Solitude & Learning New Things

In most domains, there are fundamental principles or a mindset shift needed to open the door to deeper learning. For example, in swimming, your body’s natural urge while your head is underwater is to hold your breath.  Once you learn to exhale while underwater, you have the figurative and literal energy to go deeper.  You can find these in many domains.  For example, in consulting, becoming competent in a structured problem-solving approach, the pyramid principle and MECE could enable you to walk into most strategy consulting firms and at least know what is going on.

In my first week-plus of living in Taipei, I’ve started learning Chinese, photography and photo editing. I’ve discovered multiple foundational principles that have made me hungry to learn more. For example in photography, once you shoot in RAW format, you are able to have much more control over the editing of your photos (not to mention more wiggle room for taking bad photos!) and once you learn some basic characters in Chinese, you can start identifying more complicated characters.

However, this got me thinking about why most of us often go through our days telling our friends that we care about learning while staying completely oblivious to some of these simple ideas that may open the door to deeper learning.  I was also curious where the energy to learn these new things came from and why I was suddenly inspired to tackle multiple domains at once.

I think part of it has to do with solitude.

One of my favorite essays is one by William Deresiewicz titled “Solitude and Leadership.” In it, he talks about solitude as the key to leadership and a missing ingredient in our busy, modern world.  He believes solitude can be found in extended reading, contemplation or even periods of sustained work (such as writing). In this way, solitude is about an inward-focused reflection, as opposed to the bitterness involved with loneliness.

In Taipei, I am (for now) unable to communicate in the local language.  Unlike European countries I have been to, I cannot even read the characters.  This has forced me inward and has made me highly aware of my thoughts and emotions.  I’ve grappled with moments of shame and embarrassment, but also with hunger and curiosity to learn.  While it would be easy to close up, there does not seem to be any other option right now than going deeper.

Edgar Schein has talked about this as “learning anxiety” in the context of organizational learning.  He identifies two types of learning.  The first is the fear or anxiety of not looking competent.  This shows up in organizations as micromanagement and perfectionism and serves as a barrier to learning new things.  Why try if you will be shamed for any mistakes?

The second, which he urges organizations to embrace is what I would describe as “if I don’t keep learning, I will look foolish.”  Learning FOMO if you will

While I was practicing Chinese in Boston, I did not have any “anxiety” to learn.  In Taipei, since I often am finding myself without anyone to talk with, I am having to contemplate my emotions while also being spurred to action by a yearning to connect with others (and to order the amazing local food, of course).

In his essay, Deresiewicz expands his definition of solitude to include the deep conversations typical of a great friendship:

“Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person.”

Perhaps this is the core of what drives us to learn. Being able to have the types of experiences that matter to us and connecting with the people that share the same inner drives as us.

But the challenge is that to move towards these types of conversations or experience, you need to spend time in solitude instead of with other people, you need to stay silent instead of telling everyone your plans, you need to get out of your comfort zone instead of chasing more security.  Reflecting on a walk, reading a book or even meditating by yourself in the morning.

There is a thin line between solitude and isolation.  It is in dancing with this vulnerability, uncertainty, and chaos in the middle that we often find a new route forward and some clues to find those people to have those deeper conversations.  I’m not sure where I’m headed with all this learning, it just feels like I’m headed towards the types of conversations and friendships that matter.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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