When facing one's pain leads to freedom.
Quiet Revolutionary Allysha Roth’s Story
“Inner Nature, when relied on, cannot be fooled. But many people do not look at it or listen to it, and consequently do not understand themselves very much.” – Benjamin Hoff
I used to read myself to sleep so I wouldn’t lie awake in the dark, thinking about every embarrassing thing I had said that day. I hadn’t always been this way. As a young child, I was very good at being alone. I started teaching myself to read when I was 3 years old. I watched musicals on VHS that sparked my imagination. I sang ad-hoc songs to go along with the story I was living that day. Once I started reading books, I read them to my stuffed animals.
When I started primary school, I was rewarded for my participation (a.k.a. talking) every day. So, I talked a lot. And, as years went on, I talked more and more. I started to dread both school and being alone because my over-participation constantly mortified me. I described myself as “painfully extroverted.” I walked through life embarrassed to be myself. Once alone, I would replay awkward interactions in my head. That’s when I started to use reading as a coping mechanism—to block the memories of the day.
Years later, after college was over, I spent over a year mostly alone, in quiet, and learned to love being alone again. I taught myself to play guitar. I started jogging, at first for exercise, then because it stimulated my imagination. I read articles and reflected on how they fit with or contradicted what I thought I knew. I started to religiously read and re-read The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Instead of shutting out painful experiences, I pondered them, writing over and over again about why they hurt until I understood them. And understanding led to healing, acceptance, and growth. I grew to understand myself in a more complete way than ever before. And still, I hadn’t let go of my identity as an extrovert.
Then, I went back to school. I was very suddenly re-immersed in the world of participation, and it was perhaps one of the most excruciating social experiences of my life. Every day, I drove home mortified by my compulsion to participate, sobbing intermittently in rush hour traffic. I just kept wishing I would keep my mouth shut. Why am I so loud? Did I really need everyone to hear that thought? Those habits no longer felt like I was expressing myself accurately. I thought, “This isn’t me.”
I learned a lot from the contrasts of those experiences. That tool of self-reflection that I learned in quiet was much more powerful than reading away the memories ever was. I realized that the source of my pain during overwhelmingly social situations, like school, came from how outwardly focused I was. I was always thinking of what the right thing to say was. I was thinking of how to respond. And that was exhausting all my energy, which led me to be less thoughtful in how I engaged. I wasn’t taking care of myself in social situations, so I wasn’t representing myself very well either.
I’m not actually “painfully extroverted.” And I’m not totally introverted either, as anyone who knows me will tell you. But through listening to my pain, I learned that I often get a lot more out of listening than participating. Sometimes, I’m the center of attention. And sometimes, I keep more thoughts to myself than I share. And I don’t have to read myself to sleep anymore.
“The Way of Self-Reliance starts with recognizing who we are, what we’ve got to work with, and what works best for us.” – Benjamin Hoff
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Quiet Revolutionary Gayle Aggiss’s Story
I think I have made a mistake. And I really don’t mind.
I am an extreme introvert. Even compared to that of other introverts, my level of introversion stands out. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I ended up on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere, unravelling the secrets of the universe or something. But I digress…
A couple of years ago, I decided to change my life. I went from being a university drop out, working a dead-end job that paid badly and made me feel even worse, to being a graduate working on a master’s degree and teaching English in China. It was a big jump.
A lot of people told me I couldn’t do it in the first place. As introverts, we’re taught there must be a lot of boundaries around the things we do. We aren’t supposed to like being around people very much. We’re timid and quiet. We don’t like being the center of attention. We’re nervous, slow to adapt to new situations and places. And most of all, we will always be upstaged by the louder extroverts that run the world.
Before I decided on this course, I thought about all of these guidelines. And I decided I would do what I wanted anyway. I studied, studied some more, researched my choices, and finally ended up teaching, first in Vietnam and now in China.
I’ve learned that even though I don’t like public speaking, I am perfectly comfortable talking in front of a class. I’ve learned that I adapt very well to new places and people, thank you very much. I’ve learned that I love sitting in cafes in new places, drinking tea and watching the sun set over alien towers of glass and stone.
And I’ve learned that I am still an introvert.
Although I can talk in front of a class and I can interact with my colleagues, parents, and the administration at my school, I can’t do all these things at the same time. My energy levels don’t allow it, and my social energy doesn’t allow it. After a week at work, I want to be by myself for my two-day weekend, and even that time isn’t enough to recharge my batteries to normal levels.
I made a mistake when I chose this job.
And that’s a truly wonderful thing.
Because even though it is a mistake, it has taught me so much that I can’t bring myself to be angry or regretful. My journey to this place has transformed me from a scared, battered mouse into a confident, accomplished woman, who dreams of more and knows she has what it takes to get it. That woman would never have existed if not for the mouse who dreamed of teaching overseas.
Once I left my home, the changes in me and around me accelerated. Learning to get by in a country where I didn’t speak the language, in a completely different culture, taught me confidence and boldness and self-sufficiency that I don’t think I could learn any other way. Not to mention that living overseas was always a dream of mine. The mistake in my path doesn’t take away from the value of living out a dream like that.
I’m nearing the end of my contract now and preparing to go home. And as I look at my life, the one I have now and the one that is stretching out in front of me, there is only gratitude.
Thank you so much, my very beneficial mistake.
Quiet Revolutionary Steph Ruopp’s Story
It’s a warm Thursday night at 5:30.
I’m sitting outside the yoga studio, legs crossed, taking a few deep breaths. The previous class is letting out. It was well attended.
