Personal growth

Lessons from an Introvert: How to Push Your Limits and Overcome Uncertainty

If you want to achieve any sort of growth in life, you’re going to have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Experimentation is the fastest path towards experiences that allow you to learn, develop, and push your limits. Whether new skills, tactics, or techniques – growth comes from change.

But it’s easier said than done, especially for introverts. My perfect day is designed around routine, which helps build discipline and focus. I reserve high productivity times of the day for reading, writing, and creating. Although it’s challenging work, it’s a familiar challenge. It doesn’t generate the same type of discomfort for me as something like public speaking or learning a new skill.

If I’m not careful, it’s easy for me to settle into my comfort zone and ignore uncomfortable opportunities for growth that fall outside of my norm. I have a tendency to take discipline past the golden mean and become too rigid, losing flexibility in my day-to-day. To combat this, I have to disrupt my routine on occasion to make sure I’m still focused on the right things and challenging myself in new ways.

A few weeks ago, after months of deliberation, I shadowed an acting class. I wasn’t sure what to expect–it took everything in me just to show up. I have no desire to be an actor and there’s no hidden talent buried within me. In fact, the thought of acting makes me want to curl up and die. So what was I doing there?

My primary motivation was using it as an experiment to improve my public speaking skills. I came across the idea over coffee with a friend and fellow writer, Lily Hansen. She told me how her background in acting helped improve her stage presence and presentation skills. It was an interesting angle that I thought worth testing out.

The fact remained, I was nervous and in no way looking forward to the class. But I followed through because it aligned with an area of my life that I wanted to improve. The acting class was a vote for my desired identity – not as an actor, but as a stronger communicator and storyteller. I looked at it as an opportunity to arm myself with techniques to build greater comfort presenting in front of an audience.

Everyone’s different, but as an introvert, the question remains – when the stakes are at their highest, how do you take the leap and overcome uncertainty? This is how I’ve learned to navigate that anxiety.

Escaping the narrative

It’s important to know your tendencies. Understanding introversion and extroversion is an important part of self-discovery and awareness. It can help you discover where you gain energy and where your limits are. If you know which way you lean, you’ll know yourself better – when to push and when to ease off.

But keep in mind, it’s a spectrum. There’s a difference between awareness and over-identifying. Humans are incredibly complex. Neatly defined categories are only enticing because they’re easy and allow you to avoid navigating the gray area that defines most of life.

Don’t lock yourself into some narrative you can’t escape. Otherwise, it becomes an excuse to avoid uncomfortable situations. The same goes for extroversion–discomfort means different things to different people. If you want to avoid it, you can find plenty of familiar excuses within your comfort zone.

The power of ”who cares?”

Once you’ve escaped the narrative, it’s about taking the leap. Whether a presentation, high-stakes situation, or looking ridiculous when you’re learning a new skill, how do you take the first step?

When Shaun White, legendary snowboarder and three-time Olympic gold medalist, is at the top of an important run, the last thing he tells himself before he goes off is “who cares.” He doesn’t psych himself up or blast Eminem. He knows he’s put in the preparation. At that point, what happens, happens.

You don’t take new risks or perform your best by fueling your nerves. The who cares mindset isn’t about apathy, it’s about a state of relaxed concentration. This is where you do your best work. It’s a strangely empowering self-talk that helps navigate fears of judgment, failure, or general anxiety about drawing attention to yourself.

When I’m about to do something new or uncomfortable, this mindset provides a moment of calm before the storm. I know I’ll probably look like an idiot (the acting class), but if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that most people are too preoccupied with themselves to remember you tomorrow. You’re the only one still thinking about it.

Swim lessons and my life’s finest moments

At twenty-two, after graduating college, I decided to take swim lessons to learn proper technique. I was just getting into triathlons, which necessitate swimming with efficiency unless you want to smuggle in water wings. So I signed up for a month of private lessons at the Vanderbilt aquatics center.

I was prepared to look like a dumbass, but it surpassed even my expectations. The aquatics staff was so accustomed to elementary children signing up for these lessons that they ignored the form I filled out. To their surprise, a grown man, fifteen years older than every other person in the pool, wandered in for lessons.

