The Skill of Being Alone

In a 2012 TED Talk, Sherry Turkle shares her insights about why and how technology interferes with our ability to be by ourselves. Writing that sentence just now I find myself thinking, “Of course technology gets in the way of us being alone. It’s all about being connected. Duh.”

As the talk unfolded though, I learned that the key part of the opening observation is our ability to be by ourselves. There is a skill to being alone, a faculty that needs to be developed and cultivated.

Unfortunately, with the omnipresence of technology via the little devices we carry around with us we have taught ourselves to believe that being alone is a problem. We have learned to feel that something is lacking, that we are lacking, if we aren’t clicking and being clicked on.

The irony here is that we wind up isolated if we haven’t developed the capacity for solitude because it is comfort with being with ourselves that enables us to reach out to others and form real attachments. It seems kind of like the psychological version of the old adage about relationships: that we can’t love another until we love ourselves.

Another effect of our inability to be alone is the resulting insatiable need to feel like we control where we put our attention. We customize, curate, edit, delete, and retouch everything, seeking a perfection that doesn’t exist beyond cyberspace. All time time harbouring the illusion that this causes us to be more interesting to others and thereby to ourselves.

What makes this problematic is that life and relationships don’t always lend themselves to being controlled and curated. They are famously, fabulously rich, messy, and demanding — irrespective of our attempts to make them simple, well-ordered, and seemingly effortless.

And this brings us to the part of all this that is professionally interesting to me (and perhaps to others who do similar work): What are the implications for what we do and the way people see us in our work if they don’t want messiness, vulnerability, imperfection, and intimacy? All of these uncomfortable human characteristics are at the heart of what we do. Do we need to re-think, re-frame, and alter the work? Or do these developments mean there is an ever-expanding pipeline of potential clients out there waiting to be shown they have the courage to put their devices down and really connect? 

I suspect the answer will be somewhere in between.