A “quantum of solitude” can be defined as the precise combination of aloneness, peace and personal reflection required to maintain our humanity and survive in a noisy world. It is a significant need, especially for an introvert like me. It provides oxygen during times of increased social interaction and over-stimulation, so you don’t suffocate.
Over the last few days, I’ve learned to seek out solitude and respect my inner hermit.
I spent this past week immersed in learning at the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre, trapped in a network of 50 or so high-achievers, active-thinkers and hyper-leaders, all burning with the desire to grow and to succeed. Since the program is designed to increase togetherness and incite collaboration, we were all housed in the same facility. Round the clock collaboration, integration, socialization — bordering on molestation — one participant likened it to being in jail.
And — I had a blast. The program is the beginning of a long journey and I’m honoured to be among these wonderful and brilliant people. I was as boisterous and interactive as anyone. But I’m an introvert — so it came at a cost.
For one, I went three days without sleep. An overload of information, intellectual and emotional stimulation — I had difficulty coming down. I needed time to process all that information, to reflect. And for me, reflection requires time alone. Time that wasn’t in the schedule.
The constant interaction also made me more emotionally vulnerable. The program involved dissecting all the things that make us tick – our fears, weaknesses and sensitivities – to make us better leaders. While it was eye-opening it was also draining.
So, how do we manage all this? For the introvert, who needs some measure of solitude to exist, how do you handle a conference where ‘networking’ is key ? A team-building event, where one is expected to be up-close-and-personal with your cohorts? A learning symposium where you’re barraged with information and endless intellectual discussion?
I learned a few tricks that helped me unfurl from the fetal position and optimize my learning.
1. Take a few coffee breaks alone. Often, as soon as break time comes up, people tend to congregate and discuss what they think about what that guy said or that crazy exercise they did with those tennis balls. Sure, take part in a few of those conversations, but not all. It’s a good time to walk away from everyone. Look out the window, stare at an apple, check out some art… anything but talk to another human.
2. Go on long walks. When the group breaks for the day, before you head to the social cocktail event, go out on your own for a bit. I had a wonderful walk in London (Ontario) this week where I went to see the Thames River, which unlike it’s namesake, is a peaceful, soft-flowing brook, perfect ambience for self-reflection.
3. Find a person to help ground you. Remember, you’re not alone. There is likely someone going through the same thing and you can confide in that person. It helps to have someone who understands.
4. Connect with home. For me, it was my parachute. Your family, your partner, your friends, your dog. Anything that brings you mentally back to your happiest place in the world is worth as many visits as you can fit in.
And again, you’re not alone. There are plenty of introverts among us. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and your instinct is to run to your room and barricade the door until the conference is over – – take a breath, tell your colleagues you need a moment and find a place to be alone. They will understand and they will let you go.
You can survive many compromises and interactions, but never the absence of a very human need for self-retreat. When the Quantum of Solitude stands at zero… you’ve got to get away to save yourself.