Without great solitude no serious work is possible. — Pablo Picasso
Here at Musicbed, we talk a lot about community and collaboration — and that’s because we really believe in those things. We believe our lives and our work improve when we share them with other people. But there’s a flip side we haven’t talked about very much. And that’s the importance — maybe even the necessity — of solitude.
In fact, we’re starting to learn that solitude is an even more unusual, and arguably more important, discipline than community or collaboration. We’re so semi-connected all the time. We fill every gap. Moments of isolation are so rare they’ve become unnerving. We get through them rather than engaging them. And that’s kind of a problem. Throughout history the greatest artists and thinkers have harped on the importance of solitude — often calling it the most important discipline a person can practice. As thinking, creative people, we owe it to ourselves to spend more time alone.
Solitude is an even more unusual, and arguably more important, discipline than community or collaboration.
Solitude is a scary proposition. Eating alone, seeing movies alone — these things all have the connotation of loneliness. Restaurants often seat single parties at the edges of the dining room, since seeing someone eating alone makes the rest of us sad. As a culture, we’ve become so afraid of the negative sides of solitude that we’ve forgotten the benefits. To name a few:
Have you ever thought about why movies come out in clusters? One year it seems like every movie is a war movie. The next year, every movie is about memory loss. The year after that, everybody is time traveling. We think it has a lot to do with the time we spend online. Instead of viewing content through the lens of our own experiences, we tend to view it through a collective framework created by the Internet. Although useful in many ways, this framework also breeds homogeny. And homogeny will never lead to original thinking.
While we all may be consuming a lot of the same content, we process it in very different ways. The key is to give ourselves the chance. And solitude is all about giving yourself time to process. Time to make strange connections, follow ridiculous rabbit trails, arrive somewhere no one has been before. Time to solidify our own unique opinions before seeking input from others.
This concept sounds similar to original thinking, but it’s a little different and just as important. Solitude doesn’t just allow us to process content in a unique way; it also gives us the space to generate new ideas. Simply put, our brains work better when they’re relaxed and not distracted. And you don’t need more proof of that than the fact that the best ideas often happen when we’re in the shower. But when we’re surrounded by distractions, it’s too easy for new ideas to get lost in the shuffle.
Even though it sounds counterintuitive, solitude is not the opposite of community and collaboration. In fact, we believe solitude is essential for any type of quality collaboration to occur. Bear with us for a minute. We all know the best collaborations are not between two people who agree with each other 100 percent of the time. Relationships are enhanced when all parties bring something unique to the table — ideas, insights, revelations, problem solving. In fact, the best collaborations and the most dynamic communities we’ve seen are made up of people who constantly challenge one another to think in new and exciting ways.
So how do you become the type of person who challenges others? The type of person who is able to engage community and collaboration in a healthy way? By making time for solitude, original thinking, and idea generation. In fact, if you feel desperate for community or collaborators, it might be a good indicator that you need to become more comfortable being alone and relying on your own instincts first. Desperate people rarely make good partners — in creativity or in life.
Solitude needs to be scheduled. Intentional. If you don’t set aside time for it, it will never happen.
Okay, so obviously solitude is important. But what does it look like in real life? It’s safe to assume that if the goal of solitude is increased creativity, increased originality, then not everybody is going to engage in solitude the same way. Still though, there are a few hallmarks to look for:
Solitude should become a practice, not just an isolated event. To reap the benefits of being alone, it’s important to make it a habit. If you can, find some time to be alone once a day, but definitely at least once a week. Solitude needs to be scheduled. Intentional. If you don’t set aside time for it, it will never happen.
The goal of solitude is disconnection — from people, from the Internet, from work, from obligations. Turn off your phone (seriously, turn it off — not just on silent). Turn off your computer. In fact, it’s ideal to have as little with you as possible: disconnect from your things. One of the great reliefs of solitude is learning not just that you’re okay without other people, but that other people are okay without you. The world goes on in your absence. Once you realize that, scheduling solitude (and enjoying it) will become much easier.
Disconnect long enough to get something out of it. You can’t rush the benefits of solitude without destroying them in the process. Most likely it will take 15 to 20 minutes just to unwind. Then hopefully you will get to a place where your mind can wander, where you become unaware of time. If you’re counting down the minutes, you haven’t been alone long enough.
What are you supposed to be doing during these “alone times”? Well, probably not very much. It’s no good to go into times of solitude with an agenda. There are times when purposefully doing nothing will be the most productive thing you can do. Just walking or sitting. Just being. One goal of solitude is to remove any outside influences, so even reading might work against you. Spend your time simply. And don’t feel the need to be creative. Strangely, creative solitude is also about freedom from being “creative.”
Solitude is one of those strange, counterintuitive principles in life. It’s by engaging in solitude that we can truly engage in community. It’s when we are the least productive that we can be the most productive. It’s when we stop trying to find ideas that they tend to find us. It’s best not to think about it too much — just do it. And maybe, like the geniuses of the past, find something creatively essential in the practice.