Interest in a subject can lead you down a career path, and the right combination of education and experience can land you a job. But it’s hard to tell how much you’ll actually like your career until you’re in the thick of it — day in and day out.
Many people figure this out way too late: According to a Pew Research Center study, only about half of Americans say they’re satisfied with their current jobs.
Oftentimes, career experts say, a personality mismatch is to blame.
“It’s why a lot of people are struggling with fulfillment at work,” says Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Without a doubt.”
Understanding yourself—how you prefer to interact with people, and your most comfortable work environment—can help you find a job that’s well suited for your personality. In a lot of ways, it all boils down to one simple question.
Am I an introvert or an extrovert?
Here’s why that distinction matters — and what to do once you figure it out.
The introvert vs. extrovert spectrum
Psychologist Carl Jung popularized the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” in the 1920s to define how people direct their “psychic energy” (inwardly for introverts; outwardly for extroverts).
Today, the terms play a prominent role in personality tests popular with employers and career counselors, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which sorts people into 16 different personality types.
Most people aren’t purely extrovert or introvert, but knowing which side of the spectrum you fall on can be helpful in understanding how to bring your best self to work.
“Ask yourself: Where do I get most of my mental energy from?” suggests Adrienne Partridge, an organizational psychologist and career coach. “From being in the outside world and interacting with people? Or, from having adequate time to go within myself alone?”
If you get energized from socializing in a big group, you’re probably extrovert-leaning, Partridge says. If you prefer lots of alone time, you’re probably more introvert-leaning.
The best careers for introverts
Introverts thrive when they are free to organize their time and thoughts, says Val Nelson, a career and life coach for introverts. They work better alone without interruptions and appreciate opportunities to work from home. Introverts also “really bristle with anything that feels fake or pushy,” she adds, so workplace cultures that value respect and authenticity are best.
Business professionals who work independently are magnets for introverts. Like actuaries, who analyze the financial cost of risk using mathematics, statistics and financial theory, and who “don't typically have to spend a lot of time interacting and socially engaging with people,” SHRM’s Taylor says.
Research is another area where introverts thrive. Whether it’s medical science, academia, information technology or market analysis, researchers often work alone or with a small team, with plenty of time for deep, critical thinking.
The same goes for artists. Writers, graphic designers, photographers, videographers and other creatives usually work solo, and have a lot of freedom to explore their creativity.
“They're thinking, creating, designing, and they really don't have to interact with other people,” Taylor says.
The best careers for extroverts
Extroverts are “people people” — they crave social connection and interaction, enjoy collaboration, and may become bored or anxious when working in an isolated environment.
Education is a good field for this type of personality, since teachers spend their days engaging and collaborating with students, Taylor says. Research published in the academic journal Educational Psychology Review shows that teachers who are extroverted are also less likely to experience burnout.
Extroverts can thrive in human resource roles, too. These jobs are tasked with recruiting the best people, keeping teammates motivated, and dealing with complaints. “All of that requires major interaction with people,” Taylor says.
Sales careers also tend to attract extroverts, according to Taylor.
“Anyone who sells, naturally, has to use that extroverted personality to be able to influence people to buy their product,” he says.
Don’t get boxed in by a label
Different personalities may excel in different careers, but there’s also some crossover.
Remember: An “introvert” or “extrovert” label is not an absolute. So no matter where you fall on the spectrum, don’t let it hold you back from pursuing something you’re truly passionate about.
As a natural introvert, Taylor says he has to work daily to display more extroverted habits like “shaking hands and kissing babies.” As the leader of SHRM, an organization with more than 400 employees and 300,000 members, he's gotten pretty good at it.
“Decide what's important to you, and then decide what you're willing to do to achieve that,” he says.