Have You Had Your Vitamin S Today?

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?)