Most of us have become solopreneurs during lockdown, working home alone. How have you found this? There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Or maybe that’s just me then! I’ve been reading a lot about working in solitude, from Virginia Wolf’s and astronaut’s diaries, to Robinson Crusoe, and how Einstein did his best thinking alone. More of that later.
Working day-to-day in a team involves constant adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed, you mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But on your own, when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking, or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.
This period of working alone at home captured something about human awkwardness for me, reminding me of my youth when you’re all clumsy elbows and emotions, and out of it you create a kind of desolate euphoria – for the first time in a long I had time to have time.
We have long stigmatised solitude, it has been considered something to avoid, a realm of loners, but some aspects have been better than anticipated for me. Much of this self-reconfiguring happens through personal epiphany. When you have these moments, don’t fight it. Accept it for what it is. I’ve certainly found aspects of this enforced solitude restorative and creative. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent years alone, held a similar notion: We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom he wrote in Thoughts in Solitude.
The best book I’ve read on solitude during lockdown has been The Lost Island, by Alfred Van Cleef, a book capturing a man’s search for meaning on a remote island, the forbidding Amsterdam Island in the south Indian Ocean. Giving some extreme downtime to ponder life’s strangeness, it’s a striking narrative of a man’s search for and discovery of his life force in the most secluded of places – an isolation like we’ve all experienced recently, although the views were probably more inspiring.
After the death of his father, Van Cleef, the last of a family of Dutch Jews, learns that he is unable to have children. His search for solitude led him to an island lost in the immensity of the Southern Ocean, a place so far-flung that ‘remote’ scarcely does it justice.
Entrenched on this lonely, wind-battered rock – approaching its grey shores was like watching a black-and-white movie on a channel with poor reception – Van Cleef anticipates a total escape from the frenzy of humanity. He shares his time on the island with seas elephants, fur seals and albatrosses and weird scientists – everyday life is spiced with daily scientific discoveries (a new shade of bird vomit, a record gust of wind) and arguments over the management of stocks of chocolate spread.
The island mirrors an emotional desert. It is an untamed wilderness with sheer exposure to the elements, one where life at its most precarious and stark. The island proves to be his kind of place. Van Cleef treasures his geographical, cultural and psychic distance from it all, replacing an emotional black hole with a geographical one. There is wit and humour, yet it is impossible to ignore that this is Van Cleef’s quest for salvation. This points to the paradox at the heart of solitude: life in the quiet carriage can be both good and bad.
William Wordsworth has lessons for people trapped inside by natural forces greater than human will. He wandered lonely as a cloud, taking long walks in remote places, and in this season of cancelled parties, the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth went unmarked. Celebrations of the English poet, born on April 7, 1770, should have bloomed like his beloved daffodils, but for now the British landscapes he loved are empty of the visitors that his verse attracted from crowded Victorian cities.
In a period of enforced apartness, Wordsworth’s pursuit of joyous solitude seems timelier than ever. For Wordsworth, solitude brings joy above all because it carves out space for memory. More than the treks and climbs around picturesque locations that filled his years, what Wordsworth cherished was memory as solace and strength – A few hermits make their lives in isolation, birds which fly alone.
For me, solitude is about the quest for balance, and modern technology has made it both easier and harder to get the balance right. On the one hand we have ‘networked solitude’ – just as St Jerome squatted in his cave surrounded by his library, so modern hermits can sit in their flats gorging on downloaded books and films or chatting with friends across the world. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult to enjoy the benefits of solitude. Distraction is always one click away.
During this spell of collective standstill, our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration: social distancing has been a tragedy for those living alone, but for others it has proved a mixed blessing – many people have been able to take a break from the treadmill of commuting. If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.
Notwithstanding this vestige of a neverland lodged in my psyche, I do enjoy the tranquillity of time spent alone. I need time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
As we all spend more time at home, it’s only natural to get a little stir-crazy. But we’re in the same boat as great thinkers like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, who were isolated at a time when medical knowledge struggled to combat plagues. And even though conditions were rough then, the time spent isolated led to breakthroughs for both of them – Newton did it over the course of 18 months while isolated to avoid the Plague, revolutionising optics and gravity, and inventing calculus along the way.
One of the reasons Einstein carries such a hefty cultural weight is that he, like Newton, single-handedly invented a fundamentally new view of the universe whilst also in solitude. Einstein’s turn came in his Annus Mirabilus in 1905, when he published four ground-breaking papers and a PhD thesis, touching on optics, and the size and motions of atoms. A few years later, as the Spanish Flu devastated the world from 1918-1920, Einstein was gaining notoriety for his work on the Theory of Relativity, again flourishing in isolation.
Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own. Intuition for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s time spent alone with nothing more than his imagination. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.
Now besides modelling my own lockdown-hairstyle on Einstein’s, I’ve tried to adopt his approach to innovation – we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them – which I know has helped me in isolation. Taking this further, I’ve always adopted the maxim ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as a way of learning, so I’ve developed my own interpretation of How would Einstein approach this situation? to declutter and unpack thinking whilst in solitude, his own words:
Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. Einstein asked himself what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then created it. I’ve found it a great way to help kick-start my mind-mapping sketches.
Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference. It’s the same for your startup thinking, shoot for the stars.
Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.
Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.
Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Touch, Fire and the Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Keep pushing your boundaries in a similar manner.
Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Einstein lived his life by looking at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success. Do this grounded thinking yourself, as it helps to create the forward path.
Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein learned to view a problem in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.
A couple of final quotes from Einstein to end with, that always make me smile, and were useful to reflect upon during lockdown. Firstly,I never think of the future, it comes soon enough. He held an appetite for tolerance, ambiguity and even delight in contradiction. Despite his brilliance, he was patient too, a quality we’ve all needed these past three-months: insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It’s been good to reflect upon that too.
The outbreak of coronavirus has been hugely distressing. Those that can safely self-quarantine and cope with the solitude are fortunate. We’re all likely to catch a little cabin fever, but don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking, Einstein had good thinking habits – in his own solitude, he focused on the positive aspects, about have the time to reflect, thinking differently, and not just sitting there daydreaming or worrying.
As we come out of lockdown, there are better things ahead than we leave behind. Maybe your solitude has had some hidden silver lining. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves, but rather than seeing solitude as a negative, be like Einstein. He pictured the future, working out possibilities of new realities, where what he was doing today was completely different tomorrow. Use your imagination. That’s what Einstein did when he was alone.