The inner dialogue broadcasts throughout the metropolis of my mind. It’s a familiar broadcast as I hear it before nearly every yoga class. It’s something to the effect of, “Well, that was a popular class. Yeah, it was. The one after this will probably be popular too. Yup. It usually is.”
It seems innocent enough. Silly even. But if I allow, it could be damaging to me. I’m not a student preparing to enter the class, but rather the instructor. I’m also a card-carrying introvert. And the implication of this dialogue, a dialogue I created, is that my class will never be “popular” because I just don’t have what it takes.
Of course, the instructors who teach the respective classes before and after mine have personalities that could be described as bubbly, effervescent, and sparkling—descriptors equally well-suited for champagne. And students feel good in the presence of these affirming teachers, much as they would after a few sips of the bubbly. Naturally, they drink them up. And I get it. Hell, I love champagne. The teachers who sandwich my class are extroverts who meet the ideal to a tee. I, on the other hand, do not.
This is not to say that I am the polar opposite. I don’t spend my days closed off in my house, reading books to my three cats and making my own clothes—though, admittedly, that sounds like a damn good day. Nor do I cower in the corner, casting disparaging looks on students. And while there’s no disputing that I’m guarded in social situations, I am not what anyone would call soft-spoken. In fact, I can be rather loud and outspoken.
Early in life, I realized that I do not possess the “tell them what they want to hear” button that seems to come standard on others. I loved my inner world and being alone. I had few friends. Feeling shame around this as a teenager, I made the lofty commitment to “speak only the truth.”
Twenty years later when I began teaching yoga, I saw this commitment as a thinly veiled defense mechanism to shut people out before they could do it to me first. And what I was attempting to pass off as moralistic “speaking the truth” was far more often nihilistic “talking smack.”
This was not an endearing quality for a yoga instructor. And it certainly wasn’t going to draw students to this practice, which I longed to share. It took a while for me to realize the difference between being genuine and being unkind. It also took some time for me to embrace that popularity does not a better teacher make.
One of the beautiful things about teaching is how completely you have to put yourself out there and be willing to see where the cards fall. Not an easy feat for an introvert. Another is that it’s ongoing. And while I did receive my certification to teach, I don’t think anyone ever becomes a teacher. If those of us who call ourselves teachers are paying attention, we are just continuing students, moving constantly toward a keener sense of awareness. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can teach that. Popular or otherwise.
It’s a warm Thursday night at 5:35.
I’m still sitting outside the yoga studio, legs crossed, nodding and smiling now at the regular students coming through the door. Their numbers do not matter. What does matter is that many have been attending my classes for a decade. They embrace the highly sensitive and empathic person that I am. And they appreciate my honesty. It’s what resonates with them, and they prefer to have their champagne elsewhere.
Still, the inner dialogue continues. But it’s merely ambient sound now. Teaching has helped me recognize that it’s “old speak,” triggered by one of many memories of feeling singled out and unpopular at a time when I didn’t value being an introvert, being myself. And it rarely, if ever, troubles me anymore.
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Quiet Revolutionary David Wiggin’s Story
Since the age of 5, when I started school, I’ve known I was an introvert. I was the only boy in kindergarten who cried most of the first day of school. I grew up being regarded as shy, quiet, and a bit slow. As an introvert, I take time to respond to people who throw new ideas or comments at me. I am the person who always thinks of all the good comebacks hours later.
Despite these feelings, I’ve gone through life making myself face situations that force me to be more open and expressive. In college, I didn’t force myself to participate in activities, like debate, because my fear of speaking in public pushes my brain into a panic mode, blocking thoughts. In the proverbial “fight or flee” situation, I usually choose the “flee” option. The reaction causes my thought processes to shut down until I can get my emotions under control.
I chose teaching as a career because I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to do and because I love literature and the arts. I also admired the best teachers I had in school. After several years of teaching high school English and French, I decided to become a school principal and later a superintendent of schools. Obviously, these professions attract extroverted people. To succeed, I had to overcome my reservations of speaking in groups. The challenge was immense, but I succeeded because of my ability to empathize with young people and adults in the school community. One of my most rewarding moments occurred when a colleague mentioned to my wife that I was known as the “go-to” person in the school because when anyone wanted to find out information or to get help with a problem or a situation I was the trusted administrator they would seek out.
As a superintendent of schools, I found myself speaking before many different groups. Perhaps the most daunting were large town meetings when I was presenting and defending a proposed school budget. These events almost always went well because I’d prepare clear audio-visual displays, print budget info, and provide lucid explanations of the budget process and the effects of budgets on school programs and local communities.
Other, even more difficult, situations occurred behind closed doors between me and teacher representatives in contract negotiations or when I was dealing with student/teacher conflicts, often involving several parties. I found these situations emotionally draining, but I also found that an important key to success was building mutual trust by understanding all parties’ positions and knowing when to give something in return for something else.
When I got ready to retire as a superintendent, members of the school board came to my office individually and in groups to try to dissuade me, but I knew when the time had come to move on; however, on a couple of occasions, I was coaxed to return to a position I had left because of the difficulties the schools faced at the time. In looking back, I sometimes marvel at the successes I achieved, but I understand that my thoughtful demeanor and ability to empathize with others were great assets in resolving conflicts and leading diverse groups. Although I would never be the life of the party or the most popular person, being an introvert was not a deficit because I learned that people would trust me when I listened and cared deeply about their concerns.
