Introvert, Schmintrovert

For the last two years, I’ve tried and failed to run a high-end tutoring business.

In the next few weeks, I’ll finally slide into debt, and I’ll have to take odd jobs wherever I can get them, while I learn new skills and set up some new business, whatever that business may be.

So what went wrong? It wasn’t for a lack of dedication. My mind is always busy, and I love to read and learn.

I could make excuses. There wasn’t enough of a market for a high end tutoring business. My pricing wasn’t quite right. My personality isn’t conducive to running a business and promoting myself. But these would be bullshit, largely. The problem, it’s clear to me now, is that I was afraid to take action.

In his TED talk, Professor Little says that some people are just introverted by nature. Little, an introvert himself, offers an anecdote about how, after he lectures, he recuperates in the stall of the men’s bathroom. As an introvert myself, I get it. Crowds are tiring and keeping up small talk is a disaster. This is no doubt true for introverts. But this idea can also be a surreptitious construct for the introverted person: too often it’s a ready-made excuse for inaction when the real problem isn’t introversion, it’s that you’re just a wuss.

The conventional wisdom is that introverts thrive in quiet places, in quiet conversations. Personally, I know this to be true: nothing gives me more pleasure than geeking-out about literature or pure math — yet, when I began a bachelor’s degree in pure mathematics, I dropped out within 3 months. And when I tried writing fiction for 3 years, I finished just one short story. So there was something else going on here. Something other than introversion was holding me back.

Now, after two years of running a small business, I understand. I was constantly afraid of sending emails and pushing my services. When I did push, I was afraid that people would say yes to my offer, and when they did say yes, I dreaded the possibility that they, the customers, wouldn’t be happy. I spent my mental energy on damage control, rather than on producing. I spent my time finding excuses for future fuck-ups, rather than engaging with customers and improving my services.

I’ve always blamed my unwillingness to engage with others on my introversion. I just didn’t like people very much, I told myself. This wasn’t a weakness; this was a feature of my character.

But this unwillingness is not a feature of my introversion; while there is a part of me, a truly good part of my character, that thrives in a quiet room, in a quiet conversation, there is also a part that only seeks out that quiet room for fear of embarrassment, for fear of failure. I don’t hope to become a social butterfly. But I want to wave down a waiter without second guessing myself. I want to allow myself to fail completely without the memory of that failure keeping me up at night. And I want to strip away my own ego so I can focus on what I love doing: learning, building, and developing.

So, a few months ago, when it became clear that my business was destined to fail, I began learning how to code. With so many libraries, frameworks, and bundlers available today, javascript is a challenging language to learn, but it’s even harder when you’ve got a failing business and mounting bills to worry about. Nevertheless, I knew that I needed to develop new skills, so I set myself to task.

I’ve now watched hundreds of hours of Youtube tutorials, tutorials created by thoughtful, productive, and funny developers. I’ve bought textbooks. I’ve even tackled webpack. Have I learnt anything? Sure. There’s a lot of awesome material out there. But I see myself too often falling into old habits, devoting time to neat theories over messy practice. Too often, when I’m overwhelmed by the unknowns ahead, I’m tempted to just sit back and pop on an MIT computer science lecture or to listen to Bucky Roberts ruminating over the mustard stain on his shirt as he describes how react components work — but this kind of passivity will only take me so far. To really get to where I want to be, I have to get my hands dirty, open up a new project in Atom, and run npm init.

This is where the distinction between introversion and inaction becomes clear to me. The anxiety I feel when I call a client or send a promotional email is the same as the anxiety I feel when I try to pick apart a webpack.config file. It’s the same anxiety I see on my students’ faces when they’re faced with some bizarre SAT math problem involving Jorge’s flower shop or canoes crossing one another on their way to or from Lucinda’s campsite. This is not the fear of crowds and small talk — this is the fear of diving in, the fear that dictates in no uncertain terms, “You don’t know what you’re doing, so stop now before you embarrass yourself.” In the lecture halls of the math department, I felt this anxiety chipping away at me with every stroke of the professor’s chalk. As an aspiring writer, I felt it too, undermining my confidence with every blink of the cursor on the blank page.

It takes courage to act. It takes serious courage to write an entire chapter of a novel, only to throw it all out and start over. It takes courage to produce anything at all, really, even small things, because once you’ve produced something, that something lies there before you plainly, reflecting your abilities back at you, showing you just how much work you have left to do. There are no fairy tales left to tell yourself. If what you’ve produced is shit, rest assured it’ll stink. But without producing shit, you’ll never get past chapter 1.

Web development is no different. It’s easy to watch and re-watch youtube tutorials without ever making something of your own. But to act, to find the courage to poke things, bend things, break things, is what ultimately makes the difference. And it’s what I’ve lacked in all my pursuits so far.

So it’s time to allow myself to suck at what I do and to let the world know it.

Now, when I wake up at 6am to learn web development, I set myself the same scary goal: to make something, or to break something.