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Why Leaders and Innovators Need Solitude to Do Good Work

The power of solitude

“He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.”

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do you think of this idea?

I disagree with the notion that we should avoid traveling with the souls of other "men." I think that fellow traveling is why we read, why we make art, why we court our mates, why we love our children -- in short, why we're alive. Just yesterday, my editor and I were talking about our shared obsession with Leonard Cohen's music. We both saw his recent concert, and agreed that experiencing Leonard communally, in an auditorium packed with fellow travelers, made the evening magical.

But I still think that Emerson's on to something. It's hard to know your own mind when you're bombarded by other people's thoughts. Leaders and creators of all stripes would benefit from more solitude than most people's workdays allow.

Forty years of research on brainstorming shows that individuals produce more and better ideas than groups do. Studies also suggest that the path to excellence in many fields is not only to practice, but to practice alone. And creativity researchers have found that many highly creative people were shy and solitary in high school, and recall their adolescence with horror. (I explain all this in detail in my forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.)

This is one of many reasons that introverts -- who are more likely than others to carve out solitary time -- are often very creative, and make unexpectedly fine leaders.

And then there's this study, described recently in a wonderful Boston Globe article by Leon Neyfakh on "The Power of Lonely," which seems to have been run just to prove Emerson's point:

"Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, a leader in the world of positive psychology, has recently overseen an intriguing study that suggests memories are formed more effectively when people think they're experiencing something individually. That study, led by graduate student Bethany Burum, started with a simple experiment: Burum placed two individuals in a room and had them spend a few minutes getting to know each other. Thy then sat back to back, each facing a computer screen the other could not see [while they completed a task testing their memories]. In some cases they were told they'd both be doing the same task, in other cases they were told they'd be doing different things....

Burum found that the participants who had been told the person behind them was doing a different task...did a better job of remembering...In other words, they formed more solid memories when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.

The results, which Burum cautions are preliminary...[can be explained by several different theories. But Burum leans toward the Emersonian explanation]: Sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they're reacting to it."

Maybe the answer is to simply be aware of this dynamic -- to ask, for any given experience, whether imagining another person's reactions would be a distraction, or an enhancement. When you're trying to figure out your company's five-year strategy, focusing on the expectations of Wall Street analysts will do you no good at all.

But when you listen to Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah, it really helps to have the crowd singing right along with you.

What do you think? Which situations call for company, and which for solitude?

If you like this blog, you might like to pre-order my forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

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