Behind the Scenes: An Introverted Headhunter

Six months after I graduated from university, I joined one of the most prominent recruiting firms in the world. After a short week of training, I was handed a sheet with all the KPIs and targets I had to hit in order to pass my probation. Before I even had time to process my week of training, I was thrown on the phone and instructed to call anyone in our database that hadn’t been contacted in the last three months. Like a typical introvert, who prefers to have her answers well thought out, I spent 3 hours the night before, reading recruitment blogs and writing scripts so I’d feel prepared. Unsurprisingly, I was still underprepared. Call after call, I found myself being put on spot by experienced professionals who knew so much more about everything than I. When I finally had a chance to look at my phone, it was 5:40 PM. I took a deep breath and told myself, “One more call. One more call and you can go home and crawl into bed.”

Fast forward six months, I was juggling a handful of clients, cold calling potential clients, and consulting dozens of candidates on a daily basis. Interviewing and phone screening over 20 people a day became the norm. When I wasn’t interviewing new candidates, I was catching up with old ones — some of them became so comfortable with me they’d even call me to talk about their personal lives! Many of them thanked me for their new jobs and many more thanked me for giving them advice on selling themselves better. Not only did I gain my clients’ and candidates’ trust, but I also set the new sales record for all newcomers. Though I enjoyed what I was doing and proved myself to be one of the top recruiters in my company, one thing remained constant — everyday, at around 5:40 PM, I would catch myself whispering, “one more call. Just one more, and you can head home and crawl into bed.”

Ability, Preference, and Passion

If I was good at my job and enjoyed helping my clients and candidates out, why did I always feel so burnt out after a day at work? Moreover, why did I choose to stay as long as I did? Though it hasn’t always been obvious to me, six months into my time as a recruiter, I realized it was because my ability, preference, and passion were misaligned and weighted differently. They do not necessarily have to be aligned for you to feel fulfilled at your job, but it is important, especially for introverts, to be able to distinguish between them and decide which factor matters the most.

Ability: Why I was good at Recruiting

I was pretty good at my job. I wasn’t the best at networking with a large group of people (honestly, I was quite awkward), but I was rather good at connecting with people on an individual level. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, the Bible for introverts, offered some good insights to why an introvert like me may have excelled at a job like recruiting. Here are some typically introverted qualities that made me a good and unique recruiter:

1. Introverts listen and empathize

When I started receiving messages and calls from my clients and candidates about non work-related issues, I started wondering why people felt comfortable talking to me about their personal lives. In Cain’s book, she highlighted the fact that extroverts tend to think out loud, whereas introverts gravitate towards introspection. As a result, introverts often make better listeners — even though we might not respond immediately, we’re processing what’s being said, what’s going through people’s minds, and how we can best respond. This was extremely important for me as a recruiter — we listen to the things that are being said and even more attentively to the things that are not being said. We establish trust by listening and responding appropriately. When clients and candidates feel unsure about a job, an interview, or a job offer, my empathy would kick in. One of the pitfalls of recruiters is they often enter the “hard sell” mode — if you can’t empathize with your clients and candidates, you might become too aggressive or even manipulative. Since I was good at putting myself in their shoes, most of them were quite open to hearing my opinions and making decisions based on my advice.

2. Introverts are more focused

No, introverts “have no special advantage in intelligence,” but we tend to process more information when we’re given the space to do so. Even though my job was largely people-oriented, there was regular “downtime” for me to search for potential candidates and research different industries. Most of my extroverted colleagues hated this part of the job — most of them struggled to stay focused for more than 30 minutes. On the contrary, I was able to, and enjoyed conducting research for long periods of time. As Dr. Laurie Helgoe, an influential psychologist with nearly 20 years of experience, wrote in “Revenge of the Introvert” on Psychology Today’s website,

Introverts are collectors of thoughts, and solitude is where the collection is curated and rearranged to make sense of the present and future. Introverts can tolerate—and enjoy—projects that require long stretches of solitary activity.

Thanks to my ability to stay focused, I excelled at finding qualified candidates through recruiting channels most of my colleagues deemed “low quality.”

3. Introverts have different definitions of “happiness”

Scott Love, an experienced recruiter, painted a pretty accurate picture of what being a recruiter feels like:

I once had an employee who would peak into ecstasy whenever he made a successful cold recruit call with the candidate agreeing to send in his resume. Then he would plummet to the depths of despair when the resume didn’t come in a few days later. And when it finally came in he would peak up again when the candidate showed signs of going forward. But when the client expressed concerns about interviewing, he would fall back down again.

This emotional roller coaster is what causes most recruiters to quit within a month or two. Even though most recruiters I’ve met live for the highs, I personally found them somewhat distracting and short lived — if I depended on the highs to drive me, would I still be driven during a low season? Instead, I kept myself emotionally neutral most of the time.

