Editor's Note: Finding Peace in Solitude
"Daniel, put down your iPad and look at me.” The nurse summoned my younger son’s attention, moments before the beginning of a platelet drip.
It is suddenly quiet, a tree barren of leaves, an ice rink absent of skaters.
Engulfed in a panoply of high-tech products, we struggle to find solitude. Amid frequent checks of our smartphones and incessant distractions on YouTube, there’s rarely a moment of quiet.
Is the noise drowning out our thoughts? Are we making time to think?
Ted Turner, cable pioneer and entrepreneurial maestro, preceded multimillion- and multibillion-dollar decisions with long, lonely walks on his expansive ranch.
In the epilogue of Hillary Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices,” she describes the “cozy, sun-drenched third-floor study” where she sought solitude to write after she left the Obama administration.
It is said that Teddy Roosevelt found privacy to read and purportedly consumed a book a day. Abraham Lincoln, depicted as pensive, embraced aloneness to aid him in his encounters with a contentious Congress and a fractious nation.
We live in a business climate of group thought and collaboration, born in response to excessive hierarchical decision-making. Teamwork and open communication breed positive morale, expand ideas and give rise to initiatives that otherwise might remain imprisoned. Idea factories make wonderful labs for working inter- and intra-departmentally, to brew brilliance and keep everyone animated and invested.
But something is missing: quiet.
“It’s in solitude that much of the sharpest thinking is done and many of the best ideas are hatched,” New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote. “We know this intuitively and from experience, yet solitude is often cast as an archaic luxury and indulgent oddity, inferior to a spirited discussion and certainly to a leadership conference. All hail the leadership conference! The modern world has utterly fetishized it, as if enlightenment required a hotel ballroom, a platter of stale pastries and a gift tote.
“Brainstorming is defined almost solely as a group activity, although some of the boldest strokes of lightning happen in isolation where all the competing advice can be processed, where the meaningful strands come together and the debris falls away.”
Several years ago, essayist and Yale professor William Deresiewicz spoke before the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “My title must seem like a contradiction,” he said of his theme of “Solitude and Leadership.” “What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading.”
And yet the two are intrinsically united in what may be defined as thoughtful leadership. Much of what is portrayed as leadership today in political and business circles are the bellows of simplistic pontificators who pause little to reflect and contemplate the consequences of their platitudes.
Many operate like the captain of a sinking vessel ordering his crew to shift from one end to the other, failing to fix the leak. Such is the state of our two-party political system. And such is me-too, reactive business culture. It is why companies such as Apple, Trader Joe’s, Nordstrom and Southwest Airlines capture our attention: They think and act differently.
We at CSP are facing an interesting quandary. Readership surveys indicate we are the most respected and read magazine in our industry, and we are truly appreciative and humbled by your recognition. At the same time, we know readership habits—your habits—and needs are changing.
My past eight months have been spent talking to you, conversing with countless journalists and media specialists and also seeking solitude to think about the future of our publication. It is clear that we need to engage you in a way that sustains our values but responds to your strategic and time-pressed needs.
As parents, my wife and I have been faced with the greatest of challenges, confronting the potential mortality of our younger son. While embracing the camaraderie and companionship of supportive friends, we have also found peace through solitude, a private portal for reflection, to pray and to absorb unpredictability. While we have shared updates through Facebook and group emails, there is much we have chosen to preserve within our family.
To me, solitude and leadership means to think about what can be and, through reflection and articulation, make it into what will be.