Planning what you want next: The necessity of being alone

a black and white photo of a beach although most of the photo is of the sky - a tiny figure is to the bottom right hand side of the frame

A friend pushed me to an interesting online article this week about solitude and leadership – a write-up of a lecture delivered at the United States Military Academy by William Deresiewicz in October 2009.

I love the description within it of ‘excellent sheep’ – people who have been trained, through schooling and society to jump through any hoop, no matter how high:

Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors… That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

But that’s not what Deresiewicz feels makes a leader, and it’s not what I feel makes one either. So what does?

What makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

Standing up for what you believe in, even when its unpopular is hard. In one project I am working on this year I have become ‘that woman’ – I was almost introduced as it recently. (I met someone I half knew at a conference, and they introduced me to someone else who said, on recognizing my name ‘Oh – you’re that woman…).

The article argues that you can only find that sense of moral courage through introspection – solitary introspection. I wonder how many of our leaders within the cultural sector of the UK actually have the time for such a pursuit?

I used to hate spending time alone – felt lonely and dull. Nothing to do and nothing to do it with. As I have got older my feelings have shifted and changed around aloneness. I now crave it. Time with my own thoughts and my own agenda. Time to think about not just what I do, but why I do it, whether I want or need to keep doing it, what I could be doing instead and many other trains of thought.

I now try and plan in times in which to be alone. And in which I can maximize the value of being alone (not just ‘oh I can polish off this report because no one else is around’ but proper time allocated simply to the pursuit of thought).

This week I had a day alone to think through and plan my next steps after my Clore Fellowship has finished. I walked, I thought, I wrote. I pondered. I stroked the dog and ate nice food. I smiled. I looked back at all my blogs and through my diary, and across my notebooks and files. I re-read my original application to Clore and the development plan I wrote when I was a month or so in. I laughed at my own pomposity, smiled at my ambition, recognised my hunger and thought deeply about my future and what I wanted to achieve.

In terms of my ‘To Do’ list, the day was a day of nothing – no ticks, no lines to strike through items. In terms of what comes next for me, my day alone was invaluable.

As the article I read this week ends:

You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe. How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? … it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

Photo thanks to VinothChandar and remember if you have enjoyed this and want to read more, you can subscribe to Jo Verrent’s blog by email.

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