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Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >In defence of solitude

Some time ago, as part of this series, I mounted what I thought was a rather spirited defence of monotony and a vehement argument against multitasking and social media. In keeping with that, as the year comes to a close, I think it only appropriate that a few moments be spent in introspection.

The sum and substance of what I had argued earlier is that multitasking—now an epidemic—and distractions posed by social media take away from the quality of our lives; and that contrary to what we like to believe, all evidence points to a monotonous existence being better for our psyche in the long run.

Continuing with that line of thought, and on the back of personal experience, I would like to propose that freedom, and eventually the ability to lead, can be found only by seeking solitude—and by that, I mean time spent with the self.

If somebody told me that a few years ago, I would have dismissed it as downright silly. In fact, I did. My favourite uncle, dad’s younger brother, never lost a chance to tell me of the joys life brings when you are up with yourself at 4am. Why not sleep in like normal people, I would counter. Why would anybody not want to be surrounded by family and friends all the time? Particularly at times like these, when the festive season is upon us, all the more reason to feast and celebrate.

He would cluck his tongue, nod his head and smile condescendingly at me.

Don’t ask me how it happened or what changed. But for a while now, I have morphed into an early morning bird that is usually up by 4am and outdoors by 4.30. The intent isn’t to begin work early, but to spend a few hours with myself. Two mugs of tea, three at times, keep me company during these hours until the sun rises. No Internet, no phone calls, no social media, no news, nothing. When I say nothing, I mean absolutely nothing that allows somebody else’s thoughts to percolate into my head.

This is my thinking time. I need this time to listen to what is playing on my mind. Whatever they be—my ideas, my problems, my conflicts with issues, my plans for the future, my relationships—and everything else in between. I need to articulate to myself what my stated position is on all of these and what defence I have on hand if my position were to come under scrutiny. More importantly, are the defences I have to offer in sync with my moral compass, or True North?

To do all of these, I reiterate, I need solitude and the freedom that comes with it. Mind you, there is a subtle difference between solitude and introspection. Introspection is built on the back of experiences and driven by external thoughts. As opposed to this, what emerges from solitude is a uniquely thought-through position.

How often do you come through a thought-through position? One of my peeves is a by now clichéd line I have often heard in my career as a journalist from those at the highest echelons of business: “We believe in taking decisions by consensus." I refuse to buy that line. Leadership by consensus is bull. Not for anything else, but because it demonstrates inability and the lack of spunk to think.

Leadership and the subsequent decision-making that comes with it are lonely tasks—and can be built over time only on the back of solitude. William Deresiewicz embedded this firmly into me after I read the text of his outstanding talk at the United States Military Academy in October 2009.

“Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.

“That’s what (Ralph Waldo) Emerson meant when he said that ‘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’. Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

“How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?

“The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality and honour—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. 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."

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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