You’re trapped in a room with your worst enemy.
Fight-or-flight response in full force, you begin to brace yourself for the worst. Your heart beats explosively in your chest as beads of sweat form on your temples, warning you of the danger to come.
This is the last place you want to be: alone with someone who, given the opportunity, could easily destroy you.
Thankfully, there’s a way out — but your escape comes with a price.
In an unfolding of events resembling The Matrix, you’re given a choice:
The red pill: Stay in the room, risking whatever torture or violence this villain may inflict on you, and you’ll receive access to a book of secrets that could alter the course of history.
The blue pill: Flee to safety, empty handed.
Fear of solitude: when you’re your own worst enemy
Dramatic as it may seem, most of us are afraid to be alone in a room with ourselves — so afraid that we would choose physical pain over the boredom or discomfort inherent to solitude.
A 2014 study found more than two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather inflict themselves with electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.
Never has it been easier for us to escape ourselves: Thanks to the dopamine-rush that comes with a quick scroll, we have the instantaneous ability to numb uncomfortable thoughts or emotions.
It’s far too easy to escape the prickly feeling of being with ourselves for an extended period of time. And given the opportunity, most of us would. Even at the expense of our own personal growth or success.
Hyper-connectivity: the enemy of innovation
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the founding father of neuroscience, wrote in his 1897 masterpiece Advice to a Young Investigator:
“Oh comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought!”
Along the same lines, artist Louise Bourgeois dubbed solitude the “supreme fertilizer of creative work.”
Solitude is the landscape in which creativity can grow. On the other side of the coin, hyper-connectivity can also become the enemy of innovation.
The ability to collaborate with others is certainly a big part of success. And no business venture can thrive without a foundation of communication and teamwork.
But relying on connection and collaboration can also squander innovation and originality. How can you know what you think if you’ve never been alone with your thoughts?
“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” ― Patricia Highsmith
In the early months of building JotForm, I spent a lot of time holed up by myself. Every morning, I’d leave my apartment in Brooklyn, go to a nearby Starbucks and work for a couple of hours until I felt really tired. Pushing through the initial boredom and anxiety of being with myself wasn’t easy. I’d then cross the Brooklyn Bridge and try refreshing my mind during the long walks along the East River until I continued working from another Starbucks.
Many times, I would have preferred to work with a team. Having others to rely on for ideas certainly would have made my work easier and faster. But it also would have squandered my creativity.
Being alone forced me to be inventive, because I didn’t have other people to influence my thinking or decisions. I came up with some of my best ideas in solitude, and to this day, I believe the early foundations of JotForm helped us get to where we are today. More than that, though, the solitude I experienced helped me grow as a person.
Hyper-connectivity: the enemy of personal growth
Collaboration might get you ahead, but solitude calls you deeper into yourself.
“Our major commitment … is to discover ourselves before discovering scientific truth, to mold ourselves before molding nature. To fashion a strong brain, an original mind that is ours alone — this is the preliminary work that is absolutely essential.”
The same principle holds true for makers and leaders. Before we can discover the secret to a successful business, we must first discover ourselves. Introspection and innovation go hand in hand.
That’s because when we are alone, we are forced to face who we are. Quaker activist Parker Palmer describes solitude as “the place where questions come back.”
“Tiny but frightening requests” float to the surface of our minds in solitude, backing us into a corner with our blind spots. Only when we are open to seeing our weaknesses can we leverage our greatest strengths.
In many ways, introspection also primes us for success. At JotForm, we’ve learned the hard way that if you aren’t willing to grow from your own shortcomings, you can’t grow a business either.
The answer to the question of growth is often in solitude.
Hyper-connectivity: the enemy of leadership
The constant input of hyper-connectivity also affects how we work:
One University of London study shows that members of a remote African tribe have better attention spans (and, not surprisingly, are more generally content) than urban-dwellers who are constantly surrounded by noise.
But the effects of solitude extend far beyond productivity and efficiency. Solitude is a breeding ground not just for good workers, but good leaders. And there’s a difference.
In his 2009 address to West Point military graduates, essayist and critic William Deresiewicz outlines the relationship between leadership and solitude, citing a “leadership crisis” plaguing the U.S.
We have no shortage of efficient workers, he says. Rather, what we lack is visionaries who think for themselves. He blames our aversion to solitude.
“But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.”
Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or at the helm fledgling startup, solitude can be a vital ingredient to doing it well.
As a leader, you are responsible for making huge decisions on a moment’s notice. Your team is relying on you to challenge the status quo. To carry them forward after financial collapse. To boost morale in the aftershock of bad press.
Deresiewicz continues in his speech to the military graduates,
“How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?
These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now.
And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself — morality, mortality, honor — so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise.”
Forethought is essential to wisdom, as wisdom is essential to leadership. But solitude is a crucial way there.
You might be tempted, like me, into avoidance. You might crave the feeling of safety that comes with hyper-connectivity.
But being alone with your thoughts is the only way to be the person and leader you dream of becoming.
So: which pill will you choose? Will you risk opportunity and face the villain, or escape to safety?
The decision is yours.