This spring and summer, I spent a great deal of time reading. During the last few months, I’ve had little time to read, so I stalled on even starting Book 6 of Harry Potter, and my pile of new books has continued to grow because I buy books even when I don’t have time to read them. It’s a nonsensical habit, I know. But I buy books. They are my weakness.
This weekend, I flew to Portland. Time on a plane is a great time to read, so I did. I finished Chrissie Wellington’s memoir on the flight out and started a collection called The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited by Dave Eggers, on the flight back. The Eggers collection is the 2011 edition and includes all kinds of writing on subjects relevant to 2011. Some of the works included are Best American WikiLeaks Revelations, Best American Lawsuits, and Best American Wifi Network Names, most of which are amusing. It also includes a number of more thoughtful essays and stories that appeared in 2011. I only got about half way through the book, but it’s engaged me.
The piece that prompted me to write is one called “Solitude and Leadership” by William Deresiewicz. It’s a speech, the text of which can be located here. I can’t figure out its relationship to 2011, but I’m glad it was included in this collection. The author talks about the importance of solitude – of “slowing down and concentrating.” Here is an excerpt:
Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.
This passage spoke to me. It’s rare that I do one thing. At work, I’m constantly interrupted, and my days are a juggling act. At home, I watch television, do laundry, play Words With Friends, check email, and browse on-line, all at the same time. It’s rare that I focus on a show or a movie or a task. Even when I drive, I’m usually returning calls or making appointments. Heaven forbid I should ever just drive.
I wonder if that’s why I enjoy triathlon as much as I do. When I’m swimming, I can only swim. When I’m biking, I can only bike. There is no multi-tasking involved. I’m committed to my repetitive movement one-directional activity for anywhere from forty-five minutes to six hours, depending on the effort. And though I’m tired at the end of it, that time rejuvenates me. I know exercise feels good to my body, but I also say that I exercise for my mental health too. I think that’s because it gives me time to think and focus.
For a day now, I’ve been dwelling on this piece by Deresiewicz and wondering how my well being would change if I tried to focus on one thing at a time and if I made a point of seeking solitude, not just in the form of exercise, but also when I have an opportunity to sit with paper and pen in hand. If I listen to Deresiewicz, solitude isn’t just being alone; it’s disengaging from things like my phone, my email and Facebook. It’s even disengaging from books or at least giving myself time to really think about what I’ve just read. Another excerpt:
Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?
What would happen if I made a conscious effort to concentrate more? What would happen if I did just one thing at a time? What would happen if I intentionally spent more time alone and disconnected? Can I walk to get lunch without also checking my email at the same time? Can I go to bed without one last scan of my Facebook news feed? Can I face the quiet in my home without going on autopilot to General Hospital or The Voice? Can I reduce the noise in my own head and confront the difficult questions in my life and in life generally? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.