The Introvert and the Startup

feetPerhaps nowhere is the phrase “one size fits all”  more misplaced than when talking about work environments and company culture. This is particularly true if, like me, you just happen to be something of an introvert.

At startups with aggressive growth and targets to hit, we try to foster a culture in which people have the opportunity to contribute their strengths and abilities, whilst creating an environment in which they want to spend a significant amount of their time. We also want to have some fun to offset all the hard work.

The creative options and flexibility for doing this at small startups simply can’t be matched in the wider corporate world, so it is no wonder that startups tend to have some of the most enviable work environments and cultures.

But getting it right involves a complex interplay of factors when catering for a diverse workforce, and talented people bring their whole personality to work. Tweak one environmental or cultural aspect to suit certain people or to get results, and you often find you’ve ruined another aspect for someone else. Worst of all, you may even hamper their ability to contribute.

There is perhaps no group that this applies to more than introverts, as many startup environments can be somewhat charged up and geared towards the high-energy needs of extroverts.

introvert, noun /ˈɪntrəvəːt/

A person who is more energised and stimulated by spending time alone or in low-key situations, than with others, and who finds certain group interactions exhausting.

To my amusement, I find it easier to tell people that I’m gay than to admit being an introvert. The former rarely causes a ripple. But the latter is often the start of a grand inquisition: “What’s an introvert?” “Why do you say that?” “You don’t seem like one” “We don’t need introverts here” “You just need to come out of your shell and let your hair down”… All precisely the kinds of confrontation an introvert wants to avoid at any cost. It’s no wonder we usually try to fly under the radar.

It is said that people are hard-wired somewhere on the introversion / extroversion spectrum, or we learn it very early on in life and it can be incredibly hard to unlearn. This has certainly been my experience. But what we are rarely told are the upsides to being introverted, particularly in environments you might think it would be a weakness, such as at startups. Indeed, a mix of introverts and extroverts may be the ideal team configuration… but only if handled thoughtfully.

So what are some of the unexpected strengths of introverts?

  • Leading – Many famously great leaders report being introverts; Bill Gates and Abraham Lincoln among them. Perhaps introverts make good leaders because it didn’t come naturally to us, we had to learn it and tend to have a more considered leadership style that we adapt to the needs of those we are working with. We also have less of a tendency to micro manage, choosing instead to let people exercise their abilities and prove themselves to us.
  • Presenting, Explaining – Strangely, I have no difficulty standing up in front of 200 people to give a presentation or to explain a technology. But after presenting, being part of the audience as a crowd can suddenly seem daunting to me. This is perhaps the opposite of what you’d expect.
  • Listening, Insights – Introverts tend to develop good listening skills. We have a tendency to step back from crowds, or to remain at the edges. We also spend more time processing what has been said to us, less time interrupting and, because we naturally need breaks from engaging, we are more likely to spot connections and insights.

But what do introverts find harder, and what might we need adjusting in work environments and culture so we can thrive?

  • Discussion, not Confrontation – Discussions that turn into confrontations, or environments that verge on being boisterous, can be tough for introverts. We tend to retire rather than engage, feeling shut down rather than fired up. The precise opposite of how extroverts react. When discussions stick to facts, rationales and explanations rather than the raising of voices, introverts can actively and even energetically engage and, as mentioned above, may have an entirely different set of valuable insights to offer. Conversations can still be very animated and productive.
  • Space to Recharge – We tend to need time in which we are likely not to need to engage with others, so we can digest, consider and recharge. We also need the physical space to do that in. If an environment is socially charged non-stop, introverts can rapidly be worn down, drained and become detached.
    Good environments allow a mix of engagement and focus, with meetings and work spaces kept separate where possible. Some would say this limit on engagement is a downside, preferring constant communication instead, but I’d say it naturally timeboxes interaction and forces more considered work to be scheduled. No-one, not even extroverts, can stay engaged, communicative and effective the whole time. Open-plan spaces can be a drain on everyone, not just introverts.

