The Difference Between Being Alone And Finding Solitude

Corey McComb

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“In order to understand the world, one must turn away from it on occasion.” -Albert Camus

On Christmas morning, 2018, Colin O’Brady woke up the same way he had for the last 52-days — alone in his tent on the frozen desert floor. He looked at his map. He saw that he’s already walked 850 miles and that if he can go 77 more, he’ll become the first human in history to survive a solo expedition across the continent of Antarctica. There is no team. No support. No safety nets. Just him and his 300lbs sled, slugging it out, step by step, across a blank canvass of solitude.

O’Brady had been covering 20 miles per day, which made the final 77 miles three or four days out. He looked at his food and fuel. There wasn’t much left. He thought that if he pushed hard, and covered 40 miles in a day, he could complete the journey in just two days.

But as he sat in the snow and waited for his water to boil, he made a decision: Het would finish his journey — aptly titled, The Impossible First — today. Not three days. Not two days. He decided then and there to cover the last 77 miles in one final, none-stop push.

Antarctica temperatures are somewhere between 20 and 80 degrees below zero, depending on the wind. Over 98% of the continent has never been touched by mankind. While O’Brady dragged his sled across the 1,000-mile stretch, there was no music in his ears. There was no one waiting at the finish line with balloons or banners. Every step, every mile, and every day was an intense game of solitude between his body, his mind, and his compass.

And during that final push of 77 straight miles, through the unforgiving white glow and pristine emptiness of frozen land, O’Brady tapped into what he would later call the deepest and most intense flow state of his life.

“I did a 31 hour push — 77 miles straight, dragging my sled for one continuous push. No music, no nothing. Just in my head in this crazy flow state.” -Colin O’Brady.

There is one key difference between being physically alone and finding solitude. It’s a thin line that runs a mile deep and it’s called Silence.

It seems obvious that the more noise around us, the harder it is to hear. But it’s also true that the more noise, the harder it is to listen. Real solitude should just provide real silence. It should provide the space for creativity and focus to meet face-to-face, unencumbered and unaltered by external noise.

The human mind collects noise like a jukebox collects quarters. And it does a much better job at sorting out the messy mix of thoughts and emotions without external distraction. Think of it this way: A good producer doesn’t mix their next hit single while listening to someone else’s greatest hits album.

Flow stems from focus. And solitude leads to clearer thinking, both in and beyond the present moment. The gift of silence gives our mind a chance to mix the noise inside our heads before it gets re-filled by the external world.

But as the saying goes, silence is deafening.

We’re all just one thumbprint away from accessing brilliant lectures, beautiful music, and on-demand dopamine. Why suffer in the silence of a thousand unanswered thoughts and murky issues?

A study found that when people were left alone in a room in total silence and given the choice to sit with their thoughts or press a button that would give them an electric shock, over 60% of men and 25% of women choose the shock.

It makes one wonder about Colin O’Brady. What went through his mind as he pushed a 300lbs sled, 17 hours a day, 50 days straight, without any sound besides his feet slushing through the snow?

“It’s dead silence. I’m just staring at this compass all day long. The mental side of it was by far the most interesting side of it for me. I’m a lifelong endurance athlete but really [what it was for me] was an exploration into the mind.” -Colin O’Brady

O’Brady spent months training his body but didn’t stop there. He knew the long hours of solitude could either be a ticket for flow or a trigger for madness. He prepared by going to multiple ten-day silent meditation retreats. These retreats — where no reading, writing, or speaking is allowed — get listed as some of the most challenging experiences of participant’s lives. It’s pretty hard to imagine what 54 days at the bottom of the frozen earth, where survival is a coin toss, might have felt like.

But the bright white silence of Antarctica didn’t break O’Brady. Instead, it gave him the fuel he needed for his final push.

“I got in a sequence of being so present with each step, [that] each sequence ended up being in this really timeless, spaceless place of true high-performance. It was very profound and beautiful to get there in my mind.” -Colin O’Brady

Colin O’Brady used solitude to find flow. And he’s in good company. Heavy-weights like Hemingway, Picasso, and Einstein all praised the power of solitude for guiding them out of the darkness and into creative flow. But solitude used to be easier to come by than it is today. Hemingway wasn’t streaming Dostoyevsky’s latest book through his AirPods as he walked the streets the Paris alone at night.

The evolution of our brain hasn’t kept up with the thousands of inputs that fly into our ears and swirl around our head. We’re so rich with options to listen, look, and engage with the external world that real solitude is fleeting. Think about the time you spend physically alone and ask yourself:

How many of those hours are without someone else’s voice or music in my ear?

How many other people are there on the screen in front of me?

How often am I really alone?

There’s nothing wrong with ending the day with some Netflix or filling the empty car with music on a long drive home. This isn’t about banishing all external noise from your life. This is about going out of your way to create some good ol’ fashioned peace and quiet. Because in today’s world, you don’t just find solitude, you have to be intentional in creating it.

Flow starts with focus and clear thinking. And silence cultivates internal focus by subtracting external distractions. If the world inside your head seems louder than ever, give yourself a clean white canvass of solitude. Take a break from other people’s voices and sit with the ones in your own head, annoying as they might be.

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Best-selling author of 'Productivity Is For Robots' | I sprinkle a dose of humanity into overly-optimized brains with stories on life, business, and what it means to be human. Visit coreymccomb.substack.com to see my best work. Follow me on Twitter @coreymccomb

San Diego, CA
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