Do you ever feel overwhelmed by how much time you spend with technology? As our lives become ever more connected, there are so few places we can go to truly be alone anymore.

Take airplanes. Airplanes were once disconnected sanctuaries where you had nothing to do except read, daydream, or doze off—“a retreat in the sky,” in the words of one Buddhist monk. But that’s no longer the case. On a flight recently, a teenager across the aisle from me wasn’t just watching a movie, but watching a movie on one screen and playing games on another—while a nearby passenger was working on his laptop, checking Facebook on his smartphone, and watching a show on the small television in front of his seat. We may be “alone.” But we’re not really alone.

This reality inspired me to read a new book called Lead Yourself First by Sixth Circuit federal judge Raymond M. Kethledge and the CEO of the Character & Leadership Center Michael S. Erwin. The book tells the stories of many inspiring leaders throughout history who relied on solitude at crucial moments in their lives, from Winston Churchill and Pope John Paul II to Martin Luther King Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi. I decided to write about the book for the Washington Post. You can read the piece here and below is an excerpt:


There’s been a lot of attention devoted to how technology is scattering our attention and corroding our relationships, but less to how it’s impairing our capacity for solitude. We’re so overstimulated that being alone has become unbearable—a fact that was highlighted in a series of studies from 2014, where people preferred giving themselves electric shocks rather than sitting still alone in a room for  6 to 15 minutes. In the lab, we shock ourselves; in real life, we reach for our phones in a lecture hall, in line—even when we’re driving.

But to live a good life—and to become mature individuals—we need to be content with being alone with our own thoughts. That’s because the only way we can come to understand who we are and think through the critical decisions about our lives is through the self-examination that occurs in solitude….

Through meditation, prayer, and writing, the leaders [Kethledge and Erwin profile] refined their thoughts, found inspiration, and developed moral courage. Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, wrote memos to himself to clarify his thinking in the lead up to D-Day, while Jane Goodall discovered the social habits of chimpanzees—and their remarkable likeness to humans—by exploring Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park alone. And many of the most crucial discoveries and innovations in science and art were forged in the crucible of solitude. Marie Curie stumbled upon the dynamics of radiation in the isolation of her lab and T. S. Eliot conceived of his masterpiece “The Wasteland” while on sick leave at a hospital. Only when the mind is at rest can we actually hear ourselves think.

You can continue reading here.

Emily Esfahani Smith, who co-wrote the New York Magazine article, is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.