One of my oldest friends (as in I have known her a really long time – she is not particularly old) recently sent me a link to a speech entitled “Solitude and Leadership” given by William Deresiewicz* in 2009 to the incoming class at West Point. The speech is long and intense. After I finished reading it, I thought about it for hours. The topics of the speech are, obviously, solitude and leadership, but what really compelled me was his analysis of popular culture and how our trend toward shallow, constant communication and information flow undermines our ability to generate original thought (which then undermines our leadership abilities). Please read the speech (if you are so inclined) as I couldn’t possibly do justice to a summary, but I would like to try (for myself) to pull out a few points that stuck with me:
- True leadership involves introspection, an ability to “think for yourself and act on your convictions,” and a willingness to take risks, change how things are done and/or question why they are done.
- Our education system (including our top universities) promotes the training of “world class hoop jumpers” rather than true leaders.
- “Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it”
- Real thinking requires concentration and solitude — both of which are difficult to maintain when one is barraged by emails, texts, Facebook messages and tweets.
- Although books can be a distraction from real thinking, reading books is better than reading tweets or wall post for two reasons: “First, because the person who wrote [the book] thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself. Second, most books are old . . . They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today.” And the “great” books don’t even reflect the conventional wisdom of their day.
I think a lot about this technological world our kids are inheriting. Information, as well as interpersonal communication, is increasingly delivered in superficial, bite-sized chunks. How will my kids learn to be alone with their own thoughts in a world with Iphone, Ichat, texting and tweeting? At 7, 9 and 10, I can (and do!) set boundaries to limit their technology and, hopefully, to steer them toward creative and imaginative activities. But at some point in the not too distant future, they will have to set those boundaries for themselves (or not). And even if my kids do learn to set those boundaries, how many of their peers will do the same? Which brings me to one of Mr. Deresiewicz’s final observations: “The position of a leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one.”
I don’t have any answers about my kids’ future, but I think I owe it to them (and to myself) to pursue my own introspection, solitude, concentration and critical thinking.