To Live an Extraordinary Life, Get Lost With Yourself
My #1 secret to creativity
Creativity is a bizarre concept. What is it? Where does it come from? And finally, how do I get more of it?
These are some of the common questions people are looking to answer. There are good reasons why everyone is behind creativity — it helps you connect different ideas to produce something novel. So much so that it’s the number one desired skill in a C-Level executive and many other job descriptions.
Still, we don’t know anything about it.
When I started my startup two years back, I didn’t know what I was doing.
I heard quotes like “The difference between a leader and a follower is innovation.” Thus, I spent all my time trying to be innovative. Mostly though, I was coming up with crappy ideas and even crappier business models.
I went to networking events, talked to people, researched for hours on the Internet, but nothing seemed to work. “How could I identify a problem that hasn’t been solved?” I used to think.
Yet, I never did the single most important thing to figure the problem out — take time for myself to think. Yes, that seems absurd but I was filling most of my time “researching.” This left little or no time to sit in silence and connect the dots.
Henry Ford was right,
Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.
I feared introspection and solitude because they were uncomfortable. And no matter how much people talk about execution, thinking is difficult.
The same pattern repeated itself when I started to write. I read a lot of posts on how to write well. I read other writers who I admired. But I never took the time to think, to nourish my ideas.
Thus, I spent most of my time regurgitating what others wrote. I neither had a fresh perspective, nor peculiar insights to base my work on. It was just a pile of fluff.
Being stuck in this phase for long, I finally had the awareness to observe my patterns and work on fixing them.
The Number One Skill for Creativity
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” — Henry David Thoreau
After having this realization, I started working on enhancing my creativity. I studied my own life and previous moments of inspiration. Then I looked to great creatives for inspiration.
In all my research, one habit stood out — Solitude.
Solitude is often seen as a societal evil. Children are not left alone, and being alone is associated with negative emotions. Studies have shown that loneliness is associated with lower cognitive function, increased rates of smoking, pain, depression, fatigue, and death. Researchers are starting to declare loneliness a public health crisis.
But this is different from what we’re talking about here. We want to seek out solitude intentionally to fire up our creative juices.
A new study by a group of psychologists at SUNY Buffalo finds that not all forms of social withdrawal are harmful. In fact, the study is the first to find a link between a particular type of social withdrawal and a beneficial outcome — in this case, increased creativity.
The author of this study Julie Bowker says that such people are not anti-social or shy. *“They don’t initiate interaction, but also don’t appear to turn down social invitations from peers. Therefore, they may get just enough peer interaction so that when they are alone, they are able to enjoy that solitude,” *she says.
To study these people, Bowker and her colleagues recruited 295 university students and gave them common assessments about their personalities, social lives, and creativity.
The assessments rated the students’ level of agreement with different statements like
“Having close friends is not as important as many people say”
“I feel pretty worried or upset when I think or know somebody is angry at me.”
Students who were shy or antisocial showed lower levels of creativity. But people who were “unsociable” — those who sought out solitude — scored higher on creativity.
The researchers posit that unsociable people “may be able to spend their time in solitude constructively, unlike shy and avoidant individuals who may be too distracted and/or preoccupied with their negative cognitions and distress.”
More recently, a 2003 paper showed how solitude was linked to “freedom, creativity, intimacy, and spirituality.”
It said that being alone “reduces the need for impression management without imposing a pattern of behavior to which one feels pressure to conform.”
All this means that we have to change our outlook on solitude. When someone says they want to be with themselves, perhaps we shouldn’t be worried about them.
And if you’re someone who often feels the need for solitude, know that it’s healthy.
In fact, the best people find time for creativity. They do nothing. They get quiet. Only when the outside noises are shut out, you can think deeply about something.
When you’re alone, you face yourself and your demons. You can deal with your emotions and observe what you are otherwise not able to.
It helps you find your own voice which is often lost in the cacophony of others’ voices.
But don’t believe me. Consider what Mozart 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.”
“On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”
Or Nikola Tesla,
“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone — that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”
And let’s end this with the ultimatum given to us by Picasso,
“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”
How to Make Time for Solitude
Now that you know solitude is important, it’s also crucial to know how it looks in real life. Yes, sitting in a cabin in the woods, thinking about problems seems appealing but if done wrong, it can be disastrous.
Here are some things you should think about when making time for solitude in your life:
Solitude is not about a one-time thing. It’s not just those five minutes when you had to wait for a meeting alone. It has to become a habit. Set a time for it like anything else you would on your calendar and then do it.
It’s obvious to disconnect from your work, phone, laptop, etc. The point is to be in a different headspace altogether.
Once you disconnect, not only do you realize that you’re okay without people but also that people are okay without you.
The world will go on if you’re there or not (sorry but that’s true). Once you get this, it’ll be much easier to take time for yourself.
Make it long enough
Don’t be in a hurry to end your solitude period. I know it’s going to be uncomfortable the first time around. But stick with it.
For the first few times, it will take at least 20–30 minutes just to unwind and get out of your current train of thought.
If you’re still counting the minutes and looking at your watch, you need to wander longer.
Remember, we’re human beings, not human doings.
You don’t need to pick something to do in your alone time. Although you can, it may be counterproductive. For instance, reading is a good suggestion, but it will not let your mind wander enough to uncover the pearls of wisdom.
Just sit, walk, and be. Don’t try to do anything in particular. Again, if you’ve never done it before, it will seem strange. But don’t worry, the feeling will pass soon.
Solitude has many benefits. And it’s imperative for you to carve some time out for yourself.
But remember one thing — solitude is also not enough. Even though most of us spend less time alone than we should, it’s important for me to say this here.
When you’re not alone, take the time to feed your mind, heart, and soul. Consume quality information, spend time with like-minded people who you like and love, and finally be mindful and aware.
The key here is to find the right balance. It will take time. And it’s an endless process.
But once you get on the horse, you have no idea how far you can ride it.
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