day of “normal” life, pre-pandemic.

Out of sight, out of mind

It’s not hard to see that the world is optimized for social extroverts.

“Fortune favors the bold!”

“History is made by those who show up.”

And these are just the platitudes. It’s far more common for career advice to be centered around increasing your visibility.

“Networking is key to career growth.”

“Volunteer to give the presentation next time. You want the right people to see you.”

“Ask so-and-so out to lunch to talk shop.”

Or what about life advice?

“You gotta put yourself out there if you want to meet someone. Just walk up to him/her and introduce yourself!”

I’m not even saying this is bad advice, sometimes we need to be pushed to do something that doesn’t feel natural to us, to move beyond what we’re comfortable with. There’s a lot of growth to be had outside your comfort zone.

But extroverts are practically never asked to “be more like the introverts” in order to succeed. The world is set up to help them find success.

How can we, as introverts, navigate a professional world designed for extroverts? As leaders, are we ignoring a huge untapped talent pool by optimizing our work environment to appeal so heavily to extroverts?

Note: I realize not all of these options are available to everyone. They aren’t necessarily intended to be used in conjunction … more like a buffet of choices you can choose based on your needs and what’s possible in your situation.

Own you calendar

Every day at 4pm, I have a block on my calendar. It just says “Busy”. I use this time at the end of my workday, before heading into “home” mode, to be by myself and exercise (something I call “stacking”, but that’s a different post).

Though not sacred time, having a block already occupied makes people think twice before asking to schedule a meeting during that block. But at the same time, I can always make an exception in the moment and allow something to be scheduled during that block.

This time allows me to decompress and recharge after days filled with lots of talking (something I like to do, but does zap me of mental energy).


If you find yourself especially sensitive to the demands of synchronous conversation (phone calls, Zoom, in-person, etc.), you can instead look for ways to limit those interactions.

If you were able to reduce each synchronous meeting by 10 minutes each, you might be able to eliminate hours of talk time from your schedule every week. Every little bit helps.

But how?

Try to get all the preliminary talk out of the way early by sharing an agenda document where you capture your thoughts about a subject well in advance of a meeting. Sure, when meeting with extroverts, it’s possible they ignore any such “straight to business” tactics, but it will likely work some of the time.

One way to approach this is to fire up your chat client of choice (or email, if that’s all that’s available) and ask “hey, I just saw your meeting invite. I want to be prepared, so can you let me know what this is about?”

When you get a “headline” response, find a way to ask for more detail (but be subtle), and look for opportunities to “talk” more asynchronously.

“It’s about the upcoming launch. I want to be sure we have all our bases covered.”

“Oh cool, got it. I’ve got a document that I’m using to keep track of everything that I’m preparing to do the week of the launch. Would you like me to share that with you?”

“Sure, that’s fine, but let’s still quickly meet to make sure we’re on the same page.”

“No problem, and if you see anything that I’m missing in my document ahead of our meeting, just let me know and I’ll add it.”

Obviously, the person above really just wants to schedule time to think out loud with you, and that’s fine. Remember, you’re not trying to optimize the world around the introvert personality. We’re just trying to meet somewhere in the middle, if possible.

Know yourself

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I were out taking some food to some friends. They invited us into the backyard to hang out for a bit, and, after 4 months of self-isolation, we decided to accept the invite. We ended up staying for several hours, and really loved every minute of it.

But the next day, after work, I told my wife that I had felt so tired all day. I described it as “almost feeling sick”.

I know this feeling well. I love my friends and family, and I love being with them.

But I know myself. And I know that when I’m a social glutton, they next day I’ll get the metaphorical “stomach ache”.

Recognizing the patterns in your own life can help you adjust and accommodate for them.

If you need to psych yourself up for an upcoming social interaction or presentation, take the time to do it.

If you need to chill after a day of wall to wall meetings, take the time to do it.

Know yourself. Take the time.

What can leaders do for introverts?

Although it’s nice to think we can simply plan and strategize for our own balance in the workplace, a bad leader can ruin even your best plans.

So how can leaders help introverts thrive in the workplace?

It wouldn’t be particularly useful to switch from over-optimizing for extroverts to over-optimizing for introverts. You’d be trading one extreme for another.

But are there compromises that could be made that would make the workplace more appealing to introverts?

