This Isn’t Your Father’s Introvert

I was rewatching an old favorite the other day; the 1990 Christian Slater movie, “Pump Up the Volume.” It got me thinking about people who have short-wave radios and then I started thinking about podcasts. As my mind wandered, as it does, I jumped over to this idea of introverts, and how, contrary to Slater’s character in the movie–a introverted loner who felt alienated and isolated from society–introverts today have become an accepted personality. Now, we celebrate them as unique and different, and if you believe the psychologists, Gen-Z is chock-full of them.

When I was coming up, introverts were considered maladjusted, or at least, that’s what I was taught to be believe. Children were supposed to be social and active and fun, and, while I was all of those things, I still enjoyed my downtime. I liked playing by myself or putting on a good record and just listening to it in my room, alone. I haven’t changed much TBH.

That said, I don’t have anxiety disorder, nor does the thought of being the center of attention paralyze me. I can be THAT person just fine. I just prefer not to be, day in and day out.

As I have been aggressively job hunting of late, I can’t help but notice a complete lack of regard for the kinds of behavioral characteristics traditionally associated with introverts: a desire to be alone, not wanting to stand out, a quiet demeanor, introspective.

But unlike the way society seems to embrace the introvert, every job description today demands candidates be outgoing go-getters, have a startup mentality, and exhibit strong interpersonal skills. Why the double standard? Why hasn’t the business world come to terms with the fact that not everyone fits–or even needs to fit–the mold of what is traditionally believed to describe a successful business leader? If nearly 50% of all Gen-Zers don’t have the traits described above, what does that mean for the future of business?

Did you know, according to today’s accepted standard of what makes a person an introvert, anywhere from 30-50% of us are? If you’re not sure whether you fit into the introvert classification, ask yourself these questions about Introverts from WebMD. Do you or are you:
(my answers in blue)

  • Need quiet to concentrate (hmm, sometimes)
  • Are reflective (yes)
  • Are self-aware (I like to think so)
  • Take time making decisions (yes)
  • Feel comfortable being alone (YES)
  • Don’t like group work (sometimes)
  • Prefer to write rather than talk (YES)
  • Feel tired after being in a crowd (YES)
  • Have few friendships, but are very close with these friends (yes)
  • Daydream or use their imaginations to work out a problem (yes)
  • Retreat into their own mind to rest (sometimes)

Arguably, I’ve done just fine professionally, as have many of my direct managers, and we all shared many of these same characteristics. How then, did being an introvert get such a bad rap? And why does every job description, presumably outlining organizations’ requirements for what a candidate needs to be successful, read like a “Who’s Who” of Ted Talks?

You don’t have to “exhibit” (definition: “to show or display outwardly especially by visible signs or actions”) strong interpersonal skills; you just have to have them. This idea that you wear all of your personality traits on your sleeve for everyone to see is silly, particularly when you’re looking for candidates. How is one supposed to “exhibit strong interpersonal skills anyway?” And are you really going to get a good sense of that in a few short interviews?

But here’s the thing, if there are so many “introverts” out there, then why isn’t it more acceptable to BE an introvert? Look, today’s introvert is not the shady malcontent of years past. Rather, as Forbes’ Leadership Contributor, Christina Park suggests, today’s introvert is reflective, they weigh alternatives carefully and make decisions based on data (which is HUGE in Marketing). They are observant (which makes them good listeners), and they are often more empathetic than extroverts (which makes them likeable leaders). And not for nothin, but there’s a good chance your favorite author is an introvert.

So, can we stop with the constant press to only hire people who want to stand up and present in front of audiences? And can we stop putting employees into group dynamics (um…open office spaces) that literally force nearly half the population into the very situations they personally choose to avoid?

If organizations truly care about their people, and want to celebrate diversity and what makes each person unique, then the idea that only people who exhibit traditional extrovert tendencies can be successful, should be dismissed for the absolute bunk it is.

The reality is that most people who feel they are more introverted than not, are fully productive members of both society and the business world. I can, and have, presented in front of thousands of people. I have no problems making decisions or taking the lead when I need to.

However, given the choice between writing the script for my CEO to present on stage, or standing up there and giving the speech myself, I’ll let my CEO take the spotlight nine out of ten times. But, when the situation requires me to step up and be more assertive, I have no problems doing it. Just give me some personal downtime afterwards and I’ll be fine.

