Have You Had Your Vitamin S Today?

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When was the last time you were completely, utterly alone?

When you map the lives of talented people, some strange and surprising patterns emerge. One pattern I’ve noticed lately has to do with their general level of social connectivity; that is, do they tend to spend a lot of time alone, or do they prefer to be surrounded by people? Are they solitary geniuses working away in a candle-lit apartment? Or are they glittering comets flying across the social galaxy, constantly bouncing into new people and ideas?

Here’s the surprising part: many talented people seem to be both. Their lives contain a paradoxical structure, alternating between periods of utter solitude and periods of robust connectivity.

Mozart is a nice example, his life oscillating from the carnival of Vienna society to the isolation-tank of his workroom. As he said, “When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

Pablo Picasso, who was no shrinking violet when it came to connecting, took a similar approach: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”

In our world solitude is a lost art. Solitude is widely regarded as a quasi-depressing situation (what, you’ve got no friends?). Connectivity, on the other hand, is regarded as an almost saintly condition — an  indispensable framework for creativity, and genius. Connection definitely has its merits — as Steven Johnson and others have vividly showed, connections matter hugely for the sharing of ideas and innovation.

But as the lives of Mozart, Picasso, and others show, connectivity is only half of the talent-building equation. The other half is found inside the mystery of the candle-lit studio, in solitude and isolation. And  here’s where we find the modern problem, because solitude is an increasingly scarce resource.

In fact, solitude is so scarce that we have come to regard it as a luxury — something to be found on vacation, or as an unexpected oasis amid the endlessly unfurling savanna of a busy life.  When we get it, we’re surprised and gratified, but the truth is, most of us don’t entirely know what to do with it.

This is especially true when it comes to kids. (If you’re a parent, do a quick calculation: how much total isolation — when you were in their own space, completely alone — did you have on a typical Saturday in your childhood? How much does your kid have this Saturday?)

The problem, I think, is not that we undervalue solitude. The problem is that we are thinking about solitude in the wrong way. Because solitude is not a luxury to be enjoyed on rare occasions. It’s far closer to a vitamin — something essential that our brains and bodies require to thrive. Think of it as Vitamin S. It’s a daily supplement that centers our identities and our desires, that grants us the space to experiment, to make mistakes and correct them, to get obsessed solving the endless series of tiny, fascinating problems that form the foundation of any achievement.

If we want to increase our daily allotment of Vitamin S, we first need to make clear what solitude really is. Because it’s not mere peacefulness, not mere unplugging, not mere escape. It’s an escape into something bigger — it’s when, as Mozart said, we are in the state of being “completely myself, entirely alone.”

Real solitude seems to share three basic qualities:

  • 1) It’s gotta be reliable — which means there have to be real, impermeable barriers that you alone control. It’s not really solitude if someone can interrupt it on a whim.
  • 2) It’s gotta last. It’s not solitude if it’s only a few minutes.
  • 3) It’s gotta be repeatable.  Productive solitude is about developing a routine — a kind of workspace for action — which is tough if the platform is constantly shifting.

If you want to go deeper on Vitamin S, check out this brilliant essay, Solitude and Leadership, by William Deresiewicz. Or see this fine website on creativity and solitude (where you can find the Mozart/Picasso stories, along with lots of other case studies).

The next question is, how do we build more solitude into our lives? Is there perhaps a way to use all this technology to create more solitude? (Is there an app for that?)


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16 Responses to “Have You Had Your Vitamin S Today?”

  1. juan2thepaab says:

    I was very pleased to find this post — it’s nice to know I’m not crazy. I am a musician and anytime my time alone and/or privacy is impeded on, my work and productivity suffer terribly. Sometimes to the point that I simply stop trying to create anything.

    I have often wondered if there was something wrong with me — I can’t explain why I need to be alone in order to work. I don’t feel comfortable working on creative pursuits around others, but have never been completely sure why. I tend to blame it on lack of confidence or self-esteem, but perhaps, according to this post, there is more to it.

    The recurring challenge for me, is how to maintain the solitude. In today’s world of crowded cities and high rent (which equals the necessity for roommates), it’s difficult to have that private space that is “reliable”, “lasting”, and “repeatable” — unless you have a lot of money to spend. Honestly, I don’t know how other people do it.

