Mar 1, 2013

Leading in solitude

Blog surfing is a great way to get arond the world and other peoples' heads.
It brought me across Revathi, who is lately on a quest to Keep calm and finish what you've started. Timely and sound advice, well written. Her quest warrants a post unto itself but she recommended this article in 'The American Scholar'  and it got me thinking.

The article is admittedly a dry read initially. Perhaps because it's really a commencement speech at West Point military academy. It also drones rather relentlessly through the first half about the sorry state of American leadership as of 2009 before winding it's way to an interesting thesis: to be a successful leader (and original thinker), you must be able to spend time alone with your thoughts. That solitude breeds leadership despite all conventional wisdom - which claims that to be a successful professional you need to know how to work with and around people. Arguably those skills cannot grow while you are navel gazing in a remote cabin in the woods.

Not much to argue with in his exacting logic. It's a familiar concept to at least the Indian mind in which the idea of ascetics and sanyasis mining wisdom from their solitude is firmly entrenched through centuries worth of traditions (and dare I say, fables?). It's a novel thought in our current age though, where the best minds are born from academics, research and industry, maintain high profiles and lay claim to their thrones through publishing, lecturing and being 'involved' in every way. Quite the opposite of 'solitary'.

Then I came to an interesting part about the information deluge we are all subject to. While this is not exactly breaking news, it is well articulated. An excerpt on why reading books can enhance original thinking more than cyber-information:

“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.

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today"
Here's my question and confusion about this otherwise convincing piece:  if you skip 'marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom' how do you know that your opinion is well informed and really unique? Blinkered thinking seems more fraught with the perils of missing other point-of-views than generating truly unique thoughts. Even the most concentrated effort at creating original thoughts in solitude cannot possibly account for the fact that the thinking is still done by one individual. One individual with their own biases, pre-dispositions and limited capacity for thought. If you do not listen to 'other peoples' thoughts', doesn't that trap you in an unreal world consisting of only you? How can any of your original  thoughts that originate in that very personal and limited world, retain any applicability for the rest of us?

I'm not denying the very real risk of self-delusion when you internalize the aforementioned 'cacophony' of opinions. I think there is a sound (if rather obvious) point there. I see so many people (self included) slipping into the insidious self-delusion of thinking ourselves unique after having adopting conventional wisdom and convincing ourself through unconscious, spin that it's un-conventional. Often it's only after I've opined confidently (and repeatedly) that I recognize that my paradigm-shifting epiphany is really just a very slight variation of one or more opinons I've absorbed.  Either those opinions have appealed to me and aligned with my inclinations or they turned my opinions on their head with enough conviction to make a zealous convert out of me. I have for instance, known more than one New Yorker who is a self-identified intellectual but channels an identifiable amalgam of opinions and reviews from 'The Village Voice' (an alternative newspaper representing the edgy side of the city) and the NYT. There was no malicious intent or intended hypocrisy: my fondness for some of these folks actually demystified how easily such self-delusion creeps even into an alert and self-aware mind.

Besides, the cynic in me is mumbling that there probably is no truly unique thought in the world. It's a fair guess that in the history of our civilization, every thought has already been thunk by someone. Not knowing of it is not the same as it not existing.

I'm just saying.

So like with everything, I suppose the ideal lies in between the two extremes. Aside: I wanted to name this blog 'Shades of grey' to reflect my fond prescription for equilibrium but that name was already taken. Now I bless my stars (and send out sympathy vibes) that I'm not getting hits from frustrated women looking for badly written sensual thrills. Aside over.

My take-away is that too much reading and getting 'informed' about other opinions can un-moor you just as easily as too little can anchor you to your unreal world of one.

I think I knew this already.
But it's nice to have it articulated by someone with a tad more credibility.
Because after all, if I'm stuck in my solitude with only my own thoughts, how do I know they're not just figments?
Oyon-isms (6):
Before bed time, Wednesday night:
When I grow up I want to invent a machine that lets people walk inside hot lava without melting.
Before bed time, Thursday night:
When I grow up, after I make the Lava Machine, I'm going to build an instrument that listens to what animals say and then tells it in people language. It will be called the 'Listener'.
Minutes after waking, Friday morning:
Mummum, how many days until I grow up?


  1. Loved reading the post!! I find myself constantly struggling to understand the Facebook and Twitter phenomenon. I study people around the world and design these kinds of applications for a living. They add tremendous value in small bits and bytes helping us parse out the things we care about in this info overloaded world. They end up adding a ton of noise to it too. Finding time between kids, a business and life to sit down and read is a whole other thing! I dream of this balance all the time but I think I might have stumbled upon another kind of balance. The kind that involves OD-ing on one kind of thing for a while and then abandoning it for ODing on the other. Funnily it gives me time to ruminate over the things I've read in a wholesome way than chewing up bits of books. Anyway - really interesting post!

    1. I think there is MUCH to be said for your method. In fact, I've been reading lots about how ineffective multi-tasking is and how your way is now the new right-way (it already was). Even though it's the most obvious thing in the world and if you're parenting a young child, you probably spend half your life repeating 'ONE thing at a time please!', you tend to forget that basic piece of common sense when it comes to juggling your own life. Many will say it's an epidemic in the female portion of our population but I think men are affected by it too. It's the fast pace of our lives (or at least the PERCEIVED pace) and the way we have convinvced ourselves that every last thing on our plate is critical and time-sensitive (often contrary to all evidence). Your immersion method is the only route to sanity, I think, at the final assessment. More power to you.
      Thanks for commenting and best of luck settling in. You're a trooper for taking on the challenges you have. Do drop in again.