Why Success Models May Be Helpful for Introverts
Who’s your model of introvert success? Introvert role models help us break through the limitations of stereotypes.
In 2010, in a survey I ran of 300 self-identified introverts in business, less than half could name a single notable person with their personality whom they considered a model of success. One respondent commented, “I guess I have assumed that if someone is successful enough for me to know of them, they aren’t really an introvert.”
Let’s unpack two issues there. The first involves the misconception that renowned people must have pushed their way to prominence, the way socially ambitious people do. But many successful people become well-known as an unintended byproduct of their talent or diligence. Albert Einstein, for instance, wanted to figure out the universe, not to become a household name. Second, an outgoing personality isn’t a prerequisite for accomplishment – not in sports, the arts, academia or even politics. Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela and Jane Goodall were names that came up in my survey from those who could name a notable introvert whom they admired.
The 150+ people who couldn’t cite any introvert role model concerned me. Not everyone has outsized ambitions, but if you can’t envision someone like yourself farther along on the road to success, you may have set conscious or unconscious mental limits on your future. And if you falsely believe those like you aren’t equipped to reach notable success, that’s tragic.
Whether famous or just part of friends and family, role models demonstrate that a path exists from beginnings to a pinnacle. Just by existing, the role models help dismantle obstacles. For instance, after Jackie Robinson broke through the race barrier in major league baseball, young American boys of color could more easily dream of a career in sports. Without role models, race, gender, ethnicity or personality might be taken as disqualifying.
In my own family and community, I absorbed a message that you had to be an extrovert to be a compelling public speaker. My uncle Harold was a spellbinding storyteller with an authoritative voice. A small-town lawyer, he handled trials, pontificated at the least excuse and endowed a scholarship at the local high school for the best orator in each graduating class. Since I, a quiet bookworm, could hardly command attention at the family dinner table, let alone elsewhere, I never envisioned public speaking as a component of my career.
All the same, after I published my first book I thought I might try getting booked as a speaker to promote it. This came about because by then I had successfully taught college classes and presented papers twice at professional conferences. Delivering a keynote speech didn’t seem that much of a stretch from things I’d already done. Yet I thought that at best I’d be tolerably good at it.
Not only was I better than OK at speaking (in my own way, not the way Uncle Harold would have spoken to a crowd), when I progressed from that to presenting radio essays on NPR, I discovered something I felt I’d been born to do. Knowing that luminaries like Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Eleanor Roosevelt and Diane Sawyer had a personality more like mine than like Uncle Harold’s would have eased my way to that discovery.
Awareness of the actual potential of introverts has improved a bit since 2010, when I did my survey, partly because of the groundbreaking popularity of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Unfortunately, however, myths and misconceptions about introverts continue to be broadcast in the media and popular culture, as I’m discussing week after week here in Introvert UpThink.
Success models don’t have to be famous folks. Look for someone in your industry, profession or avocation who has standing without the gift of gab, without being the center of attention at meetings or parties. When you find out how that person became successful, you may learn more than you imagined about your own potential.
Years ago I created a series of 10 two-minute videos profiling a broad range of famous introverts, including Amelia Earhart, Thomas Jefferson, Bruce Lee and Audrey Hepburn. See the YouTube playlist for those videos.