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Managing Ourselves

The Power of Solitude

Why Spending Time Alone Can Be Key to Making a Meaningful Life

The Power of Solitude

A quote from Beat poet Gary Snyder:

“There are two things that are really educational. One is being with a bunch of really smart people. The other is being all by yourself.” 

The regimen that I wrote about in a recent newsletter about the power of picking up the phone—making a couple of random phone calls a day to connect meaningfully with friends—is one good way to facilitate the former. Now, I want to work on the other part of Snyder’s statement—the beauty and benefit of “being all by yourself.” It’s what I think of as solitude. More than ever, in the stressful state of the nation in which we’re living and working, solitude is an essential skill to have as we try to make our way effectively through the world. 

Solitude, to be clear, is not a synonym for loneliness. Psychology Today contrasts the two: “Loneliness is marked by a sense of isolation. Solitude, on the other hand, is a state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to self-awareness.” Solitude is such an essential part of my existence that I can’t imagine trying to manage effectively without regular rounds of it. I would suggest that solitude is essential for anyone who’s working to make a great life for themselves. If you’re not used to spending time alone, solitude can be uncomfortable, awkward, even scary. But if we won’t sit quietly and supportively with ourselves, it’s hard (if not impossible) to really do the same for others in our lives. As author André Gide said, “The fear of finding oneself alone—that is what they suffer from—and so they don’t find themselves at all.” If we let the anxiety keep us from carving out meaningful time for ourselves, we will, over time, pay the price—we may “get a lot done” but our effectiveness will steadily erode. Ultimately, it’s about being at peace being with ourselves. If you doubt me, but you’re up for a bit of self-parody, you can always fall back on Jean-Paul Sartre’s tongue-in-cheek statement: “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” 

Solitude, once we settle into it, is a wonderful thing. It creates spiritual sustenance. It gives us much needed time to reflect. It’s our opportunity for long ignored thoughts and feelings to emerge. It’s a chance to quietly acknowledge fears that linger below the surface, unacknowledged, that weaken our emotional foundations.  Reflective, thoughtful time on our own can surface hopes and dreams of a better future, support intuition, and encourage us to expand our emotional horizons. 

Here’s what I wrote in Part 3 of Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading Series:

. . . in solitude we sit with ourselves, moving out of the social spotlight and into a mode where we can pay close attention to our internal energy and insights. It’s a time when our main focus is on getting centered and in sync with ourselves, not in keeping up with the chaos of the world. When I fail to set time aside for it, I start to stress out. I can relate to writer Henry David Thoreau, whom Emma Goldman called “the greatest American anarchist,” when he says, “I have an immense appetite for solitude, like an infant for sleep, and if I don’t get enough for this year, I shall cry all the next.” Solitude is so much the norm for me that, rather unmindfully, I almost forgot to include it in this essay as a practice to maintain. And as Thoreau asserted, “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Some regular slice of solitude is, I would suggest, as important as regular exercise. Fyodor Dostoevsky—whose books I happily read while studying Russian history all those years ago at the University of Michigan—said it well: “Solitude for the mind is as essential as food is for the body. In solitude we can forge our character away from the often-constricted external demands of others and maintain our independence in the relationships we cultivate thus ensuring we do not, like many today, lose our identity in them.” 

Solitude works, I’ve come to believe, a bit like the equalization of pressure in an enclosed area. When we’re surrounded by action and anxiety all the time, our internal distractions and stresses have nowhere to go. Trapped, with no escape route, they fill our heads, getting louder and louder with each passing day. We can distract ourselves for a while, but eventually, our heads will, at least figuratively, explode. Stress levels soar. Intentionally or not, we take out our anxiety on others. At an extreme, we freak out. Drama builds and crises abound. By contrast, when we quiet our external environment by spending meaningful time alone, the pressure around us begins to go down. It makes room for our stress, uncertainty, and struggle to slowly seep out of us and into the newly “emptied” space around us. Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist, writes that “It might take a little bit of work before [solitude] turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does it becomes maybe the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself.” 

