Elvis the introvert

elvis-presley-157006_1280 I continue to be amazed that so many stars—celebrity entertainers, political VIPS, business luminaries—turn out to be, on close examination, introverts! Especially in this era of self-promotion, when so many of us would sell our offspring to gain more Likes, Fans, Friends, and Followers.

As mentioned in a previous post, best-selling author Susan Cain has pointed out that we—in the US at least—live in a society that deifies extroverts, especially in business, where display is paramount and the public trumps the private. A killer presentation too often hides a lack of originality. So it's refreshing to discover successful public figures who don't fit the expected profile.

Before I go into those exceptions, you may be asking, “Who gives a tweet?” Here’s who should: folks in any field (whether it's education, business, healthcare, politics, sports, entertainment) who possess real talent but wonder if they have the “right stuff” because they lack the overbearing confidence or out-sized personality they see in the extroverted leaders around them.

To them I say, “Larry Page.” (Or Mark Zuckerberg. Or Marissa Mayer. Or Michael Jordan. Or Guy Kawasaki. Or Angela Merkel. Or Elon Musk.)

What sparked this line of thought was my discovery that our first rock & roll megastar, Elvis Presley—whose wild gyrations were deemed so scandalously outlandish that he could only be shown from the waist up on national TV in 1957—was, in fact, an introvert. So says Sam Philips, the man who first recorded Elvis, as recounted in Peter Guralnick’s new book, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis was “one of the most introverted people to come into the studio” according to Phillips, who recorded hundreds of early rockers for Sun Records.

Presley joins the prestigious ranks of other musical introverts you may have heard of: Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, James Taylor, Sting, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, Christina Aguilera, Eminem, Beyonce, Jay Z, Rihanna, and several dozen other stars including even Lady Gaga. I've mentioned in a previous post that a famous YouTube video of classic rock stars commemorating Bob Dylan shows an entire stage full of introverts—including Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Neil Young—taking turns singing verses to “My Back Pages” while not looking at the audience! (That in itself is not proof of introversion, but it offered a clue.)

How to explain this paradox? Perhaps many of these introverts sought center stage in the first place because they didn't feel free to fully express themselves in their everyday life. Who knows?

Just to be clear on our terms, Introverts—or “intraverts” according to the Myers-Briggs personality inventory—are those who recharge their batteries by spending time alone. Extroverts—or “extraverts”—recharge their batteries by spending time with people. Shyness, by the way, is not a required trait for an introvert.

I remember one relatively young, somewhat introverted business manager I was coaching who, despite her talent at developing future leaders, felt she could never make it to VP of the division because she wasn’t as uninhibitedly outgoing and charismatic as the current VP. I continually assured her that leadership didn’t have to “look” a particular way and she should just keep doing her thing. Within three years she landed the VP gig, where she has been successful for years.

In the political sphere, we’ve had notable introverts running for the highest office in the land in recent years, including Mit Romney, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama in 2012. (Some will argue that Obama is an extrovert, but I’m not convinced.) This year introverts are well represented again: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, among others, including Clinton again.

This may all seem to contradict my promotion of "personal branding" on this site. Yet personal branding isn’t for extroverts only. Whether you like it or not—and many of you hate the term—you already have a personal brand, namely, your reputation. If you haven't paid much attention to it, it's become your “default brand.” For instance, it’s likely that people already relate to you as someone who either takes or avoids risks, welcomes or resists change, is easy or hard to work with, is punctual or tardy, etc. Feel free to ignore the semantics of it, but you still have a personal brand. It's your choice whether you want to be intentional about what it is.

As a footnote to the above, typing someone as an introvert or extrovert is as much art as science, because it’s based on qualities that can be perceived differently by different observers. Most Myers-Briggs experts would agree with my typing of the individuals in this post, but it shouldn’t end the debate. That’s what blog comment threads are for.

One more caveat: some experts consider those on the cusp of introvert/extrovert—those who swing both ways—to be "ambiverts," as I have reported before.

And, finally, despite my introverted leanings I should add that I have no trouble with awards. I would never turn down a Grammy or Pulitzer. And, yes, I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize. (Well, you know what I mean.)

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


  1. And before the thread is flooded with "I might be an ambivert!" — as you mention, ambiverts are those who straddle the dividing line, not those who have characteristics of both I and E. Everyone is partly I, partly E. Just that most of us are toward one end of the spectrum or the other.

    I'm a people-loving introvert. Center stage under the spotlight is my favorite place on earth. But if I don't get some serious alone time after the party, I crash hard.

    Interesting, in light of this post, that I've built a business which depends almost entirely on my personality and creating trust, rather than being a deep geek expert in my field. People come to us because they like me, not because I'm demonstrably "the best" at any of the stuff I do.

    1. What's characteristic of introverts is the ability to form deeper 1:1 relationships with a few people while extroverts tend to have not-as-deep relationships with a much larger pool of friends. Do you identify more with the former or the latter?

      1. Absolutely the former. I was 50 before I realized that of my 12 best friends, 11 thought we were casual acquaintances.

        I have 2 settings for other people: total stranger and part of my DNA. I've accepted that of my 11 new best friends, 10 consider me a casual acquaintance, even though I don't really understand the whole concept.

  2. doesn't 'display' and 'killer presentation' fit presley? the dude was so over the top, so out there (given the times) that he was deemed a threat to civilization itself.

    1. True. But the guy was also a total original. And in some ways he was very "contained," very private, and painstakingly polite and deferential. A man of many contradictions. i confess I don't know as much about him as I do about many of the other intro-rockers (there's a new term for ya).

    2. Of themselves, "display" and "killer presentation" aren't indicators. Some of us introverts are natural actors and performers. As I mention above, I love being center stage in front of a the biggest crowd I can find.

      That's easy. Those people aren't going to do anything frightening like talk to me, or ask me questions. It's one-way communication: I get to say and do whatever I want, and they take it.

      Just as bullies are often hiding fear, performers are sometimes introverts.

  3. Elvis, like many of the other famous introverts, put themselves out there and overcome their introvert tendencies, but at what price. A life of habitual drug use, suicides, and tragic endings seems to accompany the extrovert wannabes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »