On Being Alone

As a kid I always liked finding quiet places that were small and isolated. I liked to spend time in places where I was actually alone … where I could get lost in my own thoughts and not have to think about what other people thought of me. I liked being alone about as much as I liked being around others.

What is funny to me is that I still like it. I still like stealing time to myself, but increasingly I can’t seem to find those quiet spaces where I am really alone with my thoughts. In the back of my mind is this feeling that I am letting someone down when I am really alone. When we’re really alone we have no connectivity — no access to the networks that are at the center of nearly everything we do. If I look back at my quick Twitter poll from last week it is obvious that the people who responded aren’t spending a whole lot of alone time either. If we call it the social web for a reason we’re not alone when the first apps we launch connect us to other people’s thoughts, activities, and updates.

Just a quick example … I am sitting here with my Bose noise canceling headphones on so I can concentrate and all I hear are little bells, bings, and other alert messages telling me I am not alone. Bing, new email. Bong, new Tweet. And it goes on. I’m alone in my office, but not alone at all.

These thoughts are circulating after reading an insightful post from colleague Alec Couros. I love the Boston Globe article he links to and I really love the video that goes along with it that I’ve embedded below. The one thing Alec discusses is the notion of teaching students to be curious, but to choose wisely in their connectedness. I’m not naive enough to say we should all just shut it off — it doesn’t and can’t work that way. As one of the people in the video says, “if you aren’t connected people think you are negligent” and that bothers me, but it is a reality. Does the video speak to you? Does it make sense to let it all go? Can we?

17 thoughts on “On Being Alone

  1. Actually, I’ve always been a loner. We moved every couple of years and I was The New Kid. Always alone, always on the outside. This point in my life is probably the most I have ever been engaged with people. EVER. I blame the fact I’ve been in this community for so long, growing roots, settling down. Now the pendulum has swung towards being plugged in, tuned in, online. It’s how I’ve been connected to my family (text messages) friends (phone calls) and colleagues (twitter). With three kids, a dog (she practically tweets), and a husband who works an entirely different shift, sometimes technology in its various forms was the only thing keeping us in touch and coordinated in our schedules. Lately, however, I’ve found the pendulum beginning to swing back the other way. I’m tending to disconnect more on the weekends. Part of it parallels the new family dynamic: kids are old enough to be engaged in their own lives; one person lives outside of the house, three others supposedly live with me, but I hardly see them. When my daughter drops in, we talk, we engage, we do things offline. My family life is becoming quieter. I’ve just started knitting, and I find comfort in the quietness of doing something non-technical with my hands. I can think better about the day’s events, and I find that it allows me to disconnect from the stress of the day. Interesting that it’s my new alone time, and I find i like it. So I almost see a changing of the guard: my kids are seeing more value in being connected all the time, while I am starting to see value in being disconnected at times. It’s an interesting observation, and it makes me wonder where the pendulum is going to swing next.

  2. Are you an introvert at heart? I am… at least every test I take says I am. I’ve been an INTJ as long as I can remember. But it always gets me because I love helping others. I obviously have no trouble talking in front of others 🙂

    But how do you recharge? You mentioned in an earlier post that you almost always have music playing. My husband puts music on on weekend mornings and it doesn’t seem to bother me… but then we shut it off and I think “Ah sweet silence!” Extroverts get a recharge out of being with people. Going out, being around others. I recharge by sitting on the couch… maybe doing a crossword, reading a book, just sitting with my eyes closed for a couple of minutes. So technically that makes me an introvert.

    Now enter technology. I have iChat up pretty much any time my computer is on. It’s just “normal” for me. I guess it’s a connection, but I don’t feel it’s the same as being face-to-face if I don’t want it to be. Maybe it’s that I can control the amount of effort I put into keeping up with everyone online. I can have days where I post a lot to Twitter and chat a lot on IM, or I can have days that they can just be background noise or a way for someone to get a hold of me if they really need to. In that sense I’m alone.

    I don’t know. I hope this makes sense. Very interesting video!

  3. Technology and connectivity certainly has it’s place, but I really think that it’s much healthier to take some time away from the laptop/iphone and ignore it. As the old medicine man in the movie “Thunderheart” said, get to the mountaintop and get yourself focused (although I imagine most who read this are yonegas and won’t be aware of what I am saying here).