Quiet Revolutionary Melissa Renzi’s story
A couple of months ago, it dawned on me that I could be a fraud.
I was asked to teach a workshop at the Lotus Rising Women’s Celebration at Stonehouse Farm, west of Chicago. Lotus Rising draws roughly 150 women together for an annual weekend of camping, yoga, meditation, dancing, singing, art, and connection.
I immediately said yes.
My experience that weekend was incredible. I departed that Sunday with my windows rolled down, chanting “om namo bhagavate” with an ear-to-ear smile.
I was fully energized and rejuvenated. As soon as I realized this, my smile dropped. You see, my partner and I recently launched InnerConnected Retreats. As self-proclaimed “introverts,” we offer group-travel experiences specifically designed for individuals that lean toward this side of the personality spectrum.
Introverts supposedly get their energy from being alone—this is one of the defining features. Meanwhile, I spent a weekend being almost constantly with others, and I left buzzing with barf-worthy joy.
A few years ago, I began to understand introversion better and identified with a lot of traits (a need for alone time to recharge, distaste for small talk, preference for small groups over parties, social time limits, etc.). It gave me a place where I fit, where I could understand myself better and feel comforted that there are others like me.
But a lot of people in my life don’t see this part of me, largely because I have done a good job of hiding it and disguising myself in a way that fits into the extroverted world. I remember an ex-boyfriend saying, “What? I can’t understand this. When I met you, you were so full of life and dancing.” He constantly thought I was depressed when I retreated into myself—classic.
But I got to thinking: maybe I’m not so introverted. I mean, I have been known to break into interpretive dance all by myself at a wedding (alcohol changes lots of things for introverts). Maybe I don’t know myself. Have I glommed onto this label in an effort to connect more with my deeply introverted boyfriend or to create a passion project together? What if I don’t know myself well enough and I am not who I say I am?
I thought back to the weekend and the moments leading up to it. There was a part of me that was excited and a part that was hesitant. I was nervous about teaching a workshop to a large group. And a bit of anxiety crept up as I thought about who would be there, if I’d fit in, how much engagement would be required, etc.
When I arrived, a wave of social anxiety washed over me, and for the first hour or two, I thought I made a huge mistake coming there. I began thinking up all the ways I could get out of leading my workshop on Saturday morning and go home. But I was stuck.
I even texted my boyfriend, saying that I didn’t know what I was thinking. He firmly said, “You belong there just as much as anyone else. That’s your place, and you just need to give it time.”
Most women that weekend didn’t know the thoughts that occupied my mind space. They didn’t know I considered what kind of ailment I could come down with to avoid teaching. They didn’t know that this woman who appeared social was also very insular at times and needed copious amounts of alone time. They didn’t know it took effort to find the energy for Bollywood dancing after dinner when I initially just wanted to retreat to my tent. They didn’t know because I barely showed it. I socialized. I participated. I danced. I sang. And I left with a new network of sisters who lift one another up. I ended up loving it.
So, how introverted am I really? And why do I feel a need to claim this label? What do labels really do for us? Am I an ambivert—partly introverted and partly extroverted, depending on the context? I don’t know, and I’m okay with that.
I guess I am a woman with diverse aspects of her personality, which gives me a great ability to understand those of others. And maybe that’s all that matters.
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Quiet Revolutionary Kevin Crowley‘s story
So this was it, the moment I had been simultaneously fearing and looking forward to in equal measure ever since I accepted the invite to speak at a conference. The fear I had was because I had no idea how I would perform, but I was excited to know that in less than an hour it all would be over and I would never have to do this again.
I had arrived in London 2 hours before I was due to speak, exactly according to my plan. London is a busy city at the best of times, but I managed to find a quiet area at the train station, where I could listen to my talk through my headphones. I had planned to arrive at the start of the lunch break, not to get a free lunch but so I could see the conference set up while the room was empty and gather my thoughts, away from any hustle and bustle.
I had prepared meticulously for over a month, for this one 20-minute slot. For me as an introvert, preparation is everything, and I left no stone unturned to ensure all would go well. But as my time approached, I felt like I’d forgotten everything I’d practiced.
As I sat nervously in the reserved for speakers row, I watched the speaker before me regale the audience confidently and with authority, and I wondered why on earth I had signed up to this. The usual flurry of thoughts filled my head: What if they put the wrong slides up? What if my microphone doesn’t work? Should I stand behind the podium or walk around? What if everyone walks out?
Everything was going according to my carefully constructed plan, but I still questioned why I ever chose to do this. Here I was—the “shy kid” in the school class, the “quiet one” who didn’t like to speak—and I was about to have hundreds of pairs of eyes focused solely on me as I would stand completely and utterly outside of my comfort zone in full view of everyone.
I don’t remember too much about the 20 minutes that followed, but I do remember the overwhelming sense of relief as the audience gave me a very warm round of applause. As I walked off the stage with a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, I was greeted by a smiling lady, keen to discuss the content of my talk in more detail. As I finished speaking to her, a gentleman caught my attention while two others were keen to give me their business cards for further conversation.
I didn’t need to talk at a conference, and I didn’t really want to either, but I wanted to prove to myself that as an introvert, I could do something more typically aligned with extroversion—I guess to prove that my introversion was a strength to build on, rather than something to hold me back. And as I sat on the train home, enjoying music rather than listening to my talk for the first time in a month, reflecting (as introverts do) on the day, I afforded myself a smile reflecting the fact that, for once, rather than being the one listening to others, I was the one being listened to.