With seven-year-olds in the lanes to either side, I started my lessons. The instructor (also younger than me) had to come up with a plan on the fly – diving for pool rings in the deep end wasn’t going to cut it. To make matters worse, I couldn’t make it down and back without flailing for air. Overall, these were some of the finest moments of my life.

But the who cares mindset helped me get over my ego and commit to learning proper technique. I looked like a complete noob for the first week, and I was. But with practice and time, I improved. Eight years later, I’m still swimming every week.

I reminded myself of this experience in my anticipation leading up to the acting class. Many of life’s most rewarding experiences happen once you let go of your fear of looking like an idiot. Don’t let your ego hold you back. These people aren’t going to remember you. Show up eager to learn and follow through on what you came to do.

Handling nerves in the moment

Almost always, I find that once I jump off and settle in, my nerves calm. But there are still moments when I get nervous in the middle of a challenging situation or new experience. When that happens, instead of amplifying my focus on myself and fueling my nerves, I shift my attention to externals.

In presentations or high-profile meetings, for example, I focus on non-verbals in the audience or the talking points of other people in the room. This helps keep me from spiraling or thinking ten lines ahead. By focusing outside of myself, I’m able to bring my attention back to the room, settle into the moment, and trust myself.

The All Blacks, New Zealand’s most successful rugby team, have a similar technique they use to bring themselves back to the match and avoid allowing the magnitude of the moment to overcome them. They use breathing techniques to put themselves in a clear, calm state. Then they anchor that state to a specific physical action – scrunching their toes, stamping their feet, or throwing water over their heads. This helps bring them back to the situation at hand and a relaxed state of concentration.

If you get too far ahead in what you’re trying to say or do, you’ll only compound the issue. Instead, come back to now. Project and focus more of your attention outside of yourself. It might be the opposite of your initial instinct to turn within, but it’s far more effective.

Jump when others retreat

If you want to become the best version of yourself, you’re going to have to put yourself out there. Growth comes from pushing your limits, experimenting with different approaches, and learning new skills. The greater tolerance you build for discomfort, the further the reaches of your comfort zone will extend. But this is a lifelong effort.

If you build self-awareness and maintain perspective leading up to, and during, the moment, you’ll be well on your way. Avoid over-identifying, be willing to look like an idiot, and avoid projecting too far into the future. This is how you get out of your own head, take risks, and jump when others retreat to familiar surroundings. It’s here where some of life's most valuable experiences are found.

The Power of Your Early Influences

Many of us are embarrassed by our early influences. No one admits to how much they loved listening to Matchbox Twenty, watching Spielberg films, or reading The Hunger Games. Everyone’s too worried about promoting how refined their tastes are.

But underneath all that virtue signaling, the truth is that your early influences were foundational to many of the things you find inspiration in today. They’re the branches who first led you to the mediums and ideas that resonate strongest with you.

One of the most important influences of my early twenties was author Tim Ferriss (and he continues to be to this day). But because of how many people he’s reached–also known as success–he has his haters. While an aversion to the mainstream might be inherent to high-brow culture, it’s ridiculous to think you’re above your early influences. Without Ferriss, I wouldn’t have discovered eighty percent of the most influential books I’ve read in recent years.

The Branches: Tim Ferriss led me to Derek Sivers, who led me to Nassim Taleb and Stoicism, which led me to Ryan Holiday, who led me to Robert Greene. These are the authors, entrepreneurs, and philosophers who have had the most profound influence in my life over the past ten years. 

Foundational influences matter because they connect us with more specific interests and allow us to explore those in greater depth. For me, Ferriss is brilliant in orchestrating these connections.

The same concept holds true for influences in any other area of interest or field of study. Those who first peaked your curiosity–regardless of reason–helped lay the groundwork for where you are today. If you trace the past decade of your deepest interests, you’ll start to see a map similar to the one above. 

If you’re too worried about virtue signaling and showing off your refined tastes, you’re not only missing the point, you’re actively discouraging others. 

It’s important to allow your tastes to evolve, but don’t dismiss someone who’s just starting out. Allow them the an opportunity to explore on their own without telling them what they should care about. 

Investor and entrepreneur, Naval Ravikant, offers advice for early readers that’s applicable across disciplines, “Read what you love, until you love to read.” People who love to read and dig into books on complex ideas started by reading simpler subjects that resonated with them years earlier. 

