Monday, 24 January 2011

Solitude and Leadership: The Greatest Essay of Them All

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have committed the biggest crime of the 21st century. I’ve deleted my Facebook account and this time it is for keeps.

I read a lot. Most of it is utter bullshit that pontificates about old ideas and rebranding them as new ones. That is essentially academia. My quest in life is to be challenged: creatively, analytically and intellectually. I think its what separates my friends and I from the rest of the world. Leadership is my speciality area. I am always intrigued about what classifies people as good leaders, and I try to apply some of these principles to the way I conduct myself.

Yet it is not enough to rebrand ideas. People need to create them. I need to create my own. Reading this essay on a lazy Saturday morning changed my life. Essentially William Deresiewicz, a former professor at Yale University tells students of West Point that they are the next generation of leaders. That what we face today is a crisis of leadership because those in the upper echelons of society merely rebrand ideas and rework them instead of creating them:

What we don’t have… are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.
This is essentially brought about by the social networking curses of modern society (Ironic since I found a link to this article on Twitter). It is not that social networking is the world biggest curse, but rather it is the need to always stay connected that inhibits our ability to stay focused and concentrate upon one single idea. It seems the incessant graphic of an email notifer is the anathema of true intellectual freedom. The quest to always stay connected is impairing our intellectual curiousity.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful.

Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

When is the last time you truly concentrated upon a single idea and followed through on it? I have been thinking about this essay for two straight days and it has permeated through my brain. I’ve read it through four different times. I think it has come at the right point in my life. I have spent the past month with nothing but my thoughts, arguably dealing with the most complex problems I have ever encountered. I have whittled down these thoughts to three central big picture ideas. Apart from this I have only determined one other thing: I need to do more thinking.

Modern times are dominated by immediacy and speed. Particularly in my profession of political science we talk about the impact of the 24/7 news cycle. Politicians can no longer afford to take time and consider options for complex public policy matters, lest they appear to be indecisive. This then leads to a lack of reflection and therefore a lack of critical thinking. You don’t succeed by making the quickest decision, you do this by making the right one.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship.

Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things —to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.

This is what we call thinking out loud, discovering what you believe in the course of articulating it. But it takes just as much time and just as much patience as solitude in the strict sense. And our new electronic world has disrupted it just as violently. Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk to for three hours at a time, we have 968 “friends” that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction.

The above quote is what I’ve taken most from this essay. It is why I feel I no longer want, need or desire Facebook. Facebook I used to say was a great way of being involved in other people’s lives without actually being involved in them. Well I realised that the people I communicated most via this medium were the people who I actually want to stay connected to. The rest were just symbols of my intellectual and networking superiority. I am tired of that shit. I am no social butterfly so why pretend to be?

The most intellectually stimulating night I had with a large group of people last year was the campaign launch for the Brisbane Federal seat of Dickson. I spent an hour talking to a friend about campaign tactics, and met some other people (One of them blogs here) in which we discussed the ALP’s prospects for the upcoming election (We were wrong). Since, I have thought about that night a lot, mainly because it’s an illustration of what the perfect social gathering looks like to me. It is not something that I can ever find on Facebook, no matter how hard I try.

How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. 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.

That is why I have given up Facebook, why I will continue to stay away from it. That last paragraph also represents a change in direction for me. I don’t just have myself, I have my dreams, goals and three big ideas.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written. I have been flirting with deleting my facebook, myself. I think I can, and should.