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“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” — Albert Camus, French philosopher
How can we, as entrepreneurs, find answers in a world vying for our attention with constant stimuli and distraction?
According to Albert Camus, the only real progress we make lies in learning to be wrong all alone. It’s in stepping back from this overwhelming volume of information that we can see our mistakes with greater clarity, and consequently find solutions.
Giving ourselves time to think and process our decisions is crucial for progress, and this is especially true in times of turbulence and uncertainty.
Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton spent years in solitude, and in his acclaimed book Thoughts in Solitude, he claimed that, “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom.”
Technology is undoubtedly one of the main culprits behind our resistance to spending time alone, but another is the fear of solitude itself.
This used to be the case for me. Over twelve years ago, as a newly minted entrepreneur to my company, I thought I had to stay on top of my game by overloading myself with leadership development and training opportunities. I didn’t think twice before accepting yet another meeting or answering emails late into the night.
However, Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University, notes that in moments of crisis, we are able to see situations more clearly when we’re not surrounded by external distractions.
He refers to these as “existentializing moments,” or mental flickers of clarity that occur during inward-focused solitude. In Fong’s words, we shouldn’t fight these moments. “Accept it for what it is. Let it emerge calmly and truthfully and don’t resist it,” Fong notes. “Your alone time should not be something that you’re afraid of.”
What I didn’t take into account in my earlier years was the need for solitary reflection. I found that between trying to stay ahead of the curve and the relentless stream of distractions, it was becoming harder and harder to find the internal clarity Fong speaks of.
For many of us, filling up our schedules is our go-to. As leaders, we’re action-oriented and not necessarily prone to quiet contemplation. But a lack of focus can significantly hinder our development.
Related: Why Alone Time Gives Your Business an Edge
Why we should commit to solitude
In a story for Harvard Business Review, Mike Erwin reiterates what philosophers from the past have known for generations. “Having the discipline to step back from the noise of the world is essential to staying focused.”
But it can also give us a competitive advantage.
During this time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the yearly trips I take to my hometown to help with the olive harvest. Most of my best and brightest ideas as an entrepreneur have come from these days of savoring sunshine with my family. My mind free to wander aimlessly.
Needless to say, my next trip won’t be anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have those same benefits where I am. According to experts, we don’t have to travel half-way around the world to experience enhanced problem-solving skills and focus.
“Solitude is a crucial and underrated ingredient for creativity,” author Susan Cain told Scientific American in an interview. “In our culture, snails are not considered valiant animals — we are constantly exhorting people to “come out of their shells” — but there’s a lot to be said for taking your home with you wherever you go.”
Don’t let the lure of distractions get in the way
I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself right now: Sure Aytekin, being alone is all well and good in theory, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic trying to complete our work while also balancing childcare with other home responsibilities. How on earth are we supposed to squeeze in some alone time?
I hear you. Solitude sounds like some lofty dream right now. I, too, am juggling many hats at home while trying to be as present as possible to my team. But the keyword here is presence.
Most of us have more time in the day than we think, but the bulk of it often goes to our social media, emails, and other devices. We’re so “tuned in” to what’s going on in the outside world (understandably so in these times) but we also inadvertently tune out the interior one.
In their book, Lead Yourself First, Erwin and co-author Ray Kethledge define solitude “as a state of mind, a space in which to focus one’s own thoughts without distraction — and where the mind can work through a problem on its own.”
According to the authors, we can override our impulse to distract by building 15-minute pockets of solitude into our day. Instead of checking our inbox whenever we have 10 minutes to kill, we can make it a point to log out of our accounts.
We can even transform mundane activities like sorting laundry into more mindful ones of reflection. The point is to create these spaces where we can give our undivided attention to just one thing. And it’s these smaller, self-imposed moments of solitude that can profoundly affect our productivity in the long run.
Related: How Daydreaming and Solitude Helped This Entrepreneur Become …
Finding clarity in solitude
In more recent years, scientists have approached solitude as something that can have therapeutic benefits if pursued by choice.
It can help us better regulate our emotions, which is essential for managing teams and dealing with a crisis. “In fact, getting better at identifying moments when we need solitude to recharge and reflect can help us better handle negative emotions and experiences, like stress and burnout,” explains psychotherapist Emily Roberts in a story for The New York Times.
But it’s not just about being alone. “It’s a deeper internal process,” solitude researcher Matthew Bowker points out.
I’ve noticed that when I can structure my days with these pockets of alone time built in, not only am I able to dig deep and access the clarity I need to identify work-related problems and solutions, I’m also more mentally present to my family and what’s in front of me.
“It might take a little bit of work before it turns into a pleasant experience,” Bowker says. “But once it does it becomes maybe the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself.”
Related: Should the Road to Success Always Be Lonely?