To Lead, Learn To Be Alone With Your Thoughts

“We love the things we love for what they are.” ― Robert Frost

Having just read that the essayist and regular for the The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz, was leaving the magazine, I thought it appropriate to link today again to a favorite piece from him, Solititude and Leadership, which originated as an address to West Point plebes in 2009.

Before an audience of future Army officers who for better or worse will be a part of a rather large and famous bureaucracy, and who will be obliged to follow rules as well as to think independently, Deresiewicz argues for the benefits of learning to be alone with one's thoughts, saying that such a willingness was crucial to an ability to inspire others to follow.

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 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.

"Finding your own reality" does not mean engaging in make-believe, but discovering, with enough time and honesty - and very often at a personal cost - what it is you think. While Deresiewicz is critical of the near constant din in this always-on world, knowing what one thinks does not mean being free from media, digital or otherwise. Every experience is a mediated experience.

But it does mean, for example, lowering our guard enough to be vulnerable when the source of information is a friend breaking some hard news, or when habits become self-destructive and the stories we tell ourselves begin to sound like rationalizations. Friendship, as Deresiewicz goes on to point out, is also a form of solitude, a kind of cooperative (self) exposure, essential to our development as people with distinct selves and thoughts to match:

That’s what Emerson meant when he said that 'the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.'

Making a name for oneself does not mean meeting others' expectations, but living long enough in the question to find that "new direction" that is authentically yours. Because by tuning out the clamorous pinging for a period of time, or by relying on someone that has rewarded your disclosure with her constancy, you will find that solitude in all its variety has worked a kind of magic. Others follow. They lean in.

While the Deresiewicz essay contains a reference or two that will date it, I hope you'll find it as valuable as I have.

Stay curious.


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