My Secret Shame: Custom-Fitted Ladies’ Undergarments

When I was a young tween, my mom starting selling bras out of a suitcase. It was not my proudest period. Too young to leave at home, I was often whisked along as she made house-calls for women who needed–a little more support than that afforded by the under-garments sold at the local mall. Or so went the sales pitch anyway.

These were Norvell bras. I can still see–and smell–the dark blue, pleather suitcase which housed her inventory. It had a silk-screened, white outlined face of a generic woman on the outside. It was almost as large as me at the time and it didn’t have wheels.

It was my job to bring it in from the car, while my mom rang the doorbell and exchanged pleasantries with the “client” — always the “client.”

My mom was actually my stepmom and she and I were closer in age than she and my dad; my adopted dad to be more precise. A few years earlier, he and my adopted mom split after only a couple of years together, post-adoption, and my dad–always a sucker for a sad luck story–befriended my now-step-mom, who worked with him and who was going through a rough patch of her own. That marriage would last 14 years in total and end in divorce the very year I left home for the military. My father should have seen it coming–I saw it coming–but the suddenness and certainty of it rattled him and he never quite got over it.

But, suddenly at home, still young, and saddled with two young boys, my new, young step-mom no-doubt sought a little bit of independence in what was likely one of the original “independent sales representative” companies, even before Avon was a thing.

What made Norvell different, apparently, was both the quality of the craftsmanship of the garments, but also that they were custom-fitted.

Here’s where it gets weird for a tween boy.

After I had half-dragged, half-toted the oversized suitcase full of bras into the prospective customer’s home, my step-mom and the “client” would disappear off into a room and close the door where, presumably, the client would remove her top for my step-mom to measure her bust using a long, cloth measuring tape. The tape measure was blue and it remained in use in our home for years, long after the Norvell days were past. I could never see it lying there in the junk drawer in the kitchen and not pick it up, wondering in its softness so unlike my father’s unyieldingly stiff, and often painful, Stanley measuring tapes. And I could never NOT think about the hours I spent just outside the door of what was many a young boy’s fantasy.

As a boy about to hit puberty, my mind went on some pretty imaginative trips while waiting on the “custom fitting” to complete. Just a few feet from me were women, in the next room, taking their clothes off. And these were not usually old women either. No, they were 30’s-ish moms, usually from our church, who had the kind of money available  to spend $35 or $40 dollars on a custom-fit garment in the 70s and early 80s.

I had always been aware of girls. In fact, I became more shy as I got older, so even as a young boy, I appreciated the female form most definitely. And, most of these ladies were, at least moderately, attractive. Oh, if only the door was cracked just a little, or what if someone inadvertently stepped out of the room to get something and I saw…but no. That never happened.

Inevitably the fitting would conclude, usually in about thirty minutes. I’m not sure my step-mom ever didn’t make a sale. These business models almost guarantee sales anytime a customer is put in a position to feel that they owe the representative something and didn’t they owe my step-mom the purchase of at least one bra after she and her young son had come all the way out on a fine, warm summer morning to her home? Of course, they did. But, I suspect there were few follow-up orders, which explains why this was a fairly short-lived endeavor for my step-mother.

Eventually, the in-home custom fittings grew less and less, and the orders dried up. But, I still remember my mom keeping the blue suitcase full of bras. And I remember her telling me how well made they were and that I was to never, ever put them in the dryer when I was transferring laundry from the washer. And so, I remember so clearly pulling out these off-white bras, twisted and damp from the washing machine. And I would look at them and think, “They don’t look like much.”

But, for a time, they were a symbol of something for many. An independence they felt they needed in a time where women’s roles were just beginning to shift from Suzy-homemaker to the Power Pant-Suit. And clearly, something about this ritual left its mark on me, else I wouldn’t remember it so vividly now.

An internet search for Norvell yields a generic page listing its business model and a website link that returns a 404 error. Seemingly, Norvell is no more.

Long live custom-fitted women’s undergarments.

The Unrealized Hope of the Millennial Generation

I’m no spring chicken anymore. I mean, I’m not a youngster, but in the workplace, I have almost 25 years under my  belt. Those of us who have been working for that long have seen changes come and go in corporate America–mostly go–but few changes have seemed as optimistic as the promise of “A New Way of Life” as demanded by today’s up and coming Millennials.

What a disappointment that’s been.

I saw an article today on LinkedIn praising the work ethic of the millennial and the first thing that came to mind was, “Well that sort of flies in the face of their demands now doesn’t it?”