    This leads to something that contradicts this post — I live in New York City, which is a creative hotspot, however extremely crowded. Most people have roommates because of the extremely high rent costs — this does not allow for much alone time, however NYC has a high output of creativity and talent (my personal challenges aside). How do you explain that in relation to the hypothesis in this post?

  2. Rod says:

    Dan,

    This post is instructive and affirming. Thanks. And, thanks for the great Websites.

  3. djcoyle says:

    Ah, the productivity of crazy-crowded spaces! That’s a great question, Juan2 — thanks for asking it. Here’s my take: I think cities provide solitude not through actual quiet, but through the powerful sense of anonymity and the sense of freedom that springs from being in a giant crowd. That said, most of the big-city writers I know have adopted what might be seen as strange habits — writing late at night, waking up super-early, lighting ritual candles, renting (really expensive) tiny offices so they can have an oasis of control. Cities turn finding solitude into a kind of a game, and it seems that game suits certain people. Also, most of the big-city writers I know move to quieter places once they get a bit older. I’ve also heard of a few artist co-ops that have sprung up, where people pool resources to score a little solitude.

  4. despondent says:

    Oh great, I am utterly unable to find solitude and I am angry, bitter, and depressed. Since I have no money (I live on a poverty level income) I cannot afford my own housing. My previous rented room was in a house that was foreclosed, so everyone had to move.

    I ended up in an even worse rented room, with five others in the house. Since I rent only the room – this is not a group joint-and-several rental – I have zero control over my living environment, over who lives here, who the couch surfer du jour might be, or the constant fighting of a permadrunk couple in the house. (In one week, she left – voluntarily or not – and returned four times, and both were arrested for domestic violence.)

    Nobody in the house has a job or a life outside the house. My room shares a wall with the noisy living room and another wall with the only bathroom in the house.

    All day long I have to listen to mindless broadcast television from the living room, a constant parade of dodgy visitors (not drug deals, just friends of the dodgy people who live here), cough, cough, cough, clearing phlegm (the others smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish), hack, retch, belch, barking dog, squeaky pet toys, noisy bathroom activities, and flushing toilet.

    I literally get no solitude and don’t know where I might find it.

  5. Brian D says:

    Hi Mr. Coyle:

    James Ward might give you a laugh about the problem of over-stimulation:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703395904576025482554838642.html

  6. Marc says:

    On this topic, Anthony Storr’s “Solitude: A Return to the Self” looks interesting. Just came across a copy in the used bookstore where I work.

    http://www.amazon.com/Solitude-Return-Self-Anthony-Storr/dp/0743280741/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1295392418&sr=1-1

    “British psychotherapist Storr takes issue with the predominate view in the West that intimate relationships are the exclusive source and measure of mental health and personal satisfaction. In this far-reaching work, he considers the impact of voluntary as well as enforced solitude, particularly on creative persons such as composers, writers, and philosophers.”
    -Library Journal

  7. djcoyle says:

    Thanks mucho, Marc — your timing is perfect!

  8. Douglas L. Knupp says:

    Very interesting take on Solitude. It has become clear to me now why I cherish “My Solitude”. The following is something I wrote awhile ago concerning this exact thing “My Solitude” by me:

    Passing glimpses of perfect bliss
    Pulsing rhythms echo in my mind
    Searching for that one moment in time
    Where have you gone
    My Solitude

    In my heart there is release
    A safe harbor from the turbulent sea of my mind
    Healing the wounds from moments past
    Until a new one comes along
    My Solitude you are my anchor

    My being hungers to fill that empty space
    Breathe in the wind from that place
    Glimmering hope, dances off the shadows within that void
    Only your spirit can silence the tremors of this aching heart
    Wandering alone amongst the clouds in my eyes
    Seeking you my Solitude

    My freedom lies far away in the distant gray twilight of you
    Lost shadows of time are my tearful friends
    Sounds of silence, deafening my ears
    Only you can hear
    My Solitude

    Lost amongst the glass castles of my soul
    Towering tributes echoing from that place
    Moonlight shadows caressing the heart in your exile
    Longing to be near you
    My Solitude