As for never having to do this again, I just signed up for another conference next year…
Quiet Revolutionary Rachael Trigg’s Story
“You just don’t have the personality for that,” a surly boss once told me when I inquired about an associate producer job on the show I was currently crunching numbers for. A few months later, a dear friend and roommate suggested I try out production and offered me the job of assistant production coordinator on a food show in a wonderful Pacific Northwest city.
Here I was, going on the road with a show for a few months. Since I had never done anything on set before, didn’t go to film school, and definitely didn’t know how to book travel for 100 people, I had no idea what I was in for. I just knew my life had to change.
Being a hardcore introvert would prove to be a lot more work for me in the wonderful world of Hollywood. Once we got to Seattle, I was thrown into the production side of TV. I sank for a hot second, but then I fell in love. I remember trembling when, for the first time, I had to say to a crew of 60 plus people “go for Rachael” over the walkie.
Watching the producers in their brainstorming sessions, I quickly realized that producing was what I wanted to do. I was a creative type and believed I could finally become the person I dreamed about. I told everybody what I wanted to do. The problem was: being more of a listener than a talker made things a little trickier. However, after landing my first associate producer job for National Geographic, it occurred to me that being a listener first didn’t actually matter. I was who I was, and I had to own it. Despite the fact that I wasn’t that stereotypical overzealous LA producer, the cast and the talent all trusted me and my calm demeanor.
While I still have a bit of work to do on myself and for my career, I have learned that being an introvert who works in television is not an obstacle—it’s a blessing. Since that day of being told I didn’t have the personality for it, I’m here to tell you that, ten credits on television shows in, I’m here to stay.
Quiet Revolutionary Spencer Wells’s Story
It was a bright and cloudless August afternoon of cross country practice, and I was anxiously sweating as the sweltering heat seemed to grow more and more intense by the minute. Everything should have been fine; I had been hydrating well all week, and the coaching staff were always very cautious not to push us too hard in the hotter temperatures. As I scanned the grassy warm-up field though, my anxiety intensified as I saw some of my teammates taking off their shirts to cool down. Ordinarily, this should’ve been something that somebody in my position would have quickly joined in on. Unfortunately for me, there was a big catch that changed the notion of going shirtless at cross country practice from a convenience to a nightmare.
Since birth, I have been afflicted with a chest condition known as Pectus Excavatum, commonly dubbed the “funnel chest” syndrome. Simply put, while a normal chest wall is flat, mine is sunken in, creating the appearance of a hole in my torso. I assumed that such a deformity would draw shock, ridicule, and even disgust from those who saw it. As an introvert who cannot bear the idea of being singled out, the sort of attention I would have drawn to myself by exposing my chest in public was absolutely horrifying.
So, that day at cross country practice, I endured the scorching hot run as one of the only guys on the team who kept a shirt on while running. The teasing I received for being “self-conscious” (the assumed explanation for why I remained fully clothed) was depressing, but I endured it to avoid the exhausting explanations and stunned expressions I would have had to deal with if my secret was let out.
My whole life I have been continually dealing with this struggle. At the pool, l would always wear a shirt and use not wanting to get sunburnt as my excuse. In the locker room, I would hide in the corner, turned away from everyone as I frantically changed. On some days, I would even wear the clothes I was going to change into under the outfit I wore to school. In my introversion, I kept closing in and isolating myself from others to avoid the embarrassment that seemed like the end of the world.
That day in August, I went home and spent the evening loathing myself because I believed my chest made me unable to ever fit in with other guys. At one point, these thoughts drove me to think that quitting the team was the only solution. I was submitting to my condition, letting it take control of my emotions and actions, and I went to bed with a deep sense of despair.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in speech class. And although my chest was not at the front of my mind, the weight of all the cross country practices I had endured that season was heavy. As one of my classmates loaded a PowerPoint presentation to accompany his speech, my heart immediately started to race. I was stunned to see my chest condition projected in bold white letters across the front of the room. For the next ten minutes, this classmate described how he has dealt with the deformity that has been backing me into a corner most of my life—in front of an entire room of people. The entire time, I kept thinking to myself, “Wow, somebody else in my own grade has the same condition as me!” And then, “There is no way I could be doing this… This is incredible.”
The presentation took a long time for me to fully appreciate, but the lessons I learned from it were very important. I realized I am not alone in my struggle. Part of me had convinced myself I was the only person I knew dealing with this. My introverted nature had made the prospect of talking to other people to solve my problems seem impossible. My classmate proved me wrong on both of these points. He not only showed me there were others with the same affliction but seemed to be at ease with it. I think this was because he reached out to others for help instead of closing in on himself out of fear.
After his presentation, nobody in the class seemed grossed out or repulsed, and some people even talked to him afterwards in support. This made me finally believe that instead of seclusion and ridicule, I could receive support from people I opened up to.
I cannot say I totally overcame my discomfort and started going shirtless at cross country practice, but I finally realized that making sacrifices to my happiness to avoid potential embarrassment was hurting me more than protecting me. I stopped feeling that my chest would embarrass me or that I could not deal with the reaction people might have to my chest. I regained some control of my actions, and suddenly my chest did not generate the despair it once did.
Finally, I could stand on the cross country warm-up field with a confidence I never had before and realize that I was going to be fine, really.
Quiet Revolutionary Lara Vukelich’s Story
My birthday was last week.
I received two thoughtful gifts from two dear friends. I was grateful they thought of me. They were kind to commemorate my latest trip around the sun.
