The Gift of Solitude

In the first weeks after I moved to New York City, I visited the Whitney on the Upper East Side. There was an Edward Hopper exhibit, and who doesn’t love Edward Hopper. On a wall leading into the gallery was an inscription of an E.B. White quote that I was not familiar with and which has never left me. It defined my time in the City and kept me comforted many days and nights.

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

E.B. White, Here is New York

My 29-year-old self was baffled and a bit panicked. I had come to Manhattan to feel a part of something–a connection, a togetherness, a flow. In my imagination, New York was the very epitome of gathering. Had I completely misunderstood the concept of the City?

Once inside the gallery, I found White’s assertion, still fresh in my psyche, ingrained in Hopper’s works: isolation, boredom, disillusionment. I suppose those themes had always been apparent for me, but I had long found a romantic resilience in them. I wondered, was it loneliness and solitude I’d been seeking this whole time? Because where I’d moved from, I endured that in abundance.

On my way home, I stopped into a bookstore in search of White’s book of essays (at a time when you didn’t have to wait overnight for the thing to arrive). Later in that opening paragraph I happened on this:

“…the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes elsewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail.”

The Gift of Solitude: The Events Edition

In retrospect, White’s description of the City populace sounds a lot like a modern-day business event. We are largely (familiar) strangers converging at a place and time in pursuit of something; it might be status or reward, personal growth or pleasure, wisdom or great wealth. It might also be a sense of belonging. That creates a paradox I’ve wrestled with for years.

In my new book Gather: The Business of Coming Together I advocate for the individual above the group. I’m of the belief that, though we long for community, what audiences are really looking to gain from business gatherings is altruistic: growth, pleasure, reward, status. And while I love the sight of thousands leaning in for wisdom and revelry, I am more inspired by the reaction of a single individual having an epiphany, who suddenly feels enlightened, awakened and welcomed. It’s an energy that adds so much to the collective thrill of the gathering. It’s empathic, authentic and contagious (in a healthful way).

That individual is any of us and all of us. Ideally, our journey is a uniquely personal one. Amidst all the excitement and activities engineered for audiences, I think we seek out a sense of solitude and privacy, immersed on all sides by a community of like-minded individuals. These personal experiences are what give business events impact and meaning, and make them resonate with audiences and planners.

I spent five years in New York. I endured periods of crushing loneliness, packed together cheek by jowl with millions of others. The daily and nightly morsels of human interaction, conflict and discovery, made those moments of solitude a cherished relief. My time there made me mentally stronger, more self-aware and more empathic. To me, those are worthy outcomes of a meaningful, human and successful event.

Like successful business events, the City thrives on community. Ritual street fairs and festivals abound, made richer by the aromas of a global melting pot. Eyes turn heavenward for the sight of holiday fireworks; any holiday, we’ll celebrate them all. Days in the park, nights in a pub, mornings by the river, shared with strangers living their own version of solitude.

My favorite memory of gathering in New York City was during a blizzard that shut down the roads and airports. The island was cut off, isolated from everything beyond. We were alone. I spent the afternoon and evening in a favorite dive bistro on First Avenue with friends and neighbors who rarely intermingled. While the snow fell heavy outside, inside laughter abounded, wine flowed, darts flew and music rang out from the jukebox. We celebrated our togetherness, our shared circumstances, good fortune and relative comfort in a safe place.

And then we each struck out into the frigid night and returned to the quietude of our own spaces to let the merriment of the day reverberate within our singular moments of pleasant solitude.

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