October 31st, 2016
I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” -Henry David Thoreau
One day in Alaska’s Brooks Range, on my NOLS course in 2011, we got turned around and we weren’t sure of our location. After some hours of backpacking, we were feeling a little demoralized and uncertain so we took off our heavy packs, and got our big topographical maps out before going about trying to figure out where we were.
The Brooks Range is a 700-mile-long mountain range that stretches from West to East in the far north of Alaska. The country is remote and vast and wild. There are no roads and no trails in the Brooks Range. So, in order to determine your location, you have to try to match the land formations around you with features on the map. It can be laborious. After a while of not figuring out where we were, a couple of us grew impatient, myself included. I just wanted to move, in any direction. I was tired of not going anywhere, and tired of not figuring out the answer to our question. One of my course-mates said to me, “With all due respect, I don’t think it’s a waste of time to figure out where we are, so we can figure out where we’re going.”
I’ve never forgotten those words. Such wisdom! And not only in our Brooks Range situation, but even more importantly, when it comes to life. We cannot expect to realize our dreams, or achieve our goals, without first having a very good understanding of who we are, and where we’re at. Self awareness is the single most important, and first step, to not only living our best (epic) life, but to being our best version.
By design, I do a lot of things for work. Mostly, I’m a life and leadership coach, keynote presenter, leadership developer and adventure guide. People hire me when they want to take stock of their life or leadership, or both, and to help them make changes.
In order to be content and self aware, we must have some regular intervals of time each week when we’re available only to ourselves in order to listen to our thoughts, including the good, the bad and the ugly. I’m not a coach for everyone. Anyone who works with me can expect to do a deep dive into Self. It’s that important to a fulfilled life, and it’s not easy work.
As an Emotional Intelligence consultant, but more importantly, as someone who likes people, and who values relationships, I feel strongly that listening is the most important skill we ought to develop. (Unfortunately we are not taught to listen, which in my humble opinion, is a tragedy, and a lost opportunity.) Most of us are not very good listeners. Right now, take a second to think about all of the people you know and are in relationship with. Can you think of one or two who are really good listeners? These are people who listen to you so closely that you feel as if you’re the only person in the world when you’re with them, and they’re listening to you. It’s so uncommon to find these great listeners, and when you do, it’s a real gift. If you have any of them in your life, cherish and thank them. Seeing and hearing a person is one of the greatest gifts we can offer someone.
But we also need to be great listeners of ourselves.
I hike about 1,000 miles a year. Half of these are alone, and it’s not because I can’t find anyone to hike with. Rather, I yearn for a lot of time alone. Solitude has made all of the difference in my life. In fact, I think it probably deserves more credit for my contentment than anything else.
I know I am frequently referencing books, and I’m sorry if I overwhelm you with book recommendations, but I’m a voracious reader. I practically eat books, and they are a tremendous source of inspiration, and learning, for me. I just finished reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit (who is also the author of Wanderlust, and The Faraway Nearby. I recommend all of these books).
First of all, what’s not to love about the title, which won my heart before I even read the description for it. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit captures it perfectly for me:
“Summer breezes caressed me, my legs stepped forward as though possessed of their own appetites, and the mountains kept promising. I stopped before the trees were gone, not ready that day to disappear entirely into the vastness. Perhaps these spaces are the best corollary I have found to truth, to clarity, to independence.”
I wish I could take the credit for falling in love with, and discovering the value of solitude, but my love for it happened by accident. When I was 21 years old, I lost my Division I basketball scholarship. It was my most spectacular failure. I wasn’t a good enough player, and there was someone else who was better and more deserving of my scholarship, so my scholarship was given to another player.
I was devastated, and a long way from home. Most of my friends were still on the basketball team, so losing my scholarship meant also losing significant time with my friends. I started spending a lot of time alone, hiking Mount Sentinel on the edge of campus. Until then, I always thought people who went to the movies alone, or who hiked, or did anything alone, were lonely people. Boy was I wrong about that. In fact, lonely and alone are not the same things. I am blessed that I was only 21 years old when I discovered the value of time spent alone, because now I am 48 years old, and the solitude I enjoy has been a blessing over the years. And, speaking of blessings, the “spectacular failure” turned out to be one of my greatest blessings.