So perhaps the strengths we’re recruiting for in fast-paced startup environments might occasionally come aligned with a personality trait we’ve usually considered to be a weakness: introversion.

Introverts comprise up to one-third of the total workforce, so getting things right for a mix of personality types could be a significant win for startups looking to build great teams and great places to work. And if startups can get this right, the wider corporate world might follow.

The Great Offline

yorkshire-landscapeWell, not entirely offline. I didn’t actually spend New Year in a cave. But I did decide to spend the last two weeks of 2014 away from most forms of social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Basically anything I felt I was over-using and could do with a break from.

It seemed a good time, from 18th December until 1st January, to remind myself what the world is like without those sites and that minute-by-minute urge to “contribute”. Aside from the usual seasonal socialising and some much-needed down time, I planned to focus on other projects and prepare — at a more leisurely pace — a few lengthier blog posts.

After the first two days of the self-imposed social media break went by, it became clear that I needed to widen the scope. The first sign was the recruiter who messaged me on LinkedIn but who then took three replies from me to convince that I really, really only wanted to talk to him in January. Then there were the emails from folks wanting to arrange work-related drinks in the final week before Xmas. So, whilst I still checked my email once a day, and promised myself I’d reply if anything urgent came up, I decided to leave the rest there in my inbox, unread other than their subject line, until 1st January.

The relief at dropping the social media frenzy for a while and letting email pile up was rather unexpected, palpable and amazing. I rediscovered a slightly-less-connected world and, strangely, one in which I felt more deeply connected to real things: Face-to-face encounters weren’t interrupted by Facebook’ing, phone calls had my full attention, meals cooked at home didn’t get uploaded pictorially to Instagram. They just got eaten. I know, how refreshingly retro!

There were also other benefits: This blog post, to my delight, is easier to write without the constant distraction of inbound social media. I also drafted a longer software-related post for LinkedIn next week, the flow of which seemed to have eluded me until then but which came easily during the break from the constant notifications. I got my head around a new product idea that I’d been failing to define beforehand, and which I now found the focus to think deeply and easily about.

By unplugging from the distractions, and yet still remaining online in other ways, I regained a degree of that longer-term focus required to cultivate ideas, respond at-length, react appropriately and digest the articles and news that I was still choosing to read. Regaining that focus, albeit briefly, gave me a real sense of what social media and always-on email is doing to us. It’s somewhat scary what we’ve lost without even noticing, and how short-term and reactionary we — and hence our lives — have become.

Of-course, now the two weeks are over, I’m back in the social media world and my inbox has been tamed again, I realise I must have missed things whilst I was away: The constant commentary on every news story. The social status bingo of everyone else’s Xmas and holiday pics. The reactions and counter-reactions to every domestic stress and strain of the season. Minute, by minute,… by online minute.

Yeah, on second thoughts… perhaps I didn’t miss that much really.

Happy New Year!

Caffeine and Me

coffeeI first started drinking coffee in significant quantities during my industrial training year at IBM, in 1992. Being tanked up on caffeine was part of the whole buzz of doing my first paid job in the software industry and everyone else consumed it in large quantities. In this, and most other ways, I fit right in.

By the time I started my first job in London after completing my degree, in 1994, I was used to consuming about 5-6 cups a day of the strong black stuff.

It was at this point that I first encountered what would become, for me, caffeine’s main down-side: the crash.

By 3pm each day, with my caffeine consumption tailing off after a midday peak, I would struggle to stay awake, let alone productive. I looked into all sorts of solutions, including what I was eating for lunch (it must be the bread, right?!), whether I needed to supplement with energy drinks / tablets (I tried them all), or whether I was physically run-down in some way.

Actually, the latter was probably closest to the truth. I was being run down, literally and on a daily basis, by my own caffeine consumption. As with most things in life, the feel-good high of the coffee hit earlier in the day had a corresponding down-side; a come-down, drop in energy, call it what you will.

