[Thoughts] Introverts Guide To Appearing Confident
“That’s great! I look forward to seeing you again. Remember to bring that delicious bottle of wine you keep talking about. And say hello to your lovely wife for me, you lucky bastard!”
My best friend had just closed yet another major sale for our company, after calling the client a “bastard” no less – albeit jokingly. He stood up, gave the client a firm hand shake, looked him straight in the eyes and said those words. Sweat-free. He is a natural. He is an extrovert. And as far as the public is concerned, he is what everyone should be.
I, on the other hand, am an introvert. I preferred video games to the playground when I was a kid. Still do, actually.
My parents were worried I would grow up to be a socially awkward loner. People have more than once jokingly said I was going to turn into a mass murderer, like Anders Breivik or Seung-Hui Cho, both of which have been described as an introvert by the media. When I graduated from university, I blew an interview for my dream job because I was “too withdrawn”. Their words, not mine. And oh, did I mention I had exactly 3 friends?
Yes, it looked like I was depressed but I was perfectly happy. I had never contemplated of changing because I thought, nay, I knew a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. Substance is more important than style, they always say, and those who think otherwise are shallow. I worked hard, I kept out of trouble and I ploughed on. One day, I will be right there, in the corner office enjoying the city view.
That dream came to a screeching halt when one day my boss called me into the office to “terminate my employment”. I was fired from my comfy little introvert job and thrusted back into the Wild West, while the office clown cracks his jokes.
But First, Are You An Introvert?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, Carl Jung was the psychologist who pioneered the “extraversion vs introversion” personality field. He defined the introverted attitude as “characterized by an inward flowing of personal energy – a withdrawal concentrating on subjective factors.”
That’s it. Nowhere did he mention introverts being “shy”, “unstable” or “dull”. So how did we end up being labelled as so?
Before I answer that question, I want to make sure you’re one of us. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you find the company of other people tiring? Preferring instead to spend your time alone?
- Do you prefer the written word to verbal communication?
- Do you take your time to think before you talk?
- Do you think small talk is unnecessary?
- Do you frequently talk to yourself… (quietly, in your mind)?
- Because you talk to yourself, do you often ask, “Didn’t I tell you that?”
- Do you have a small circle of friends?
Remember, introversion vs extroversion is a continuum. Most people lie somewhere in between. If you answered “yes” to most of them, however, then congratulations brother/sister, I’ll group you as one of us.
If you are one of us, I’m sure you have a similar story where people judged you by your cover – and dismissed you because of it. I had 3 close friends, all introverts, and we traded “war stories” like those on a daily basis, complaining about all the wrongs did to us.
If you’re as frustrated as I was, keep your ears pricked and listen up, because I have something good for you.
The Biased Crowd
Imagine walking into the subway and the place is filled with classical music, played live by a stranger with a violin mounted on his shoulder and a case opened for donation. What would you have done? Before you answer, here’s what you need know.
That stranger was Joshua Bell, a child prodigy who three days ago filled Boston’s Symphony Hall where seats sold for at least $100 a pop. The violin he held was a Gibson ex Huberman, a 1713 Stradivarious which he bought for $3.5 million.
“…out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”, said Slatkin, the music director of National Symphony Orchestra, when asked what would happen if a violin virtuoso played incognito. A small crowd would gather, he forecasted, and that Joshua would make about $150 from the stunt.
The result of the experiment? Only 27 passerbys donated, most on the run, for a total of $32. No one, except for a few, stopped to appreciate the world class performance.
The experiment confirmed what psychologists had long known; that context matters. If you were to pull down a $5 million piece of art out of a museum and sell it on the street side, it’s not even going to sell. NLP (Neurolinguistics programming) practitioner calls the practice of leveraging context to persuade, “framing”.
So what has all this got to do with introverts and my story?
“It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert,” wrote Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig. In a world where extroverts dominate, you can be sure an introvert is often misunderstood.
For example, while I was never shy (defined as anxious in a social setting), I often kept to myself in a group setting because I prefer to observe instead of participate. My parents and teachers urged me to “speak up” when I was a kid when, in fact, I was trying to think before I talk. I often disappear for 20 minutes or more in a party to recharge and that has more than once earned the label “arrogant bastard” at work. I was also viewed as blunt and tactless, often speaking my mind without the mandatory “how are you today?” opening.
If Joshua with his genius and his $3.5 million Stratavarious didn’t stand a chance without context, how could introverts like myself prevail?
