As a child I was very introverted, often spending my time on the computer, reading, playing video games, or pursuing other solo hobbies. I’d spend time outdoors biking, exploring the nearby fields and hills (which today are filled with houses), or shooting hoops, but I’d usually favor doing these things alone or with people I knew very well. I never felt too comfortable around strangers, and I never cared for big family events. Psychological tests like the Myers-Briggs pegged me squarely as an introvert. Anyone who knew me would have described me as an introvert without a second thought.
Like many introverts I was pressured by others to socialize more. But I largely resisted this pressure, partly because I enjoyed being an introvert. I often viewed extroverts as lacking in intelligence and depth, and I can’t say I wanted to count myself among them.
However, over a long period of time, I eventually found myself becoming more and more extroverted. I embraced spending time with other people, went out of my way to meet new people, could comfortably introduce myself to strangers, and actually enjoyed it. The Myers-Briggs test now labels me an extrovert. To the people who know me today, this wouldn’t be surprising.
I’m not the kind of extrovert I envisioned as a child though. I feel I’ve done a good job balancing the introvert and extrovert parts of myself, such that I enjoy both types of activities equally. I feel just as comfortable staying at home reading a book as I do going to a new social event and introducing myself to people I’ve never met. I enjoy both group and solo activities, each for different reasons. Some weeks I’m far more introverted and mostly stay home with my family. Other weeks I have a full social calendar with an event almost every night. I enjoy both just as much.
In order to become an extrovert, I found that I had to overcome several blocks to being more extroverted. Chances are that if you’re in the same boat, you have some of these blocks as well.
Blocks to becoming an extrovert
- Undervaluing extroversion. Spending time alone and with people are equally important. If you’re very introverted, you may undervalue the positive role people can play in your life, such as knowledge, friendship, growth, laughter, and so on. The optimal outcome is to strike a balance between the two. You don’t have to give up the introvert activities you enjoy. In fact, when you balance them with more social activities, you’ll probably find them even more satisfying. After several nights of being around people, I really look forward to a night by myself to read, meditate, write, etc. And after lots of time alone or with my family, I’m itching to go out and be around other people.
- Underdeveloped social skills. Social skills can be learned like any other skill set. One reason introverts shy away from social activities is that they don’t feel comfortable because they don’t know what to do, especially if the unexpected were to occur. Being able to start up a conversation with a stranger AND feel completely comfortable doing it is a learnable skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Embrace the fact that you’re a beginner, and don’t compare yourself to others.
- Envisioning yourself as the wrong kind of extrovert. If you find the extroverted people around you shallow and perhaps even annoying, why would you want to be more like them? You wouldn’t. When I was a kid, I really didn’t want to be more like the extroverts I knew. Even as an adult, my vision of an extrovert was an in-your-face salesperson who only wanted to build a shallow relationship with you so they could sell you something. It seemed very fake and phony to me. And of course that vision prevented me from ever wanting to be like that. But you needn’t choose such a limited vision for yourself — you’re free to form your own vision of a positive way to be more extroverted.
- Hanging out with the wrong people. Why would you want to spend more time with people you don’t like? If becoming more extroverted means spending more time with people you’d rather avoid, you’ll have no motivation to do it. Again, you’re free to break this pattern and form a social group that you’d love to be a part of.
- Overvaluing online socializing. Online socializing has its place in your life, but it’s a pale shadow compared to face-to-face, belly-to-belly communication. Voice and body language can communicate a lot more than text, and emotional bonds are easier and faster to establish in person. I feel much closer to the local friends I’ve known for only a few months than I do to the people I’ve known online for years but never met in person. It’s just not as fun going out to dinner with a laptop. You don’t have to do away with online socializing, but don’t allow it to crowd out meeting people locally. If you do that, you’ll only cause your interpersonal skills to lag further behind.
If you have some of these blocks and want to get past them, the first step is to acknowledge them and consider how they’re holding you back. Then begin to work on them just as you would any other challenge in your life. Focus your intentions, set goals, make plans, and start taking action. It may be awkward and clumsy at first, but just accept that, and get moving anyway.