How did I do that? Naturally through what Cain called, “the happiness of flow.” This is not the kind of exuberant joy you see when someone closes a case, it’s the kind of contentment introverts get from “getting into the zone,” or entering a “flow state,” an optimal condition in which you feel totally engaged in an activity. This could mean anything from finding 20 potential candidates to call, going through 50 business development calls, or simply finishing up some paperwork. Since I could get a sense of achievement through all the “mundane” daily tasks, the normal highs and lows impacted me a lot less. As a result, my ability to stay emotionally neutral kept me off the roller coaster and allowed me to stay focused in all areas of my job.

Thanks to my introvert skills, I excelled at my job, but because of my introvert preferences, I also struggled with it quite a bit.

Preference: Why Being a Recruiter was Draining

Laurie Helgoe began her article “Revenge of the Introvert” by describing her state of mind after a long day of psychotherapy:

After a day of seeing patients, I was drained . . . I was good at helping others discover and pursue what they wanted out of life. But at day’s end I had no resources left to do it for myself.

As a psychologist with such extensive experiences and knowledge, Helgoe most likely didn’t feel burnt out because she’s incapable or underqualified for the job. She simply didn’t like the people aspect of her job.

In the same article, Helgoe described introverts as “people whose personality confers on them a preference for the inner world of their own mind rather than the outer world of sociability.”

Like Helgoe, my job as a recruiting consultant put me in situations where I was constantly surrounded by external stimulation. During interviews, I was constantly aware of what was being said, how it was said, and what was not being said. In addition to understanding verbal and nonverbal cues, I often had to find ways to help my candidates articulate their experiences better and “sell” themselves better. For an introvert like me, instead of feeling energized by social interactions, I often felt overstimulated and burned out by a day of conversing and decoding.

Why did I work as a recruiter for as long as I did? Is it simply because I was good at it and it was financially rewarding? No. No amount of money would’ve convinced me to stay in such an emotionally draining job — I stayed because I was passionate about changing people’s lives through positive career changes.

Passion: Why I Stayed So Long

When should you act more extroverted than you really are? Susan Cain answered that question in Quiet through the example of Professor Brian Little, former Harvard University psychology lecturer and winner of the 3M Teaching Fellowship.

Professor Little is a lively, humorous, and caring psychology professor whose classes were always oversubscribed. Though now retired, he was always good at entertaining and engaging his students with the right amount of theatrical effects and statistical references. His students love him so much they would form long lines outside of his office whenever he held office hours, just to get a few minutes with him. He loved his students equally and invested in them by lecturing and writing several hundred letters of recommendation a year.

Perhaps surprisingly, the same charismatic professor would “race to the restroom and hide inside a stall” after each lecture, just so he could recharge and avoid talking to people. In fear of being recognized by his shoes, he would even prop his feet up on the bathroom walls!

How, just how can a strong introvert like Professor Little manage and enjoy his job as a people-facing lecturer? Professor Little singlehandedly developed a new field of psychology that explains this seeming contradiction — Free Trait Theory. This is what Free Trait Theory says in a nutshell:

According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”

Though my job, like professor Little’s, was emotionally draining and required lots of intentional solitary self-care, I was capable of “pretending to be more extroverted” for the sake of work I considered important. My “core personal project” consisted of helping people find their professional calling — whenever I received texts, calls, or gifts from my candidates, expressing how much they love the new job I found them, the struggles and emotional drainage all seemed somewhat worthwhile.

As Cain concluded the chapter on Professor Little, she said:

Yes, we are only pretending to be extroverts, and yes, such inauthenticity can be morally ambiguous (not to mention exhausting), but if it’s in the service of love or a professional calling, then we’re doing just as Shakespeare advised — “To thine own self be true.”

Are You Saying I Should Pretend to be Extroverted?

By no means am I saying that. That’s the most annoying, if not insulting, advice anyone can give to an introvert. Not only does it assume that extroversion is the ideal, it undermines all the wonderfully unique traits and strengths that come with being introverted. As an introvert, it’s important to know your strengths, your preferences, and your passion. Of course, if you could find work where your ability, preferences, and passion are aligned, that would be ideal. But even if they don’t, you can still succeed in your job. With that said, if you want to succeed in your job, ability may be the most important factor. And if you want your job to feel meaningful, make sure you’re passionate about it. As Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true” — don’t be afraid to branch out and don’t ever let anyone tell you, “you’re an introvert, there’s no way you could be a successful X, Y, or Z.”

Jennifer Fu
I’m your typical nerd who likes to curl up into a ball with a book in one hand and coffee in the other (apparently good at juggling too). I grew up in Taiwan, China, and the U.S., so I’m your typical bilingual TCK as well. I’m a content marketer who will be pursuing a degree in Digital Anthropology at UCL soon.