Solitude and Leadership, by William Deresiewicz

4 minute read

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

— William Deresiewicz (2010) Solitude and Leadership

Marvelous. A must read.

But let’s go on, there are more interesting parts:

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them.

I would add a detail here: setting goals is one of the most important things, all around. It’s a matter of making our own life better. Setting goals is a skill, of course, can be trained. But it’s also an instrument for our happiness.

The other side of this medal is that you can see clearly why those kinds of hierarchies and midsets creates discomfort: the people going up the hierarchies are harming their peers to move up, and they are being told how to do instead of thinking and making choices for their own day.

No wonder those places are the hive of frustration.

And then the central passage:

No, 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.

Great definition, I agree. I don’t know if it’s exhaustive, but it’s good enough. I would even add: and turning it to reality.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

Then he cites an interesting study (Nass et al, 2010, Cognitive control in media multitaskers) made by Stanford and published in july. I’m not sure if today we are measuring the multitaskers in a correct way, so I’m not sure if the results will hold the test of time. I don’t think that multitasking and monotasking skills are exclusive, at this time. But even considering this, the objection holds: the ability to be concentrated – monotasking – is a great skill to have.

It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself.

Another detail that I think it’s worth for one’s life, and not just about for the ones that are pursuing real leadership. I see every day this problem in myself and in many, many people around me. You tell yourself “just 5 minutes of TV” or “I’ll just read the latest updates from Friendfeed” and bang. Your focus is blown away, a storm of thoughts comes in.

Sometimes it’s worthy. Sometimes… not.

And then, he shows a little more depth in the extreme simplification of ‘solitude’ adding a great exception:

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person.

I’ve experienced this kind of action in a deep friendship, it’s something that adds a great value to the results of a solitude thinking, but I think that it’s not a substitute for solitude thinking by itself. It’s a great integration.

It’s a great lecture, indeed.

Setting goals.

Concentrating thought.

We need to find a balance.
And it’s not just balance for balance’s sake. It’s the fundamental value in thinking about how much of anything is good for me.