This time of year many of us have been on a summer holiday, and are about to return to a world that constantly pulls us outside ourselves and in countless different demanding directions all at once.
So before getting caught up in the usual external chaos, we thought this a helpful time to extol the virtues of quality alone time and why it’s essential for a full life to balance the pace and intensity of modern life and work with periods of solitude.
As Susan Cain, author of one of our favorite best-sellers, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, points out.
Solitude is out of fashion… .Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.
Yet research clearly shows that we’re more creative alone, with privacy and freedom from interruption. Ms. Cain cites studies that show how privacy also makes us productive, helps us learn, and increases our performance.
…the most fantastically creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
Solitude has also long been associated with creativity, transcendence and “genius.” Many of the world’s most celebrated cultural icons had solitude embedded in their lifestyle and spirit. Pablo Picasso famously said, “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway in his Nobel acceptance speech attributes his prize to a life that required being alone.
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” (Ernest Hemingway)
Though the stories of solo spirit don’t belong only to the domain of famous artists and writers. There is a vibrant spectrum of countless other famously successful people, including business leaders, who echo this.
Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me…they live in their heads….I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone…Not on a committee. Not on a team. (Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder)
In solitude, we breathe more deeply and see more clearly. It brings us to the state of being fully present that characterizes great leaders. Ester Buchholz, author of the Call of Solitude, describes how mastering the art of solitude doesn’t make us more antisocial but, to the contrary, better able to connect with everyone around us more authentically and powerfully. Solitude enhances our intimacy and our connection to others, re-fuels our energy for life.
Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can teach us fortitude and the ability to satisfy our own needs. A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest. It brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual, our hopes for freedom. Alone time is fuel for life.
“Active aloneness” versus loneliness
There are many shapes and forms to alone time, though above all it’s about being meaningful alone with yourself, not about being “sad, mad, or bad” (lonely and feeling abandoned and neglected by others and by the world). Buchholz explains:
Perhaps our biggest mistake is the way we view solitude.
Just as the need and love for food is satisfied in many ways—a gourmet meal, snack, cooking lessons, grazing, or a barbecue—alone time can be found while with another, in crowds, in sleep, or in alert and chosen isolation. It does not even require quiet and stillness. Alone time can be found in a roomful of people dancing, in prayer, in nature, in the creative act, at the computer, or with your mate.
The forgotten art of how to be alone
Many of us fear, forget how, or perhaps never learned how to be happily and creatively alone in our own company. For more on this, check out British author Sara Maitland’s toolkit of “ideas for overturning negative views of solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and a true capacity to enjoy it” in her book, How to Be Alone.
Instead of allowing your networked self to cling to constant communication, learn how to do “active aloneness.” We like to call it self-leadership and it’s essential in our work with business leaders, especially during times of transition and in challenging environments. Because it’s at the heart of being an authentic, creative, and resilient leader who people want to follow.