For the last few years we’ve heard all about how millennials won’t be slaves to the workplace like boomers and GenXers and how they will demand flexibility and a new breed of “benefits.”

I must confess, I’ve yet to see anything change. In fact, I’m working MORE hours now, for a slower rate of return on my earnings, than I have at any point in the last 25 years (minus my days in the military).

Maybe I’m working for the wrong companies. Truth be told, a healthy number of the “young” people who have started working where I work, spend less than a year there. So maybe I need to join the Clampetts in California and try and get work with some cool, socially conscious startup–if they’ll have me.

Or maybe it’s like the old saying about being a liberal until you get older…and millennials are finally starting to realize that nothing is free, not even that hybrid car they’re so fond of, nor are all of those hip restaurants tucked away in the corner of some cozy NY City alley.

I had high hopes for this up and coming generation and their Brave New World of flexibility and high income, but once again, it looks like success will come from good old plodding, boring, hard work.

When did charity get so expensive?

I remember when I was growing up, that my parents had a “Christmas Club Account,” which they referenced around this time each year; usually in the context of being thankful they had it to help offset the costs of all the gift-getting.

I’ve always been pretty money-conscious, so I have my own Christmas account and though it always seems to burn up pretty quickly once I start shopping in earnest, there’s always a bit left that I try and use to help someone out during the holiday season.

You may be familiar with Clark Howard–the nationally known radio and television personality known for his frugality. He’s based here in Atlanta and each year he goes from Walmart to Walmart broadcasting on-air, to promote his “Clark’s Kids” holiday charity drive. It’s promoted as your typical “come choose a child to help this Christmas” toy drive.

I’ve tried to get over to the Walmart he’s broadcasting at for a couple of years now, but this year was the first time I’ve really been able to get there. So yesterday, I got the boys out of school early and we headed over to Walmart in hopes of teaching them a bit about “giving” and maybe help a couple of children have a better Christmas.

We arrived at Walmart and sure enough, there’s the local radio broadcast truck outside so at least I knew that we were at the right place at the right time. We headed in and just generally aimed for the balloons near the ceiling cuz, it’s Walmart and it’s pretty big. Arriving at the charity drive, we’re directed a long table filled with sheets of paper, each containing the details of a particular child: name, age, race, and then a list of three items he or she had selected for Christmas.

I encouraged my boys to each look through and select a sheet of someone they wanted to “help” and while they did that, I began to just peruse the sheets. As I did, I noticed a couple of things:

  • The lists were very similar. For instance a “VTech” game thing was a common theme. I asked if the kids were given a list of items to choose from and was told “Yes.”
  • There were some pricey items on the list. I saw a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, bicycles, and other large-ticket items

My own boys came back to me with their lists and on them I saw:

For the 4 year old my youngest son selected:

  • a double-sided whiteboard easel
  • a balance bicycle
  • a little-tykes basketball thing

For the 9 year old my oldest son selected:

  • a Simon game
  • electric scooter (and if you bought a scooter, you were supposed to also buy a helmet)
  • a basketball hoop you mount to your door inside

Let me say here that my expectation was to spend about $50 on each child,  so I asked one of the volunteers how “this” worked; did I just buy a couple of things on the list? She replied that the idea is for you to buy everything on the child’s list, but if you didn’t, it would go back in the pile in hopes someone else would finish it up. No guilt there right?

Now, I won’t bore you with the next 45 minutes we spent walking around, unsuccessfully trying to find the exact items on the list, many of which I was told Walmart didn’t even carry, or me looking at the price of an electric scooter and saying, “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. My own kids don’t have an electric scooter.” But we did end up getting (similar gifts since we could find an exact match for most things) all but the most expensive item on each child’s list (they didn’t have the balance bike) and it still came out to $145 total.

I’m happy to have been able to help of course, but the onsite expectation didn’t match the promoted expectation. And who thought this through? If a kid did get a smartphone from someone, who is going to pay for the cell phone plan? Is a balance bicycle really the best use of $60 when they’re likely going to outgrow it in a matter of months? I don’t know…it just felt a bit “thrown together” and I didn’t feel like I was really “helping” someone.

Being a charity run by the Clark Howard foundation, I’m more than a little surprised. For someone so bent on saving money and making every dollar count, this toy drive certainly didn’t live up to what I’ve come to expect from Clark.

Next year I’ll find someone, or an organization, a bit more “need” driven and a lot less “wish” driven.