But here’s the thing: I am a bad gift opener. I have literally practiced my gift-opening face in the mirror with the type of acute examination that should be reserved for preparing to evade a lie detector test. If I put my eyebrows up too high to show surprise and elation, I look…how can I put this?…totally insane. If I focus on crafting a perfectly casual smile, I am convinced I look insincere. I prefer to open my gifts under cover of darkness or, at the very least, alone in my living room.
Gift exchange games aren’t my Super Bowl; they are my metaphorical firing squad. So, yes, I was the only person not to participate in my company’s White Elephant celebration last year. If you’re not familiar, this is the game where everyone brings a wrapped item and then each person, one at a time, chooses a random box to open. In front of everyone. As in, lots of people stare at your face as you unwrap a gag t-shirt or pair of Star Wars socks. If another party-goer steals your gift, you get to relive the fun (read: horror) of publicly selecting and reacting to a new mystery package all over again.
How does one decline to participate in such an event? If you’re graceful, you probably approach the party-thrower discreetely beforehand and let them know you have chosen to abstain for a myriad of reasons. You forgot; you got a flat tire on the way to the store; your debit card got stolen. If you’re me, you wait until they are selecting the order in which people will open their gifts and then say, “I DIDN’T BRING A GIFT, THIS IS TOO MANY PEOPLE” at an octave just north of appropriate.
Look, gift givers are excited to see my reaction. I get it. When I choose a fun present for my friends and family, I too gaze upon their faces with hopeful anticipation. I want them to love it! But as an introvert, being on the receiving end of such a gaze makes me feel like I am putting on a performance. Even when I really love a gift and I’m not mustering an artificial smile, the Spotlight Effect is in full force.
Post my White Elephant debacle, I started asking myself how to embark on a future filled with stress-free gift openings and devoid of the anxiety currently associated with trying to master a “love it, mean it” smile.
Here is what I’ve come up with. It may not be foolproof, but it’s a start.
Start saying: “Thank you so much! How thoughtful, I will open this later.” See how that goes. If it gets you out of unwrapping said gift with an audience, always follow up with a meaningful mail/text/phone call to offer specific gratitude (“I can’t believe you remembered I wanted a Bill Murray candle!”).
Be better prepared for possible gift opening situations. I always forget it’s my birthday and am therefore unprepared for being handed a gift bag. It’s not the best strategy.
Avoid White Elephant parties with more than 10 people. Maybe drink a glass of wine before gift opening begins.
Being a bad gift opener doesn’t make me an unappreciative one. Nor does it make you one, fellow attention-loathers. If all else fails, we can always keep practicing our reaction faces in the mirror. Hey, practice makes improvement.
Quiet Revolutionary Gregory Peart’s Story
Eight years ago, I attended a small gathering at a neighbor’s house. Before long, I found myself standing in a group of four guys whom I just met at the party. One of the guys was talking about his occupation—automobile engineering. Another guy was very interested because he too was an auto engineer. The third guy knew a lot about car design so he was engaged as well.
My knowledge of auto engineering is about as great as my knowledge of the history of cheese—almost non-existent. All the guys went back and forth in rapid-fire succession. I found myself quietly listening, nodding my head, and feigning interest for at least 10 minutes. Then it hit me: I was subtly being nudged out of the circle. I could have just walked away, but I wanted to get to know them. I wanted to be social. However, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I also didn’t want to appear too naïve before they knew anything about me.
And then it happened. I saw an opening. One of the guys transitioned from engineering to the design of the house he just purchased. I know a lot about real estate, so that was my open window to jump through. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, I decided to take control of the conversation and asked when he bought the house. Then I transitioned to the local housing market. Another guy was interested in selling his house. Then I talked about mortgage rates and the best time to sell. I was contributing. I suddenly found myself in the driver’s seat. They were playing in my sandbox.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably wondered how it is that exceptional conversationalists always know what to say. You may have asked, “Why don’t they ever struggle? Why do I take longer to respond than they do?”
The answer is: They aren’t any smarter than you—they just put themselves in positions to succeed. No one can always have a good response ready for any topic. But the best socializers understand one very simple concept: if you’re in the position of responding to someone else’s question or topic, you’re at their mercy (at least during that moment in the conversation). Conversationalists who initiate the conversation topic always have the advantage over people on the receiving end.
If I called you on the phone right now—right this very minute—I can guarantee myself a major advantage from a conversational perspective. I would plan on telling you my plans to go sailing this weekend. How is that an advantage? you may wonder. By introducing sailing, I’m taking control and kicking off the conversation with one of my own topics, forcing you into a more passive position. You will have to respond and make a connection to my topic and to my statements. It’s not easy for your brain to sort through sailing-related memories in a matter of seconds, especially if you don’t have much to offer on the topic or are thinking about or doing something else, totally unrelated.
I, on the other hand, may have had minutes, hours, days, or even weeks to think about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to initiate that conversation with you. I may, in fact, be a professional sailor. Or I may have had many previous conversations about sailing that helped me develop a giant arsenal of sailing anecdotes, facts, and opinions ready to “float” into any conversation.
The comfort level I have with the topic will manifest itself as confidence. Because you have to react and exert energy, searching for related material on the spot, you will naturally be at a disadvantage and may project a lack of confidence.
Pay close attention next time an exceptional conversationalist converses with you; they are probably initiating most of the topics! The best conversationalists usually direct the show. They aren’t caught off guard or left without anything to say. In those rare cases where they are speechless, they can still ask poignant questions and eventually steer the conversation ship back to where they want it to go.