It wasn’t until I spend significant time researching on the issue that I realize the issue. While I thought I was doing fine, assuming everyone agrees that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover, my body language is performing 93% of my communication for me. The content of my speech didn’t matter; my introverted body language made sure I fail before I even started. It’s sad, it’s unfair – trust me, I know. But with the amount of information humans need to deal with every day, we have no choice but to make decisions under a number of heuristics and biases.
There’s nothing you or me can do about it. Humans are, and always will be, shallow because being shallow is a mechanism that keeps us sane and alive. But it is also a mechanism that keeps us from noticing Joshua, or the genius in an introvert.
Matter Over Mind
The lesson here is not not to judge a book by its cover.
After the bolt of enlightenment struck me, practical and lazy as I am, I sought the easiest way to correct my appearance issue. Do a quick Google search on introversion and you’ll find plenty of introverts took to the Internet to… bitch (?). “The world should value our worth”, they say. “We make better leaders, extroverts should know.”
Rather than change the world, I decided to take an easier route: change myself. If you think changing a behaviour I have been practicing my whole life is easy, though, think again. My default behaviour have always been to be quiet even if I am confident and quiet equals insecure.
At least that’s what the world believes.
Confidence is a learnable skill, and what I am about to describe here will also help with that. Having said that, you should know that the question I asked myself all those years ago was not how to become confident. I asked myself, how do I change my introversion? That question led me down a rabbit hole miles deep and still going. I decided that’s a poor question to ask for two reasons:
- There’s nothing wrong with being introverted; it’s a personality, not a disorder. Introverts are not shy, we just appear to be.
- I don’t know if changing personality is possible but even if it is, I would imagine it will take too damn long. I’ll probably give up half way through.
Now, if you’re to visit a psychotherapist for help, they’ll probably put you through intense psychotherapy or prescribe some kind of drugs, like Zoloft or Prozac (both of which were prescribed to “introverted” mass murderers). After all, the line between social anxiety disorder and introversion is thin and blurry. (Disclaimer: I am neither a psychiatrist nor play one on TV.)
So I figured bugger the whole “be yourself” thing. I’m going to fake it till I make it. I was going for the quick fix. What can I do to change myself in and for the next 15 minutes?
A quick fix sounds stupid, impatient and short-sighted, I know. Aren’t you always warned that “quick fixes” don’t work. There is no way to lose weight quickly. You can’t get rick quick. You can’t get laid in 15 minutes.
Ok, maybe that last one doesn’t belong, but the rest are true.
As it turns out, faking it literally makes it true. Matter over mind, you can say. Depressed? Make the biggest, most ridiculous grin you can – now try to feel sad. Anxious? Stand with your legs apart, put your hands on your hip and lift your head high – now try to feel nervous.
In other words, you can feel confident because of how you stand.
I don’t know about you but this was big for me. It means no more psychobabble, no drugs and no “changing myself”. I can do something about my situation now and see results immediately. Having discovered what I think was the The Greatest Secret In The World, I practiced it for a few days and I went out to the field to test it out. I went to a bar (where else better to test confidence?), scoped out my target and approached her. I was fine, body-language-wise, but deep within, I was still an introvert. I choked, crashed and burned.
The matter over mind approach, I found, worked well in snapshot situations – like lifting yourself out of despair – but life is a motion picture. I could pretend to appear like an extrovert in a photo, but I still couldn’t speak nor act like one.
Imitate, Don’t Innovate
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” ~ Chinese Idiom
Back in school, my English teacher’s favourite sentence was “Do not copy word for word. Rephrase.” My Chinese teacher, though, said, “Copy word for word. Don’t rephrase.”
I like my Chinese teacher more. In the classroom, copying was labelled cheating. In the real world, it’s collaboration.
The idea of imitation is to master what’s already there before you go out and do your own stuff. Build the wheel before reinventing it. Alison Gopnik recently gave a fascinating TED talk about why human babies take so long to grow up relative to other animals. We take so long to grow up, she explained, because we are learning all the intricacies of being human as a child.
How did babies learn by lying on their backs 24/7? Mirror neurons are one of the first brain cells to develop in a newborn and it allows them to learn simply by observing. Mirror and master, in other words.
I took that principle and applied it to changing my body language.
By the way, if you don’t have a conscious target to imitate… you’ll imitate the person you spend the most time with. Your mirror neurons made sure of that. “Developing your unique self” is a myth.
Having know that, the problem is who should I imitate?
