Endangered Species: Concentration and Solitude

Other than ridicule, great thinkers and discoverers of the past had something else in common: lots of time to themselves to think and experiment.

Our amplification-loop world is making solitude a rare commodity and concentration a rare ability. We’ve gained exponential connectivity with others but should be aware of what we’re losing.

We can get a lot more information a lot faster. But what are we doing with it? The next great breakthroughs are waiting while we browse Facebook.

Do you remember how it felt to sit and read for hours, uninterrupted?

Concentration Rehab

I’m not sure how to rediscover concentration amid the noise, but I’m trying. Here are some ideas I’m testing:

1.    Schedule at least one day a month for solitude.
2.    Just breathe and think for a little while each day — even 15 minutes helps.
3.    Take a walk outside, alone.
4.    Read for five hours straight in a paper book, where a “Go to Facebook” option doesn’t exist.

A Blue-Sky Dilemma

Solitude as a team also should be more highly valued when an idea is off-the-map and likely to be rejected by status-quo decision makers. In all sorts of environments, ranging from large companies to Startup Weekend, I’ve seen truly interesting ideas eliminated early in collaborative processes because they fell outside of normal bounds.

Those are often the most promising ideas.

Crowds rarely make breakthroughs. They’re good at enforcing the status quo, and (if organized well) at generating incremental improvements. They also eventually popularize breakthroughs, but only after a sufficient number of early adopters look sufficiently cool enough to make them jealous.

I’m not saying that early validation of high-level ideas with customers is bad. If you’re considering an idea that’s not truly novel, it’s a great thing to do. But vetting blue-sky ideas by committee or with customers is, I suspect, counterproductive in early days. The really great ideas are too impractical, too unlikely, too risky or anti-status quo to make it out of committee, unless you work at Google X.

Solitude Before Sharing?

For blue-sky ideas, a possible approach might be: Build solitude (or a small, trusted team that respects it), work hard, try new things, succeed  at a small scale, and then share.

It’s not as fun in the moment. Focusing intensely on a tough problem with no guarantee of a breakthrough often is not fun. It requires saying no to many things, giving up some trappings of respectability, and generally being perceived as odd. But it brings the possibility of doing something truly great, instead of just pretty good.

If people are telling you you’re crazy, you may have a truly terrible idea, or you may be on the right track. It’s difficult to parse that feedback, but it’s not always a stop-sign. The biggest stop-sign is feedback along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s okay. Go ahead.”

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