My life changed when I realized the power of this active mindset.
We all desire more confidence. A shortcut to immediate confidence is simple: go first. Be the first to ask, “Hi, how are you?” Acting first in any situation instantly boosts how confident you appear to others and, in turn, boosts your feeling of confidence. Poor conversationalists are normally reactive as opposed to proactive. They wait for something to happen to them. Exceptional conversationalists go after what they want.
Of course, action comes with risk. Staying passive is much safer and easier. Most people spend time deliberating over the negative possibilities of a potential action. But be careful: too much deliberation leads to overthinking and paralysis by analysis. Many more good things come from trying something as opposed to trying nothing. If you currently lead a passive lifestyle, you may feel that you lack control over your fate and that life happens to you instead of because of you.
It took me years to realize how often I instinctively waited for the other person to go first as if I were not allowed to dictate the conversation. After taking that initial step of acting first, you’ll feel not only an extra boost of confidence but also an infusion of happiness. Because when you act first to direct the conversation, you feel a sense of control. Shifting from a passive to an active mindset can truly change your world.
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We sat down at my tiny table in a huge hall in Paris. “I haven’t been feeling very well lately,” my Japanese customer told me amidst thousands of people roaming the fashion trade show. She just came from Milan, where she also visited shows—places where most conversations consist of no more than how are you? and great!
“So much is going on in the world,” she continued. In Italy, refugees landed on the shores while luxury shows were being held. In her home country, the government wanted to take part in military action for the first time since World War II. It makes you want to skip the superficial chit-chat and look beyond the borders of the fashion world. We are both quiet, thoughtful people working in a loud world. Endless self-indulgence seems to be the norm here. A norm that doesn’t fit everybody.
Fourteen years ago, I started my company. Not because I wanted to work in the fashion industry, but because I wanted to design. It soon turned out my ideas worked really well in leather, including bags. And so I started, without knowing much about the fashion world. It took me quite a while to realize I could leave out a few obvious activities. I mean things that had seemed to be set in stone but did not quite fit my character: PR, trends, endless growth, outsourcing, and, above all, ceaseless sales pitches. They had all seemed so obvious when people told me this was the way to go. But after fourteen years, I know it’s very possible to do things a little differently.
For me, it’s all about making elaborate designs, resulting in good products lasting a lifetime. The work I make is very personal, and I’m deeply connected to the products in the sense that I personally create them with my own hands from beginning to end. Through the years, I have found customers who appreciate this approach and value the details I so tenaciously concentrate on.
While I’m at a trade show, I calmly wait for the customers to visit me. Many of them have been doing so for years. They appreciate the way I work, and I find it a great pleasure to work with them. None of them expect me to give a sales pitch. Rather, they just look for themselves, and we talk after that. Often, we only talk about the work—that’s why we get together after all.
But this time, my Japanese customer and I talked about what’s going on in the world. Not because our work isn’t important to us, but because we are human beings in the world—not isolated from it. And perhaps it’s exactly because we feel so involved that we choose to work the way we do. We won’t single-handedly tackle the global problems, but they determine our views. And that’s what I have to offer: my perspective on the world. A world of real contact, thorough designs, and robust products.
It was a precious moment we had—a real conversation in the middle of a noisy trade show. At the end of the conversation, I gave her the information on my collection. No need to explain anything, really—my designs can tell their own stories. And no need for on-the-spot decisions either. She carefully tucked the papers away to give herself time to think it all through.
I was a forensic scientist in the NYPD for eight years. I recently left to build a better life in Michigan for my family of introverts. I wrote this the day we bought our house there.
They’ll just see a house.
They won’t see the 21-year-old rookie New Yorker, counting pennies at a kitchen table pulled from the trash. They won’t see tacos for Thanksgiving dinner. They won’t see the student attending college meetings for the free food. They won’t see the five-block walk for a candy bar because the subway stand had them for 50 cents cheaper than the corner store. They won’t see five years spent without a car and six years without cable.
They won’t see the IAB investigations. They won’t read the snarling anonymous letters of false accusations. They won’t hear the quiet of the gym chosen over the negativity of the lunch room. They won’t notice the girl crying in the bathroom at work. They won’t feel the stomach aches while lying in bed. They’ll never know the determination it took.
They’ll see 10 years condensed into one Facebook post. But they won’t see the grit.
They won’t feel the relief of promotions. The quiet tucking away of extra money. They won’t notice how she lives within her means. They won’t see the hope. The formation of the goal and the patience to arrive. They won’t notice the purchase of a Honda over the lease of a Lexus. They won’t hear of the plan to save at a New York rate and spend at a Michigan rate.
They’ll just see a house.
But she? She’ll see a castle. She’ll see 75% less taxes and double the square footage. She’ll see four rooms to sleep in and three rooms to bathe in. She’ll see a two-car garage and a finished basement. A second floor laundry and walk-in closets. She’ll see plans for an office, a library, a bar, and a man-cave. She’ll look out on the back deck and imagine cookouts and cocktails.
She’ll remember the day she left the malcontents behind. The day she walked out the door for the last time, threw her hands toward the sky, and smiled. She’ll remember the lieutenant’s laugh as he scoffed at her plan to move back to Detroit. “I hear it’s a lovely place,” were the sarcastic last words he said to her as he walked away laughing.
He won’t see her smile at his empty life.
