Creatives share their advice on how to navigate the industry as an introvert
We chat to a psychologist and three creatives about the pros and cons of being introverted, how they balance it with work, and the advice they can give for those looking to network and build their careers.
In the world we live in today, being an introvert has been highly misconceived. Introverts are speculated to be these lonely, self-reliant, anti-friendly, anti-social, shy humans who could be both awkward and charming. But at the core of it, there is feeble justification to this definition.
“I remember learning in grad school that introversion and extroversion are not fixed, and our ‘types’ can change over time,” says Dr. Lauren Theresa, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who’s also an author, trauma therapist and psychology professor at Fashion Institution of Technology (FIT). “One major thing that is important to look at and challenge is societal values or expectations. For example, an individual who may be considered introverted could simply be someone who enjoys the comfort of their space for a whole host of reasons. If it is not negatively impacting them in a significant way, then who am I to say they should change that? Doing so would only serve to fit the mould of a social expectation, which in the end only functions to support the system and not the individual in it.”
Our creative instinct has always been highly aligned with our individuality. We have the tendency to reflect our own identities throughout the creative process, either placing ourselves within the work itself or through the means at which it’s made. But this can only be plausible when we have gone through the tremendous process of self-discovery, of finding our innermost selves and outrunning the darkness, the misery. This is how it is in the art world. For artists, creating a visual identity for their works is salient, whether it’s inspired by their lived experiences, background, race or identity.
“It is typical for a vast percentage of us to experience both introverted and extroverted qualities. I personally love the buzz of a social setting such as being out dancing, but I know that I need a good deal of time afterwards to decompress in solitude.”Dr. Lauren Theresa
In the creative industry, we very much consume ourselves in the discussion of finances and influences. Less so do we dive into the deep semantics of selfhood and its intersection with creative works. And even in selfhood, we don’t always discuss what it’s like to be introverted in the creative industry, the perks of it or the disadvantages. As Dr. Theresa summarises, “If someone feels they have introverted qualities that create a discord within them, such as wanting certain experiences but experiencing anxiety related to being in social situations, that is a different story. For some of us it can be neurodivergence and/or sensory-related needs that make those experiences overwhelming, for others it can be anxiety or trauma responses,” she says.
However, Dr. Theresa adds: “Psychotherapy, including art therapy and even trauma work such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) can be immensely beneficial for someone who has personally identified this as an area of their life they wish to address. And, lastly, it is typical for a vast percentage of us to experience both introverted and extroverted qualities. I personally love the buzz of a social setting such as being out dancing, but I know that I need a good deal of time afterwards to decompress in solitude,” she says.
What remains the question is how these creatives who are introverted keep their feet in the right place and stay strong, despite being labelled as weird, awkward or mean. How do they experience networking, find opportunities, build their brand and let the world discover them?
“The world split people into two groups. I definitely fell into the introvert group, but maybe there is my cat and five or six people in this world who don’t see me that way.”Yimiao Liu
Yimiao Liu isn’t a conventional artist with a conventional aesthetic. The New York-based artist interweaves strong grotesque imagery and abstract illusionism to define the sensitivity of the feminine; a striking devotion of some sort, a weaponry of shapes. Yimiao describes her introvertedness as an art of solitude, a way of communication with herself; she regards her personality to be swift depending on who knows her best. “The world split people into two groups. I definitely fell into the introvert group, but maybe there is my cat and five or six people in this world who don’t see me that way,” she tells It’s Nice That. Growing up in a small city in China, Yimiao was the only child of two teachers. Because her parents worked most of the time, she spent the majority of her time with her great aunt. Much of her childhood was filled with silence, aloneness and pets – she recalls having a baby duck when she was six. “She would follow me around and sleep in my slippers every night,” she says. “But one day I stepped on her foot accidentally, and she later got sick. I tried saving her but it didn’t work. She died a few days later. I have missed her a lot and still feel very guilty to this day.”
For Yimiao, the interwoven nature between her personality and that of her career path perfectly compliments each other. For instance, she loves how being an artist allows her the airy freedom of working alone, and how she can depend on her creativity to communicate visceral emotions on the canvas. Though, she also finds that a detailed routine helps keep her balanced. “My wake-up time is rather late since I usually work until very late the night before,” she says. “I can’t just start working right away after I wake up. I would spend a good amount of time making breakfast and listening to music or podcasts, sometimes playing my favourite movie scenes for a little bit, reading something, or just scrolling on social media. I start working around noon, taking two or three short breaks (mostly making a quick meal and playing with my cat), and finish at two or three in the morning.”