At the end of the day, introverts want what everyone else wants: a fair shake at a successful career, a workplace that doesn’t feel like it was designed to torture them, and the kind of care and consideration that extroverts have enjoyed for all of modern workplace history.

Stop making “be a people person” a criteria for employment when what you really want is a great engineer, or accountant, or designer, or whatever. Hire for the skills you need, and if introverts aren’t “compatible with our culture”, then change your culture.

Have more (and better) conversations with the introverts in your organization. Don’t expect them to ask for it. Ask them what they need. Just be prepared to really hear them.

Consider if that meeting really could just be an email.

Learn to trust more, control less, and grow as a leader.

Keep pushing them to venture outside their comfort zone. But make sure you’re creating an environment that forces you to push extroverts to do the same thing.

By making a workplace that is more welcoming to introverts, without making it miserable for the extroverts, you open yourself up to all the wonderful qualities of introverted folks.

And hey, the world is changing. Remote work is becoming more and more common, and you might find that pushing yourself and your organization to create a more welcoming work environment for introverts will help prepare you for a future that isn’t so exclusively optimized for extroverts.

Want to get ahead in your career? Cheat! (hear me out)

The most vivid memory of second hand embarrassment I have is from my high school Spanish class. We were taking our exam, so we were all a little nervous. Because exams were more heavily weighted than regular tests or quizzes, this could make or break your grade for the semester.

As our teacher, Mr. Wilson, walked around the room, we noticed him stop at Andrew’s desk. He slowly reached down and calmly pulled a tiny sheet of paper from under Andrew’s arm, examined it, and continued walking around the classroom.

student taking a test in school

Andrew’s face was bright red. He was visibly upset, and although it was, admittedly, slightly amusing to the rest of us in the class, we all knew what he was feeling.

Humiliation, disappointment … fear of what would happen to his grade.

In school, the rules were clear … this was cheating. He gave himself an unfair advantage. He wasn’t taking the test from memory, he had all the answers hidden under his arm. That’s just not allowed.

But you know what? You’re not in school any more. The rules are different at work.

We think the people responsible for our employment and promotions expect us to figure it all out ourselves, to have all the answers memorized like we did in school.

But that’s not true at all. At work, you get to “cheat”. As a matter of fact, you’re expected to.

Your Manager’s Perspective

One of my favorite questions to ask your manager is “what does it take to be a top performer in my position?” (from this book).

This concept blew my mind. It totally changed how I approached my job, my priorities, and my career.

It’s like walking up to the teacher and asking “what’s the answer to question 5 on this test?“, and most of us are just as uncomfortable asking our manager/supervisor this question as we would be asking a teacher in school for an answer.

The difference is, your manager is happy to just give you the answer. You get to “cheat”, and it’s totally fine.

The answer to that question, of course, will vary depending on your position, your manager, or the nature of your work. But there usually is an answer.

Once you have your answer, it’s up to you what to do with it. You can use it to agree to a later discussion about compensation or promotion, to build your resume, or to simply measure and track your progress toward your own goals.

Your colleagues’ perspectives

The single most impactful things you can do at work is to ask yourself, every single day, “What can I do today that would have the biggest positive impact on the business or the people I work with?”

I manage software engineers , so that’s the lens I view this question through right now, but I’ve had many jobs over the years: sales, bagging groceries, customer service, IT support, web developer.

No matter the professional context, your goal should be the same:

Help people.

But once again, it’s hard to know what will have the greatest impact, or who needs help, or how to prioritize your work.

So, cheat.

And be direct, no need to be sneaky about it.

“Is there anything I can do today that would help you get your work done?”

Flip the script

Sometimes it’s you who needs help getting unstuck, figuring out a tough problem, or handling a workload that’s too big for you. What can you do then?


Ask for help! You’d be surprised how willing people are to trade a little knowledge from their experience for an ego boost, or even a simple “thank you, I was completely stuck, so I appreciate the assist“.

Always show gratitude, always give credit, and you’ll very likely always have someone willing to step up and help you.

Andrew is fine, by the way

I’m not sure what happened after class. I’m sure there were some consequence, maybe even a failing exam grade. And I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten about the incident in Spanish class all those years ago.

But, he’s married with kids now, working as an accountant, and seems to be doing pretty well for himself. And I’ll bet he’s probably still cheating, only now he’s allowed to, expected to.