You begin based on where you are today and what your natural interests are. Otherwise you don’t learn to love reading (or music, film, sports, finance, international business, teaching, technology). And if you don’t develop a love for reading itself, you’re never going to make it from R.L Stine’s Goosebumps to Nassim Taleb’s Incerto

If you’re too busy feigning interest in what you’re supposed to care about, instead of what you actually enjoy, you’ll kill your natural curiosity trying to keep up with the connoisseurs. 

Your early influences, based on your unique interests, are the ones who help build your latticework of mental models and network of influences. From here you can begin branching out to connect different ideas, authors, concepts, and styles.

Embrace your early influences. The only thing that matters is what resonates with you at this point in your life and what you find inspiration in. It’s okay to listen to a catchy pop song or read a pop-fiction title just because you enjoy it. That’s reason enough. Let the foundation lead the way.

The Secret to Developing Thick Skin

If there’s a defining feature that sets apart smart creatives who are able to sustain themselves at a high level of performance, it’s thick skin. They’re persistent in their work and resilient to outside opinion and rejection. They’re able to put themselves out there, time and time again, and deliver. And while this might appear to be a natural talent, it’s far from it. It’s a skill that takes years to develop, and it begins with renegotiating expectations.

Many talented people struggle with this–entrepreneurs, artists, athletes, writers. While they might be brilliant in their work, when it comes to putting themselves out there, they end up demoralized or enraged by the slightest hint of criticism.

This becomes a downward spiral that throws off the entire creative process. Even if you are able to correct course, it’s an unnecessary distraction that disrupts your focus and pulls you away from more meaningful work.

Internal vs. External Expectations

To offset this and develop the thick skin required to put yourself out there, you must first differentiate between internal and external expectations, assigning each their proper weight. Internal expectations–the expectations you hold for yourself and your creative process–should always take precedence.

How your work is interpreted, received, or recognized, is beyond your immediate influence. It’s not that this is completely irrelevant, but it should matter far less because it’s an unreliable metric against which to measure yourself. The greater the importance you assign to external expectations, the more dependencies you introduce, and the higher the likelihood that you’ll end up pissed off, burned out, or distracted from the work that matters most.

Self-sufficiency is the path towards effectively managing expectations. In the opposite direction are dependencies–evidence of placing a premium on things you can’t affect.

When you prioritize the internal expectations you hold for yourself, you naturally develop the thick skin required to put yourself out there and consistently produce at a high level. Instead of seeking value in the recognition, you begin seeking value in the creative process itself. And this is the only sustainable path forward.

The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.
— Marcus Aurelius

Turn your attention back to what’s within your control. Put in the work. Focus on your craft. Create something that resonates with you. When you limit the external dependencies and surrounding noise, the more relaxed, concentrated, and effective you will be.

Feedback vs. Criticism

This is not to say that you shouldn’t seek feedback–which is critical to further developing and growing your skills. But feedback is to criticism as internal expectations are to external expectations.

In other words, the source is fundamentally different. Feedback comes from fellow creatives with skin in the game–the doers–who are taking risks by putting themselves and their work out there. These are the people whose opinions and judgment you should respect most. Criticism comes from insecure bystanders, shouting from a distance, who are incapable of creating anything meaningful of their own.

The intention behind feedback is also different. Criticism is often shallow and malicious in nature–focused on breaking you down. True feedback, from an inner circle whom you respect, is diligent, constructive, and objective. Its purpose is to challenge you to improve yourself and your craft.

In short, it’s about growth–which is a painstaking process in its own right–not about praise, telling you what you want to hear, or making things easier. It’s up to you to draw the line and determine who has your best interest in mind.


Create Your Own Momentum

When the inevitable criticism does come, use it as motivation and redirect that energy to create momentum of your own. With the right perspective, it becomes almost laughable.

Consider how much time and energy it took that person to criticize you–it consumed them. Nothing is a more sad, ineffective use of time–so let the childish tantrums end there. Refuse to allow yourself to be distracted by those without skin in the game. Their opinion holds no validity.

An opportunist in life sees all hindrances as instruments for power. The reason is simple: negative energy that comes at you in some form is energy that can be turned around–to defeat an opponent and lift you up.
— Robert Greene

For most talented, hardworking people, it’s just a matter of time. Which means you need to find the energy to keep going–to continue creating. The more dialed into yourself that you are, the less outside opinion should matter, and the more resilient you’ll be in your creative process. If you rely on external validation to keep you going, you’re going to have a short career.