We hear a lot about being our “Authentic Self,” and in leadership we hear a lot about being an “Authentic Leader.” Both are hard to be if we don’t even know who we are. I think how we live is how we lead, so self realization is the first step whether your motive is to live your best life or to have a positive and effective leadership impact.
We discover our authentic self during time alone, taking stock, listening to our thoughts, feeling our emotions, asking ourselves important questions and then giving ourselves time and space to answer them.
So, solitude is a gift. Most of us don’t get enough of it. As a coach, there are three excuses I hear most often for not getting enough – or any – solitude.
The first excuse is a common excuse for not doing a lot of things we want and need to do. It is the, “I don’t have time. I’m so busy, and I can’t find the time” excuse. I think it was writer Elizabeth Gilbert who said, “We don’t find the time; we make the time.” I couldn’t agree more. We all have 24 hours in a day. I often challenge people I work with and/or know to wake up 15 minutes earlier, and to simply go to a dark room and sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes before officially starting their day. Using this time to start a mindfulness practice is also beneficial, and is another good way to introduce yourself to solitude.
The second excuse – and one that I commonly hear from people who hire me as their coach – is, “It’s uncomfortable.” I agree. Being alone with our thoughts can be very uncomfortable. It can be difficult to listen to our thoughts because they’re not always positive. This time alone can facilitate a sort of reckoning. We are forced to confront the brutal truths of our life. It is hard to run or hide from one’s self if left alone with our thoughts. This is one of the reasons I think solitude is so valuable. How can we be a truth teller to our self if we’re not aware of the hard truths in our life?
I’m not immune. My time alone is often uncomfortable. Tears frequently come during solitude. The quiet and lack of others around help me to feel and experience and process my emotions at a deeper level. And, as someone who struggles with self criticism, I find that solitude helps me to be more self compassionate. I’m guessing this is the result of having a better understanding of myself. My work at self compassion has only just begun, and I have a long ways to go, but I do think solitude is helping.
I’ve worked with about 125 individual leaders during the last six years, and I think every one of them struggles, at least sometimes, with self criticism. We tend to be hard on ourselves, and it is my belief that time alone leads to understanding of self, which leads to more compassion for, and less judgment of, self, and others.
One question I challenge people I know and work with to ask themselves is, “What am I needing?” This is such an important question, and most of us do not give ourselves time and space to consider the question, let alone the possible answers to it. It is much easier to live in denial, and to not confront or address personal challenges, weaknesses or pains if we avoid making ourselves aware of them. But this lack of awareness also prevents us from making changes that could be significant to our life.
I’m reading a fantastic book called Journal of a Solitude, by the late May Sarton. Sarton was an American novelist, poet and memoirist who suffered from bouts of depression. Journal Of A Solitude is a book that is one year’s worth of Sarton’s journaling, which includes some pretty dark times. Here are just two of the many gems I have highlighted in my dog-eared copy of the book:
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last,” begins Sarton, in Journal of a Solitude. “That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life, unless there is time alone in which to explore what is happening or what has happened.”
And, another gem from the book:“There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”
Sarton’s book is inspiring to me, in ways I can’t quite articulate other than to say I have my own dark pools and depressive moments, and reading of Sarton’s own struggles helps me feel not as alone in my personal struggles. Like I often do, I use a writer’s words to reference and describe my own feelings when I can’t find the words to do so on my own. I highly recommend the book, which is hard to find, probably due to Maria Popova’s recent recommendation of the book in her amazing Brain Pickings. (I also recommend subscribing to Brain Pickings. For some years now, a highlight for me every Sunday morning is receiving what Popova curates and compiles for our inspiration and benefit.)