The rules are different at work. Are you cheating enough?

Starting over.

I grew up relatively “poor”, at least by US standards. We went without a lot of things that my friends had. We wore thrift store clothes mixed and matched with the occasional new item (if it was on clearance), and ate a lot of potato soup … that is, diced potatoes + milk + chicken broth.

But because my mother was able to get a job teaching pre-K at a private school in our area, my siblings and I were able to attend tuition-free.

It was a relatively small school, I think between 400-500 students at the time (K-12), and so they didn’t split students into kindergarten (K3-K5), elementary (1st-5th), middle (6th-8th), and high school (9th-12th), like many schools in the US.

Instead, 7th through 12th grade was all just considered “high school”.

I remember being in 6th grade, basically the top of the elementary school food chain. We were the oldest kids in the elementary building, and although you wouldn’t think it would, it kind of went to our heads. We felt important.

Then came 7th grade, and our world shifted completely.

We were bigger than we were in 6th grade. We had lockers, and instead of just one teacher, we had one for each subject. There were free periods, and study halls. We had P.E. instead of recess. Everything about our schedule was different, more mature.

And yet we felt smaller, less important.

We now shared a hallway students up to grade 12. We were the smallest kids, the least “important”. No one looked up to us any more, and as a matter of fact, we were a little bit annoying, as we’d find out later when we watched new batches of 7th graders join the hallway.

We were “promoted” to high school, but it felt like starting over, at the bottom.

Nothing lasts forever

Since the mid-2000s, I’ve been building websites and software for WordPress. In 2010, we released the Genesis Framework at StudioPress, and experienced almost immediate success and market leadership.

But in 2018, StudioPress was acquired by WP Engine, and I came over as an engineer to keep working on Genesis products, as did several of the folks I worked with at StudioPress.

And at some point, during our regular conversations about my career and aspirations, my manager and I discussed the potential of moving me into a different kind of role, managing a team of engineers that work on Genesis products.

Would this actually be the right move for me? For my family? For the Genesis products that I’d worked so hard on over the years?

Decisions, Decisions

I’ve only recently realized what I wouldn’t admit to myself back then: I wasn’t enjoying writing code to build software very much lately. I saw my colleagues excitedly share what they had been playing around with over the weekend, all the cool things they were able to create, and just how much they were enjoying the process of learning and experimenting with new things.

That used to be me. I’d lose track of the time, and spend half the night wiring up some crazy idea, or blogging about a new way to enqueue CSS in WordPress, just for fun.

Not so much lately, though.

I realize now that I was losing my passion for writing the code.

But I also realize that I was gaining a passion for something new. I was spending more and more of my free time reading and watching talks on quality teams, effective leadership, and strong communication.

So when the opportunity to move in a managerial role came available, I decided the time was right.

I know nothing

It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.

Epictetus, Discourses, Book II, ch. 17

Picture this: it’s week two of my new career. As I had been doing for a while, I was up early, trying to get a jumpstart on my day before the rest of the team was up and working. I like the head start. It gives me breathing room, and most importantly, it gives me the opportunity to plan my day, sometimes down to the minute.

But as I sat there, before the sun was up, I realized that I had nothing to plan. I’d run out of “things to do”.

I had no one-on-one meetings scheduled for that day. I only had a single 30 minute team standup meeting on the schedule, but I was just an observer now.

Honestly, I kind of panicked. It felt wrong. I was “promoted” to do nothing? My schedule was empty!

To be fair, I was told (several times, from several people) that this would happen. The maker vs. manager schedule transition is tough.

So I went for a walk to clear my head. I just happened to have some audiobooks in the queue, so I figured I’d listen while I walked (a recent habit that I find incredibly efficient and effective). It also just so happened that High Output Management by Andy Grove was next in my queue.

That book really helped me begin to feel better. Why? That’s another blog post for another day.

But now I know that I really know nothing. And knowing I know nothing means I have to re-learn everything.

And that’s OK. Better than OK.

Passion is Passion

I’m currently up on a Sunday morning before the sun, reading about how to be a more effective leader and better career coach, writing this blog post about my recent transition into leadership, hoping that it helps someone realize they might have it in them to take their next right step too.

I’ve discovered a new passion, and while it may not be marathon coding sessions experimenting with the newest tech the world of JavaScript, it’s still a passion.

Different can be good.

It has been for me.