“I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude” Henry David Thoreau
As a leadership educator, author and speaker, my work is public. It requires me to show up, be seen, and engage with groups of all sizes, from small intact teams to groups of hundreds of participants in conferences. Every session, workshop, presentation demands my full attention and presence. I am expected to inform, advise, inspire, challenge, and support.
My work is aligned with my values and gives me a strong sense of purpose. But the public facing nature of my role and the accompanying expectations to ‘perform’ can be exhausting, overwhelming, at times. I am constantly being challenged to better manage my energy so that I can be effective in my work.
I have just finished attending the HR Summit 2017, a two-day conference in Istanbul, where I delivered a presentation on ‘Leadership for an uncertain world’ to an audience of 1,000 HR professionals. From the time when I arrived to the time when I left, I was ‘on’, whether meeting with my fellow conference speakers, engaging with the conference organisers, or attending dinner with a group of sponsors. I loved the buzz in the exhibition hall and the noise of the crowd.
However, between the social interactions, the need to use every spare moment I had to prepare for my presentation, and my jet lag, I had little time for myself. It is exactly situations like these when I most crave solitude.
For me solitude is not about being alone. Even though retreating to my room, or to a quiet place “far from the maddening crowd” can be useful, it is often not possible to step away.
Solitude is about sustaining my energy by connecting with myself. As Parker Palmer says, “solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”
Being fully present to myself means being in relationship with myself, so that when I feel being pulled in all directions and weighed down by different expectations, I can steady myself. Over the years, I’ve learned that, paradoxically, I need to step outside of action for a moment, before I can get in touch with myself. This ability to ‘zoom out’ to ‘zoom in’ creates space for micro-moments of solitude, even in the most intense situations.
There were many opportunities for these micro-moments of solitude at the conference. One such moment came just before my speech, as I was getting ready to walk on stage. First I zoomed out, and saw myself from above, a bird’s eye view of me standing, poised for action. Then I zoomed in… feeling my quick pulse, my sweaty palms, weight shifting from leg to leg… Then time slowed down, everything slowed down... pure stillness. I became fully present to myself, from the soles of my feet to my heartbeat. I felt peaceful and fully connected.
The energy from micro-moments of solitude like these carried me through the two days of the conference. They created spacious perspective which enabled me to center myself, ‘hold steady’, and not be swept away by the currents of pressures around me.
We do not need to wait until the weekend, or our next holiday to connect with ourselves. Every day brings opportunities for carving out micro-moments for solitude.