    Nothing in technology compares to what goes on “offline” (or if you will, the most pathetic term ever “meatspace”). Twitter is great and I have made some professional and personal connections, but it doesn’t replace family time. Facebook pales in comparison to seeing a sunrise in the wilds of Pennsylvania. The iphone looks like a silly toy compared to quiet time with a loved one.

    Before I get labeled a pariah, I am not one to say that technology is this evil thing that is sucking away our soul. I am a big believer in the Buddhist concept of The Middle Way, and everything in moderation. All has it’s place. But it is good, IMO, to close the laptop lid, shut down the iPhone, and go for a walk or knit or garden or shoot hoops or play with the kids and the dog.

  4. This is a great post and great video. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because not only am I never alone, but because of the nature of my job, I’m never “off work” either, it’s just part of who I am now. Sometimes that bugs me, but not often. I *love* what I do, I *love* being connected. I love drinking from the firehose and learning new things constantly, even if it’s something small like what someone had for lunch, that gives me the opportunity to connect with them on a more personal level and I dig that like nothing else.

    The one thing that does bother me is that without ‘alone’ time, I don’t feel like I can just let my mind wander and spend time just letting creative thoughts flow into my head. With this constant always-on mindset we all have these days, it’s really difficult to find downtime to think of new, creative ideas.

    I am very much someone that enjoys being alone, but I think.. at least in my mind, the definition of ‘alone’ is changing. For me, being alone just now means that there’s no one sitting in the same room as me.

  5. I’m sitting alone in my office reading all of these great comments and I am still wondering if I am really alone. Sure email is running, but I am ignoring it — focusing only on processing great thoughts from people around PSU (the only ones to comment so far). That to me is the really interesting thing in all of this — is this alone time?

    I disengage as much as I can and just like @Jamie Oberdick I find it critical to turn it off. What I am wondering about is if connectivity is the new alone? Not sure that makes sense, but I’m asking.

  6. @Jamie: Wow, “meatspace”, that’s a new one for me. Makes the real world more tangible… LOL

    @Cole: Everyone has to find their own style, define their limits in terms of connectivity. Some people like the stream (drinking from the firehose as @Sharron puts it), some people like the stack (letting things sit a while in an inbox or a RSS feed reader and tackling them for an hour). In any case, the Internet makes us feel the other people buzzing around us in our dark basement offices, much more than ever before in history. And the noise is going to get louder, so people need to start building their personal filters ASAP. My 2cents.

  7. I grew up outside of town, on a mountain accessible via a dirt road, in the middle of 165 acres of woods. I was alone a great deal. For me, it was just the normal ways of things.

    Today, I do enjoy my meatspace alone time. That’s mostly in the car drive to and from work.

    Online, I can be as alone or connected as I want. The options for being connected are much vaster and spontaneous. If I want to talk to someone on the spur of the moment, it’s far easier to do online. I do strive for balance here – most Saturdays are offline for me.

  8. When I first read the post the first thing that popped into my mind was that I can be alone in a roomful of people. After I thought about it for a while, I realized that I was thinking about being lonely, not being alone. I think the two things are very different now, but I didn’t always.

    The second thing that popped into my head was how upset people get when I don’t immediately reply to an email, text message or I don’t answer my cell phone when they think I should. My sister is guilty of this and it drives me crazy. Who says that because you have a device that MAKES you accessible that you have to always BE accessible. I don’t think that is in the AT&T contract. Being too connected, makes me anxious even though I am an outgoing person and a talker.

    When I really started thinking about it, I determined that I am generally not alone very often physically since I started dating my current boyfriend. It’s a small house and we have three pets, so there is always a warm body somewhere near me. But I do tune out and shut down outside influences as much as I can to decompress from the week and have quiet time. I hardly ever have IM open when I am at home and I don’t really Twitter or use Facebook much either in the evenings or weekends anymore. It wasn’t always this way, I used to flip everything on first thing when I got home after work, but now there’s someone there to talk to and do things with even if it’s just reading separate books together.

