Leading from the soul can only occur if we practice solitude. As former Yale professor of literature, William Deresiewicz warned us, today we seem to be intoxicated by “celebrity and connectivity,” where the “great contemporary terror is anonymity.” However, we know that the act of being alone—of practicing solitude—has produced great work. In literature solitude gave us Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Jane Austen; and more contemporary talents like Maya Angelou and David Foster Wallace. In music it gave us a range of brilliance from Mozart, to Coltrane, to Hendrix. In science solitude found in laboratories and garages gave us street lights, vaccines, and microprocessors. Some of the greatest thinkers of all time, like Isaac Newton, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Freidrich Nitzsche never married and lived alone most of their lives. In leadership, solitude gave us the aforementioned Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.
As Deresiewicz further argues, solitude is “the arena of self-discovery, a voyage of the interior realms.” Solitude is the path to our soul, where our soul is not some deific gift, but rather the core of our being that draws on both the conscious and subconscious. Solitude allows us to think deeply in search of threads of thought and method that allow us to make sense of the world before us. It allows our imagination room to roam. As wonderful as technology is, it can rob us of solitude. There is no time for deep reading or deep thinking; no time to argue with ourselves, to hone our capacity for critical thought such that we can know what we know and share it with others in a clear and concise manner. The digitation of everything has made us mental skaters on thin ice, always trying to move to the next link, or app, or text, or email, before the ice gives way. According to John Freeman in his book The Tyranny of E-Mail, by the time it takes you to read this sentence three hundred million emails have been sent and received. We are just one ringtone or chime or chirp away from the next distraction. In this sense we are romantics, always wondering if there is a better place to be than in the present, with ourselves. In the process our ability to concentrate and think critically, so necessary to the creation of original ideas, is severely compromised.
Now you may say, but what about collaboration? Or, Facebook caused the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt! And, the Internet is a fantastic tool! I love the Internet too, but the Internet does not produce original thought and does not solve complex problems. People do. The revolution in Tunisia was not caused by Facebook, the precipitating event was the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a despondent fruit-and-vegetable peddler whose death moved a nation of oppressed Tunisians to finally raise both their voices and their hands in unity. The uprising in Cairo, while facilitated by Facebook and Twitter, was based in similar defiance of years of oppression. Facebook carried the story and allowed people to organize, not unlike the pamphlets distributed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine that helped foment the American Revolution. As for collaboration, yes, it can also be very effective, as long as it starts with every participant bringing something to the discussion that is original and adds value. Too often collaboration is simply a forum for the status quo to receive validation; for old ideas to be given a new wrapper; and for the re-homogenization of that which has already failed. In too many cases, it becomes a place for people to seek the celebrity that Deresiewicz warned us about; to allow those, who are so disposed, to be a pain in the ass. So far, the promise of innovation from collaboration by way of the Internet has largely proven to be an empty hope. The Holy Grail of social networking—yet undiscovered—is how to transform it from its wide and shallow profile to a web of deep integrative exchange.
As British historian Edward Gibbon wrote, “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of work denotes the hand of a single artist.” I am not saying that every work must be done by one pair of hands as Gibbons seems to suggest, but I am claiming that each hand must bring its own work. I also agree with columnist David Brooks who suggested to remain competitive, “America will have to be the crossroads nation where global talent congregates and collaborates.” But, he also argued, “people are most creative when they collaborate face to face.” To collaborate effectively, each of us must spend time in solitude. We must take time for sustained reading of great works, to conduct primary research, and to allow for long periods of reflection, such that our soul has a chance to speak— creating original thoughts that produce new solutions.