Is it awkward to spend time alone? The answer will be different for each of us. For some folks, solitude can be scary. For others—the introverts like me—it might be a bit easier. For me, shy introvert that I am, solitude is safety. Uncomfortable or not, sitting through the initial struggles that emerge from frequent sessions of solitude, is one of the best ways there is to get to know ourselves at a deeper and more meaningful level. It’s being alone—with a supportive and creative community still present in the world—that lets us tap into the deeper feelings that get buried in our day to day hustle and bustle. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our pain pursues us throughout our whole life. Denial, ultimately, only makes it worse. I stand by the Cameroonian proverb: “No matter how fast a man is, he cannot outrun his shadow.”

Quiet time alone for reflecting, effectively paired with the right prompts, can make a meaningful difference. Reading, talking, meditation, listening, poetry, music, nature . . . each may offer helpful and impactful triggers to tap into our emotional depths. Friend and artist Takara Gudell read the Epilogue to Part 3, about the death of my good friend Daphne Zepos. This is what Takara wrote back:

I’m reading Daphne’s story. Tears welled up for the loss of things I’ve not mourned. Things that I pushed to the side, almost kicked them out of the way. Continued on without notice, as if turning a page or yelling “NEXT!” Well, life is fragile, and I’ve often misused it.

Takara’s note reminds me that when I finally dealt with the death of my own father back in the early 90s (another story for another time), 15 years or so after he’d died and more than 20 since I’d seen him, I was sitting at home alone and writing about it. Unexpectedly, I cried for what seemed like forever. It was freeing. As Takara and I each experienced, learnings like these often come from moving towards—and then sitting with—the uncomfortable. Something that, when we’re “busy,” “distracted,” and constantly “doing,” rarely happens. The experiences call to mind this beautiful piece from Russian poet Anna Akhmatova:

Rising from the past, my shadow

Is running in silence to meet me.

I would suggest that solitude will be most successful with a bit of structure. It’s too easy to get lost in the daily hustle and bustle of the world. For many, the worse we feel, the busier we get. Rollo May says it well: “It is an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when they have lost their way.” 

How do I make solitude happen every day? I journal every morning. I run every afternoon. Add in a fair bit of writing and reading. Even a few minutes sitting alone in the car or a ten-minute walk in the woods can have a powerfully positive impact. Yoga, rowing, biking, writing, knitting, kayaking, painting, photography, reading philosophy, going fishing, writing poetry, drawing . . . there are dozens of wonderful ways to make it work. I grew up in the urban setting of Chicago and, strange as it probably sounds, I feel calm and centered sitting alone on the asphalt in the corner of a quiet parking lot. However you do it, regular practice does work. Just as we won’t get in shape by working out once a year, it’s the same with solitude. As Ryan Holiday writes, “Muddy waters clear themselves through stillness; if we let them settle the truth will be revealed to us.”

Speaking of clarity, the two sections of Gary Snyder’s insightful statement, will almost always, I’ll argue, work far better when they’re done in tandem. Connecting with good people is great and being by yourself is a beautiful thing. Either on its own has big benefits. But it’s when we do some of each, in reasonably close chronological proximity to each other, that we reap the biggest benefits. If solitude and connecting with friends are each the mathematical equivalent of 1 on their own, together they’re about a 10. As Honore Balzac said, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”

Why does it matter so much? I agree with what Picasso wrote: “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” Effective leaders, I would suggest, sit with solitude regularly. If I don’t get time alone, I start to lose my mental balance. My energy gets off, which negatively impacts clients, quality, coworkers, and anyone I interact with. I’m more likely to get into arguments or get defensive. If we can’t take care of ourselves, we won’t successfully lead anyone else. And if our state of being as leaders is later reflected in our organizations, then it’s pretty much a lock that—for better and/or for worse—that dinner state is going to be manifested in the way our organizational culture comes together too. 

As Julia Cameron recommends in her classic The Artist’s Way: “More than anything else, experiment with solitude. You will need to make a commitment to quiet time.” If we’re all artists—which I believe adamantly—then solitude is essential to our art. Without it, our creativity suffers, and our spirit shows it. As Cameron wrote, “An artist requires the upkeep of creative solitude.” 

For me, solitude is a rare and beautiful thing to seek out and appreciate. I rarely go a day without it, but I still appreciate it all anew every day. As fine art photographer Alexandra Rosenblum, whose beautiful new record I referenced last week, says “Solitude . . . is a jewel no fortune is able to buy.”

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!