A meaningful, fulfilling creative life demands hard work and tough decisions. Those who aren’t cut out for it will lean towards the path of least resistance, as defined by mindless consumption or shallow criticism. It’s easy to live that life.

If easy is what you want out of life, feel free to join the ranks of the unremarkable.

But those who make a difference show up, bust their ass, and sustain themselves at that level by having their expectations in order. They’re able to differentiate between internal and external expectations, valuing self-sufficiency over dependencies and feedback over criticism.

If you take the time to develop these skills–resilience, persistence, and mental toughness–outside opinion will lose its grip and you’ll be able to better carry your own momentum forward.

The Myth of Losing Your Edge

One of the biggest fears that many hardworking, talented people have is that if they ease up in any facet of their lives, they’ll lose their edge. It’s a myth that’s fueled by a failure to differentiate between internal and external expectations. If you want to be at your best, it’s important to make this distinction and assign each their proper weight.

If you’ve convinced yourself that your edge comes from orchestrating external factors–things that are by nature beyond your control–that’s your ego taking over. This mindset is what pushes people to high strung, compulsive, and rigid behavior. Attempting to inflict your will with brute force and control every variable will drive you to exhaustion.

What keeps you ahead is not a state of constant dissatisfaction and the excessive demands you place upon the world. And while you might be quick to dismiss this as the ‘slackers credo’ of aiming low, take a closer look. Renegotiating expectations has nothing to do with the trajectory of your aim. It’s about prioritization.

You do not control the actions of others, how your work is interpreted, the recognition you receive, the specific obstacles you face, or whether the perfect sequence of events unfolds immediately before you.

It’s not that these things don’t matter. But they should matter less. Because they aren’t what define your edge and they aren’t reliable metrics against which to measure yourself.

The greater importance you assign to these types of external expectations, the more dependencies you introduce, and the higher the likelihood that you’ll end up pissed off, burned out, and distracted from the work that matters most. While you might be able to influence these to an extent, any significant control you believe you possess over them is illusory.

Your real edge is in your persistence and your own abilities. Your inner drive is independent of external expectations–the two are not inextricably linked. You have to be able to separate these from one another, as the resourceful and antifragile know well.

Rather than compromising your edge, redefining internal and external expectations puts you at a significant advantage. You free yourself to focus back on the things you can actually affect–mainly, your actions, dedicating time to your craft, discovering meaning in your work, living in accordance with your principles, developing your own resourcefulness, navigating inevitable obstacles. This is the most accurate way to measure your own progress.

When you become reliant on someone or something else to determine a successful outcome or your personal sense of self-worth, you’re putting yourself in an impossible position. Dependencies introduce anxiety and envy.

The mentality of “if only X, Y, Z happened for me, that would solve everything” is more of a liability than it is an asset. And it doesn’t say much for your ability to prioritize. Why place a premium on things you can’t directly affect? You’re wasting your limited time and energy, which could be better allocated elsewhere.

What you should prioritize is a state of relaxed concentration. It’s here where your best work gets done.

When you turn your attention back to your own abilities and immerse yourself in the task at hand, the anxiety subsides. There’s something calming about putting in the work when it’s down to just you and your craft. It brings things back to self-discipline, self-expression, and the pursuit of meaning in your work, all of which are within your immediate grasp.

Most top performers, who once believed their insatiable, demanding tendencies to be their edge, will concede this with age. What you achieve in life is not conditional on your external expectations. They don’t make you better and they don’t guarantee success. There will always be other factors in play beyond your control, and that’s okay. What actually matters is your internal focus, the work you’re putting in, and the expectations you hold for yourself.

Renegotiating expectations doesn’t mean sacrificing personal aspirations or expecting less from yourself. And it doesn’t mean aiming low. It means aiming higher and demanding more–of yourself–and prioritizing that. Define yourself by substance. Not by luck or futile attempts to bend the world to your will.

When you differentiate between internal and external expectations–assigning each their proper weight–it’s not your edge that you’ll lose, it’s your angst. In its place, you’ll build gratitude and a greater capacity to focus on the work that resonates strongest with you. It’s here where you can make a real difference and develop the quiet confidence that it takes to create something meaningful.