On Our Own

Even fleeting moments away from others present an opportunity to catch up with yourself. Especially if you spend much of the day tuned into the thoughts and concerns of others, as these individuals do.

By Matt Huston, published on March 7, 2017 - last reviewed on May 19, 2017

John Nowak/CNN

The Observer: W. Kamau Bell, comedian, TV and podcast host

Between his radio talk show and podcasts, an Emmy-nominated documentary series, a forthcoming book, and a perennially touring comedy act, W. Kamau Bell’s communicatory engine is firing on all cylinders. But a key strength of his campaign to open minds and promote progressive thinking is his capacity to absorb new information.

Time for soaking up ideas isn’t always easy to come by. Bell is a married father of two, and so every moment of solitude represents a tradeoff. “Is it actually worth it to say to my family ‘I need to go be by myself’ when I feel that I already don’t see them enough?” he wonders. “For me, alone time is, ‘I’m going to walk to work today.’ Or if my kids go to bed and my wife’s asleep, I’ll stay up an extra hour, even if I’m exhausted, just to be with my thoughts.”

The quieter intervals in which Bell can let his curiosity roam are also prime time for reading or scanning the Internet to see what others are saying about current events. “That’s when you get to actually learn and evolve,” he says. On his CNN show, United Shades of America, Bell launches patient dialogues with a cross-national patchwork of characters that includes police officers, hipsters, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Hearing others out, even those he disagrees with, is essential to moving contentious discussions forward, he says: “It’s like a Ronda Rousey fight. You have to get hit in the face a couple of times. You have to have a threshold for taking in things you don’t agree with or else you’re just gonna go down.”

Despite the talent for engagement he displays on United Shades or in his comedy sets, Bell grew up accustomed to regular solitude. “As an only child, I had acres of free time,” he says. “Now it’s like I’m in a studio apartment of free time.”

People who have seen the Oakland resident on TV greet him energetically in public. He has been working hard to be heard. But at the end of the day, he’s in his element at home with his family—and at some point, sitting in a quiet room, reading a book.

“I’ll know I’ve made it,” he says, “when I’m back to being as alone as I want to be.”

Photo courtesy of Kate McCulley

The Adventurer: Kate McCulley, travel blogger

"I'm an introvert who dances on tables," says the eponymous creator of Adventurous Kate's Solo Female Travel Blog. "Adventurous Kate" McCulley has notched more than 60 countries, and her blog and social media posts—in which she relays tales of her travels to tens of thousands of followers—offer voluminous proof that going it alone has its thrills.

Yes, she was with (or near) other people as she toured the Scottish Highlands, partied in Argentina, and got shipwrecked in Indonesia, and she transmits her highlights for the world to see. But McCulley, who lives alone in New York City, typically travels by herself. In 2010, she quit her job to see the world, launching a blog to document her experience and provide tips and resources for other solo travelers. Despite her sizable audience, she wears her introvert's badge with pride.

She enjoys making new friends in faraway places, but also insists on time to go her own way, even if she's exploring a city full of strangers. "You can be very solitary when you're surrounded by people," she says, "as long as you're on your own and no one's engaging with you." She likes to pass as a local, or at least an expat.

Solo travel provides countless chances for fulfillment, McCulley finds, even
in acts like boarding the right train or ordering food in a foreign language. It also affords an exhilarating sort of freedom. "When you travel alone, you don't have to worry about anybody else's needs—you can do whatever you want, whenever you want," she says. "That can be a little bit overwhelming for people doing it for the first time. But in the end, it's something really wonderful."

Photo courtesy of Randy Paterson

The Advisor: Randy J. Paterson, psychologist and author

Before he sits down with one of his clients, gives a talk, or works on a book, Randy Paterson needs some space. When he can, he'll spend a few days at the orchard he owns outside his home city, Vancouver.

At the office, posting his "In Session" sign, even if there's no client in sight, buys him time to focus. As a therapist and author (most recently of How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use) Paterson is conscious of the need to get away from people for a stretch. "Imagine that you are agitating the surface of a pond, and then you stop. It takes a little time before the surface settles down and becomes clear and still," Paterson says. "It also takes a while for the mind to settle to the point where you can actually develop ideas." Before meeting a client, he explains, "My mind needs to be settled enough that I'm able to think: What are three things we might wind up doing in this session? Where might it go next?" 

At the end of a daylong workshop, during which he answers questions about mental health both publicly and privately, he often prefers to go straight to his hotel room rather than join a social gathering, he says, "because I'm talked out by that point." And the psychologist is comfortable with that choice. He thinks too many people try to banish alone time from their lives and that their ability to focus suffers, like an underworked muscle. "As I've grown older, I've seen the need for solitude less as a kind of deficiency," he says, "and more as part of a natural process."