Life as an Introvert at HBS

I decided that I owe the world a little more of an update on “How’s HBS?”- Particularly because after the last post I got a lot of “you’ll be okay! It gets better!” which I wasn’t expecting. The beginning of a new thing is always challenging — so no need to worry.

I don’t want to be a broken record, but four weeks in, I’m still most interested about how different HBS is for introverts. I’ve been considering that aspect across a few different angles. (I have some other insights, but I’m going to focus on the introvert part for now).

This week was first time I thought “it might be nice to make some new friends.” There was so much forced people interaction at the beginning that I had no desire to get to know anyone past the required activities. I barely wanted to talk to the people I already knew. When I did try to force social interactions at the beginning, I came across as cynical.

I’m glad to be more interested in meeting people now, but I can see the downside to waiting. Now that we’re in week four, everyone else already has expectations and roles. I went to my first post-dinner section drinks during week three, and it was already surprising for me to be there. The first thing I heard was basically “Ellen! This is the first time you’re coming out!” — while I was relieved that anyone noticed/cared/wanted to talk to me, it still left me aware that I’m not participating as much as some others are.

On top of that, people are so extroverted that it can be hard to explain how I feel. The extroverts are also overwhelmed, but it isn’t the same issue. They often wish they had more time — could get to more activities — are missing something. I’m not worried about missing anything; I’m just exhausted from having to talk to people. I’m shocked at my inability to explain to people that introversion is different than fear of missing out (FOMO).

The upside of this is that while the social patterns at HBS form quickly, they’re also fluid. There’s nothing stopping introverts from engaging more as time goes on — the invitation is always there.

I feel similar tension academically. At HBS, we have 93 students in our section. In our 80 minute classes, 30–40 students get to talk per class. That means on average people only talk about once every three classes. Professors have papers that highlight which students have talked the most and least. In the same way I can tell that it’s unusual for me to go out, I can also walk by and see that I don’t talk as much as some people.

Early on, I tried to force myself outside of my comfort zone by tracking how often I raised my hand, and getting used to the risk of having it up. I’ve settled down to the point where I only raise my hand if I (1) have something unique to say or (2) haven’t talked in a REALLY long time. I am looking to get a better system to record my own comments so I’ll have a more objective idea.

This is different from some of the more extroverted people. They’re more willing to start talking (sometimes when not called on!) or assume that they should continue in a back-and-forth debate, rather than waiting for professor guidance. I can see how extroversion could be an advantage in the classroom.

Since I consciously made the decision not to go for Baker Scholar (top 10% of the class), this isn’t too big of a deal. The vast majority (70%) of people get a “2,” which basically means “good enough.” As long as I’m learning and adding the things I think are particularly interesting to the discussion, I’m fine with getting 2s. This academic discrepancy might bother me more if that weren’t the case.

I do care about if I’m perceived to be taking my education seriously. I don’t want to be here and be wasting anyone’s time. Luckily, professors tend to stay in the front of the class after it concludes. This gives me time to ask some of my off topic questions after class, so I won’t distract anyone else. I hope that even though I don’t speak as often, people can tell I’m interested and want to learn.

There are some things that specifically help introverts in the classroom. One thing that does help is that we have the Cases to prepare ahead of time. While I can’t know exactly the direction our conversation will take, I know the general line of thought. I can reflect on my own beforehand. HBS would be far more stressful if we didn’t know what we were talking about until we arrived in class.

Another is that we have assigned discussion groups. The “assigned” part means I didn’t have to go out of my way to find people. It’s also only six people, so it’s much less scary to share ideas. I’ve found that my discussion group helps me feel far more prepared and comfortable speaking in class.

Professors also work to engage people. If I don’t speak, I know I’m more likely to be cold called. I enjoy being cold called because I prepare — and it makes it easier for me to jump in without worrying if I’m adding enough value or not. This means even if I’m not always confident about when to speak, the professors make sure I get things in sometimes.

Another thing that helps: Sitting in the same seats in the classroom every day has helped me. It makes it easier to remember and understand my class mates contributions. I’m far less overwhelmed than if all 93 of us played musical chairs each day.

Professional Clubs
Now that we’re a month in, the professional clubs have also started to kickoff. I think this is one area where there could definitely be improvement.

My gut feeling is that most of the people in leadership roles at HBS are extroverts. As I wrote before, everyone is so quick to jump in, that I don’t usually feel a need to organize. I think we need better ways for introverts to connect with organizations. I took one look at the club fair and turned right back around and went to sit in Spangler and read a case. I cannot imagine a situation in which I could walk around to hundreds of people, have a quick chat, and decide what to do.

The sheer number was too confusing. Some of my friends developed intricate strategies for what to get involved with. My solution has been to be clear about my interests, and then let opportunities find me.

So far, that’s working out, but I think it’s from luck. I came to HBS knowing that I love my industry. I also know enough people to already have some connections. A member of my discussion group helped me to become the Online Editor for the HarBus. I’ve gotten involved with the Campus’s Digital Initiative and audit PM101. I’ve given some other students advice on Kickstarter projects. I’m also hoping to do some things with the Tech club.

If I didn’t have clear cut interests, it wouldn’t be easy for me to find my way. I think this is the place that introverts are most disadvantaged at HBS, and I’d love to see improvement for ways to include introverts in clubs, and in club leadership roles.

I think my big takeaway is introverts will always be in the minority at HBS. You’re always going to have a different experience coming in as an introvert compared to an extrovert.

Based on my feelings and conversations with others, I think this is the difference:

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For extroverts, HBS is exciting off the bat. New people! Parties! Whoo! Things are pretty good. People say to focus on the people, don’t worry so much about the work! There are still the low moments that come periodically, but on the whole when things are good, they’re great.

For introverts, there’s a longer ramp up. Frankly, the part at the beginning was sort of miserable. I never want to learn a ton of new things, do emotionally intense exercises, and meet a bunch of people all at once. People talk a lot about the parties, and not so much about how great cases are. It can be hard to find the other people who are feeling the same way. You have the same drops the extroverts have, but it’s a little bit less of a contrast. Over time, we start finding our places, and things get better — bit by bit — it just takes longer to be obvious.

To speculate a bit, I’m guessing (hoping) that the introverts get to the same level of happiness and belonging as the extroverts. They might even end up at a better place because they took the time to stop and thinking about where they were going. But I think the ramp up is always going to be harder.