    Life is but a breath, in the ticking of time
    Longing moments, seeking my home with you
    Allow this heart to be complete, longing to be whole again
    Celebrate with me the joy of living
    Be near me
    My Solitude of life

    Eyes wide apart, never look away
    Anymore, than I can forget my heart
    Life will not pass me by without you
    You are always there
    My Solitude you are my dearest companion

    I will always remember you with a clenching soul
    Smiling memories will hold you near
    Your touching soft spirit caresses my mind
    My laughter eclipses the larceny of your essence
    As I taste the salty tears caressing my lips
    My Solitude, you are the ever present, present

    There is no moving without you, no future without you
    You are where I came from
    My past, my present and my life to come
    Moments of perfect bliss
    Your my only love
    My Solitude.

    I wait and wonder what fantastic adventures could be mine
    Sweep me away within your arms
    Far away into myself, your beauty capturing my soul,
    I feel the world has stopped.
    Your radiance keeps the universe within my grasp.
    My Solitude.

  9. P Alvarado says:

    Just heard a condensed note from Philosopher’s Notes on your book and now reading this amazing post. Making sure I grab a copy of your book tomorrow. Amazing stuff!!!

    Thank you!

  10. Timothy says:

    This is in response to despondent. I understand your predicament. However, as David so rightly points out in his book, people who are successful have three traits: tenacity, creativity and a positive attitude. You point out all the reasons why you can’t, instead of focusing on what how you can. When teaching someone to tree ski, one of the common problems is that the skiier is afraid of hitting a tree, so they look at the trees. What they need to do is to concentrate at looking at the open spaces between the trees where they want to ski. When they do this, almost without fail they quickly become much more successful tree skiier. What you need to do is to creatively identify within your environment ways you can find solitude. Is there a public library nearby? Is there a park? Can you just go out for a walk?
    Despite the seemingly seriousness of your situation, think about Nelson Mandela and the situation he found himself in and how he creatively dealt with it (maybe not the best analogy since I think he was actually forced into solitary confinement but my point is that tenacious, creative, positive people deal with whatever life throws at them. I hope you can.

  11. Drew says:

    This makes sense to me.

    I am in the archetype theory / jungian camp. From socionics or MBTI there are only 2 true genius personality types: INTP & INTJ.

    We (INTP/J) fluctuate between our need to be withdrawn in our own thoughts to our shadow types which are the two most social of the personality types – ESFP & ESFJ.

    Most people cannot handle true isolation. The sense of ostracism it brings is unbearable for almost anyone. Learning to be okay with being on your own is the path to genius.

  12. inga,germany says:

    many years ago i just had to be alone for most of the time.to be with oher people constantly did cost me just to much energie.you need to put your attention to people in your surounding.

    i got energie back but also i did need much to give.and i need time for my own thinking.

    to be never alone has do cost energie and then there is less time for thinking about new ideas or yourself or what did happen to you latest.this is why some people avoid to be alone.because they don´t like thinking to much.they are even afraid of it.

    if we think about us and what happens in this world,then we are forced to built our own opinion.a lot of people just can not see the point of building there own opinion.some people prefer to say what other say or think what other people like them to think.

    why is that so??just because we prefer to be lazy and thinking or makeing our own opinion is work and not always very easy.to be on our own is not alway easy.

    i know lots of people they are alone or isolated.they are alone because they are sick or old.they would prefer to be with other people.

    so i think there are people who need more time on their own and there are others they do realy feel lonely because their is nobody to be with……

    or what do you think???

    inga

  13. Ratna says:

    Hi!
    I was reading the blog and the comments with a great deal of interest. In India, cities are very crowded and so finding solitude is very difficult as there are many neighbours, many people on the streets and many family members.
    I grew up in a family with siblings, parents and grandparents. Solitude was difficult and also seen as strange. However, I remember I did most of my studying at night and was a topper at school. I guess I could do my best work when most of the household was sleeping.

    Now being single and with my kid off to work in another city, I am on my own. I initially found it tough to take being alone . But , increasingly I have come to savour my solitude and I agree that I am able to think better and be more creative with my time.I am happy to know that this time will be productive for me if I can use it right.

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