I wasn’t interested in solitude until I started to write. In law, it is certainly important to develop good ideas, but the goal is always discernible: the best possible outcome for your client. And if you don’t know what that outcome is, you can always call your client and ask. And, in the end, you either achieve that outcome or not. Success is easy to measure.
When you write, the metrics for success is harder to discern. Do you judge your writing based on how many readers it has? How much money it pockets you? How much it gets shared? Of course, the right answer is, “When you’ve written your best,” but deep down every maker knows that’s not really true. External validation shapes our perception, which is why marketing is so important to us.
Solitude facilitates two essential environments for makers: (1) a place where we can grow original ideas, and (2) a place where we can develop an authentic personal identity.
Successful makers have long understood the benefits of separating themselves from the tribe. For example, Paul Graham, claims he doesn’t carry an iPhone or a phone in general, Cal Newport has never had a social media account, Seth Godin doesn’t use social media except to retweet his blog, Justin Rosenstein had his assistant set-up the parental-control feature on his phone to prevent him from downloading apps, and award-winning director Christopher Nolan confessed he doesn’t own a cell phone because “it gives me time to think.”
The benefits of their solitude is apparent. They think different, make things that last, and are seemingly more confident in their sense of self. So why don’t we insist upon this for us?
In Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris contemplates the use of open environments as a means to fostering new ideas:
Physicists like Einstein and Newton are among our most fundamental thinkers, and they were particularly aware of what solitude brings to serious thought. Felicity Mellow, a researcher at Imperial College London, criticizes the new generation of advanced study institutes for emphasizing collaboration and social atmospheres at the expense of such solitary contemplation.
“The need for periods of withdrawal and solitude,” Mellor writes, “are no longer acknowledged as a means of facilitating intellectual advances.” Although every fundamental shift in physics has required a good dose of solitude, “reticence and silence seem to have no place in the modern research agenda.”
Harris argues that solitude is not only critical to original thought, it’s also an antidote to conformity. How we can foster independent thought when we all read the same books, watch the same movies, and agree with one another about everything?
Another danger of groupthink is the obvious shortcut to knowledge. When other people, who are seemingly more impressive than we are, tell us that something is bad, we are more likely to take their word for it without doing the research ourselves. We lose critical thinking skills.
As Harris writes:
“We cannot compound the ideas of others into a singular meaning for ourselves unless we’re given a private mental workshop in which to hammer at them. (Will I ever be able to write my book, I worry, if I can’t build such a workshop for myself?) Without daydreams our minds are only parrots — or, worse, computers. Daydreams are the engineers of new worlds.”
Ideas are like plants, and we must approach their fragility with care. They need time to grow, especially in their infancy. Solitude is more about self-care. It’s about unabashed authenticity, perpetual creativity, and presenting ourselves with sufficient time to think, grow, and appreciate the joy of oneself.