The third excuse I hear, and hear most often is more or less, “Solitude is boring.” As a society, we have come to view boredom as a problem to solve. Think about the last time you had to wait for anything – out front of the school waiting for a son or daughter, in the waiting room of a clinic, waiting in line at the post office or grocery store, or at a stop light or stop sign, or in TSA line at the airport – or well, just about in any situation. At the first glimpse of free time, most of us reach for our smartphone. (I read somewhere recently that the average U.S. American adult reaches for his/her phone 150 times a day. This is staggering, and I believe it.)
I work with many creative people, and in my presentations to leaders, and in my coaching work with them, I like to make a case for boredom. In order for us to brainstorm new ideas – to have Aha moments and new solutions to old problems – we must allow our mind to wander. Our mind wanders only when we allow it to – when we’re bored.
Joseph Campbell, from his Power of Myth, writes about the important influence that solitude has on one’s creativity, whether toward self or a creative endeavor.
“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”
And another favorite, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea, a book I especially recommend to women: “Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone.”
Try to resist the temptation to reach for your phone, or fill/use up the little bits of free time the next time you are required to wait or have a moment to not do anything. It’s hard work, AND it’s worth it. Note to Self, a great podcast I listen to, did a series of challenges they called “Bored and Brilliant” a while back that were designed to “guide you to less phone time and more creativity.” Thousands of people signed up for the challenges, which included things like not reaching for your phone during public transit, not using your phone as a camera to instead “see the world through your eyes not your screen,” delete apps, and other challenges. (I have one friend/client who is an artist, and he, like me, is wanting to create more. We are toying with an idea of disconnecting for 30 days for purposes of seeing what we could each create by putting to good use the “boredom” we would gain.)
As far as our rampant use of smartphones, which help us avoid boredom, and keep us from being alone with our thoughts, let the record show that I’m guilty as charged! Technology is a Godsend for me, and my work. It enabled our first company (Yellowstone Journal/YellowstonePark.com, NationalParkTrips) to do world-class work from the the Frontier of Wyoming, and it enables me to reach and serve clients from around the country even as I work in an RV parked by the river in the foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. I think I mostly use technology for good. Facebook, in particular, has facilitated meaningful friendships I wouldn’t have otherwise made, and has enriched so many of my connections with friends and family. It is also a marketing tool for me, as well as a place for me to share things that I find inspiring, and worth sharing with the world.
But I am finding that my almost-constant tethered-ness to my phone and social media is also not always serving me. It’s addictive, and distracting, and it probably limits me at least as much as it helps and enriches me. This is a real conundrum, and something I’ve been working on addressing for some time now. (Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, and also the work of Derek Sivers, among others, are causing me to take serious stock of my use of technology, and big change could be coming for me as a result. I haven’t sorted it all out just yet, though!)
University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues have studied people when in solitude. For one experiment, people were instructed to sit alone, with only their thoughts, in an empty lab room for 15 minutes. The only thing in the room was a button they could push, and if they pushed it, it would self-administer an electrical shock. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, half of all participants shocked themselves at least once, the team reported in Science. That’s newsworthy, so I’ll be redundant: Half of us would rather shock ourselves than sit alone with our thoughts for 15 minutes. I can’t help myself – this is shocking!
Sherry Turkle is Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle has been studying the psychology of online connectivity for more than 30 years, and she is the author of two books I recommend, Alone Together, and Reclaiming Conversation. The latter, which investigates how a flight from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity, is a cautionary tale for us, especially for parents and teachers. (But for the record, I think everyone ought to read the book.)
According to Turkle, “Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.” So just the presence of a phone, which has become a way to “solve” boredom, prevents us from going deep with people.
One finding of Turkle’s that is a surprise, and warrants our attention, is that our capacity for solitude actually helps us be more empathetic with others.
“In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.”
Hear hear. I cannot say it better.
If I were asked what single advice I would offer, it would be Pay Attention. And learning how to pay attention starts when we’re alone.
I hope this blog post will inspire you to carve out more time for you to be alone.
Thanks for reading. I really appreciate it.