When people want to know if you’re an extrovert or an introvert they’ll generally ask you where you get your energy from.
I get my energy from having time to process. Since I was 7 years old I’ve worked my puzzles out at the writing table. One by one I would solve them with my pen and paper. These introvert tendencies are not surprising to me considering my mom–a painter–would disappear into her studio for hours listening to middle eastern music and making work. She’s a talented artist with more books than shoes–and books, ideas and art was what was valued in our house growing up. I find it comforting to know Anne Lamott’s father was a beat poet [there is hope for me too].
Fast forward 17 years and I am living in New York City, working as a knowledge worker in very fast-paced sales environment.
In the corporate setting I found it exhausting to focus on knowledge work in an open office where there were people constantly walking by–distractions [whether it was meetings, social pressures or ad hoc requests] aplenty. As dudes high-fived and bonded, I would sit quietly feeling left out. I’m not the high-five type at work, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a good employee that cares about the team. It’s just not my style to high five and make sarcastic jokes throughout the day to show I’m a team player.
When I worked in a corporate job in NYC there was a tall man I worked with who was my superior. At one point my boss was frustrated with me and said, “Blake, John complained that you don’t make eye contact with him when you talk to him. Why is that?” I was about 24 at the time.
I wasn’t totally aware of my shyness. The truth was he made me uncomfortable (or let’s say the way I viewed him made me uncomfortable). But this was something I had to learn to do. I spent a year at Toastmasters learning how to look UP when I spoke to people.
This ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you don’t believe in yourself.
I would look around at the other people who could “show up” in meetings making confident statements without sweaty palms and red cheeks. I didn’t understand my own inability to look people in the eye and speak in public.
And I spent a lot of time obsessing over what I had said and how it was perceived–if I was liked. I felt like I was in a sea of sharks and it kept me going because I couldn’t afford to stop swimming.
Living in New York pushed me in a good way. Eventually I learned to speak up and even became addicted to it. It was challenging, fun and rewarding. Sometimes when you’re afraid of something for so long, and you finally face it, you realize there was something you wanted behind that fear. And today I really love sharing my ideas. And I use that as a tool when I go to events, to help me find like-minded individuals who care about what I care about. Sometimes my palms still sweat, but I look at that as “that’s how I know I’m ready!”
Today I am still an introvert working on bringing the ideas that I so comfortably write on this blog to people in person. Yesterday I attended a public speaking workshop focusing on eye contact.
In one exercise we had to stand across the room from our partner and keep eye contact with them. We then were asked to move forward two feet, and two more feet until we were about three feet apart.
Standing a few feet from our partner, we were asked a variety of questions by the moderator. We were to report feedback on how our partners face contorted when asked: “Why do you do what you do?” and “How are you going to sell your services to the person across from you?”
As you can imagine this was a very challenging exercise. It can feel very awkward not to speak, and to stare into the eyes of a stranger for an extended period of time. But the exercise turned out to be incredibly rewarding. There is a lot of power in the eyes, and you learn so much by looking into someone’s face.
You learn about yourself from the feedback you get from your partner. More than anything it reminded me that it is crucial to look people in the eyes. It’s also crucial to practice deep breathing and relaxation so your face appears calm, without anger or fear.
I was reminded of the importance of fully participating–of being “seen.” I was really moved by my partner who told me (after I gave her feedback on her face) that I had given her permission to truly feel strength around her career.
Today I’m passionate about helping all people embrace their vulnerabilities so they can fully show up in their lives. To be human is to have them. No matter where your career takes you, being confident and present with the people around you will make or break you–so learn from me–and speak to people with your eyes. Look up–there’s a lot to see when you do.