Given all of this and my apparent understanding of it back then, you’d think that I would have moderated my caffeine consumption at this point… right? Far from it! Despite three periods in the following 20 years where I weaned myself off caffeine for a mere week or so, I always returned to my weekday love with great happiness and, seemingly, the memory and learning capacity of a goldfish. A wide-eyed, caffeine-loaded goldfish.

In 2012-13, I worked for myself for a while. It took me a while to battle what seemed to be some form of attention deficit that prevented me from really focussing when I was away from a traditional workplace. I later found that this problem was linked with my coffee consumption and, on the days that my consumption was lower, I tended to find focussing to be easier. This discovery, coupled with hitting the 3pm wall, made me have a long hard think.

So in the past month, rather than going for my usual all-or-nothing approach to coffee consumption, and rather than insisting that I give it up completely, I’ve done something a little more mature: I’ve moderated my consumption. I’ve gradually weaned myself off 5-6 cups per day, down to one single cup.

That one cup is something I drink in the morning, at home, when I can really enjoy it. It isn’t interrupted by work, or other people. It isn’t affected by the whim of the day-to-day change in coffee strength that should shame some of the big chains on the high street. It’s just me and a cup of good coffee, and the knowledge that the next one will be tomorrow.

What I’ve noticed since getting myself down to one cup is startling:

Firstly, I no-longer hit the 3pm energy/attention wall. Whilst I still get tired as the day goes on, I can usually stretch, have a drink of water, stand up for a minute and then carry on. My alertness never dips below a point that I can’t power through with a little willpower.

Secondly, I’m calmer. Too much caffeine, particularly early in the morning, seemed to fuel my anxiety. One cup doesn’t seem to do that. It perks me up a bit, and that’s all.

Thirdly, I sleep. I began to suspect that the caffeine levels in my body weren’t resetting 100% at the end of each day. Some days, I would wake up still feeling wired. Now the one cup, consumed around 7:30am, is definitely out of my system by bedtime and I sleep soundly. As everyone knows, it’s not just a question of how long you sleep, but rather the quality of it and whether you can access deep sleep. I wake up feeling rested, rather than ragged.

Lastly, that one cup in the morning is now really good. I think I had become desensitised to the effects of caffeine. My daily cup now tastes better, wakes me up more effectively, and is something I look forward to rather than being a necessity just to get my head off the pillow.

The question that confronts me now is whether to stick with one cup, longer-term, or whether to wean myself off it altogether. There’s a part of me that knows the positive effects I’ve experienced could be even more amplified if I kick the habit completely. But then, another part of me knows that the enjoyment I get from my morning cup isn’t something I should deny myself. (I won’t even begin to debate the supposed health benefits of moderate caffeine intake, as I think those articles tend to be written by folks who have yet to learn the relationship between correlation and causation).

One thing to note: The word “me” in the title of this post. I know other folks have wildly different experiences of the effect of caffeine. Some drink pots of the stuff with relatively few downsides, others can’t stomach a single cup and get the jitters straight away.

As with many of these nutritional / psychological / health issues, we all have to be our own sample set of one and learn to notice the effect that substances have on us. It’s taken me 20 years to begin to learn that for myself.

Beyond the “Quantified Self”

ChangesThatStick.comMany of us, intentionally or otherwise, have played a part in the Quantified Self movement: Using data acquisition and tracking to gain an understanding of various aspects of our lives — exercise, diet, sleep — often using clever wearable devices or mobile apps.

The attraction is understandable, and who doesn’t like to navel gaze?! Finding patterns in that data, root causes or commonalities is certainly interesting and it automatically inspires a degree of change and self-improvement.

But beyond pure tracking and analysis, I think it’s crucial to commit to very specific and concrete goals, regularly compare our progress against those goals and to make genuine changes to the tracked aspects of our lives. I believe that’s where the true benefits of the Quantified Self lie: building on it with goals, willpower and tracking. It’s what I’ve come to refer to as the “Inspired Self“, and it is only possible because of the Quantified Self movement upon which it is built.