Last I heard Tony Robbins wasn’t taking on free apprentices. My friends were as introverted as I was. And my family… let’s just say they weren’t the people I wanted to emulate. Sometimes it can feel like you don’t know anyone who can help you, but when there’s a will, there’s a way.
So I turned to the office for inspiration, and there he was, basking in his glory, with his neatly trimmed beard, pressed shirt, red tie and tight jeans. The best salesman our company had ever had. Or so he said.
Red Tie and Tight Jeans
Befriending him wasn’t easy. If you think you choose friends because of who they are… think again. We are selfish creatures and that’s true even when it comes to making friends. Truth is, we choose friends because of the way they support who we are. Friends, once chosen, exert great influence on our behaviour and we tend to conform to peer pressure, even if we intend to act otherwise. Birds of the same feather flocks together. Introverts hangs with other introverts (as I did), become more introverted and pressure each other not to leave.
Yet there I was, a crow looking to hang out with a peacock. Not only is my primal instinct telling me to run in the opposite direction, my introvert friends weren’t happy I wanted to “switch camp”. It’s not easy – that much is for sure – but like your muscles, your mind can also be trained.
To overcome my fear, I tried the implosion technique, which is a fancy way of saying “just take the plunge”. A psychotherapist is a little more subtle with implosion than that. Instead of pushing you over the edge (and potentially lose a customer), they would describe what you fear, with vivid details and special vocabulary. Screw that, I told myself. I took a literal plunge and approached him in a corporate pool… let’s call him John. I explained to John what I was trying to do and asked if he could be my mentor. John, like most extroverts, were horrible at teaching extroversion. It came naturally to him.
So I had no choice but to tail him. “Mirror his life, master his skill” was my theory. Remember, when it comes to mirroring, details matter. If he crosses his legs, is it the left over the right or the other way around? When people ask him, “How are you?”, did he reply with, “Good, thank you.” as I did (note the bluntness) or “Life’s awesome. How about you?” (note the probe for small talk)
I even imitated his hairstyle, I grew out my beard, I traded my t-shirt with a shirt and my cargo pants with a tight jeans. I even bought a red tie to go. I learned his mannerisms and practiced it like a stuntman. I even studied his vocabulary. Including the swearing.
That was how much I wanted to change.
The Chair of Power Too
So picture this: I just went from an introvert to being a pretend extrovert, dressing exactly the same as John and copying his every move.
It got a little weird. Ok, a LOT weird.
People thought we got into some kind of cult. But that didn’t sway me (or John) because what I did next was crazier – I redecorated my office, both at work and at home to mirror John’s. Why? Good question.
You’re sadly mistaken if you think you make all decisions rationally. As Ramit’s faithful reader, you should know better. As it turns out, the environment plays a big role in influencing our behaviour. Adding a mirror in strategic places, for example, reduces stealing (apparently people hate seeing themselves steal). A bigger plate makes you eat more. A transparent bowl makes you eat more candy than opaque ones. The very act of living in a urban setting impairs mental processes (e.g. your brain becomes less able to store things in memory after spending a few minutes on a crowded street). Heck, just using a bigger fork may help you eat less.
Most interesting is John B. Calhoun’s experiment on how overcrowding affects your psychology. I won’t go through it here but it’s there if you’re interested.
Point is, remember, your mind is like your muscles. It can be trained and improved – but despite what “The Secret” tells you, your brain has its limits. Willpower is a limited resource and if you’re spending it on resisting that candy, your performance on other tasks will suffer. If that’s the case, why not just control your environment instead of yourself? Isn’t that easier?
So there I was, revamping my “geek station”, with its two 30″ monitors, a set of gaming keyboard and mouse, a high-end surround sound system (which I never use because the office had a open plan layout), papers strewn across my desk and of course, a poster of Megan Fox to watch all over them. Not only did I have to get rid of all my PC goodness, I had to pay for all the new stuff.
At the end of the day, my office looked 90% the same as John’s (and without his wife’s portrait), including the ugly, comparatively uncomfortable, big “Chair of Power”, John calls it. The chair was designed so you can’t slouch. And it’s big and tall. If somebody were to be sitting when they talk to you, you’ll be looking down at them.
Remember matter over mind? Changing your posture would be the easiest tactic to implement if you want to feel powerful and John intuitively knew that. So I threw my Aeron away and replaced it with the Iron Throne.
Mistakes Were Made… But Never By Me
By now, you’d think that imitation is the answer to all your problems… but imitation is a skill in itself. So who do you imitate to learn imitation? The answer: No one.
