(This is a copy of a speech given to Toastmasters International, first posted here February 17, 2012.)
I Was a Teenage Introvert
Anyone here think you’re shy? (Raise hands.) How many consider yourselves introverts? (Raise hands.) Madam Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, honored guests. You can see you are not alone. In fact, fully half of adults consider themselves either shy or introverted. And what’s the difference between the two?
The shy person avoids social situations because of anxiety. The introvert simply prefers her own company. At a party, the shy person—if she goes to a party at all—will be standing against the wall because she thinks she has to be. The introvert—if she goes to a party at all—will be the person standing against the wall because she wants to be.
The bad news is neither the shy nor introverted person will get out there and dance. Life can pass her by. The good news is it doesn’t have to.
Living with Introversion
Take me. I Was a Teenage Introvert. I was bookish, didn’t try out for activities. My grades and test scores said I was smart and accomplished, but who knew? I was far too retiring by nature to be Very Likely to Succeed.
After high school, I went straight into river guiding as a profession—and the best days were those where I hardly spoke a word. I simply rowed people down the river and let nature and the canyons speak for me. I stayed in that role for 14 years—and when I was ready to leave it—I turned to a career counselor to help me find a new job.
Straightaway she gave me the Myers Briggs personality test—to measure my life preferences. My results said I was so far to the introverted end of her scale I was almost into the white space. I was introverted like George Clooney is handsome: one notch better looking and he’d be ugly. It was confirmed—I was a twentysomething introvert.
I chose jobs where I thought I could avoid working in groups, and especially standing up to speak before them. But I discovered that even introverted activities like research and writing require being seen: giving progress reports for staff meetings, interviewing people for articles—every time, I croaked out the fewest possible number of words. My lack of skill and practice turned into fear: I shook and I rattled any podium. I rambled and went so far off topic I could have been in Timbuktu. I made every excuse I could to avoid schmoozing or networking. I was a 30-, 40-, and then 50-something introvert.
Early last year, I stood before a group of women philanthropists to request their support, and I blanked out in front of them. As I searched for words, I apologized and said I’d rather be running Class V rapids than addressing anyone. They graciously laughed, and I went on to finish, but I’d made a serious claim. Because I personally know several people who have died in Class V rapids and, from a Google search I learned that about 50 people die in the United States in whitewater every year.
However I don’t personally know anyone who has died while public speaking, and another Google search showed no recorded fatalities from speaking incidents, presentation accidents, PowerPoint incidents (although those feel like death sometimes), or Toastmaster accidents. In fact, more people have died while knitting or blogging than speaking in public.
Deciding to Change
That night before the women philanthropists, I was literally saying I’d rather face death by drowning than stand up and speak to them. And after it was over, I decided I’d do everything I could to change that. The next day I started looking for a Toastmasters club to join. And here I am—still an introvert, but a recovering one.
Many of us have come to Toastmasters to better ourselves. The Toastmaster website lists several famous American leaders who used the program to gain confidence and achieve their dreams. A study published in last week’s Time magazine said the best prescription for shy people or introverts who want to push out of their comfort zones is immersion in experience—and our thoughtful natures make us particularly great leaders if we do nudge ourselves out into the world.
Eleanor Roosevelt said this about experience–“You can gain strength, courage, and confidence every time you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” As an introvert, I am less fazed by the dangers of whitewater than standing up here in front of you. It’s true. But as a recovering introvert, I’m here to do that thing I thought I could not do–I believe many of us are. We’re here to immerse ourselves in confidence, courage, and strength.