Solitude

By on January 15, 2014
woman standing on dock

By Lucille Zimmerman −

Professor William Deresiewicz tells the incoming students at the United States Military Class at West Point, “If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.” Though it sounds like a contradiction because we imagine leaders surrounding themselves with people, Deresiewicz tells the future leaders that solitude will be the thing they have the least of, but it is the most necessary ingredient for true leadership.

Someone who stands out as a leader who has learned to be alone with his thoughts is General David Petraeus, a military man who rose through the bureaucracy by being an intellectual. Because he had the capacity to think for himself, due to the fact that he spent a lot of time alone, he had the courage to argue his ideas even when they weren’t popular.

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Solitude is the time when we disengage from the immediate demands of other people, experience a reduction of social inhibition, and select our own activities, including creative thinking. For most people, solitude is sparse–so sparse that silence is a powerful means of capturing our attention. We see this in a whole series of Corona Beer commercials where the only sound is the quiet waves, a seagull caw, and the quiet spritz of a bottle being opened (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDJSueRRUzs); or the Chevy Volt car as it meanders quietly through the landscape (http://vodpod.com/watch/4024270-video-chevrolet-volt-silent-commercial). Our world is radically changing into noisy interruptions and sound bites that are rewiring our brains.

Many of us spend hours on computers, interacting with others all day long. Some estimate that 30 to 40 percent of people’s time in the workplace is spent tending to unplanned interruptions, and then trying to refocus. Because technology is taking away our ability to be alone, we have less and less time to think and feel. Instead of marinating in our own thoughts long enough to have an idea, we bombard our brains with the thoughts of others; and those around us powerfully influence our decisions.

How can people be creative when they can’t find space and time to think? Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop your own idea about it. Only by concentrating, focusing, and being patient do we arrive at an original idea. Concentration can’t happen between the TV, magazine, satellite radio, iPod, email, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Right now, I am trying to write a simple sentence about the decline of creativity in the United States. In trying to convey a point about solitude and its importance to creativity, I can’t think because I’m staring at my to-do list and emails that pop onto on my computer screen. And my phone just started ringing.

Recently one of my son’s friends – a freshman at the University of Colorado — invited me to sit in on his Psychology course. It had been two and half decades since I had been a student in the very same auditorium, and a lot had changed. As the chairs filled up, almost every student flipped open a laptop and there was a steady barrage of talking. I anticipated the room would quiet down and the students would begin taking notes on their computers. Wrong! Instead I saw Facebook pages, videogames, and sports cars racing across screens. About halfway through the class, laptops were folded shut and students took notes in old-fashioned notebooks. The computers had simply been a means for them to connect with their peers at the same time they were attending class.

I couldn’t believe how much the world had changed, and I was impressed at their ability to multitask. Yet, shortly after that experience, I read about a study led by a team of researchers at Stanford University who wanted to understand how today’s college students multitask so much more efficiently than adults. What did the research conclude? The study found the more young people multitask, the worse they performed on mental tasks. The “high multitaskers” were unable to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information, and they were also more easily distracted.

About Lucille Zimmerman

Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty professor at Colorado Christian University. She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice." You can find her at www.LucilleZimmerman.com.

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Solitude