How to be an Entrepreneur and an Introvert at the Same Time

I’m a founder and a dreamer, a speaker and presenter, a manager and leader. What may surprise you, then, is that I’m also an introvert. The term has many definitions, but for me, it means this: my capacity for interpersonal interaction is lower than average, and I prefer solitary activities to social ones.

I have it in me to give a powerful presentation, or lead an important meeting, or rock a networking event — for a few hours. However, for the rest of the day, I need to be completely alone. I can talk all day with people I know but quickly become drained if I talk to too many unfamiliar people. Phone calls are particularly tiring.

The rest of my “Only Introverted Entrepreneurs Will Understand This” listicle might look like this:

  • Having your assistant handle 90% of phone calls
  • Dreading opening long emails, because you know how much effort it’s going to be to write a worthy reply
  • Scheduling, at most, two meetings per day
  • Making sure to leave at least an hour between meetings for recovery
  • In a week with too many meetings, experiencing total end-of-week burnout
  • Keeping meetings short because you know you’re going to burn out
  • Leaving events or meetings early, or even rescheduling them, when you just can’t handle any more talking to people

Sound familiar? Introverted people aren’t always relegated to careers as tech nerds who hide themselves in server rooms, or reclusive artists working alone in secluded lofts. We are salespeople, entertainers, teachers, managers, and yes — entrepreneurs.

If so many aspects of my job go against my natural tendencies, why exactly do I choose to do this to myself? Despite the difficulties, entrepreneurship is my dream job, and the pros will always outweigh the cons. In order to make it work, I’ve had to learn ways to adapt and cope with the social and emotional demands of entrepreneurship. Here are some strategies that have helped me along the way.

1) Ease yourself into things in small steps

Just because certain activities take you out of your comfort zone doesn’t mean that you should stay in your comfort zone. Set goals for gradually increasing your tolerance for socializing. If you can only handle one phone call a day, that’s okay. Just make sure to make that one phone call every single day. Gradually increase the frequency over time; for example, when you’re ready, choose one day of the week to make two phone calls. Reliable habits are best built with slow yet consistent repetition.

Even if you become so excited by your progress that you feel a sudden burst of social energy, resist the temptation to push yourself too far. If you suddenly go from making two calls a day to five, you risk a quick and harsh burnout when the burst of energy wears off. Instead, build up your tolerance at a sustainable rate. Scale it back if you find you’ve set your goals too high too quickly, but don’t regress. For example, if you’ve mastered making two phone calls per day, but struggle or become wiped out by making three, return to your two-call schedule, but resist the temptation to go back to one call a day. Habit formation is achieved with consistency rather than one-off heroic feats.

2) Learn public speaking

It’s only natural that improving your communication skills will increase your confidence in conversations. To those of us for whom social interaction doesn’t always feel natural, it may help to liken it to a performance. If I think of holding a conversation presenting a short, impromptu talk to a very small audience, I feel more relaxed and confident.

One part of business conversation you can practice in advance is your elevator pitch. Rehearse it enough that you can recite it from memory with no hesitation, but not so rotely that you can’t lightly improvise the wording. This way you won’t be nervous when speaking it, and the energy you previously spent being nervous can be redirected — perhaps into prolonging your conversation tolerance.

Though there are a number of available options for public speaking education, I will wholeheartedly endorse Toastmasters clubs as the most beginner-friendly, supportive, and economical choice.

3) Use robots

It may sound harsh, but I adore any technology service that replaces a human being. Do you tend to think that replacing people with software is dehumanizing, and that we ought to get back to more interpersonal interaction in our everyday tasks? Then you must be an extrovert. There’s no reason introverts should waste precious social energy on mundane tasks like buying groceries or paying bills.

Use software and online services to limit unnecessary human interactions, and save your energy for the necessary ones — family, friends, and colleagues. I use FancyHands for any phone calls that don’t require specialized knowledge, such as clearing up issues with utility or insurance companies. Grocery delivery services have popped up in many regions of the US (such as FreshDirect and Instacart), and even some brick-and-mortar grocery chains have begun offering online ordering with home delivery in order to compete. For more specialized items, invest in an Amazon Prime membership to save yourself countless trips to the checkout line just to pick up everyday items.

4) Delegate

You may make great strides by consistently pushing the limits of your social energy every day, but the subsequent exhaustion may leave you less productive in other areas. It’s alright to pass off some tasks to others to accommodate. Hiring an on-site personal assistant is ideal, but if it’s not in your budget, search online for a dedicated virtual assistant. At first, it may seem counterproductive to have to work so closely and constantly with someone else. However, in time their presence will become more well-known to you, and familiar people don’t drain nearly as much social energy.

As an entrepreneur, it’s key to have trust in your team, but it’s especially true for introverted entrepreneurs. Make sure you’re not taking on work that’s actually someone else’s responsibility. Even though the founder and/or CEO is ever the company’s most important salesperson, an additional sales staff member should be the very next hire after your assistant. Have them handle prospecting, and use your own time only in meetings with qualified leads.

Delegation works just as well in the home as at the office. Ease your workload by hiring outside help for mundane chores like cleaning, maintenance, or even cooking. These are not social activities, but they will still drain your energy unnecessarily. If you live with others, make sure they are pulling their own weight around the house. If you are the non-confrontational type, you may be avoiding having a difficult conversation about needing more help, while silently suffering through an unfairly high burden. It may not be easy, but speaking up about the issue — honestly yet kindly — will pay off in countless hours of recovered time.

5) Consider professional help

Being an introvert is not, in and of itself, indicative of a mental health issue — but anxiety disorders are, including social anxiety. If consistent practice and lifestyle changes do not improve your social tolerance, it’s well worth seeing a mental health professional to explore the possibility that your brain chemistry may be hindering your efforts. No amount of willpower, discipline, or otherwise “pulling yourself up from your bootstraps” can cure a medical condition. The people and cultural maxims that tell you that mental health conditions are not medical — or are your own fault — are just plain wrong.

Professional help is especially important to find if you experience extraordinary bouts of physically overwhelming anxiety, or panic attacks. These are difficult experiences to explain, but include sudden and intense bouts of fear, rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations (the feeling that you’re having a heart attack), sweating, shaking, numbness, and/or shortness of breath. Not only do these wreak havoc on your body, they completely sap your energy levels to zero, are terribly embarrassing to have in public, and may even require an emergency room visit. If there is ever a situation in which your work triggers a full-on panic attack, it is imperative that you remove yourself immediately and seek medical attention. There is no business concern that should be allowed to endanger your health.

In Conclusion

Despite embracing numerous strategies to cope with life as an introverted entrepreneur, I have no desire to change myself to an extrovert. We all have our innate temperaments that we need to work with, not against. I’m here to get a message to other introverts that you, and I, are alright the way we are — we should not feel limited or handicapped. If we want to live the entrepreneur life strongly enough, we can learn to adapt to a level where others won’t even be able to tell the difference between us and our extrovert counterparts.

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