‘C’, a close friend of mine, keeps asking me every few months how come I’m so comfortable being alone. ‘C’ struggles with that and (for example) she hates eating alone.
But first you’ve to know what she means. Then I’ll set out some useful tips applicable to EVERYONE on the awesome power of solitude. It’s something every leader or aspiring leader must get used to and being comfortable when you’re alone is both a result of and a necessity for leadership.
Definition of comfort
What ‘C’ was really asking was enquiring into the below facts about my life:
1. Why am I not unhappy being alone?
2. How come I’m happy being alone?
3. How come I don’t crave for close company?
4. How come I’m different from most people she knows including herself?
I’m single and was raised as a single child raised by a single mother in a foreign country (Nigeria) for close to a decade between ages 6 and 15. My Mom was a busy college professor which means I was alone most of the time after I came home from school and developed several habits to occupy myself.
All that probably explains some of my comfort with being alone but certainly not all or even most of it.
I must add that doesn’t mean I’m antisocial or an introvert. Far from it as people who know me will readily testify. I have a vast network and I connect and engage easily with (and I’m super curious about) people which of course helps a lot in my coaching practice.
The steps to superpowerdom
I’ve analyzed my background and listed what makes me comfortable with solitude and what can help you too.
The first point is your locus of control- internal or external. If you believe the outside world is essential for your happiness then you’ll be focused on people, places etc. The opposite is true for internal locus. You can’t have both dominating at any one time. For me it was mostly internal.
A lot of the time when people are alone, they lapse into what’s called Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANT) that often spirals out of control and leaves depressed or anxious. They over think.
I used to be like this when alone & would even have sleepless nights. But I stopped after realizing how useless, harmful and utter waste of time and energy that was.
The usual reason for my ANTs were conflicts at work. I’d always assume malafide intent.
But then I was reminded again that we all have a different set of personality traits, skills, strengths, values, beliefs and priorities. Absent this understanding and absent an inability to stand in another’s shoes, it’s so easy to jump to conclusions & wreak havoc on yourself.
I got better at understanding people and appreciating their contributions and that helped in calming me when alone.
In one of our many WhatsApp chats I told ‘C’ that unless you love yourself, you’ll never be comfortable with yourself and you will hate being alone. She went “Wow” and instantly agreed.
How does self-love come about?
One usual way is through success especially if you largely attribute that success to your own talents, focus and discipline. You know you’re good enough and that means you’re rarely troubled by regret or self-doubt, two negative emotions that often pop up when you’re alone.
Another way is to forgive yourself for past screwups. No one is perfect and at least you can say you’ve learnt from the past.
My personal and professional experience also played a role in solidifying solitude.
I distinctly recall at least five episodes in my career -1994, 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2008- when I either lost my job or was threatened with dismissal. These happened when career was everything to me so you can imagine the stress. Then there were the few occasions when I felt rejected in relationships.
I didn’t have anyone to turn to in these shit times so I couldn’t open up to anyone. I had to pull myself up, knowing that it was the only option.
When you’ve been your own savior and your own best friend on countless occasions you not only believe fervently in yourself you don’t expect or depend on external support.
In my late 30s I felt the need to explore the limits of my body & enjoy the highs that come from completing a hard event.
That realized itself in long distance running, long distance cycling, high altitude hiking & eventually mountaineering.
Now all these require extensive planning, preparation and of course time on site. A lot of the time you’re on your own (especially cycling 100km in the middle of the desert!) and you realize that it’s completely normal and even fun for you.
If I can attribute one activity that makes me comfortable with being alone it’s reading.
I’ve talked about the manifold importance of this at a generic level so many times on LinkedIn and also in my book Let’s Get Real. But at a personal level books have been a source of entertainment, inspiration, education, self-reflection and stress relief. I learn a lot and I also share what I learn on social media and with clients and that enables me to attract and connect with like-minded people.
And that’s the motivation for reading- the multiple benefits which you almost never get from just one activity.
Writing is another solitary activity that I thoroughly enjoy.
It was and continues to be imperative for me to write, partly as a way to boldly speak my truth, partly to stop people reinventing the wheel and partly to establish myself as a thought leader/influencer. The multiple benefits of course help.
Writing for me is like speaking to a large group of invisible people.
If you develop a routine that fits with your values and traits, you’ll find that it both energizes and occupies you so much that you rarely feel alone.
I’m a creature of habit from the moment I wake till I sleep. Some things must be done daily for me – blogging, reading, gym, proper meals at the right time, coaching research, promoting the book etc.
The power of solitude is immense if you can be comfortable with it. It isn’t easy because we are so used to continually engaging with people but it’s worth it.
It’s occasionally part of the advice I give to my coaching clients. Because the search for external validation & fun company is fine but it shouldn’t control your life. As a leader you must be able to step back and introspect to unearth insights about yourself and the world and that is only possible in the calmness of your solitude.