The best person to guide you is none other than your mentor, your model, the person you’re ripping off. Imagine someone copying your every move. Trust me, you’re going to have a lot of opinion about how he/she performs!
Here’s the problem though: how many times have you had feedback only to go on and ignore it? How many times have your spouse “gave you feedback” about not taking out the rubbish, only to have you leave it there the day after? How many times have the company you work in asks for “precious” customer feedback only to have the CEO ignore it?
If human learning mechanism is as easy as making mistakes -> getting feedback -> changing behaviour, we’d all be geniuses by now and the world would be a much better place. But that’s not how it works.
Like the CEO, there are times you are going to deny you’re doing it wrong. It’s called cognitive dissonance, a mechanism we use to stay right – even if we were wrong. (Ramit has a great article on the subject here). That IS how you sway when you walk, you’re going to claim, as if you know your mentor than he/she knows himself/herself. Resist that urge! Do as he/she says, no matter how stupid it sounds.
Another common mistake CEOs make when it comes to handling feedback: taking a year to go through the “feedback” box. How many times have you as a student, or an employee, go through an annual review? Have you ever go through that feedback form and learn from them?
As it turns out, when you get the feedback is just as important as what is said. If the feedback comes a year late,you’re not going to take it seriously, let alone change your behaviour. Ever saw one of those “Your Speed Is… ” signs when you’re driving? Those “stupid” signs slowed drivers down an average of 14%, reducing the average speed to well below the speed limit when engineers first tried it out in Garden Grove, California, simply because they give you timely feedback. Even the threat of a hefty fine didn’t have that effect.
What does this mean to you and I? It means to get your mentor to correct your imitation in real time, as he/she notices it – even if it is in public. Remember, the goal here is not to look good. It’s to change behaviour.
After 3 months of intense imitation/feedback loop, I finally decided it was show time. 3 months sounds like a very long time, but introverts would know that when it comes to being confident, it’s really not. Plus, I was an extreme case.
John had never allowed me to tag along for sales meeting because my very presence ruins a pitch. This would be my first time. I went into the room, looked the guy in the eyes, shook his hand and I knew the game is on… and that I would ace it. And I did. When you’re in the zone, you just know.
That was 8 years ago (way before the dawn of the age of over-sharing, or I would have documented it all and shove it in my boss’ face). After that initial meeting, I often go to other meetings with John to explain the technical side of things to clients. I eventually asked an extrovert lady out, dated her and married her. And John became my best friend, connecting me to many valuable contacts in the industry.
Ramit always talks about networking – how as much as 80% of jobs out there are not available to the public and the only way to land them is to know the right contacts. It’s true. Because after I broke out of my introvert shell, I was able to network with the “connectors”, as Malcolm Gladwell described them in his book, The Tipping Point, and land jobs I could only dream about in the past.
At this point, some of you are going to ask me for specifics. Give me something specific so I may go forth and do. How to stand to convey maximum confidence? What to do with my hands? What to wear to a party? What to wear to a wedding? What to say to get laid?
There are many specific lessons I can share with you – trust me, there are plenty! – but most of them are either quite obvious, like “Look the person in the eye when you are talking to him/her.” (How many times have an introvert heard that and thought yeah… but how?) or they are just my opinions.
To tell you the truth, I suspect only 20% of all the changes I made resulted in 80% of the results. The problem is I don’t know which 20% made that difference – and I don’t think anyone do. I believe most changes that took place are subconscious.
Extroverts dress, walk, eat and even sleep differently. It’s a different ball game. And the best way to learn a game is not by studying it. The best way to learn a game is to find a mentor, dive in and play it and establish feedback loops.
A 101 list of to-dos won’t help you. Trust me, I’ve tried. You can read all about swimming, but you won’t float if you don’t jump into the water. Plus, the 101 things your mentor may teach you will probably differ from mine. And that’s ok. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
There is no one universal way to appear confident that fits everyone, and applies to all situations. For example, if you look a person in the eye in Japan, that’s taken to be aggressive/presumptous, not confident. Some experts say a two handed handshake shows confidence – others think it shows you’re trying too hard.
And one last tip, if you’re going to do this all, make sure you tell no one other than your mentor of your goal.
And I Live Happily Ever After
At the end of the day, I am still an introvert. I still prefer books to parties. And I still have way too much self-talk. But when the game is on, I can appear to be as extroverted as anyone else.
Remember, some of the world’s most successful public figures – people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, David Letterman – are introverts. They change when they are in the zone.
So can you.
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