“Network your way to the top!”
“Always say yes!”
“Never eat lunch alone!”
“Get out there!”
If you’re an overachiever like me, you’ve definitely heard this advice. If you’re ambitious, you also probably believe that to be successful, you have to be out there 24/7, tirelessly pressing the flesh, doing deals, tweeting and keynoting conferences. You probably believe that there’s a successful “type”—the intense, sleepless mover and shaker, the person who “leans in” and musters endless amounts of grit. And if you don’t fit that type, well, you’re out of luck.
I call bullshit.
Much of what we think we must do to succeed is unnecessary and even counterproductive. I’ve interviewed more than 150 successful entrepreneurs and executives, and I can tell you that most of them aren’t the always-on, outgoing superstars we would assume. One new media CEO whose viral videos have garnered more than 100 million views told me that she experiences major anxiety being in a room where she doesn’t know anyone. “I go straight into awkward middle-schooler mode,” she confesses. The founder of a biotech firm who just received Series A financing confessed that she hides in the bathroom at conferences, “usually because I am crying.” A former Wall Street banker who now runs a successful tech startup has to “take beta-blockers for public speaking.”
Related: Survival Tips for Introverts
And then there’s me. I’m a hermit by nature, an extreme introvert, more comfortable at home with my kids, my cats and my kitchen than out selling to a room. I’ll admit it: Facilitating meetings and giving speeches intimidate and exhaust me. When I fly to meet a potential client or give a talk, I take so much anxiety-fighting Xanax that I’m barely conscious. I manage my social media feeds very tightly, doing just enough to keep me in the game. And yet I own and run a successful business in which I am the primary sales driver.
“Hiding in the bathroom” has become my shorthand for hacking and faking my way to appearing like a typical successful businessperson. Given my natural inclinations, I would hide almost all the time. I would rarely choose to leave my house. But as extensive as my online network is, I could not sustain a business that way. So I’ve learned to get out there, building in strategies and tricks that allay my anxieties and introversion while I’m at a professional gathering or client meeting, then creating home time to recharge, be on my own and do the work.
I used to beat myself up about needing to hide in the bathroom. I would walk into a huge crowd, panic at the number of strangers and head immediately for the ladies’ room. But over time, I’ve learned that I often need a moment to reset during a busy workday. Now I know it’s OK to take a moment to breathe. Then I put on some lipstick, look in the mirror and tell myself, You can do it. Get out there.
Becoming My Own Kind of Entrepreneur
When I was a kid, I told everyone, “I want to be a media mogul.” I had a photo of famed Paramount boss Sherry Lansing on my bedroom wall. I wrote my 10th-grade economics paper on the inside story of Barry Diller’s bid to own Universal Studios. And because I had the good fortune of coming of age during the Clinton years, when jobs were plentiful for precocious 20-somethings, I was well on my way. After graduating from college, I worked a series of high-profile jobs in the marketing world and was even recognized in a prominent national “30 under 30” list.
There was one problem: Secretly (or perhaps not so secretly), I was miserable. I tried on many different personas and adopted countless ad hoc coping mechanisms, but nothing helped. I kept torpedoing my success at every turn. I drank too much at office happy hours and acted inappropriately. My weight constantly went up and down as I bounced between bingeing and barely eating at all. I was anxious almost every day, and had frequent panic attacks. Quite often, I was so depressed that I called in sick to work and hid in bed all day.
At my last job, I was asked to start a department from scratch, and I was too prideful, anxious and shortsighted to secure allies. Eventually the New York office tried to get me fired. Did this girl stand up and fight like a plucky heroine in a novel? No, she did not. She cried in the bathroom and started working from home as often as she could.
When she eventually quit and started freelancing, she became an accidental entrepreneur who focuses more on making time for life than making millions.
I run a business called Women Online. We are a social-impact marketing agency with the sole mission of creating campaigns that mobilize women for social good. I like to say we are small but mighty; even though we have fewer than 10 people—and are virtual at that—we help the largest organizations in the world with digital strategy. For example, we helped President Obama’s campaign reach mom bloggers and get them to the polls; we created digital tools that inspired American families to learn about and support the work of Malala Yousafzai and the United Nations, both on a mission to educate girls worldwide.
Over the last decade, I’ve built a life that allows me to earn enough money and find just enough recognition without driving myself crazy and sacrificing my homebody self. I learned to play to my strengths and nourish my introversion, focusing less on the long-term outcome of “success” and more on the everyday. Today, thanks to the deliberate way I’ve organized my business, I can literally be at the U.N. one day and home with the boys digging in the dirt the next. On the days I’m at a client’s office, pitching new business or giving a speech, you’ll probably find me in the ladies’ room between sessions.
