Steel Thyself, Part I: Solitude

In this Age of Deceit marked by the collapse of traditional American values, and in anticipation of the next twelve months which, no doubt, will be the weird weirder weirdest of the Trump presidency, I am going to share a series of posts drawn from my forthcoming book from a chapter titled “Steel Thyself.”  It aims to provide some tools to regain a sense of responsible individualism in an era that has been overwhelmed by narcissism; a sense of individualism that is one of three of what I call America’s Probity Values, the other two being exemplar exceptionalism (leading by example) and perfectibility (leaving things better than the way we found them).  I anticipate four posts in this series; one each week.

An effective and accessible place to begin strengthening the head and heart—steeling thyself—is with what the psychiatrist Anthony Storr called the “capacity to be alone” such that we might access the redemptive power of solitude.  Our personal cognetic systems (the self-curated constellation of knowledge and beliefs that allow us to simplify the world and make decisions) provides a tool to “know thyself,” which is a critical step in understanding one’s blind spots of ignorance as well as blind spots of certitude—to both reduce ignorance and subdue certitude to enable better decisions.  The next step, after knowing thyself, is to steel thyself—to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses against the uncertainties and threats of the modern era.  Practicing solitude provides the opportunity for honest conversations with the self in a risk-free environment setting aside the judgments of others to enable the honesty and clarity necessary to improve one’s prospects of fulfilling one’s purpose(s) in life.

The French Renaissance philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, started his long periods of solitude with the query, “What do I know?”[i]  In this question, he starts by taking stock of himself then proceeds to dissolve himself of all attachments to persons, things, duties and grievances to seek a clarity of mind where old truths may be reaffirmed or discarded, and new truths revealed; to sort out and update his “What do I know?” list.  In effect, such periods of introspection allow a reboot of body and soul, allowing a fresh start to the rest of one’s life.  In children, we know that the capacity to be alone is “linked with self-discovery and self-realization; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings, and impulses,” yet in the modern era as adults we have ignored this powerful capacity by allowing incessant interactions and distractions (now mostly electronic) that produce more noise than knowledge, more anxiety than equanimity.[ii]   In a return to the self, one might smell the vestiges of narcissism, but in reality the absence of attachments during solitude allows us to strip ourselves of narcissistic self-deceptions to begin anew with a clear-eyed view of who we are and, moreover, who we would like to be.  We are, indeed, who we are; that much is self-evident.  But, we also need to build the runway that allows us to become what we want to be, unburdened by obsolete injunctions and tired conceits. Practicing periods of introspection allows the mind—our most powerful tool—to refresh, and as necessary heal, our soul.

Sounds fairly simple, right?  It is, until one has to actually do it.  Solitude summits (or retreats if you prefer, although where I live we prefer to “summit” rather than “retreat”) require a commitment to the self that is seldom easy until it becomes a routine built into your life-expectations and the expectations of those who rely upon you.  There are a million-and-one reasons to procrastinate about, or otherwise ignore, a commitment to solitude. Feelings of indispensability to work and family (and guilt born therefrom) are the most common hurdles.  Others just can’t conceive of being alone as they mistakenly equate being alone to being lonely.  However, once you grant yourself the indulgence of solitude you will realize that everyone in your life will benefit (perhaps even more than you).  Your clarity and equanimity have a way of bolstering the well-being of everyone in your orbit.  Begin by creating a “Matters for My Consideration” file in which you place things you need to think about during your next solitude summit.  Allow your interests to be your guide.  Schedule solitude at a time and place that suits those interests.  This alignment of interests assures a level of comfort that supports your quest for renewal and, they emanate from your cognetic system which makes them legitimate inasmuch as they are of you; honor them.

Your solitude may involve travel from home, although travel is not always necessary; solitude may be accomplished anywhere the mind can achieve a sense of quiet reflection that allows you to critically review your traditional knowns and creatively imagine prospective knowns. A park bench, or a long walk may suit as well as a journey.  Question all the givens in your life while favoring dynamism over stasis.  Initially, allow for longer periods of reflection then, as your solitude skills improve, schedule shorter and more frequent periods of solitude to refresh your soul.  Beyond reflection and rebooting your knowns, periods of solitude may also recalibrate your compass—the aims and trajectory of your life.  It will also call to question your relationships—those you should continue to nurture and those you should abandoned.  Holding on to extraneous knowns, objectives and destinations, or relationships that are no longer relevant or productive, are an effective way to die while living.  The most important measure of success during solitude is the degree of honesty you employ toward yourself.  This is most commonly referred to as being “true to yourself.”  Seeing things as they are—especially during times of high deceit like today—may be solitude’s greatest gift.

Next week: Mindful Meditation.

[i] See “Michel de Montaigne: On Solitude,” The Culturium, October 7, 2016,

[ii] Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 21.

By |2019-11-10T15:12:02+00:00November 3rd, 2019|General|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part II: The Power of Solitude

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.

By |2017-05-23T20:39:01+00:00February 8th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments
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