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Quietly Awesome

A couple weeks ago, I was in a lunch conversation about how Mozilla interviewers often expect, or even demand, that candidates act very enthusiastic during interviews. If a candidate doesn’t act enthusiastic, it tends to commented on negatively during the debrief. It’s understandable–we definitely want people who are excited about their work and about the Mozilla project.

But I think it’s also a big mistake that could cause us to lose out on great people. We have hired multiple people who didn’t sparkle with enthusiasm or excitement during interviews, but turned out to be incredibly skillful, dedicated, passionate developers. What appears to be lack of enthusiasm may just be introversion.

Introversion has been all over the blogosphere and in the media lately, probably because of a new book about it. What strikes me most is that contemporary Western culture is said to misunderstand and deprecate introversion, but introversion is especially associated with creativity:

The need for balance is especially important when it comes to creativity and productivity. When psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, they almost always find a serious streak of introversion because solitude is a crucial ingredient for creativity.

Charles Darwin took long walks alone in the woods and emphatically turned down dinner party invitations. Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, dreamed up his creations in a private bell tower in the back of his house in La Jolla. Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer alone in his cubicle at Hewlett Packard.

The worst part of it all to me is that although I am an introvert myself, I have also harbored negative attitudes toward introversion, including my own introversion, and have even on occasion remarked negatively on “lack of enthusiasm” from interview candidates.

So, how about let’s not anymore look for overt “enthusiasm” as a key quality in people to hire? Some people’s enthusiasm just happens not to show in that way. Instead, I suggest looking for people with a passion for what they do, which can be seen sometimes by their words and emotional state, but more reliably by what they’ve done: deep knowledge of a subject, open-source contributions, student research, creative personal projects, or overcoming hard obstacles.

Comments

Comment from Ver
Time: April 2, 2012, 12:36 pm

As a bit of an introvert myself I can’t help but agree. I do think it helps to talk to people about what they’ve worked on – if you show genuine interest, even normally quiet people may talk your ears off about projects close to their hearts (I know I have).

That’s probably a bit of a different approach for a job interview – instead of sitting back and saying (or implying) ‘impress me’, engage with people and see what comes out. But it might be a more effective approach in the long run.

Comment from Casey Becking
Time: April 2, 2012, 12:46 pm

Great points.

Comment from Ver
Time: April 2, 2012, 12:49 pm

As a bit of an introvert myself I can’t help but agree. I do think it helps to talk to people about what they’ve worked on – if you show genuine interest, even normally quiet people may talk your ears off about projects close to their hearts (I know I have).

That’s probably a bit of a different approach for a job interview – instead of sitting back and saying (or implying) ‘impress me’, engage with people and see what comes out. But it might be a more effective approach in the long run.

(apologies if this is a double post and the other one was just waiting for moderation, it gave no indication of going through)

Comment from Funtom
Time: April 2, 2012, 12:53 pm

Is enthusiasm really limited to extroverts? Myself introvert, I beg to differ. Introverts just happen to express their enthusiasm in different fashion. Interviewers just need a bit more training to spot it.

Comment from Pete
Time: April 2, 2012, 1:00 pm

I definitely reject people for of lack of enthusiasm, but I don’t think it means what you are defining. I don’t think enthusiasm has much to do with being introverted or extroverted. Enthusiasm is caring about the things you make, having opinions on what you want to create and how to create it. A track record of learning is a big indicator of enthusiasm.

Comment from Robert O’Callahan
Time: April 2, 2012, 2:56 pm

I’m extremely introverted by nature (in my first public talk at CMU, I was literally in tears), but over the years I have learned to operate outside my comfort zone — making conversation with strangers, phone calling people I don’t know, working up enthusiasm, etc. I think it’s good for introverted people to make an effort to overcome their limitations.

Basically agree with your post though.

Comment from Craig McPheat
Time: April 2, 2012, 3:24 pm

I’m being pushed to present in my workplace at the moment. Most uncomfortable!

Comment from Friv
Time: April 2, 2012, 5:47 pm

I am an introvert, too. And perhaps because I was always keeping what i thought in my mind, so there’s a time I found it’s very difficult for me to express what I was thinking, and i have to try very hard to make it better now. But the point is, in my opinion, introversive people are often lack of self-confident, those who without it have little chance for success, maybe the interviewers have the same thought so they tend to look for enthusiasm people. But think that we have to change our mind, the world really needs introverts!

Comment from Taryn Fox
Time: April 2, 2012, 5:57 pm

I agree, and I think that’s a very important distinction to make.

It’s also worth pointing out that depending on a person’s background, they may simply be nervous. In this economy, a lot may be hanging on this interview. A woman, or anyone who has been abused, may be used to downplaying her achievements (or being put down for self-aggrandizing). An autistic person may be experiencing nervousness and sensory overload from being in a new and unfamiliar situation.

All these things don’t have anything to do with the depth of their passion or the quality of the work they’ll be able to do, but they hurt them in interviews when people are scored based on how extroverted and neurotypical (and typically male) they act.

Comment from Rahul
Time: April 2, 2012, 7:20 pm

While its difficult to extract all the information from an introvert, still, i think its the job of an interviewer to make the candidate feel relaxed. If the interviewer behaves in a friendly manner and is able to establish a comfort zone with the candidate in the first 5-10 mins, then he can make even any introvert speak up more personal things regarding his work,passion,goals,etc.

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Time: April 3, 2012, 11:35 pm

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Comment from me
Time: April 6, 2012, 5:41 am

Learn to fake it for a couple hours. It is a good skill to have. Like it or not people judge you on it.

People often mistake it for not caring when you actually care a lot. Just because I am not bouncing off the walls and talk up a storm does not mean I dont care. It means I know when to get worked up about something. Most computer issues you do not need to get worked up about it. There is time and we can work thru it and come up with a solution that works. If there is a deadline then yeah get worked up. If not you are just giving yourself grey hair for no reason.

There is an opposite sort of person out there. The alarmer. Every little thing and they get worked up. They yell and scream. They have no way of categorizing anything in any sort of rank. Everything is drop what you are doing and work on this.

Comment from Gwen Jenkins
Time: April 6, 2012, 7:36 am

The distinction between extrovert and introvert is whether social interaction is energizing (the extrovert) or draining (the introvert), not whether they’re shy or gregarious. Extroverts need to have other people around to be at their best; introverts need solitude. Arguably, extroverts should be more prone to shyness and performance anxiety. Those who need to be part of the group have more to lose if they fail to meet expectations.

I’m an introvert–I can go weeks without having an actual face-to-face conversation with another person, and…not notice, actually. I won’t strike up a conversation with you at a party because I won’t know why I’d want to. When I do find myself in a conversation, I’ll talk your ear off. But too much time with other people, and I’m constantly exhausted, unable to concentrate and prone to nightmares.