Ever since I was a little kid, I have enjoyed spending time alone.
Like most kids, I liked to play with other kids. I always had at least one best friend plus plenty of other good friends. I didn’t have difficulty meeting people or making friends.
But I loved solitude too.
- I could curl up with a good book for an entire day.
- I would create my own challenges like one man “H-O-R-S-E” where I’d shoot baskets and challenge myself to make the same shot twice in a row.
- I was totally at ease going for long hikes and bike rides by myself.
- After a sleepover with a friend I always needed a “day off”, otherwise it felt like I was with him too much
This continued throughout my life.
It wasn’t until I hit high school that I began to think I was a little bit weird.
Other kids seemed to love being around each other all the time. They liked concerts, big parties filled with strangers and meeting new people.
I preferred hanging out with a few close friends, learning something challenging or discussing a deep, philosophical issue.
Even so, in high school, I maintained a small group of close knit friends and a slightly larger group of good friends. I spent a lot of time with them.
The only time socialized in big anonymous crowds was when I was trying to meet girls (which was pretty much every weekend unless I had a girlfriend at the time). Driven by teenage hormones, I would force myself to go to dances, carnivals, softball tournaments and parties in order to meet girls.
In college, my introversion deepened.
Once I went to college, my introversion blossomed. I was a commuter student attending the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus where I was one of 10,000 anonymous students. Some of my classes had 300 students in them.
In a few classes, I noticed the “cliques” – these were the sorority girls and frat boys and athletes who hung around in packs.
I definitely didn’t fit in with them, nor did I ever make an attempt to.
The only people on campus who I felt I could relate to were a few of the “non-traditional students” who were working adults who had returned to school part time. But like myself, they had packed schedules and little time for socializing.
It was only years later, when I was working full time and attending night school myself, I felt I had finally found my place at college. These night classes, which meant once a week for 3-4 hours, were smaller. As working students, we bonded together to help each other out.
Getting Married and A Family of My Own
After meeting my future wife, I fell madly and deeply in love with her. Almost immediately after we had begun dating, I had an “instant family” including Ellen, Zack (then 5) and Liz (then 10).
I was also enveloped into Ellen’s extended family which included cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and dozens of other characters.
I finally had the family I always wanted.
But it could be overwhelming at times. Ellen and the kids were noisy. They stomped around, yelled a lot and were generally loud and exuberant.
Sometimes I would retreat to the bathroom with a book just so I could have 30 minutes of quiet.
Events with her extended family were another matter entirely. I developed different coping mechanisms.
- Ellen would help me out. She’d introduce me to people, draw me into conversations and make sure I was OK.
- Liz was the greatest. She had a knack for sensing when things got too intense for me. She’d pull me aside and tell me funny stories about the cast of characters surrounding me who had all known each other their entire lives.
- Zack was always a ball of energy, so he was always up to go outside to throw rocks, shoot hoops or play kickball.
I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here. Ellen’s family and friends were great. They were sweet, kind and outgoing. They welcomed me into their homes and lives.
I also wasn’t some kind of social misfit. On the outside, I probably just seemed to be quiet and a little shy.
Stumbling Into A Sales Career
Based on my personality, you’d probably think a career in sales would be the last thing I’d want.
Believe me, it was.
I only followed that path because I needed the money and it was my best opportunity at the time.
After 10 years of grinding through sales, I finally accepted that I was good at it and at times, really enjoyed it.
After 15 years, I realized that I’d never be good at certain aspects of sales. I sucked at ensnaring people into our booth at trade shows. I despised pure cold call prospecting. I never was able to make business networking pay off.
I learned to duck out early from mandatory networking events. As long as I showed up and made my rounds, nobody seemed to care that I didn’t join the all night drinking binges that accompanied many of these events.
Some reps thrived working the trade show floor and schmoozing with prospects. I let them work the front while I did the in-depth presentations for prospects who wanted to go deeper.
At other events where I knew nobody, I’d look for the most uncomfortable person in the room. Then I’d introduce myself to him or her and try to have a conversation. Sometimes these turned out to be the highlight of my night. Even when they weren’t, I was content that I had at least tried to make someone else’s night a little better.
When I could, I’d still avoid these things altogether. As I moved up the management career ladder, I had the latitude to do this more and the experience to know that it didn’t really matter.
When someone invited me to a party, I no longer felt compelled to attend, dreading the event for weeks in advance. Nor did I accept reluctantly only to back-out at the last minute. Instead, I thanked them warmly for the invitation but declined immediately, explaining that I don’t like being around a bunch of strangers making small talk.
People kept inviting me too. It was sweet to know they wanted me there, even if I didn’t want to go.
I stopped going to crowded restaurants, blockbuster movies and jam packed festivals. Instead, I enjoy leisurely take out, Netflix and streaming music.
I stopped saying “yes” when I really wanted to say “no”. That has made all the difference.
Today I spend most of my time with my wife, my pets, my stepson and alone. This is how I like it.
When I travel to my hometown, I reconnect with my mom and old friends in person. It’s always good.
I see my neighbors regularly and occasional chat with them, but have managed to avoid the block parties and HOA meetings so far. I wouldn’t mind connecting more closely with a few of my neighbors down the road.
A few years ago I read Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts by Susan Cain. This book, plus a number of other books, blogs and articles on introverts made me realize that I was not the only person who felt the way I did. I “knew” that from experience, of course. Still, I was surprised to read how similar my experiences were to others who described themselves as introverted.
It would have been cool to have read this when I was much younger. I might not have tried so hard to “fix myself” or force myself to adapt to uncomfortable situations.
But then again, maybe these were lessons I had to learn through experience anyway.