When talking to my wife a while ago, I was trying to describe why I just couldn’t take on one more organizing task – one of those “project management” sorts of things, where you keep track of a bunch of details and get others to do the actual work for you, have meetings to check on status, badger (nicely) those who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, and giving attaboys to those who are.
My last day job was this all the time. And as I thought about adding another of these sorts of responsibilities to my non-work life (this particular one was volunteering), even thinking about it made me tired. I felt guilty about my lack of desire to help, because I really wanted to participate, I really wanted to help, and the group really did have a need. But I just couldn’t bring myself to add that one more thing to my plate.
Introverts, Extroverts, and Energy
As I was trying to articulate this feeling to my wife, I was reminded of the concept of introverts and extroverts, and the key question to ask yourself to tell which one you are. That question is: Where do you get your energy? (Or, how do you recharge your batteries?) Your answer will tell you where you likely fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.
This question and answer is particularly helpful for those introverts or extroverts who operate in the middle of the spectrum: extroverts who are introspective, thinker types, or who like to work solo; or those introverts who “play extroverts on TV”—those who can put on the extrovert mask and fake it for a while to speak in front of large crowds, or appear comfortable in social gatherings.
My wife and I both fall into that latter camp. We’re introverts who are capable of acting like extroverts when the need arises. Both of us, when ratted out that we’re introverts, have gotten surprised responses from people. In fact, I was once told “You’re the most extroverted introvert I’ve ever known.”
So how do we know we’re introverts, when we exhibit some of the same characteristics as many extroverts? We know we’re introverts because doing those extroverted things—like going to parties, or talking to large groups of people, or striking up conversations with strangers—drains us. These activities cost us energy.
Where we regain our energy is in quiet, sometimes solitary pursuits, at home with family or small groups of friends. That’s what makes us introverts.
True extroverts would find that the party or the presentation or the meeting of new people gives them energy, and being at home, alone, is what makes them tired. They’re the ones who want to go out after work, to hang out with friends in a crowded place, with lots of motion and light and activity.
(Just the sort of thing would just suck us poor introverts dry. Some of us could do it for a night, but we’d collapse when we got home.)
So introversion and extroversion may manifest in outward behavior, but the core of the definition is an internal concept. It’s not about how we act, then, but who we are.
Energy Sources and Strengths (Your Super-Powers!)
And that thought process, then, revealed something about my conundrum over the volunteer work I felt I should do, but could not bring myself to undertake. When I think about project management responsibilities—those activities I mentioned above about keeping track of details, following up on tasks to make sure they’re done, managing the folks to make sure the tasks get done… (nit, nit, nit…)—it makes me tired. Doing those activities makes me tired, wears me out, saps my energy. After a day of those tasks I come home tired. After a week of them, I come home exhausted.
The whole gives energy-takes energy thought process made me realize that while I can do project management, it’s not a strength for me, because it saps my energy. A strength has to be something that not only are you good at, but something you enjoy doing, something that draws you to it time and again… something that generates energy for you rather than taking it away.
This one idea all of a sudden made it so much easier to look at the list of things I’m good at, and help narrow them down to the things that are actually my strengths. Things like writing, which is an activity I come back to again and again, and which provides me a boost of energy when I’m doing it (like right now), and makes me happy and fulfilled when I complete some piece of work. More to the point, I get the happiness and fulfillment from just doing the activity, the act of writing itself, whether I produce/complete something or not.
I encourage you to try this yourself. Make a list of the activities you’re good at. Then go back over that list and ask yourself, for each one: Does this activity take energy for me to do, or does doing this give me energy? Cross the takers off your list. What’s left are likely areas of strength for you—the activities on which you should be focusing your time, planning your days around, and finding a job or career in a field that uses those strengths regularly (or ideally, making a career of your own crafting that contains those strengths).
For more information on strengths, I encourage you to check out Marcus Buckingham, one of the key leaders in the strengths movement.
What do your strengths feel like? I encourage you to leave your observations in the comments.