Introversion: The Challenge of Saying Yes

Over the last month, work has been exceptionally busy. Between holidays, short staffing, high-level visitors, and a number of extra projects, there has not been much downtime. As an introvert, I have been trying to manage energy and pace myself in order to say “yes” to the maximum amount of personal and professional opportunities. Sometimes I don’t really have a choice, because, work. Not only do many aspects of my job require a high degree of extroversion that I can’t opt out of (managing my political contacts, public speaking, delivering policy talks on a range of issues with little notice, and the list goes on), when you serve as an FSO overseas, the line between work and personal time often gets blurred. After-hours rep events. Visitors from Washington. Travel. Conferences. It goes without saying that there are times you have to say no in the name of energy and self-preservation. But there are other times where if you can (or must) rally just a little longer, it will help you leverage the most of your limited time with key others. I have surprised myself lately with the ability to overcome that dreaded sense of “I don’t feel like doing this just now,” without becoming totally drained.

Surprise, surprise. I have actually met people who are so energized by contact that they don’t understand that intensive amounts of time with others is draining for some of us. There are times as a (technically) borderline “E” on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that I feel like I’m thriving on the energy of being with people. And for a while, I will thrive, because I flex extroversion incredibly well. And being social can be really fun!

However, I’m actually a strong “I” who gets recharged only by time spent with me. (Notice I didn’t say ‘alone.’) Not balancing this properly usually ends with a crash – I cancel plans and stay incommunicado in bed with my iPad.

Several years ago, I read a book by Susan Cain called, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” It might sound dumb, but that book was actually the first time I remember hearing about introversion described as a trait with value – rather than as shyness or a personality ‘deficit’ to be ‘overcome’ – discussed in mainstream public discourse. Someone was finally talking about the talents that introverts bring to the table, instead of framing them as the less capable members of the workforce and society.

My incredibly extroverted boss became aware that surprising her team full of introverts with questions like, “What do you think of this idea?” in a staff meeting was more likely to get a deer-in-headlights response than a robust think-out-loud brainstorming discussion. She got used to well-written and thoughtfully conceived emails hitting her BlackBerry an hour or two after the meeting, after we had a chance to collect our thoughts, when we were at our best. She adapted, and so did we.

I started paying more attention to the introversion-extroversion scale and being aware of how I – and my colleagues around me – got their energy, managed interruptions, brainstormed, and made decisions. I gained a greater awareness not that prolonged social interaction leaves me feeling drained, but why, that it was OK, and how to manage it – and its impacts – in a professional setting. Combined with managing a chronic illness that can make me feel tired and lethargic (and that does not abate with adequate rest), I started being more intentional about how I balanced saying yes or no to things, and how I organized my calendar, projects, and focus, not to mention communication with my colleagues.

For those of us who have jobs that require us to be professional extroverts, how can we balance our duties with self-care when one seems sometimes antithetical to the other? For me, lately, the answer has been taking a deep breath and saying yes, even when I feel I have nothing left and want to hide. (And in between, taking mini-breaks.)

During the last week of November, I went to Melbourne with my colleagues from Mission Australia’s political and economic sections for a reporting officers’ conference. Most reporting officers spend the majority of their diplomatic tours passing messages between Washington and host country interlocutors, managing visitors and contacts and taking notes in meetings, and writing analytical cables on topics within their portfolios.

Oy! Hi again, Melbourne!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, workload and financial constraints for federal employees often result in less time to discuss and train up than our work deserves. So this conference to focus on tradecraft techniques was an exception, for which I was grateful. But what I appreciated most from the experience is that I managed my energy well enough that every time that I wanted to say no to something, I said yes, fully showed up, and did better than I expected.

After a busy workday (in which I had arrived to open the office in Canberra before 7:30am to make a call with Washington), my colleagues and I flew the one hour, 10 minutes to Melbourne and went almost immediately to a diplomatic reception at the Consul General’s residence. After about three hours, a group of us went out to dinner across the city. I’d been thinking about going back to my hotel room instead, but decided that I would rather spend the time with my colleagues socializing, and it was the right decision. During the flight I had caught up on podcasts, and twice during the reception I had popped to an empty room to collect my thoughts before returning to the group, so I could draw on those reserves.

After nearly another three hours, I had thoroughly enjoyed myself but also felt pretty fried. I left my colleagues at the restaurant feeling absolutely no guilt. After far too little sleep, I spent the next day sitting through seven hours of sessions and consuming too much caffeine just to stay awake.

It was that afternoon that we had a guest speaker, an academic, who talked on a particular topic relevant to this region for an hour. Afterwards, we had a writing exercise – about 30 minutes to type the opening paragraph of a cable, as if we were going to send it to Washington. I dashed to a quiet part of the consulate, put on headphones to block out ambient chatter, re-read my notes, and began typing on my phone. Subject line. Classification. Comment.

It was a deeply introverted activity, but still I had a moment of panic. The topic was outside my portfolio, and I had a nagging sense I didn’t have much to offer by way of analysis. However, this is often the job of a reporting officer – attend meeting, seminar, conference, and tell Washington why it matters. Brevity. Impact. Analysis. It was going to be anonymous. So I said a mental yes to the exercise and proceeded. A minute before it was due, I emailed it in.

The paragraphs were beamed up onto the wall, and we all looked at them. More than 20 of them we read aloud. I controlled my face when mine was read. No names. Several people chuckled, smiled, nodded. (I had injected some humor – had to.)

Would you believe I won second place? One of the most junior officers, and out of cone to boot! All because I marshaled my resources and did not talk myself out of trying.

That night, we had a group dinner followed by an “escape room” adventure. I had committed to doing the activity, but during dinner I was considering just paying my A$35 and bailing with apologies to get to bed early. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I should pull the energy out of somewhere to do it. In other words, not talk myself out of it.

My team of four were locked in the room. It had taken more than an hour for the activity to get underway and my nerves were a little frayed. But our team was fun, and energetic, so I went into a positive, cooperative mode. The topic was alchemy. One by one, we unraveled clues, advanced to another puzzle, another room. Each of us were essential at given points. We had fun, cheering each other on. Somehow, right-braining the shit out of the whole thing (ironic given the topic) helped me move us forward in critical ways. I retrieved a golden key and let us out, with eight minutes remaining on the clock.

Not only that we were the first group out (of four total groups), but we were the only group to solve our puzzle and “escape.” Again, I was dumbfounded. I never win anything! I definitely could not have done it without the team, and I realized, I wouldn’t have wanted to. That exercise was the perfect balance of introversion and extroversion – like I aspire to be myself at any given time.

That night I opted to make the 20 minute walk back to the hotel with colleagues, rather than make a second escape to an Uber alone. And when I closed the door of my room behind me for the night, I wasn’t sorry that I had said yes. The next day, I went to the airport alone, ate dinner alone, and happily joined my colleagues and friends in the departure lounge to return to Canberra. Laughing and joking around all the while like the semi poseur-extrovert I am!

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Sarah W Gaer

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