    To be honest, I don’t really enjoy being completely alone with my thoughts like I used to as a pre-teen when I read book after book, wrote bad poetry and listened to music that my parents hated with headphones on. I think I spent too much time alone after my divorce to enjoy it and not confuse it with being lonely. I hope someday I will enjoy it again, but maybe without the bad poetry and teenage angst part.

  9. @ April I think your point of other people influencing connectedness is a good one. I face that every single day. There are emails that come in and no matter what I feel absolutely compelled to respond — Pavlov would love to know he was right (is that why the new email sound in Apple mail sounds like a bell?). That simple little fact makes me feel like I need to stay connected — because someone else requires it.

  10. My question back to you Cole is just because someone requires it or merely expects it, does that mean you must comply (barring any emergencies of course)? Does anyone have the right to expect that you don’t disconnected? Is it their expectation that compels you to stay connected and respond or is it the reinforcement whether positive or negative that you are reacting to much like Pavlov’s dogs did to those bells all those years ago?

  11. @ April Depending on who it is, it can be quite negative. Also, there is a degree of, “its part of the job” I think. I signed up to be on the hook for issues most of the time. I think on some levels, unless it is really understood that I am completely unavailable I need to be responsive. That makes unplugging even more complex.

  12. I won’t repeat many of the good comments left here. Personally, I’m an extrovert at heart (especially at work). I love working in a team, brainstorming, helping someone else, teaching, etc… If I had to work alone, I’d quit and find something else. That doesn’t mean that I need to constantly be talking with someone. I used to share a large cubicle space with four other people. We would all be working separately, but available to each other as needed.

    I have to admit that while I have tolerance for response time from most other people, I get frustrated when I can’t get in touch with Andrew. We don’t have a house line, just cell phones. We don’t actually call each other that much, but it’s nice to think that I can get in touch with him any time I want (outside of meetings and classes of course). So if I try to reach him for a couple of hours and he doesn’t pick up his phone or respond to a text message, it feels a little lonely.

    Another thought: I don’t keep up with all of the blogs, podcasts, and Tweets that I subscribe to. From time to time, I feel really guilty about it because I feel like I’m missing something. By not keeping up, I start falling from the center toward the margins. But I have subscribed to so much that I can’t possibly keep up with all of it. So I’ve begun pruning my subscriptions.

    I’d never totally pull the plug. I just wish I had more time to finish everything before the new stuff comes in. As a big plus, I’m never bored.

  13. That is a very good point Cole. It certainly does make it more difficult to unplug when being connected is basically a job requirement or if the culture of the organization itself is plugged in like has been in TLT for so many years. Since I moved to Student Affairs, I am not nearly as plugged is as I was when I was in Training, but then again, I am not nearly as stressed out as I was either. That just made me think that maybe the addition of Chris to my life had less to do with why I unplug more now than leaving TLT did. Hmm.

  14. Many years ago (pre-cellphone, Facebook, etc.), I had a training class about dealing with stress. The retired Army psychologist teaching the class told us that there was an innate need for solitude, that you must have alone time to recharge your batteries. Some of us need more than others, and that it is important to physical,, mental, emotional and spiritual health. I think it is easier for those of us who were old enough to know the benefits of solitude and continue to seek it out when needed than it is for the generation that is now always connected. Good article from Psychology Today about “The Call of Solitude”, written in 1998, when solitude seemed to start slipping away…

  15. @Fred DeCock I’ll read the article and revisit this. Thanks for the comment … I wonder if that will change? I see more and more people of all ages participating. My Mom is never far from her cellphone and my wife’s 95 year old grandmother just friended me on facebook. I think that deserves a huge WTF!

  16. Card carrying introvert, INTP.

    It seem like we grant a lot of power to technology. Does “Google really make us stupid?” or do we manage that ourselves? Do cellphones and Facebook keep us from reading books and taking walks in the woods? C’mon, we are responsible; technology itself is neutral in its influence. Take control.

    Plus, there is really no puling back on all these influences. The barn door is wide open.


    I originally typed this in the back of a cab on an iPhone rather than talking to the driver (the comment got lost in the either, so I am trying to recover it here).

  17. @ Alan Levine Couldn’t agree more — technology is a crutch for too much. And I am talking about us actually believing it is google, twitter, etc making us dumber (lazier, fatter, whatever) … it is us. We embrace it and there is no going back. Might as well walk through the door.

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