Two different topics and two very different publication bring two writers to the same questions: is solitude necessary for great thinking, and is it becoming scarcer? Newser's Michael Wolff approaches the topic by looking at the way famous mathematician Grigory Perelman has avoided the limelight. "Successful people are, nowadays," he notes, "pretty much defined by their need for approval." Yet Perelman has declined the highest prizes in mathematics, and once told an inquisitive reporter "You are disturbing me. I am picking mushrooms." Asks Wolff: "Would we be smarter and able to concentrate more deeply if we were strong enough to be left alone, to be able to say those words that deserve to be immortal?"
That may seem like an overly deep conclusion to draw from one man's hermit-like habits. But in The American Scholar, essayist William Deresiewicz offers a similar proposal. He, instead, is looking at the way top schools churn out "leaders" who in fact are simply "world-class hoop jumpers"--able to perform any task you set them. The problem there is that what's really being valued is "conformity," and Deresiewicz thinks that, of all things, is not going to help the "crisis of leadership in this country."
Great leaders--like General David Petraeus, argues Deresiewicz--are great precisely because they can ignore what other people are saying and what other people want from them and "think things through for [themselves]." How do you learn to do that? Not by turning to social media, and even traditional media, says Deresiewicz, which means "you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people's thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom." Instead, to truly lead, you have to turn your thoughts within, or, in some cases, to books and people outside the river of conventional wisdom. "Solitude," he concludes, is the very essence of leadership."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.