Write it Down – We are often encouraged to write goals down, because it causes a degree of commitment to them and increases the likelihood that we’ll follow up with action. Likewise, we should record our commitment to change, define up-front the criteria by which we will judge that change, and ensure that we have visibility of our progress… good or bad. These extra measures make us accountable, aware… and inspired to follow through with action. It’s one thing to quantify and explore aspects of our lives, but another thing entirely to be inspired to improve them.

ChangesThatStick.comMaking Change Measurable – Commitments to change must be measurable, to remove any element of judgement or cheating. “Five miles” means 5 miles, not 4¾ or 5¼. In comparison, “Go for a run” means whatever we feel like on the day and gives us carte blanche to modify the goal.

It’s Not Science – Goals, and the activities that contribute towards them, should be measurable in our favourite units: A commitment to cut down our caffeine intake might begin with reducing by one “cup”our favourite cup, not some standard measure. Tracking of activities that contribute to a goal should always be quick, simple and tailored to our own chosen level of detail. It’s not a science experiment, nor should it become a chore, but it must be measurable.

Path of Continual Improvement – The reason most people pay a personal trainer is that the trainer will set goals and dispassionately reflect progress against those goals but, crucially, they will also set new goals as time goes by. Committing to run 5 miles a week is fine for now, but we should probably extend that commitment to 5½ miles and beyond, as we achieve each successive goal. Achieving the original goal is only part of the picture, and setting a path for continual improvement is the longer-term aim. From where we are now, to where we want to be, in manageable increments. Having someone, or an app, automatically change our targets is even better.

There is a slow and steady (but probably achievable) path to us running a marathon in 12 months time, losing some weight in time for summer, increasing our bench press, managing 10 chin-ups, cutting down to 1 cigarette a day, etc. Today — or this week or this month — our achievement only needs to be a portion of that bigger goal, safe in the knowledge that we are on the path to the overall goal if we stick to the smaller goals en-route.

Visualising Progress – The Quantified Self movement introduced us to effortless ways of capturing data about our lives and our performance. Visualising our progress versus our goals must be similarly effortless. We need to remain aware of how far we have to go to meet them. It’s no use having to manually update a graph on our fridge door or a spreadsheet on our laptop. Our progress must be there, in our faces, whenever and wherever we want to glance at it.

Unifying our view of that progress across many goals or activities also increases the visibility. We would rather see our progress in one place five times per day, than in 5 apps once a day.

Making Better Choices – Continual visibility of our progress has a startling effect on our rate of change: Because our progress and, specifically, how far we have to go to meet the current goal, is in the forefront of our minds… we make better choices in-the-moment. We go for that extra run to meet the weekly target, skip having the cupcake (!) so that our average weight might be on-track again this month, or have a soft drink instead of another beer in order to meet our “3 drinks” weekly limit. There’s no ability to deny the goals, no “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” occurs. The long-term achievement stays in our heads, giving it less chance of being overwhelmed by the instant gratification that might lie before us. (As we know, those cupcakes actually speak to us ;-))

Handling Setbacks – Setbacks occur, targets get missed, plans change and real life sometimes gets in the way. Our visualisation of progress may show the reality: that a particular change is going to be hard. This is the downside of tracking our lives, but admitting our shortcomings is the first step to finding a way to reach the goal.

We have two alternatives when setbacks happen: Give up, or Reframe and Re-Commit.

Reframing might mean seeing that we are off-target and setting a lesser goal for the next time period. Perhaps we realise now that we won’t lose 10lbs by this summer, but we might manageably lose 5lbs, a worthy goal in itself. So we can change the goals for the future and get back on-track. Often, a certain amount of learning, reframing and tweaking is required before the path to an achievable goal is found. The initial enthusiasm sometimes leads us to set unrealistic goals (New Year’s Resolutions?!), and it’s easy to forget, when we fail to meet them, that a slightly more conservative goal may be entirely possible. The original goal may also be achievable beyond that, if we take it in smaller steps.

