by Michael Pietrzak: On a wet Saturday morning in 2011, I dragged myself into the election office to pick up my list of voters…
I had volunteered to go door-to-door campaigning but was having trouble remembering why. I was hungover and in no mood to bother strangers at home all day. As soon as the voter list hit my hands, I decided to blow off the task. The office manager looked at me sideways, like he knew.
I left the drab, gray office rented in the Polish Veteran’s Association, out into the soggy morning. A light rain started again, but the warm sun pierced the autumn clouds. Normally I’d seek shelter, but my feet led me into the open air of a nearby park. As I meandered along the asphalt path, my mind went silent. I settled into a bench and sat in the rain, alone. I saw the trees and sky as if for the first time.
In that solitude, I felt peace and witnessed my life from a great distance. I realized that the political party I worked for was spending most of its energy on re-election and little on good policy. I had to leave my career. And I felt immense love for my partner of four years but finally admitted we were impossibly mismatched, and a breakup was only a matter of timing. My schedule had been packed for months, and until that park bench, I couldn’t see any of this.
It was only in this moment of solitude that my path forward became clear.
Why Type A’s Struggle
“So many people are plugged in all the time and it’s just killin’ ‘em.” —Rob Bell
SUCCESS reader, you’re probably like me: a Type A achiever bent on maximizing results. Own that and be proud! But you’re also probably not aware of how your constant activity is hurting your productivity.
- Solitude that we reconnect with our deepest desires and purpose in order to do great work. A lack of solitude leads to:
- Anxiety, depression and neediness: No time to mentally process situations and emotions? Your mental health will suffer, and you’ll seek an outlet in destructive behaviors.
- Conformity: If you never take time to discover your wants and beliefs, you’ll automatically adopt them from other people.
- Heart attacks and other health problems: Constant activity keeps your body full of the stress hormone cortisol, and it’s what kills people at 40.
- Lack of creativity: Studies show that those who can’t bear to be alone stop enhancing their creative talents. In an economy of increasing automation, creativity will be one of the only things to set us apart from the robots.
- Regret: Waking up after 40 years to realize all your constant activity was untied to your highest purpose is a huuuge bummer. Take time to discover what you want before you spring into action.
Only the quiet reflection of solitude allows our heart’s desires to be heard, and our heart is the true source of wisdom and joy. Letting it lead is the path to great results. I’ll help you find solitude. Let’s go.
How to Build the Solitude Habit
“…the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” —Steve Jobs
First, realize that finding solitude will be difficult. Every part of our society is structured to discourage quiet alone time. Advertisers, apps, TV, friends and family—they all want our attention. This environment has made all of us deeply uncomfortable with being alone in silence. Our neural pathways have been strengthened by years of external stimulation to crave more of it.
Our lives and our species’ future depends on breaking this cycle. Discovering our highest purpose—and the best way for us to serve the world—comes only through turning inward, not in forcing one more item onto your to-do list.
Here are the best tools I’ve discovered to find solitude in the chaos of 2019. They’re simple, but the best solutions often are.
1. Get up early.
“Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.” —Mahatma Gandhi
I’ve been standing on my early rising soapbox for a while, but don’t expect me to come down soon. You can’t imagine the beauty found in the early morning hours until you’ve locked it in as a habit. It takes weeks of consistent trial and error to make it routine, but when it sticks, you get to enjoy the world each day before phones and emails, before other humans are up and making noise, and before your mind starts a-chatterin’.
The first hour of my day is my favorite. In this solitude, I can think clearly and hear messages from my deepest core.
Who gets up early?
Richard Branson (Virgin), Oprah, Tim Cook (Apple), Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square) all get up before 6 a.m.
2. Run, walk or bike.
“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” —Patricia Highsmith
Physical exercise is solitude’s best buddy. When you strap on your shoes or climb onto your bike and leave the house to explore the world, your mind quiets and you get a new perspective on your life and all of its complications. You can’t get this sitting at a desk.
To ensure your exercise generates the solitude we’re seeking:
- Go alone.
- Don’t listen to music or audiobooks.
- Leave your phone at home.
- Get into nature if possible, away from others.
- Skip the treadmill or stationary bike—it’s a chore compared to exploring the outside world.
Who runs, walks and bikes?
Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Jay-Z run, Dennis Muilenburg (Boeing) and Brent Bellm (BigCommerce) bike, and Dennis Woodside (Impossible Foods) takes it a step further by doing Ironman triathlons.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein
It’s not just for kids anymore! Scientists now agree that daydreaming is a normal and positive brain function. When our mind wanders, “it’s really doing a tremendous amount,” says Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University.
Daydreaming will take us away from the task at hand, but while we’re in this state, our brain is working on other goals. It allows our subconscious, the seat of much of our wisdom, hopes, dreams and drives to be heard. On the other hand, hyperfocus can prevent us from “generating fresh solutions and ideas,” says researcher Jeffrey Davis.
Our subconscious mind is the source of much of our creativity, and tapping into this inborn talent is really the only way to do great work. Not convinced? A 2012 studyshowed that people who took a break from hyperfocus were better at solving demanding problems—41% better, in fact.
+1 point to the daydreamers.
Albert Einstein was legendary for his prodigious use of his wandering mind. At age 16, he imagined scenarios that led him to create his special theory of relativity: what he would see if he could travel at the same speed as a beam of light.
4. Drive alone.
“The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.” —Aldous Huxley
If you’re a competent driver, you’ve experienced getting into your car and ending up at your destination with no memory of the journey. In that solitude, your mind went elsewhere.
Complicated driving requires the higher executive functions of your brain (i.e. your attention), but on monotonous routes the task is punted away from your brain’s frontal lobe. Always drive with care, but know that on long drives you can do some great thinking.
Highway driving is especially monotonous—and a perfect place to find solitude. In university, I would drive two hours every second week to visit my long-distance girlfriend. That time alone with my thoughts still constitutes some of my favorite memories. I was able to solve a lot of problems through those quiet reflections.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, at 58 years old, took a road trip of 10,000 miles. The book he wrote about that time alone with his dog went on to be a best-seller.
5. Make a reservation for one.
“Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted.” —Hans Margolius
My mom loved telling the story about how she once walked into a restaurant, asked for a table for one, and the host told her with a frown, “Oh I’m so sorry.”
Oh, how we still laugh about that one.
For unknown reasons, having dinner alone carries stigma. But when I was building a renewable energy company in Zambia, my favorite thing to do after weeks in the villages was to go to a movie by myself, then splurge on a steak dinner and glass of wine. I still do the same when I know my wife will be out for the night.
It may be unusual, but taking the person who you love most in the world (hopefully yourself) on a date is a great act of self-care. The next day you’ll feel refreshed and ready to do your best work.
Who eats alone?
Daniel Radcliffe (yes, the Harry Potter), Renée Zellweger, Tom Hanks and even Bill Clinton have been spotted by the paparazzi eating alone. Their whole lives were built on their popularity, but even they need a solo date once in a while. You have permission to do the same.
6. Go camping by yourself.
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” —Henry David Thoreau
Several years ago, I was stuck. My business was barely breaking even and I was trying to sell credit card processing machines part time, door to door to make ends meet. No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t make progress.
On a whim, I rented a car, drove into Algonquin Provincial Park and spent two nights in the wilderness alone, miles from people. I watched the steam rising from the lakes, stared into the campfire for hours and listened to bullfrogs as I drifted to sleep.
Without the city’s distractions, my mind cleared. I saw exactly what I had to do. When I returned home, I dropped the sales job, which made me thoroughly miserable, and liquidated my company assets, saying goodbye to a business that was not bringing me toward my highest purpose.
Now I take solo camping trips each summer and have epiphanies about my life every single time.
You’re not the outdoors type? Change that. We evolve by stepping out of our comfort zone. Your first time doesn’t need to be a hardcore 35 km, 3-day hike. Start by finding a quiet campsite you can park on for a night. Or just go for the day. Nature is too important to miss out on. Don’t have wheels? Many cities have shuttle bus service into parks.
Who solo camps?
Henry David Thoreau, a most celebrated philosopher and writer of the 19th century, spent two years, two months and two days living in the woods. The book he wrote about his experience, Walden, is an all-time classic work that I return to year after year to remind myself of the empowering effects of nature’s solitude.
We’re all too damn busy, plain and simple. We fill up our lives and brag about it, but how many of us are curing cancer or working for world peace? Most of our activity is fruitless because we haven’t taken the time to think about what it is we really desire in our short lives.
Solitude has the answer. Carve out quiet time for yourself and your heart will tell you the same.