The Importance of Solitude

  • Published
  • By Col. James Forrest
  • 17th Medical Group Commander
"Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence".

Former 17th Medical Support Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Tyler Sanders, came to me and asked to discuss the personal development plan he'd crafted for himself as part of an Air War College project. In the plan, he illustrated what he believed his leadership strengths and weaknesses to be. One of the areas he described was something I'd not thought of in many years....the importance of solitude. He referenced the writings of Dr. William Deresiewicz, a former educator at Yale University. And although I won't be able to do him justice, I'd like to share a little bit of what Dr. Deresiewicz said and sprinkle in a few of my own observations.

Solitude, in the context of this essay, is not a negative attribute. It's most certainly not loneliness, nor even necessarily introspection. Rather, it is a welcome freedom from disturbance. Dr. Deresiewicz makes an interesting observation that when he's wrestling with a problem, his initial thoughts on the subject are actually quite unoriginal; they're most often something he's read previously or that he once heard. That is my experience as well. It is only with critical thinking that I come to my own, personal conclusion. And for critical thinking, solitude is requisite. I need freedom from e-mail, phone calls, meetings, and the ever-present blinking red LED on my BlackBerry. It's too easy to get mired down in the details of work and life and forget to concentrate on what's most important.

Solitude allows me to do exactly that.

Dr. Deresiewicz also makes an interesting, related observation. The very things that are supposed to help us communicate have actually done the exact opposite. In the age of Twitter, Facebook and IM, it's far too easy to send a random and poorly considered thought to thousands of people at once. And doing so tends to generate the very same thing in return - it's all a vicious cycle. We capitalize on our lightning fast capability to broadly disseminate information - but we don't take the time to consider if what we're sending is truly worthwhile in the first place.
Rather than take the time to deliberate and compose something of significance, things are reduced to a nearly meaningless emoticon or an "LMAO". The more you "communicate" in this way, the less you're actually communicating at all. When you get down to it, where there is no deliberation, there is no real substance. And the more important something is, the more consideration it demands - or at least should. And so it goes with everything you can imagine: work, relationships, even just writing this essay. The greater disruption there is to a process, the less effective the process is overall.

The electronic age has made everything smaller and faster. Whether intentional or not, we've modified the way in which we communicate and respond to one another. Because everything is quite literally at our finger tips and our words can be half-way around the world in an instant, we now feel compelled to make rapid-fire responses - and by extension, rapid-fire decisions. The very thing most necessary to conscientious communication or a solid, insightful decision or action - time - has been unceremoniously stripped from us by an impersonal keyboard.

The greatest creators throughout history have all fiercely protected their solitude. Philosophers, artists, musicians, scientists, writers - solitude provided sanctum where they could create their best works. Deresiewicz reminds us that the essence of leadership is having vision; being able to think outside the box rather than to just simply rehash old ideas (which are now readily and rapidly accessible with the click of a mouse). True leadership is being able to rise above the noise, see new pathways, and then translate that vision into action. In many ways, being a commander (or a superintendent or a first sergeant) is a solitary affair to begin with. If that solitude is harnessed for the benefit of the organization, then it's not something to be shunned, but rather embraced.