20130713 - starsCelebrating Success – Just as our progress versus a goal should be visible to us, so should our achievements: We want to see how long we have been on-target and the milestones we have passed. Another week on-target needn’t be “just another week on-target”: It can be “My 5th week on-target!”, which is halfway on the path to 10 weeks on-target. An entirely more inspiring way of seeing it. Independent assessment of our achievements feels like being rewarded for our hard work. We met our goals for a period of time, and it has been recognised. Something as simple as an email, or a row of stars, makes all the difference. The technical term here is “Gamification“, though I usually just think of it as “Making things fun” 🙂

As Ever… There’s An App For That – is my first venture into the world of the Inspired Self. After years of using several different tracking apps (for running, diet, weight, water consumption, exercise, habits), I decided there must be a better way to track my progress in all of these areas, in a single unified app. Often, the apps that are great at data capture really suck at goal setting and visualisation, and vice versa. There just didn’t seem to be a unified app that did the lot. The problem wasn’t my commitment, but rather the spreading of my commitment between so many different apps.

So, I wrote Changes That Stick as a mobile/web app, such that most measurable activities and habits can be recorded, goals set against them, and progress visualised nicely on one screen, even whilst I was out and about. I currently track and have goals for my weight (overall, fat%, lean, BMI), water consumption, running (distance, time and speed), gym workout (each exercise, with weight, reps, sets and notes), blood pressure and the odd habit or two that I’m changing. But it can also track so much more, and my aim is that there should eventually be a way of tracking and setting goals for whatever need people come to the app with.

I wanted it to be flexible enough to track my activities in appropriate measurement units. So, finding gym equipment marked in pounds, when my goal was in kilograms, wouldn’t see me dashing for my iPhone calculator to manually perform a conversion. The app knows about most measurement units, and converts between them. I aim to add units I’m missing, and you can describe any unit used simply for counting up activities using any phrases that you like, so if I want to track my weekly run in nautical miles, or count a path to quitting smoking in cigars rather than cigarettes, that should be possible.

I also wanted to track derived aspects of activities, such as my lean weight, though my scales only captured my overall weight and fat percentage… another easy problem to solve with software, and so I did. This means I can set targets to increase my lean weight, whilst I decrease my fat weight, all by capturing my overall body weight and fat%. I can track my pace per mile from my running distance and time, or my maximum reps this week from one of my workout activities. The data I capture, and the data I want to track the goal against, are often subtly different, but it’s possible to derive one simply from the other with some simple knowledge about how they are related; knowledge that went into the app. Again, something so often missed by other apps and, just like ability to use our favourite measurement units, it makes the goal so much more meaningful to us.

The app allows targets to be changed over time, so a path of improvement is defined. I would like to increase my lean weight, but decrease my fat weight… and I have gradual changes in target to stick to each week, which will take me to those longer-term goals. I’ve done similar with other things that I’m tracking.

I hope to integrate the app further with other Quantified Self apps and data sources, such that activities people are already tracking through their favourite apps may be automatically captured for them, used to set goals and visualised. People like to track their running on an app that has GPS input and displays a map, enter their calorie consumption on an app with a great database of known foods, or track their movement using a device that clips to their belt, and so they should continue to use those methods… but they might like to set goals and visualise their progress against them in one unified place. Something of a “how am I doing?” dashboard, to help improve those in-the-moment decisions.

On a technical note, and as a one-man development team: Rather than producing different versions of the app for iOS, Android and desktops, the same app runs in any HTML5-compatible browser on most desktops, mobiles, smartphones and tablets. I hope this means there is some consistency across platforms and I can incorporate new features rapidly across them all. Basic use will be free, and there will be a paid plan for more extensive use beyond that, with a low monthly subscription cost to cover my hosting costs.

I hope that being Quantified, and Inspired to change, will be a powerful combination. Manufacturers of cupcakes will no-doubt hate me 🙂