How to turn your introversion into a strength (part 1 of 2)

It was the most beautiful silence I had ever heard.

I had read stories about Greenland – one of the most desolate places on earth – but nothing could have prepared me for this experience. The midnight sun had started its slow descent into the sea when the wind died away and the icefjord of Ilullisat turned completely quiet, its peace only interrupted by the occasional cracking of icebergs drifting by. The silence was overwhelming. But in a wonderful way. For a moment, I felt totally absorbed in my own little world. Taking in all the details of the ice sculptures. Listening to the distant music of earth’s wonders. And I realized why the moment had such a special meaning to me.

Maybe for the first time in my life, I felt fully at ease with being an introvert.

It hasn’t always been that way. Navigating yourself through life as an introvert can be difficult and daunting. Especially in the workplace, where outgoingness and social interaction are often valued over quiet introspection. In an effort to fit in, you can easily lose yourself – stretching your personality to the point where you can’t breathe anymore. I’ve been there, too.

When you’re introverted, it can be hard to see your introversion for the asset it is, rather than as the absence of something you lack.

There is no need to lament your introversion, however. Instead, you can find ways to turn it into your strength. Particularly in the workplace, where you can complement your extroverted colleagues really well – once you acknowledge that there are fundamental differences that shape our preferences and behavior. Neither introversion or extroversion is inherently good or bad – both have different added value in different situations.

In a series of two blog posts, we will explore how you can put your strengths to use as an introvert.

But first, we need to understand what may be holding us back – and why it’s so important to focus on your strengths instead of weaknesses.

Why it is important to embrace your introversion

If you’re introverted, you’ve probably known it since you were young. Even though you weren’t familiar with the term yet.

When I was a child, I would rather stay in the school library during lunchtime than join my friends for a game of hide and seek. When I was a teenager, just the thought of entering a disco (Loud music! Lots of people!) was enough to make me turn around on my bike and cycle into the sunset. And now that I’m pretending to be a wise old man, I still find the most joy and fulfillment in introspective activities: reading, writing, photographing. I love having one-on-one conversations with people, but I quickly get uncomfortable with small talk or group chatter.

We are wired with personality traits that tend to remain fairly stable over the course of our lives.

That’s not to say that we don’t change on the surface, like an iceberg drifting into the ocean of life. Yes, we change. We learn new skills through experience, expanding our behavioral repertoire as we grow older. But if you look below the surface, the consensus among psychologists is that personality is not as malleable as self-help gurus would like you to believe. It does change a bit over time, but not very much (for example, see Cobb-Clark & Schurer, 2012; Costa & McCrae, 1994).



If you’re introverted by nature, you’re probably never going to turn into an extrovert. And why should you?

Our energy is too precious to waste on something we’re not.

As obvious as that may sound, it’s not. Just think back to the last time you felt drained because you were trying to keep up with the social world around you. A day full of meetings and constant interruptions that left no time to do your ‘real’ work. A late-night reception that you would have rather skipped to watch you favorite Netflix show or to read an intellectually challenging book in the cosy comfortness of your home.

Before you know it, you’re forcing yourself into a mold that just isn’t right for you. It drains your energy levels over time. And, more importantly, it holds you back from bringing your talents into full play. (More on that in a minute.)

The pressure of the extrovert ideal

Why is it so tempting, then, to slip into act-as-an-extrovert-mode and ignore your own preferences?

In the Western world, living an extroverted lifestyle has become a proxy for success and popularity.

The pressure to conform to extrovert standards is hardly ever explicit, but it’s still there, deeply ingrained in modern Western culture. In her book “Quiet”, Susan Cain argues that the Western world has come to celebrate the ‘extrovert ideal’. We expect people to be outgoing and energetic. We look up to the bold and the gregarious. We value group work over solo thought. And one only has to look at the political arena to see that we have come to equate assertiveness with substance, turning our ears to the loudest voices irrespective of whether their rumblings make an ounce of sense.

When you don’t fit the extrovert ideal, it can be hard to shake off the feeling that there’s something wrong with you.

Of course, rationally you know there is nothing wrong with you. All the introversion-extroversion spectrum really tells us is that different people function best at different levels of external stimulation. Extroverts gain energy from having lots of people around, while introverts prefer more internal pursuits or one-to-one interactions with people they are close with. Most people actually fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Still, even as a former psychologist who used to study these personality differences, I will sometimes feel there’s something wrong with me because I am introverted.

It’s a deep and profound self-doubt that can creep on you in the very moments that mark the difference between an introvert and an extrovert. That moment you enter a reception and your mind is instinctively looking for an escape route or a soul mate. Or that moment when you sit down in an open office and you can’t wait to find a quiet place to concentrate on that important piece you have to write. Moments like these acutely remind you of the fact that you’re introverted.

Part of you wants to fit in. And the other part of you just wants to be able to breathe.

This inner conflict may be at the core of feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, although it is important to separate these feelings from the introversion itself.