She’ll remember her friends. Their gift of endless laughter and the healing of her soul. Days spent at BBQs and nights spent on rooftops. Peruvian feasts and beer gardens. Kind coworkers who used their eyes more often than their mouths. She’ll see chaperones of encouragement and forgiveness of friends. She will harbor gratitude for every little moment of her stupid little life.
They’ll just see a house.
But she will finally—finally—see
I was a quiet child, one of those highly sensitive children who thought silence was full of wonder, and lovely things worthy of whispers. It was never a problem when I was young. I loved reading and could devote hours at a time to a good book. School was a safe, interesting, and happy place. But everything changed in high school.
It wasn’t that I changed; it was that I didn’t. In the classroom, the rules of engagement were all different. Now, instead of good listeners, teachers wanted assertive, highly vocal students. Learning became a competitive rather than cooperative experience. I grew quieter and quieter. I never raised my hand with a question; I never raised my hand with an answer. I did everything expected of me with the course work, but really, it soon became obvious that shy students were invisible.
It got worse before it got better, but I am getting ahead of myself.
My favorite “academic” high school story happened in 10th grade American history. For one semester, two classes combined, and our teachers represented different sides in the Civil War. My regular teacher, Mr. Sanford, represented the North as General Grant; the other teacher was General Lee. Day after day, they explained their sides of the conflict, argued passionately for their ideals, and acted out the Civil War in first person, in front of us. It was fascinating! I drank in every word. I did the homework but read even more, just for the pleasure of it. I felt totally engaged in the subject.
One day, however, General Lee turned angrily on me. He pointed at me with great emphasis. “You know what you do?” he demanded. I looked back at him without the slightest idea of what he was asking of me. He asked again. And again. I finally ventured a response.
“Blush?” I answered with no confidence whatsoever. As a pale strawberry blonde, I did blush quite easily. “NO!” he thundered. “You stare. You watch every move I make.” He paused for effect and then went on in his booming, authoritative Southern accent. “There are DOERS in life, and there are WATCHERS. YOU watch from the sidelines.” He launched into sharp criticism of students, supposedly like me.
The following day, or maybe the following week, we had the biggest test of the year. Our two teachers warned and encouraged and threatened us. Almost half of the combined class failed. While returning our tests, General Lee ranted and roared at us lazy, good-for-nothing students for a while. Then abruptly, he changed direction. “One student…one student in here actually paid attention, actually listened to the lectures, actually thought about it, actually used some creative reasoning. One! One in 63! While most of you failed, one student scored 100%! I don’t know which one of you performed so beautifully, but I’d like everybody to recognize her now.”
General Lee did not know my name, so when I raised my hand, (from the sidelines) he was visibly surprised. It was a sweet victory. I didn’t say a word, but I’m certain I must have blushed again.
When I joined the speech and debate team on the first day of high school, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I, like many other introverts, balked at the thought of standing up at a podium in front of a large group of people and expressing myself and my arguments. However, I had been pestered by a neighbor, who was part of the team, to join. She said I would be good at it because of my quiet analytical thinking and even promised it would help me “come out of my shell” like it did her. Well, she was a debater, so I was convinced in no time and cautiously joined the speech and debate team. Being part of a team was uncomfortable for me, but the actual tournaments were solo-performance based, which was a hidden blessing.
There is a common misconception that good debaters or speakers have to be fiery, talkative, confrontational, extroverted, etc. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a good speaker has to be well-read and willing to do extensive research. They have to be calculating and thoughtful, creative and sharp. It’s no coincidence that many of the past and present best actors, writers, and leaders have been extremely private and introverted. I hoped to use my introversion as my secret weapon. And it worked! I soon began to advance to elimination rounds at tournaments. In rounds, I was just as persuasive and confident as anyone else, and I knew exactly how to respond to my opponent’s attacks. I won entire tournaments. I even won the top speaker award at multiple tournaments! An introvert—top speaker! The irony!
However, as I still strive for personal success in speech and debate, I remain unchanged. I’m still that quiet boy who sits alone at tournaments, and that surprises many people as if such a debater is not supposed to exist. In a way, I think I’m becoming more introverted as my time with the team continues. The funny thing is that as I became more confident in my speaking ability, I began to feel less pressure to try to be more extroverted in social interactions or school. It’s as if all my years of being taunted by kids and criticized by adults for being too quiet have been swept away. I didn’t forget them. I’m just at peace with them—free to be my introverted self without feeling guilty about what other people think or being insecure about my abilities.
Unfortunately, there is a culture of extroversion that surrounds speech, debate, drama, and other similar activities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but it breaks my heart when I see other introverts join these activities for a few days and then quit because they fear the dominant extroverted personalities around them or what people will think of them.
I definitely have had my share of comments made to me about my involvement in the activity. Just this year, one of my friends had said that I would make a good president after I got a good grade on a test. It was a completely light-hearted statement and just something nice that kids say to each other when someone does something impressive. But then I was shocked when I heard someone else say, “Don’t you have to talk to be president?” That comment just hit home for me, and I’m sure for many other introverts as well. I didn’t reply, of course, but the answer is simple: I might be quiet, but I am not incapable. An introvert can talk. An introvert can lead. An introvert can persuade. An introvert can be passionate. An introvert can be anything they want to be.
There is no designated turf in school, in extracurricular activities, or in the workplace for only certain people. Introverts are business leaders, lawyers, doctors, scientists, writers, and, yes, even presidents. The sooner we realize that, the better we will be as a society. And to all the introverts out there, never fear anything you want to do because introversion is a strength, not a weakness.
