Do you crave solitude or do you fear being alone? Let me share something I discovered about myself in the last few days. I discovered one of my lifelong desires.
I read this today and I began to think about my life. I have always craved solitude. But I rarely find it. With two small children at home, a moment of solitude and silence is precious.
Finding solitude was much easier as a child. I used to walk the wooded bank of the Red River alone and listen to the wind rustle the leaves and the current rush against the dead logs jutting from the river. I sat on a stump next to the bank and daydreamed for hours. I threw sticks in the water and watched them slowly work their way down the river. As I sat there, I pondered questions about the world:
- Where is the water going?
- Why does the stick float?
- What makes the wind howl?
- Why is the wet dirt black and the dry dirt gray?
- What is this moment and where does it go when it passes? Is it lost? Will I ever get it back?
While sitting on that bank I had my first realization of the permanent loss of passing time.
I looked forward to moments alone so I could read. After bedtime, I sat under the covers with a flashlight reading books.
I walked for miles in Buffalo River State Park, wondering if the world looked like this before Lewis and Clark mapped the way west.
I recall being wrapped up like a three-foot styrofoam mummy shuffling alone across the hardened drifts of North Dakota snow. Watching in wonder as the snow sparkled and scurried over the crests and through the valleys like a magical howling mist. I intimately know and crave the magic of aloneness.
But I never needed to be physically alone to feel alone. I recall standing with fifteen of my burnout buddies at the bottom of hill just off of Jr. High School property, waiting… gazing at the top of the hill…completely focused…knowing there was no way out of the fight I was about to fight…and seeing my nemesis come over the rise of the hill and charge down the hill toward me with hundreds of people behind him. In that moment, I was alone and I saw everything and nothing all at once.
Have you ever had the feeling of aloneness while public speaking? It’s a strange but wonderful feeling if you accept it.
Great marketers know there are many of us who crave solitude. Do you remember the great Marlboro cigarette ad depicting the Marlboro Man trudging alone through the snow along an endless fence line? I know that ad was one reason – among many – that I started smoking at thirteen. Phillip Morris wasn’t selling cigarettes; they were selling solitude and escapism. I quit smoking seven years ago. Up until the day I quit, I had the ability to solve complex technical problems in my mind while sitting alone and smoking a cigarette. I once read that nicotine causes your synapses to fire faster and I believed it, but today I believe that the solitude I found stepping away from work and going outside gave my mind the peace it needed to find an answer.
Every addiction I have is a substitute for solitude. I seek solitude in a world with increasing connectedness.
I love to create. To first interact with others, then retreat to solitude, and create something useful from what I learned during my interaction. But solitude is hard to realize in our society. I crave the creative flow that Tom Demarco, and Timothy Lister describe in Peopleware (one of the finest team management books ever written) or Steve Pavlina describes in this post; the mental state of flow where you lose track of time and space and ideas manifest into reality.
In corporate America, there is little privacy, much like public school. When I developed software, the only time I could find satisfying creative flow was Sunday afternoon when I was sure no one would interrupt me. I have fought for solitude to create all through my technical career and I still haven’t found the right balance. Some say telecommuting or working from home is the answer, but when you have small children, home is a place with constant interruption. My schedule relegates creative flow to 4 AM or 10 PM.
Corporate cubicle hell is frustrating because we are asked to do creative things like write, design, or program, but cubicles are the least productive places to create. In the past, when I requested that we dump cubicles and build offices – and I have pages of data that prove cubicles lower worker productivity – I invariably get the same response, “you may be right, but no one else is doing it, so we aren’t. If cubicles are good enough for fortune 100, they are good enough for us.” Maybe that is why so many talented people are leaving cubicle land and starting micro businesses.
I’ve booked meeting rooms for myself so I could work alone.
Former Northwest Orient CEO Donald Nyrop built entire office buildings without a single window – not even the doors were glass – because he didn’t want his employees frittering away time looking outside. I’ve seen the buildings. They are giant gray cement rectangles. He ordered all the doors taken off the bathroom stalls because he didn’t want employees wasting time on the toilet. Can you imagine what it must have been like to work under his leadership? You couldn’t even defecate in solitude.
I haven’t read Keith Ferazzi’s book Never Eat Lunch Alone. But I can say I disagree with the title. I eat lunch alone on most days. I find a quiet place outside and I think. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I visualize the future. Sometimes I visualize the past. Other times I just soak in the present. It is sanity time. Lunchtime is the only pure solitude I get.
I can spend an hour during my workday writing a single email because of the constant interruptions. Don’t misunderstand me, the interruptions are necessary. I don’t want to live in a tar paper shack like Ted Kaczynski. I want people to feel free to talk to me and my door is always open, but I must block time for pure solitude.
Our interactions with one another give us the material to create, our alone time is where we allow ourselves to create. We must balance them.
For years, I listened to talk radio in my car during my daily commutes. Four months ago, I turned it off. I don’t need some blowhard putting angry thoughts into my head about things I cannot change. Now I spend my commutes in quasi-solitude. Sometimes, I listen to podcasts or music, but mostly I listen to my thoughts and try to control them. Today, I enjoy my commute. It is a time I can think my own thoughts without interruption. I used to hate commuting; I would swear at the drivers on the road and honk at the slightest provocation. This Christmas vacation I missed my commute because I lost two thirty minute chunks of solitude. Is it crazy that life has become so hectic and connected that I find commuting peaceful? My wife said she’s heard stay-at-home-moms say, “yeah, he has to work but a least he gets peace and quiet while he drives to work. That’s more than we get.”
When I’ve spent too much time alone, I do get depressed. But if I spend too much time around people, I also get depressed. The key is finding your personal balance between connectedness and aloneness. I know that neither my wife nor I get enough solitude to meet our needs. We are working on that.
For me networking is easy. I have millions of people to network with at any given moment. The problem is deciding whom to network with. On any workday, I could eat lunch with 400 different people. I don’t have a lack of people in my life. Maybe I’m blessed but I have never feared loneliness.
For me solitude is a rare commodity. I cherish my moments alone, when I can think, plan, and create. That’s why I almost always eat lunch alone.