I used to think that my primary talent was verbal ability. That was dumb and I was wrong. Though I’m a good writer, my primary talent is a tendency towards extroversion. Extroversion is an unreasonably effective life strategy, and I naturally adopt it to an unusual degree.
It should’ve been beaten out of me. In primary school, I was at the bottom of the social ladder—kids who licked trees and ate markers were extended a level of sympathy and understanding that I would've begged and cried for. One time, as a popular boy was passing my chair, I happened to inhale, and he shouted that I had tried to sniff his ass. Instantly, I became “the butt-sniffer,” and was greeted by loud sniffing noises in the hallways every single day. Though this example stands out for being comic, it basically reflects the status quo. For years, I cowered and cried, smelly and quivering, frequently making my way to whatever corner was available, wishing I could blend into the pools of dust I sat in.
Nevertheless, I remained irrepressibly chatty and outgoing when I happened to stumble upon someone who wasn’t immediately cruel to me. And the positive effects of this are hard to overestimate.
Note that I’m not talking about being extroverted skillfully. My social skills were awful, and they remained so for some time. It took me a long time to develop even a smidgen of charisma, and I have a touch of Asperger’s. Most humans, I annoyed. Also, during the interval between my first bipolar episode and my first competent psychiatrist, I was chatty and insane.
But a few people found my bumbling, overbearing quality charming. My interactions with those people, bit by bit, began shifting my life course from “depressed, undateable lonely nerd with no skills and no ambition” to “happily married published author, startup founder, and writing coach.”
There was, however, one secret to my strategy: it wasn’t a strategy. I had no goals other than making friends and seeking attention. When I thought someone was interesting, I talked to them more. It didn’t matter whether they were a litigator, drug dealer, video store clerk, homeless person, or professor. Although I occasionally approached someone with an end in mind, it didn’t generally go well, so I mostly stopped doing it.
And it turns out that people present you with opportunities even when that’s not what you’re looking for. “Opportunity” here can mean a career choice you wouldn’t have considered, an idea that could alter your behavior, or even just the jolt of energy that the right kind of conversation generates. Many of these opportunities will be things you didn’t know you wanted. This is another reason to approach conversations without specific intent. Bringing an agenda to a conversation restricts the horizon of possibility to your preconceptions. This is often detrimental. People are a lot more surprising (and they tend to like you more) when you’re not after their utility.
But there’s a lot of utility to that. So there’s a “try not to try” thing going on here. If you talk to people because you just enjoy their company, without any focus on getting things, you end up getting things, as well as making friends. Thus, while I’m writing this to advocate that you become more extroverted, I’d only advocate it on the condition that you start a lot of conversations without having any particular outcome in mind. Don’t “network.” Just shoot the shit with people you like more often, try to have genuine curiosity about their lives, and seek out people you might like more aggressively.
Here are just a few examples of what happens when you talk to people simply because it’s an enjoyable thing to do.
When I was 25, I invited myself for a drink with a restaurateur who complimented an article I’d written about a local chef, and she ended up introducing me to my agent, who got me a publishing contract.
When I was 16, I went to Rocky Horror Picture Show, vigorously introduced myself to a bunch of people, and then transferred to the alternative high school they were attending, where I first found some modicum of social happiness.
When I was 32, I met up with a Twitter acquaintance because I liked her internet energy, and she informed me that I was undercharging for my coaching services, and this brief moment of a lovely conversation made me thousands of dollars.
When I was 19, I talked to a friend’s roommate, and he didn’t like me, but he needed a warm body to staff his restaurant after somebody quit, and thus I entered the fine dining industry and doubled my income.
Last month, I struck up a conversation with my neighbor, and it turns out that he’s a talented musician who was in need of a lyric writer, so I just co-wrote a few songs so amazingly catchy that you may be tired of hearing them on Spotify by Christmas.
This is maybe 1/10th of the set of notably positive outcomes of my extroversion. They’re not crazy outliers.
But, of course, most conversations don’t lead to anything like this. Most of the time it’s just pleasant. There’s no real way to game it, other than to hang out with the most interesting people you can find. Also, many people will ignore you, and some people won’t like you. There are plenty of people who don’t like me—some from my recent past, and many many more from my distant past, when I wasn’t a particularly good person. It doesn’t matter. Nobody can arrest you for being annoying. There are certainly people who mutter darkly when my name enters their attention. I wish them all the best.
My extroversion has also benefited others. Often, my somewhat shy wife puts me on extroversion duty—I introduce her to people, or spur her to make connections. Friends of mine have gotten jobs, relationships, and revelations because I’ve thrown them at other friends. Being extroverted can improve the freedom of association of everyone in your proximity, which can have amazingly multiplicative benefits.
It’s true that extroversion isn’t sufficient to produce the life changes I’ve spoken of. You have to work at some point. But probably not as much as you’d think. Moreover, a tiny number of people are so settled in their lives and priorities that there’s probably little to be gained from introducing new people at random. But you are probably not one of those people. I’m confident that almost everyone reading this should be more extroverted, including me.