Introversion, Anxiety, and Entrepreneurship Part II

Two years ago I wrote a post that was fairly popular at the time called Introversion, Anxiety, and Entrepreneurship. I'll quote a good chunk of it below as background information.


I've always been an introvert. On the Myers-Briggs scale I am an INTP (strong NT, slight P and solid but not overwhelming I). People would probably not describe me as shy, but it absolutely wears me out to spend an entire day on the phone or in meetings. I need my reflective time.

I also have plenty of anxiety. My last year in little league I pitched, and the night before a game I would often be up with stomach cramps all night. It is pretty normal for me to break out into a sweat within about 5 seconds of being in an uncomfortable situation. I've been lucky that it has never stopped me from doing anything. I've never been paralyzed or had a panic attack or anything like that. Actually, in a chaotic situation I usually function quite well. It's those small group situations I hate.

I've seen a million books in the bookstore about how to deal with anxiety, but I have my own solution – become an entrepreneur. I don't know if it would work for everyone, but it has helped me tremendously. Over the last eight months or so I have had so many meetings with people I don't know, made so many phone calls I didn't want to make, said "no" to so many employee requests, interviewed so many applicants, and argued with so many vendors that at some point my body seemed to stop responding physiologically to the same cues that it used to.

I used to be very uncomfortable during long pauses in conversation, but now they don't bother me. I've made so many little errors and mistakes on things that I've given up caring about them (the errors, not the tasks themselves). It is a bizarre feeling for me to go into a meeting with people I don't know and not feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if it has to do with the fact that I am too busy to worry about it all and have stopped pre-playing the situation over and over in my head before I arrive. It probably has to do more with the fact that so much of what I am doing makes me uncomfortable that I am used to it and have become, well, comfortable.

I'm sure there will be some events in the future that will bring those feelings back. But if any of you have ever wondered, like I did before I went into this, whether or not you could deal with the constantly selling and management issues entrepeneurship brings, I would say if you want it bad enough your shyness or introversion or anxiety or whatever can be overcome.

Fast forward from this post to late fall of 2005. I was invited to meet with the chairman of a local venture capital firm to discuss some ideas and share some knowledge on projects I've been involved with. This is the kind of thing that would normally set my heart racing, but I actually felt quite comfortable throughout the meeting. So what has changed?

Well, starting a business made a huge difference. In the corporate world, it seemed that everything had to be a win. There were no second chances. Running a business, it was all about probabilities. No matter how good your are, you will never be in a situation that 100% of potential clients will buy from you. You get the chance to learn from your failures because the next potential client has no idea about your history of success or failure. Each prospect is a fresh face, and over time you can improve your odds of completing a sale. I think more than anything else it helped me become comfortable with the idea that I don't have to win every time. I think much of my previous concern was that losing reflected badly on me, and I don't feel that way anymore.

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An improved interpersonal skill set also helped. I'm not usually one for small talk, but spending so much time with so many customers, I picked up some good tips from them. I learned what kinds of small talk people like, and I learned some good lines to throw out in certain situations. It is much more comfortable to go into an unstructured conversation when you have these fallback lines to use.

I don't like to talk too much about this, because of the whole does-intelligence-really-matter debate, but getting into MENSA helped. I took the test after noticing that I had spent my entire life looking at the world differently than everyone else. I figured I was either crazy, or just smarter than most people, so I took the entrance exam and passed. A lot of my work related anxiety stemmed from situations where I posed solutions or ideas that other people didn't accept. I would have thought I was an idiot except that many of these ideas cycled back around and were accepted at a later time. I've become much better at handling these types of situations. If you think you might be a candidate for MENSA, I would encourage you to take the exam. While I don't go to very many meetings, it is refreshing to go on occasion and be able to say things like "I've been reading this textbook on neuroscience and…" without getting strange looks. Mention in most normal conversations that you read something non-fiction just for the sake of learning about it, and you will get that "what the hell is wrong with you?" stare.

The introversion is still strong, but I've learned to adjust to an extroverted world. Mostly I try to manage my schedule so as not to have too many energy-draining events in the same day without some alone time to recharge.

The point of all this is that many people (and maybe many of you) have this thought in the back of your mind that you don't have what it takes to be an entrepreneur because you aren't a people person or you are afraid to speak to large groups or you don't like making sales calls. If that is your biggest roadblock, and everything else is in place, I'm telling you that you can overcome it. The process will be good for you. Starting a business teaches you a tremendous amount about yourself. You have the chance to stretch and grow in ways that you otherwise never would. Don't think you can't do it. You can. I'll even go so far as to say that introverts make better entrepreneurs for some types of businesses. Which types? That is a whole other post.