I’m a military spouse, which means I move a lot. In the past 5 years, I’ve made two cross-country moves (from DC to San Diego, and San Diego to Virginia). While I’ve gotten used to the logistics of moving and getting myself set up somewhere new, the making friends part is hard for me and probably always will be. It’s even harder since I’m in the throes of finishing my PhD and my days are spent working at home in isolation with myself and my thoughts. I have very few “built-in” ways to meet people, so I have to go out and find friends for myself.
A few months after our last move, I found myself sitting in my yoga class trying not to look awkward as everyone around me was chatting with their neighbors. I would stretch and nervously wait until the moment the teacher silenced everyone to start class. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago—just shy of a year after we moved—and for the first time, I realized I had become one of those people, chatting with my yoga friend about her weekend and her daughter. It felt natural and jarring at the same time—how did I get here? I thought to myself.
As an introvert, I’m not a fan of most social situations. I thrive in small gatherings, game nights at home, and deep, intimate one-on-one conversations. When you meet new people, it can take a while to build the cumulative knowledge you need to seamlessly converse with someone, where you can pick up right where you left off. Connecting with new people is so tough that I usually enter a rationalization period where I try to convince myself that I can go 2-3 years without making any new friends in the new place. I could survive without local friends, right? Just me, my husband, and my dog? Facetime and phone calls with old friends? My illogical musings are quickly shattered when I realize that, yes, I do in fact need friends. This should be obvious to me as a social scientist, yet it gets me every time.
So…how did I go from staring at the clock, waiting for yoga class to start to a year later being a person who catches up with her yogi neighbor? I learned the lesson I’m continually forced to learn as a military spouse: you have to let people in. You have to give and seek out little nuggets of information from other people that allow you to build a connection. It can be as simple as a friendly smile at people you don’t know—be engaging and warm when someone looks in your direction. Compliment someone on their outfit, their hair, their dog’s collar, or their new running shoes. Ask someone if they know of other great yoga classes at the studio, or ask them what they like to do around here.
When you are looking to meet new people or build a group of friendly faces at your gym, you have to look for little ways to start a conversation. It may take 10 of these mini-exchanges before you actually start talking about your lives or your weekend plans, but this is what gets the ball rolling.
Conversely, when people engage with you, let them in. When someone compliments you on your cool new sneakers, tell them where you got them or how you got the most amazing deal on them. When your yoga teacher asks you how your weekend was, give them a specific detail about something you did: “I took my dog to this great little beach, and she loved running around in the waves!” When you provide these little nuggets of information to others, it gives them a way to build on the conversation and follow up with you: “Have you been to this other beach with your dog? I think you’d really love it.” Or: “My daughter and I checked out that Nordstrom sale you mentioned!”
We all know how awkward it can be to talk about yourself or ask someone how their week is going when you barely know them, but this is the trick to building a connection and establishing continuity with people. And slowly but surely, you may make a new friend or at least have a friendly face to chat with when you go to that yoga class.
As difficult as it can be to make new friends, I’m grateful that my life as a military spouse continually gives me the opportunity to practice being vulnerable and letting people in.
My teenage daughter just left for a week to Kiawah Island with her best friend, her dad, and stepmother. As they pulled away from our driveway to go to the airport, I fought back tears, knowing that it would be easier for her if she looked back and saw me smiling.
Many people call me “overprotective,” but I don’t care, and it does not inform my parenting. My sweetie was born six weeks early, and though she spent only a few hours in the NICU, she did emerge highly sensory sensitive. I had to endure years of people telling me to just “let her deal with it” and “you’re babying her” as I adapted and modified her environment to assist her to ease into the world.
I will forever be indebted to two people: the former OT (Occupational Therapist) at the elementary school where I work and my daughter’s 3-year-old preschool teacher. They were the only two people in our lives who had answers and support, not judgment and moral advice. The OT informally diagnosed her with sensory processing disorder (which, up until that point, I had never heard of) and put her on the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol. It changed her/our lives.
The brushing protocol consisted of three times daily dry-brushing of her arms and legs with a surgical scrub brush, along with joint compressions. I watched the relief and anxiety wash away day after day as we used the protocol. She started gagging less on food and started requesting Lunchables and fruit snacks—just like those her preschool friends had in their lunches. No more mandarin oranges and cottage cheese. She began to wear shorts and short sleeves. Prior to that, when I’d try to force her into summer clothing for the summer months, she would scream bloody murder, crying that the “air was hurting” her. She began to sleep through the night. Prior to that, she would wake 5-6 times a night crying for me.
And then there was “Miss Angela,” her angel of a preschool teacher. I still get choked up when I write her name. This woman loved who my daughter was. She accepted her copious tears of missing me, let her carry her yellow blankie everywhere for the entire school day, and knew that time, love, and patience (and the brushing protocol) would allow her to grow beyond those needs. And my daughter did.
And now, I am here, practicing staying—practicing for when she goes off to college. She told me last night, she was most worried that I would just be in a corner, crying, not eating or drinking. I hate that she thinks that of me… Is that who I am to her?
So this week, I need to return to my “before kid” life. Where will I go? What will I do? I need to have stories for her so that she knows it’s okay to leave.
And I need to do those things so I know it’s okay for her to leave and for me to stay.
When facing one's pain leads to freedom.
How to take the bull by the horns when conversing.
Is your true self challenging your way of life? Are you listening?
The littlest of human beings can beat you at your game... if you care to listen.
People are kinder than you think.
Sometimes, the gift of newfound confidence comes in a strange package.
When receiving gifts becomes a nightmare.