If you asked hiring managers to name the qualities they look for in candidates, most would say “plays well with others.” Team players support the kind of healthy, collaborative work environment that fosters creativity and engagement.
Teamwork is especially important for fledgling business and startups — where lean, tenacious teams are expected to burn the midnight oil, usually over takeout containers in their open office layouts. One for all, and all for one.
There’s no doubt that being a successful entrepreneur requires working closely with others. But a less mythologized, equally crucial part of running a business involves being alone. That’s when we do the kind of valuable work that can’t be automated or delegated — the work product that requires being in a room with just ourselves and our thoughts.
Being a “loner” usually has negative connotations, but psychologists have discovered that certain benefits flow from social withdrawal. Among these: Creativity, problem-solving and leadership.
As any entrepreneur will tell you, innovation and problem-solving are requisites for maintaining a competitive edge. In fact, a global survey of more than 1,500 CEOs found that creativity was the most important leadership trait for success.
So, you may wonder, why aren’t people rushing to shut their office doors and spend time with themselves?
We can’t stand being alone
As it turns out, many of us have negative feelings towards solitude — and I mean, really negative. When faced with a choice between solitude and physical pain, most people prefer actual, physical pain to isolation.
In a 2014 study, when given a choice, more than two-thirds of men and a quarter of women participants chose electric shock rather over being alone with their thoughts.
Timothy Wilson, the social psychologist who conducted the experiment, commented, “I think [our] mind is built to engage in the world. So when we don’t give it anything to focus on, it’s kind of hard to know what to do.”
That confusion leads to discomfort, and the result is that we feel unhappy when left with nothing but our thoughts.
Today, our devices’ endless stream of media make it all too easy to avoid solitude. Unfortunately, hyperconnectivity is the enemy of innovation and leadership.
The benefits of some isolation
If you need to come up with a creative solution, getting off the grid is a time-honored method. Take it from Bill Gates, who does twice-annual Think Weeks, dedicated to secluded study and reflection, or Isaac Newton, whose breakthrough theory of gravity came after the Great Plague closed his university and he spent almost two years working alone at home.
While collaborating with others can help to get our creative juices flowing, some time alone, with just ourselves and our thoughts, is necessary for creativity.
One study from SUNY Buffalo found that people who were unsociable — who sought out solitude — scored higher on creativity tests.
According to Ester Buchholz, a psychologist and the author of “The Call of Solitude,” life’s creative solutions require alone time. As she writes: “Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”
Our desire to stay connected constantly, both physically and virtually, can destroy our capacity for that very necessary individual contemplative work.
On the entrance of Apollo’s temple at Delphi, the phrase ‘Know Thyself’ was etched in stone. Ancient Greek philosophers extolled the process of self-examination. To them, it was ridiculous to try to learn other things without first knowing yourself.
As an entrepreneur, it’s crucial to engage in self-discovery, too. We have to know our strengths and weaknesses; the areas where we can aim to improve and those which are better off being delegated.
In the thirteen years since launching my company, I’ve learned that if you aren’t willing to acknowledge your shortcomings, you can’t grow your business. That’s why I believe that introspection and innovation go hand-in-hand. But to engage in introspection, we need time away. Staying connected hurts our ability to discover ourselves.
3. Leadership abilities
Finally, as Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire write for Harvard Business Review:
“Great thinkers and leaders throughout history — from Virginia Woolf to Marcel Proust to Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak — have lauded the importance of having a metaphorical room of one’s own.”
Strong leadership requires some isolation. Leaders have to make important, sometimes quick decisions based on their intuition. They have to guide with their visions and uphold their unique values. You can’t fully grasp any of these insights without taking time for solitary reflection.
Make time for being alone
To ensure I have regular periods of introspection, I make a deliberate effort to build solo time into my schedule. If you’re struggling to find solitude, you can start with a weekly digital detox: One full day with no devices and no checking email or social media. I also designate daily offline hours. For me, the beginning of the day works best, when I do my morning pages. I’ve found that even an hour can make a big difference.
Importantly, I let my colleagues know when I’m offline. That way, I’m setting expectations and letting them know it’s okay to do the same.
It’s also important to embrace what works for you. That way, you’ll stick with it. If for you, alone time means writing with an analog journal, do it. If your best ideas come during long walks, then take one.
It’s tempting to stay in our bubbles of hyperconnectivity, but at the end, your creativity and leadership depend on breaking out. It’s up to you: valuable solitude is yours for the taking.