Every single day I build in lots of breaks and alone time for myself, even if it’s just five minutes in a quiet room. Of course, this best-of-both-worlds lifestyle comes at a cost. It has meant sacrifices, less success than some peers and a slower path. But it’s my version of success, and I love it.
The aha moment came when I learned to redefine my vision of success. The old vision was media mogul. My new vision was less focused on some far-off notion of success attained. I traded “someday” for “today.” For me, it’s the choice to be a hermit entrepreneur: a mostly tongue-in-cheek term I use to describe my choice to work mostly at home in my yoga pants.
What if you became the kind of success you wanted to be? What if you could enjoy every day of your work life? What if you stopped all that networking? What if you distilled your business development to the bare minimum, and still managed to grow your business or your income? What if instead of getting out there, you could simply stay in?
The good news is that you can learn and practice the skills you need to achieve a version of success that’s right for you, and make enough money. And I’ll give you strategies and concrete career-development and management tools to get there.
These strategies begin with setting a vision and developing realistic goals that satisfy all of your needs, even if it means accepting a more modest career or slower business growth trajectory. Then, manage around your goals in ways that allow for an enjoyable, “hermit” lifestyle. To maximize your impact with the least amount of face time, you carve out a strong professional niche and digital footprint for yourself. If you own a small business or work freelance, you price your offerings slightly above market rate. You determine the right client, project mix or type of work that allows you the time you need for yourself. No matter where you work, you create a long-term, professional franchise for yourself that assures you of future jobs, freelance gigs and business opportunities as well as even more free time in the future. You engage in high-impact, smart networking and only attend a few strategically selected conferences. You track your work flow and scope your work more carefully to protect your time for family, friends and self. And finally, you recalibrate expectations with bosses, spouses, family members and others.
As a business owner and entrepreneur with serious mental health challenges, I’ve often found myself hiding out in the bathroom. We’ve all been there, but few of us actually talk about it. But part and parcel of being a successful introvert is allowing those emotions to be an opportunity to gain knowledge, and to make them work for you, instead of driving your work.
As my friend Kim Leary, M.D., associate professor at Harvard Medical School says, “Think about what you give up if you aren’t attuned to your emotions.” Life would indeed be dull and gray, and you can use that anxiety to help you in your career, not harm it.
Now that I’ve realized my anxiety is part of who I am, and that, rather than fight it all the time, I embrace what it gives me, like excellent people skills, empathy and drive. I like to think my anxiety and I are business partners, frequently negotiating, sometimes arguing, but often creating great work.
Ultimately, hiding in the bathroom means relentlessly attending to the care and feeding of your whole being. It means vigorously reinforcing your personal boundaries, even when others pressure you to grow faster or make more money. You will not garner accolades for growing your career or business slowly, or for enjoying your life. You won’t be featured in magazines, and you probably won’t keynote conferences. Even worse, everyone in your life, from your accountant to your graphic designer to even your spouse maybe, will question your strategy. It’s not sexy to develop slowly. But hermit professionals know the truth: It’s better. Committed to what will make them happy over the long term, they do what it takes to stay home and make each day rich, meaningful and fulfilling.
All this might sound unrealistic, but the successful professionals I’ve interviewed for my Forbes podcast all share one thing in common: They have managed to integrate work with personal passion and interest. Some of them, like me, are extreme introverts—they have social anxiety and hate to fly. These men and women don’t follow the traditional rules. They have made their own rules and honed their skills accordingly. You can, too.
Leaning in is great, but not everyone can lean in all of the time. It makes us too tired. It’s also not that fun. More fun is nerding out on your own for hours, just thinking and doing—engaging in what investor Paul Graham terms “rich, solitary, germinative time.” It might be picking your kids up from school every day or taking care of your aging parents. It might be tinkering in your garden or cultivating other hobbies. The dirty little secret of success is that you can grow your business, build your career, and do the work you love while still making room for outside interests. You can hang out at home more and keep travel, networking and extracurriculars to a minimum.
From the book Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home). Copyright ©2017 by Morra Aarons-Mele. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Morra Aarons-Mele is the author of Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You'd Rather Stay Home). Morra is the founder of award winning social impact agency Women Online, hosts the podcast Hiding in the Bathroom, and created the influencer network The Mission List. She was founding Political Director for BlogHer.com, and has written for the Harvard Business Review, the Huffington Post, MomsRising, Forbes, the Wall St. Journal, the New York Times, and The Guardian. Aarons-Mele is a graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Kennedy School, and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.