Is solitude necessary for great work?

August 2nd, 2008 by jose

I found a (badly scanned) paper on how to concentrate. It’s a so-so article, but there is at least one gem in it:

remember that solitude has always been, in all the history of mental achievement, a requisite for great work. (…) The great poems written in lonely garrets—the masterpiece paintings conceived by the artist amid the fields—the divine harmonies first heard by the musician communing with the stars—the sublime oration which first stirred the soul of the orator as he tramped in the forest—all attest that the best comes to man when he is alone.

This is interesting. I always found that some people complained I spent too much time in front of the computer… maybe that is what it means to be lonely. The funny thing is that nowadays it is a lot harder to be alone. Maybe alone is just a romantic surrogate for ‘uninterrupted’ :) I don’t think the mood implications of lonely help in any way, unless you are producing poetry, music or plastic arts… but certainly not papers.

So, do you feel lonely? Do you seek time apart from ‘the world’? It’s true that most academics’ social lives suck (not mine :P ). But what is the right causal path here? Do we kill our social lives so we can get ‘in the state’ more often and be productive? Or is it the other way around: we are ‘in the state’ so often that social relationships just die off?

One thing is true: having an internet connection provides constant, second-class (in the sense that it’s not as rich as real-life interaction) social stimulation; being in front of the computer is not a certain way to achieve ‘the state’ (lonely or not). But maybe a good solution is to concentrate a lot (no surrogate activities, like me writing this blog post while I should finishing up my paper), and then get a lot of first-class, ‘live person’ social action.

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7 Responses to “Is solitude necessary for great work?”

  1. DotMGNo Gravatar Says:

    IMHO, academic productivity can’t be compared with artistic creativity. Absolute loneliness benefits to artistic creativity. Sometimes, when academic works need some kind of inspirations, loneliness is a good thing, but when you don’t need inspiration at all, or need only a little inspiration, it’s better to stay connected. Sometimes, a small piece (with a problem) of the great work you are doing, can be solved instantly when you can call for help.

    Naturally, sometimes, you also have to stop your work to help someone else, or just to discuss a few moments about something totally different with someone, but I never feel these moments as lost, as they rarely affect my works.

  2. Dustin HuibregtseNo Gravatar Says:

    Lovin’ it. My favorite part of that excerpt was “he sublime oration which first stirred the soul of the orator as he tramped in the forest”. I have a love for public speaking, and I guess I enjoy knowing that concentration, or focus, is a method of finding what exactly you should say.

    I do like the versus ideology: loneliness that leads to great productivity vs. the social butterfly. This summer, I have noticed that I have spent so much time working, studying, researching, and learning new things that I have lost focus on my friends and family. I realized I have done that my entire high school career.

    After a long note on Facebook, I came to my final lesson:

    “Sometimes you must slow down in order to speed up, but don’t forget to have friends next to you, not behind you.”

    So my question for you Jose is whether or not concentrating for too long on one thing can be a bad thing? Is that what happens, you get lonely?

  3. personal developmentNo Gravatar Says:

    This seems like a question of balance too – it can be enormously beneficial when creating something like art, music or poetry to be totally alone. Here you’re really questioning the balance between being alone all the time and never alone!

    Most of the great things we do and achieve in our lives we do on our own and there’s always the possibility that if you want to be the best at something, you’re going to have to dedicate a great deal of your time to it and this will mean spending lots of time on your own.

    I personally like your solution, but I feel that throughout human history and throughout human future, there will be a small number of people who dedicate virtually all their time to their passion without ever striking a balance like you speak of. Ultimately it’s choice.

  4. QoTD: Solitude and creativity « Getting Things Done in Academia Says:

    [...] h/t Academic Productivity [...]

  5. Michael VincentNo Gravatar Says:

    I agree with dot there’s a difference in the type of solitude you need to get something done vs creating something. Where one requires just some quite time and the other can be a long search for inspiration. Also I’m finding it harder and harder to focus when working at my computer, I have to force my self to minimize the tons of wonderful distractions like AIM and checking FB every 15 min :) So like you said it may be a lower form of interaction it still serves as an interruption.

  6. Jackson FrothnsNo Gravatar Says:

    I find that as a a software engineer I have to be in a place by myself in order to concentrate. Yes, its good to go out to lunches and dinners with my co-workers after work, however, during working hours I tend to take my assignments and go to my “happy place” and work diligently on them till they are completed. Is this the best way to work when my company is going toward a more AGILE collaborative work environment, NO….but I find it still comforting and workable that I’m still able to do this.

    THis is my my opinion….I’m just a worker bee ;-)

  7. QoTD: Solitude and creativity | GTD portal Says:

    [...] h/t Academic Productivity [...]

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