Be Alone

Without great solitude no serious work is possible.

Picasso


This essay is part of a collaborative blogging project to answer the question: ‘How do you invest in yourself?’


I invest in myself in all the usual ways. I try to work out a lot and eat right. You can read more about that effort in: Fragile. And I read a ton.

But I want to share a couple anecdotes about one way I invest in myself that’s underappreciated.

I spend a lot of time trying to be alone.


Regardless of your politics, a presidential campaign is both crazy and incredibly enlightening. I was asked to help the tech team of the Obama re-election campaign last May. I was in the middle of figuring out life after my third company failed. So I thought it would be a good change.

It was impossible to be alone.

What happens if you stick someone, who’s worked at home by themselves for the last 6 years, in a giant warehouse-like room, full of hundreds of other employees, working on something really stressful?

There wasn’t a lot of money for amenities. The office was terrible. The air conditioning turned off constantly in the middle of a Chicago summer. The bathroom didn’t get enough maintenance and barely functioned sometimes as a bathroom. Actual photos of the men’s room:

(Photo credits to Ryan Kolak and Jason Kunesh)

But it was awesome to have all these people around. I was thrilled to have new friends and chances to even get lunch with others.

Still, working all day arms length from people was hard. I’d put Bose noise cancelling head phones on, but those barely cut it. And that’s just one of five senses. A friend of mine enjoyed eating sardines and rice every single day at his desk. He sat 3 feet in front of my face. Sardines. Every f'ing day.

Then there’s the nerf darts. My fellow staffers enjoyed shooting nerf dart guns in the office. I’d be getting super focused into work, and then get a nerf dart in the neck. I hated it :) And everyone knew I hated those nerf darts. So people tried to avoid hitting me.

But after work was over one day, 2 weeks before the election, we’re about to have a drink of whiskey at someone’s desk.

Right after I get my glass, I haven’t even had a sip yet, one of the newer guys on the campaign takes a nerf dart gun and shoots me with it. Point blank.

Now, I just wanted to scare him. Just a little. Somehow. Hopefully he’d never hit me with a nerf dart again. So I go up to him, grab his glass of whiskey, and start to take it away.

But he lets go of this glass so fast. It just whips from his hand. And now whiskey is shooting out of it across to his neighbor sitting a couple feet away. All over the Macbook Pro laptop he uses for work.

The computer starts SCREAMING. The screen gets all pixelated and angry. The screaming won’t stop. The whole office, hundreds of people, are now looking at us and wondering what that terrible noise is.

Life is in slow motion.

Someone quickly got to the laptop and is holding it up to drain it. But how much whiskey was in that glass!? It’s just pouring out of the computer. We turned the laptop off and tried to turn it on again.

It wouldn’t start.

As I mentioned before, there’s little money for staff on this campaign. We did a lot with a little. There are no extra Macbook Pros, and getting a new one this late in the game would probably involve me buying it personally. :( An unpleasant financial predicament for me.

But what’s really terrible is that the person whose laptop I ruined is an awesome asset to the campaign, Aaron Salmon. He’s one of just a couple guys who’s great at user interface design AND knows how to use the software framework we used for a lot of things. If he doesn’t have a laptop, we’re in trouble.

So we scramble to find anything to dry his computer off.

Remember that sardine guy? Well he also had this 30 pound bag of rice by his desk. We used that and a giant fan (remember the crappy air conditioning) to help dry it. And we called it a night.

I couldn’t sleep. I felt terrible about the situation.

I knew I could give the guy my Macbook Pro, but he’d still be behind in trying to get it setup to do what he needed. Not to mention, now I’d be in awful shape using a spare junker laptop we had. We had so much work to still do in the final two weeks.

We get back to the office… And the laptop starts again :) I thanked everything in the universe I could thank. I was insanely relieved.

I absolutely loved working with the campaign team. I learned an incredible amount. For example, if it weren’t for meeting Jesse Kriss and Chris Gansen, I probably wouldn’t have made this rails plugin used by hundreds and hundreds of people today. Or if I didn’t get to work for Harper Reed, I wouldn’t have gotten his incredibly useful input on what I’m doing now after the campaign. And on and on. The value of working with this team was enormous.

But the whole ordeal reminded me how much I need time alone to get my work done. Or how nuts it could make me.


In 2002, I was responsible for coming up with an innovative collaboration tool Accenture could prototype. Some very smart people had already been spending time thinking about this, and yet we had zero ideas.

After a dozen meetings with people, we still had nothing. I was stressed. This was one of my first tasks in Accenture’s Research and Development group, and I was coming up short. I was failing at this.

I needed space.

But I couldn’t go outside. It’s downtown Chicago, swarming with people. I just needed to find some place to be alone with my thoughts. There were offices with walls, but they were for managers, and I wasn’t a manager. All the phone closets were in use. So I went to the bathroom, and sat in a stall for an hour.

Just sat there. Thinking.

Eventually, in this tiny secluded box, I had what I thought could be a pretty novel idea. We ended up building a prototype and was awarded a patent for the work. Don’t get me started on the BS of patents. But still, I was very proud of the innovation in this work.

What struck me so much that day was how we weren’t getting anywhere with meeting after meeting trying to generate new ideas. It was only when I finally found a place to be alone, I was able to find creativity.


Often our best ideas come to us alone: in the shower, in the car driving home from work, or on a walk by ourselves. So why don’t we spend more time in similar situations? Why don’t companies who want more productive and creative employees encourage us to be more alone?

Over and over again I realize how important solitude is to creativity.

So I make it a priority to be alone.

The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.

Nikola Tesla


P.S. Read other’s answer to the question: 'How do you invest in yourself?’

or I’d love to meet you on Twitter: here.

 
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