On Solitude and the “Work Destroyers”

Shortly after Steve Jobs’s death, I posted short blog posts here and at the Standard on Apple Computer’s roots in Silicon Valley.  (The post at this site continues to attract a surprising number of visitors via Google, oddly enough.)

But Apple isn’t just a story about community, of course, and in fact it also offers a useful example for the opposite consideration: solitude.  In Sunday’s New York Times, Susan Cain wrote about the solitude preferred by Jobs’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, and the pitfalls of too much teamwork:

The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.

But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.

Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

The piece was well timed, if only because last week I had just taken time to return to Bill Deresiewicz’s two excellent essays on solitude: “The End of Solitude” and “Solitude and Leadership.”

There’s nothing I can usefully add to Deresiewicz’s or Cain’s essays; they are all must-reads.  I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who works best when left alone, which is why my most productive working hours are still between midnight and 3, when the phone isn’t ringing, the my colleagues aren’t looking for me, emails aren’t arriving, and I can quietly go about my business.  It’s a habit I (like many) developed in college, and still can’t shake.

If anything, worktime solitude is all the more necessary as I get older, for I am increasingly prone to distraction.  Years ago I could get a lot done even with the TV or radio on; now I can accomplish little without relative quiet, or at the very least a background soundtrack familiar enough to fade into white noise.

And so Alan Jacobs gets it precisely right in his new book on reading in “an age of distraction.”  But Hemingway struck the note years earlier, when he said, “the telephone and visitors are the work destroyers.”