Suggestions for becoming more extroverted
Here are some additional suggestions for how to become more extroverted:
- Envision the type of extrovert you’d like to be. What’s your ideal outcome? If you feel too introverted and want to be more extroverted, start by working on your vision of your outcome. Chances are that if you’ve been making little progress in this area, you have a somewhat negative vision of extroverts. When I formed a positive vision of being an extrovert that included building genuine relationships with intelligent people I respect (as opposed to random, shallow socializing), I soon began attracting those relationships. Being a “dumb jock” kind of extrovert still has no appeal to me.
- Think of relationships in terms of what you can give, not in terms of what you can get. If you seek to build new relationships based on mutual giving and receiving, you’ll have no shortage of friends. Identify people with whom you’d like to build a relationship, and start by giving. I’ve found that my geeky knowledge is actually a tremendous strength when it comes to socializing because there are an awful lot of non-geeks who’d like to understand geeky stuff better, and I can explain it to them in ways they’ll understand. For example, I’ve been teaching some local speaker friends about blogging and web marketing, and in return I’m learning a lot from them about speaking, humor, etc. There are many intelligent people out there who’d love to have a geek as a friend. What can you bring to a relationship that will be of benefit to someone else? When you figure out what that is (and it’s probably many different things), you’ll have an easier time attracting new friends into your life.
- Find the right social group for you. Consciously consider the types of people you’d want to have as friends. There’s no rule that says this has to be your peers or co-workers. I actually find myself more interested in making friends with people who are much older than me as opposed to people my own age or slightly younger. People around my age (34) tend to be very career- and family-oriented, but often in a somewhat mindless, socially conditioned way that isn’t centered around any consciously chosen life purpose or belief system. And people in their 20s, while often highly energetic, tend to be largely unfocused… or focused on trivial pursuits that just aren’t that important. So it’s been difficult for me to find people near my age where we have enough in common for a long-term friendship. I seem to have an easier time making friends with people in their 40s, 50, and older. They typically have greater knowledge and experience, more fascinating stories to share, more resources (information and ideas, financial resources, contacts), and a better sense of who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Often I find myself attending social events where I’m the youngest person in the room, but that feels very comfortable and normal for me. Don’t be afraid to stretch beyond the most obvious peer group and hang out with people from different ages, neighborhoods, cultures, countries, etc. You might find the variety to be a lot of fun.
- Play from your strengths. It’s interesting that many introverts have no trouble socializing online. In that environment they’re able to play from their strengths. But you can also use your strengths consciously as leverage to branch out into more face-to-face socializing. For example, after I graduated college, I met a woman on a local BBS (before there was much of a World Wide Web). We got to chatting online over a period of weeks. Eventually we met in person and became friends, and I soon fell into her pre-existing social group through osmosis. My social calendar went from empty to full almost overnight. That woman, by the way, has been my wife for the past 7.5 years. If you socialize online, see if you can’t use that strength to build new local relationships. While people have done this in global forums like online games, I think it’s easier to try it in local forums. For instance, there are message boards for people who’ve recently moved to Las Vegas.
- Join a club. It’s old advice, but it still works. The advantage is that you’ll find people who share similar interests, which makes it easier to build new relationships. One good club can fill your social calendar. For example, through my membership in Toastmasters, I get invitations to lots of other local social events. I don’t go to everything, but it’s nice to get those invites. Plus belonging to an international organization with 200,000 members worldwide creates social inroads around the planet. If you join a club and find that it’s not right for you, quit and join something else. My wife and I have both been through a number of local social groups that just didn’t resonate with us (too boring, too slow, too disorganized, too many alcoholics). But one good group is all you need.
- Develop your social skills consciously. You can learn to become better at building rapport, introducing yourself, keeping a conversation going, asking someone out on a date, feeling socially comfortable instead of nervous, and so on. You don’t need to be shallow and manipulative about it, but genuinely build these skills because it will greatly enhance your life. One approach I find extremely effective is to ask the other person how s/he got started in his/her current line of work. 80-90% of the time the person will say something like, “Well, that’s an interesting story….” And I genuinely like hearing these stories. A small basic set of social skills can go a long way because you’ll get to reuse them every time you meet someone. Whatever skill you’d like to develop, try doing a Google or Amazon search on it, and you’ll probably find plenty of articles and books.
Realize that when you hold yourself back from socializing, you’re not only depriving yourself — you’re also depriving other people of the chance to get to know you. How much longer do you want your future spouse or best friend to remain alone?
Here are some follow-up posts that further explore this topic: