Growing up, I could never raise my hand at school.
Each year, I cracked open my report card and glossed down the stiff cardboard stock to see a slew of “Excellent’s” and “Very Good’s”.
My eyes would always stop at the inevitable comment at the very bottom. Scribbled in blue cursive, the words read: “Julie is not vocal. She does not participate in class.”
That was it.
What perturbed me was that I didn’t know what to do with this information.
I was fine raising my hand to volunteer answers for questions on multiplying fractions or reading comprehension “fill in the blank’s.” But when it came to giving more than 3-word answers, I was stumped.
Being in a mostly Chinese elementary school in the immigrant haven of New York City’s Lower East Side, I knew it had nothing to do with my own Chinese-American upbringing, as the stereotype goes.
There were plenty of other Chinese kids in my class who had no problem sharing their thoughts.
In high school, I was very self-aware I guess because my inner world was full of thoughts and observations.
Being so quiet and labeled as “shy” (which I also hated), I was fully engrossed in my own head. I could easily spend the entire day not talking. That meant, my imagination and contemplation engines were on 24/7.
I remember walking to school with my dad and passing by the Manhattan Bridge. Everyday, I would marvel at the cardboard boxes, shopping carts, and make-shift homes that littered the area, just behind a chain-link fence. Men and women lived in here all year round. I was fascinated by how they adapted and as a kid, grew up thinking it was a very normal part of the urban ecosystem, like how some birds would build nests in the trees and others on the rocks by the seashore.
One day, the “tent city” (a term I learned only decades later) disappeared. It was jarring to see one ecosystem set up and the next, it was gone. Like waking up one day to see the forest trees cut down to their stumps.
I don’t remember talking to anyone at school about my reflections, but they came out in writing years later in my high school English class.
In class, I tried harder and harder to force myself to share opinions or analyses on the literature. I envied how nonchalantly other people put their hands high in the air and let words come out of their mouth, forming sentences, articulating complex concepts, finding evidence in the book to back up their postures. It looked effortless, only making me wonder what was wrong with myself.
Raise your hand, dammit, I told myself. Just put your hand up.
I have nothing to say.
You wrote a whole essay about this book. You found quotes that support your ideas. Talk about those!
But talking about it is different. It won’t come out right.
Others are talking about that passage right now. Raise your hand, this is your chance.
They already said what I wanted to say, and they said it so much better.
On and on this dialogue went until the discussion had already moved on to a different topic. Even with mentally and physically forcing my hand to go up into the air, my arm resisted it. With the forces opposing each other, my arm wouldn’t budge. I had missed my chance.
These moments would then haunt me until I learned about personality types in psychology class. I discovered the difference between extroverts and introverts and it felt liberating to be understood.
I was an introvert. And pretty far off the charts too.
Books like “Introvert Power,” “The Introvert Advantage” and the Myers-Briggs personality tests gave way to a realization that there were others like me (1% of the population with my INFJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging personality). More importantly, someone out there described me and labeled me. It was as if putting on label on meant I existed.
Over the years, throughout college, deep in my years working in urban planning in New York City, and later as an entrepreneur, I found ways to break out of my shell and own my voice. When before I would be a wallflower, never speaking in most of my classes in high school or at Yale University, I went on to do all sorts of things that introverts were not known to do — singing and soloing in front of 2,000 people, speaking off-the-cuff at events, presenting on everything from healthcare technology to entrepreneurship education on a stage, to being interviewed on podcasts for my work on purpose, intuition and spiritual empowerment.
Each step was its own achievement and I built up notches on my belt that helped me to keep going. My evolution in speaking certainly didn’t happen overnight.
When I spoke as a special guest at a meetup for women in business, someone asked me what advice I had for others who were also introverted. I realized no one had ever asked me that question before.
Perhaps it is now time I shared my voice on this topic. If you resonate with my story and you fall on the introverted scale, then I invite you to take these tips to heart.
1. There are far more introverts than you think out there.
Depending on who you ask, 33% to 50% of the U.S. population is introverted. Knowing you are not alone means you are actually part of a community. Bond with other introverts. Share in your challenges and achievements, and know that you are not the only quirky one out there! In fact, own your quirkiness.
2. Find role models and become one so that you can inspire others.
My Social Studies teacher was Korean-American, one of very few Asian teachers in my high school. I always admired how she could stand in front of a room of people and teach, let alone facilitate a classroom of debate and discussion (which, by the way, I absolutely hated in high school). I remember her even saying that she was “painfully shy” when she was a kid. That moment still sticks in my memory because that represented hope that people can change, that the impossible could seem possible.
3. Take it one step at a time. Build those notches on your belt.
I took every presentation, every opportunity to raise my hand, every speaking engagement as its own step to tackle. I would prepare like crazy for them — going over my presentations again and again until they were nearly memorized. I would speak in front of a mirror so that I got used to seeing my own reflection and hearing my own voice. The more I prepared, the easier it became so that with each “notch” or presentation, I would feel proud. Another win.
4. Don’t forget the missteps either.
Did I win at everything? No. I remember in Communications/Theater class in high school (which, by the way, I also dreaded), I did a “commercial” for a cereal in front of the class. I had even gotten one of my friends to sit up there with me to do a testimonial about how delicious this cereal was. Except, I did my whole presentation and literally forgot she was there on stage with me to do her part. The class (and she) had to remind me that she was still there. OMG. Talk about embarrassing. Now I never forget and always have an eye for what’s around me. Pay attention to what’s around you and learn from your mistakes
5. Connect to your heart and spirit. When you’re in the flow, the fear doesn’t get to you.
It wasn’t until college that I sang a solo in front of an audience for the first time. Again, I had practiced so much that it was second nature. But I also was in a totally different state. I’ve found that when I’m being truly creative and in love with my art, nothing else really matters. In that moment, all I care about is expressing my music, my story, or my message. Find your flow and be comforted in it
6. When something is important enough for you, you will speak.
I’ve found throughout my life that when something is important enough, I will speak up or I will find a well of strength that I didn’t know existed. The first time was in the 5th grade, and I was supposed to man a science-fair booth instead of going to my computer class. The only problem was, I was looking forward to that class all week because we got to play Oregon Trail (I was obsessed with that game). Never one to ask for anything, I suddenly found myself walking right up to my teacher and asked if I could please trade places with someone so that I could go to computer class. I remember the look of incredulity on Ms. Berger’s face when she said, “Julie speaks!” And she granted me my wish. Now, the message has changed, but what’s important to me - whether it’s for my career, relationships, business, or life purpose, will get said. The same is true for you. Trust yourself to do that.
Are you an introvert, shy, quiet, or find it hard to speak when it appears so easy for everyone else? Leave me a comment! I want to hear what worked for you.
Share your thoughts now.