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The End of Solitude - Response to William Deresiewicz

I recently read an article by William Deresiewicz titled “The End of Solitude”. What prompted me to read the article was an interview with Mr. Deresiewicz that I heard on NPR.

During the NPR interview, Mr. Deresiewicz delved into the importance of solitude, being alone and time for self-reflection. Of course, you are naturally drawn to premises that are similar to your own so I listened intently as he contrasted the present with the past regarding the lack of “alone” time that we all face today.

Mr. Deresiewicz’s literary knowledge is beyond impressive – he’s an academic and is able to compare and contrast numerous thought-leaders of the past and their views of the value of solitude. In “The End of Solitude” he highlights the importance of solitude that numerous philosophers and famous authors have written about for many, many years. My personal appreciation for Thoreau’s writing, specifically Walden and more specifically “Solitude” and “Economy” immediately came to mind as I read the article. Thoreau was, of course, the master of being alone and valuing the time. Walden was written in 1854 during the several years that Thoreau lived in a homemade hut away from society. It seems as though he preferred it.

In “Solitude”, one of my favorite paragraphs is when Thoreau writes “I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for a an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery.” This passage reminds us that appreciating solitude may require us to move through an uncomfortable feeling, an anxiety, especially at the beginning of a period of time in which we are alone. Thoreau mentions this “unpleasant” feeling of solitude within the first few weeks of his time at Walden. Thoreau works through it with the help of a “gentle rain” which made the “human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.”

Technology definitely provides us with the capability of continual stimulation. I get emails on my Blackberry, I get Facebook updates on my Blackberry, my calendar which is constantly changing is on my Blackberry, I receive texts and pages on my Blackberry, all of the information that I want to receive comes on iGoogle and every contact is duplicated on my desktop just in case I don’t have my Blackberry.

When the internet connection at my home is not working or when my company laptop breaks, I am completely discombobulated – I feel lost. I wonder what is going on in the world and what I am missing. As I write this, the Instant Messaging client that I use every day is not working. It fills me with frustration that I cannot immediately communicate with people.

Mr. Deresiewicz taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008. He commented in the NPR interview on how his students at Yale would be in constant contact with each other either by texting or cell phone calls. In “The End of Solitude” he cites a teenager that sent “3000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and tooth brushing time. So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.”

Mr. Deresiewicz reminisces about when he was in college and since we are approximately the same age, he relays the same situation that I experienced repeatedly. Back in the late 1980’s, we didn’t have cell phones and most of us didn’t have computers. My friend Jeff had a cell phone which was about the size of a shoe box, had poor connectivity and was very expensive to use – and he was the only one that I knew with a cell phone. The concept of emailing existed but very few had their own computer – we all went to “the lab” to use the computers. I think one person had a Mac but no one else that I knew had one.

Texting didn’t exist – no Facebook, no MySpace. When I got back from class, it was always a surprise as to who was in the dorm. I always hoped that my friends were there but if they weren’t, it was a complete mystery as to where they were – in class, the gym, the café? It was impossible to know. The strategy back then was to wait – stay in the dorm because they had to come back eventually, it was guaranteed that you’d see them if you waited long enough. Waiting was our version of alone time – back then we didn’t jump on the computer to IM or email with someone. We read a book, the newspaper or just sat around thinking. We did not have the avenues of connection that exist today.

As I listened to Mr. Deresiewicz on NPR and as I read his article, I started drawing connections from the world of academics to the world of business. I started thinking about solitude and the impact to business.

The first thing that I thought about is how vacation typically helps us recharge. The “downtime”, the ability to “get away” and “unplug”. I work at a company which recently required all employees to take a week off during the December holidays. When we all returned from that week long break, people unanimously felt recharged because they were able to have a real vacation. This was not because they had a week off but because EVERYONE had a week off and therefore the cacophony off messages shut off. Everyone stopped paging, emailing, vmailing and texting so everyone was able to truly disconnect.

Sadly, we all agreed that the emails, vmails, texts and pages that occur during our regular vacations consistently made us regret taking time off – that we all stayed plugged-in during our so called vacation in order not to be overwhelmed and out of touch when we returned. This is the current state of vacations – we dread falling behind and therefore never disconnect. Even during vacations we rarely have any solitude. Re-entry into the work environment is too painful if you’ve completely disconnected so you squeeze work into the free spaces of vacation thereby losing any sense of solitude.

The second thing that struck me is the concept that a lack of solitude is more likely to shift people in essence from “listening” to “telling”. I cannot think of anything more true in the business world. When we are over-loaded and over-worked, we switch into “tell” mode – we maximize the limited time that we have by pushing out information to others. Listening is the first thing that we cut.

The second thing we cut is innovation and creativity. Without the time to sit and ponder and think differently, we significantly curtail innovation and creativity. I know personally that some of the most creative ideas come from think-time. Innovation also requires a continuous block of time to be effective. Continual interrupts in the form of calls, emails, texts and pages break the train of thought and focus us back on the immediate emergencies of the day. If you have ever written software code, pondering an algorithm or logic to solve a business problem requires a think-time that is not interrupted, hence the reason that software developers often force themselves to tune-out.

The third thing that we cut back on is leadership development which ironically should be our number one priority as leaders. Determining the strengths and weaknesses of our teams requires some amount of think-time, not only to identify the specific strengths and weaknesses but also to formulate a plan to improve the critical development areas. This applies to ourselves as well as others.

The fourth thing that we cut back on is proactive thinking – what are key trends, how are business models changing, how will the team need to re-tool in order to prepare for the coming changes, how will the economic climate affect business and how can we best be ready to deal with those changes. Answering these types of forward looking questions requires think-time. Time alone to think through the possible scenarios and read up on trends – then time to connect the dots of data and articulate some premises or hypotheses. Personally I write things down to figure them out. I usually camp out somewhere that I know people cannot find me, I ignore email and my cell phone and the solitude provides me with the ability to figure out complex challenges.

The fifth thing that we cut back is introspection – the time to increase our self-awareness. How could I be more effective, what am I missing, what issues are going to surprise me, who do I need to collaborate with in order to get traction, etc. Constant stimulus denies us of the time to time think about ourselves and how we can improve.

In business the lack of solitude impacts listening, innovation, leadership development, the ability to be proactive and self-awareness. All four are critical to the long-term success of any business.

Comments

  1. Interesting essay Brett, very thoughtful and thought provoking. I did actually have several threads of thought while reading this.

    One thing I started thinking about when you mentioned software writing and its traditional (at least partly) solitary nature was the contemporary paradigm of "paired programming" where software authorship is done in teams of two programmers staring at the same screen and writing code sitting side by side. Proponents claim this to be an effective development technique for several reasons including the constant interchange of ideas and the sort of "lack of privacy" that theoretically cuts down on sloppy behind-the-scenes crap code.

    In trying this technique a few years ago, i found that yes, I had to be sharper, and there was a beneficial exchange of ideas with the other programmer. But I also found it to be exhausting, and I literally burned out at that assignment. I'm not sure that a better app was produced than what either of us could have come up with singlehandedly. I also feel that my own thought process may have been hampered by always "being in public" and therefore not willing to explore a "boneheaded" idea.

    So maybe this is a very specific example of some of the concepts you're talking about, albeit indirectly.

    Another thread of thought that came to me was thinking about the difference between current and past society not 20 years ago, but, say, 200 years ago. In those times, you literally had to wait for someone to physically deliver news of the world to you before you knew what was happening anywhere except the immediate vicinity of your dwelling. What was that consciousness like, I wonder?

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