So how can you learn to breathe again? First and foremost, always keep in mind that although your introversion can be a burden, it can be a tremendous asset too. Let’s explore four common strenghts among introverts – and how you can put them to use in the workplace.

(Of course, these are generalisations, and there are many more dimensions to personality than the introversion-extroversion dimension. See what you recognize in the list of strengths below, but don’t take them as absolute truths. Start with an assessment of your own, unique personality.)

Four common strengths of being an introvert and how to use them

1. Listening skills

Introverts are generally more interested in listening and gathering information than in dominating the conversation. That’s an essential skill for journalists, copywriters, and researchers. Well-developed listening skills can also make a difference in many other fields. By asking the right questions, your inquisitive nature could spur new ways of working or even breakthrough innovations. Listening also helps you to figure out what is important to others, which you can then memorize in a mental diary to build one-to-one relationships based on a genuine interest in others. It’s our way of being social.

Before entering a conversation or meeting, make sure you have a clear view of you want to achieve. Write it down in one sentence. This will help you ask the right questions, focus your listening efforts, and openly express that one thought you are dying to share.

2. Attention to detail

Introverts are not only sensitive listeners, but also keen observers: we may see details that others overlook. We take the time to think things through. That’s not a very helpful trait when you need a quick response on the fly. But when you’re working on complex problems, your attention to detail may be key to finding a solution. And when you’re a writer, your readers will never complain of too much thoughtfulness. (Though please do if you disagree.)

Find a profession or a project where details matter. If quality of output is key to success, you have every opportunity to shine. If speed is of the highest priority and accuracy is irrelevant, get out. Seriously. You’re doing no one a favor. Least of all yourself.

3. Critical thinking

Another area where introverts often excel is critical thinking (see e.g., Moutafi, Furnham & Crump, 2003). It can make us appear aloof, and this is where we need to be careful not to alienate others. But a healthy dosis of critical thinking may be exactly what your company needs. As psychologists have pointed out, teams are susceptible to ‘groupthink’, where the need for harmony and conformity can lead to wrong decisions because essential arguments are overlooked or ignored (e.g., Janis, 1972). With their critical thinking abilities, introverts can inoculate a team against groupthink.


Whenever you feel that critical arguments are overlooked or ignored in a discussion, make it your obligation to speak up. This may feel uncomfortable, because you need to switch from listening mode to talking mode. But you’re doing your team a service by addressing the elephant in the room.

4. Persistence

Sustained attention is another common strength among introverts (e.g., Mohan & Kumar, 1976). Introverts tend to be good at making plans and sticking to them, although they may be slow starters. Extroverts are usually more decisive and quicker to take action, but they may lose attention over time as external stimulation wears off. This is clearly one of those areas where introverts and extroverts complement each other really well. As Susan Cain notes, “persistence isn’t very glamorous,” but it’s an essential skill for solving complex problems and completing longer-term projects.

Select two or three key projects where you really want to make an impact. Don’t be shy to take the lead when it comes to planning, strategy or monitoring progress. Team up with more extroverted co-workers to strike a balance between thought and action. (More on this in part 2 of this blog series.)

It takes more than acknowledging your strengths

As a fellow introvert, you probably recognized some of these strengths instantly, and you may have even pledged to wear the introvert badge with more pride. But that badge may suddenly feel like a curse the moment you find yourself in a noisy open-office plan again, rushing from one meeting to the next – deprived of the opportunity for deep thought and sustained attention.

That’s why it’s not enough to be aware of your strengths.

You will never truly excel at deep and sustained work, if you allow yourself to be continuously distracted.

You won’t have enough energy to invest in one-on-one relationships if you try to mesh in with large groups all day long.

You can’t expect your strengths to shine if you’re living in the shadows of the extrovert ideal.

You need to create an environment that works in favor of your personality.

With respect for other’s needs, of course. But with respect for your own needs, too.

The journey continues

So how do you create an environment where you can put your strengths to use?

More on that in part 2, when we will continue our quest for the introvert’s promised land.

If you have a specific question, or if you have a tip you would like to share from your own experience, please post it in the comments. You’ll have my full attention.


Added September 19, 2017:

For more practical tips, read part 2 of this two-part series about introversion.



Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Penguin Books.

Cobb-Clarck, D.A., & Schurer, S. (2012). The stability of big-five personality traits. Economic letters, 115(1), 11-15.

Costa & McCrae (1994). Set like plaster? Evidence for the stability of adult personality. In T. F. Heatherton & J. L. Weinberger (Eds.), Can personality change? Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Janis, I.L. (1972). Victims of groupthink. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Mohan, V. & Kumar, D. (1976). Qualitative analysis of the performance of introverts and extroverts on standard progressive matrices. British Journal of Psychology, 67(3), 391-397.

Moutafi, J., Furnham, A., & Crump, J. (2003). Demographic and personality predictors of intelligence: a study using the NEO Personality Inventory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. European Journal of Psychology, 17(1), 79-84.