While navigating the creative industry as an introvert could come with its own baggage, Yimiao explains how letting her work speak for itself is her biggest safety net. However, she understands that asserting oneself through networking could also score more points, which is something she’s still learning to navigate. And speaking of navigation; Liu explains that being an introverted creative does not warrant her being a shy individual. “Honestly, I’m not really shy, but I don’t talk much in public. It’s ok to be shy, and from the experiences I have learned from, the only way to help is to just focus on what you want to say and find words that are as precise as possible,” she says.
“It’s ok to be shy, and from the experiences I have learned from, the only way to help is to just focus on what you want to say and find words that are as precise as possible.”Yimiao Liu
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Copyright © Yimiao Liu
“Personally, networking is not my strongest suit. I sometimes get frustrated about the things I say or the things I don't say at events.”Lily Kong
For London-based illustrator and designer Lily Kong, deciphering the time of her life when she became an introvert has pretty been difficult. Her childhood, she recalls, was full of activities like ballet, singing and music classes. “I was a very loud kid and nothing would stop me from making an opinion publicly,” she says. Born and bred in Tai Po, a small district in Hong Kong, China, Lily was exposed to exquisite greenness, hilly landscapes and densely populated shops – which is something that is overtly reflected in her work. Her oeuvre is subliminal: powerful colour composition, vivid expressionism and fine figuration. But the most impressive thing is how she seeks solace in her rich culture and intrinsic experiences as a Chinese woman.
Kong believes she has found a perfect balance between who she is and her introvertedness. So it’s unsurprising to hear how she enjoys talking to strangers while grocery shopping, sketching people at cafe joints or hanging out with friends – experiences that have aided her artistic journey. In the past, however, she used to worry that she wasn’t active enough with networking and promoting herself, though she has found a way around it. “Personally, networking is not my strongest suit,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I sometimes get frustrated about the things I say or the things I don't say at events. My frustration often comes from impractical aims and comparisons to others. Now I’ve learnt that I am a unique person and I have to create a way of working, living and networking that works best for myself.”
Working as a freelancer – and being able to choose her own schedule, work and events – has also benefited how Lily navigates the industry as an introvert. In doing so, she’s able to create a work persona that helps her build her own independent brand, knowing fully well that putting herself out there and being intentional with who she speaks to will be advantageous to her growth as an artist.
“My frustration often comes from impractical aims and comparisons to others. Now I’ve learnt that I am a unique person and I have to create a way of working, living and networking that works best for myself.”Lily Kong
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Lily Kong: Love Me Now (Copyright © Lily Kong, 2021)
“Work-wise, I always make sure that I feel mentally prepared before meetings or presentations. I ask for as much time as possible to digest the brief and subject matter.”Darius Ou
For Singapore-based graphic designer Darius Ou, introspection is one of his charms. When having a conversation, the creative goes through a riveting thought process that involves analysing situations and conversations before responding. And though that doesn't sound like a typical introverted behaviour, Darius has found ways to weaponise it while communicating with collaborators and clients. As such, this has resulted in a wide-spanning portfolio revolving around abstractions and vivid anime illustrations.
As an introvert, Darius approaches his work from a place of emotion. This has given him the power to navigate the creative industry without feeling the need to rush into conclusion. “Work-wise, I always make sure that I feel mentally prepared before meetings or presentations. I ask for as much time as possible to digest the brief and subject matter,” he says. Otherwise, he credits his friends who have been a valuable support network for him at work events. “I have a close group of friends that I work with and some of them are introverts as well. We talk about this topic quite often,” he says. “Sometimes we invite each other to events so it's easier to network. It is often through these friends where I form meaningful and thought-provoking conversations, which eventually feeds into my work.”
“Sometimes I want to say ‘Hi’ or talk more, but words get choked up or I accidentally break the conversation.”Darius Ou
As for the more negative aspects, Darius finds that being introverted makes him appear rude or awkward, especially when meeting people. “Sometimes I want to say ‘Hi’ or talk more, but words get choked up or I accidentally break the conversation,” he says. But on the flip-side, it comes with the perks of mental preparedness, self-reliance and above all, not being shy; all of which helps in his career.
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Darius Ou: SLIC3D (Copyright © Darius Ou)
While navigating the creative industry depends solely on individual experiences, it’s also important to note that there is an appetite for different personalities. An introverted creative who enjoys the comfort of their home instead of going out can still attend events and enjoy engaging in long, charming conversations that get people wowing and vice versa. As an introverted writer, I have learnt that self-discipline is what keeps me motivated in social gatherings – the reservation of words that filter what I say, not doing too much and the mystery to hold conversation. However, this isn’t constant. There are days when we are full of life and there are days when we hold back; all of which make up our personalities.
Above all, Darius gives some trusting advice which can be applied to any situation in the world of creative work. “Time, I would say. Give yourself a little time to collect all your thoughts, to understand any situation and how it relates to you, to breathe before a high-stress event. It helps a lot sometimes.”
Copyright © Luci Pina, 2023