The Age of the Essay: Solitude, Leadership, and the Art of Thinking

Alessio Frateily

Hatched by Alessio Frateily

Aug 19, 2023

5 min read


The Age of the Essay: Solitude, Leadership, and the Art of Thinking

In today's world, essays have become a common form of academic writing. However, the true essence of an essay often gets lost in the midst of academic requirements and expectations. In this article, we will explore what an essay truly is, how it is connected to solitude and leadership, and the importance of cultivating independent thinking.

One of the most apparent differences between real essays and the ones we write in school is that real essays are not limited to English literature. While essays in school focus primarily on analyzing literary works, real essays can encompass a wide range of topics and subjects. This distinction raises the question of how to conduct research on composition. Math professors can do original math, history professors can write scholarly articles about history, but what about professors who teach rhetoric or composition? The closest subject for them seemed to be English literature.

The teaching of writing was inherited by English professors in the late 19th century, leading to two drawbacks. Firstly, being an expert on literature does not necessarily make someone a good writer. Just as an art historian does not need to be a good painter, a literature expert does not need to possess exceptional writing skills. Secondly, the subject of writing now tends to revolve around literature because that is what the professor is interested in.

This imitation of university teaching methods trickles down to high schools, where students are taught to imitate the writing styles and approaches of their professors. However, this approach fails to teach students how to think critically and independently. It focuses on taking a position and defending it, rather than exploring different perspectives and questioning the status quo. This approach stems from a long-forgotten intellectual hangover, where medieval universities were mistaken for seminaries when, in fact, they were more like law schools.

Defending a position may be necessary in a legal dispute, but it does not necessarily lead to finding the truth. This approach restricts the ability to change the question and hinders the exploration of different ideas. A real essay, on the other hand, does not begin with a thesis statement but with a question. It is an attempt to figure something out rather than a definitive statement.

So, why write an essay instead of just thinking? Expressing ideas through writing helps to form and clarify thoughts. It allows for a deeper exploration of the subject matter. When writing an essay, the aim should not be to convince the reader but to present a clear and coherent thought process. The goal is to engage in a conversation with the reader, which often leads to a clearer explanation and a deeper understanding of the topic.

In his essay "Solitude and Leadership," William Deresiewicz emphasizes the importance of solitude in leadership. While leadership is often associated with being surrounded by others, true leadership requires the ability to be alone with one's thoughts. Solitude provides the necessary space for introspection, critical thinking, and the cultivation of independent ideas.

Deresiewicz argues that our society has a crisis of leadership because we have been training leaders who excel at following instructions and fulfilling goals but lack the ability to think for themselves. Our education system, particularly institutions like Yale, focuses on producing individuals who can climb the ladder of success within existing hierarchies. However, what we truly need are thinkers, individuals who can question the status quo and propose new directions.

In the military, where conformity and hierarchy are often emphasized, the need for independent thinking is crucial. Deresiewicz highlights that the U.S. Army is a bureaucracy, and understanding how bureaucracies operate is essential for effective leadership. Bureaucracies tend to reward conformity, obedience, and the ability to maneuver within established systems. However, true leadership requires the courage to think independently and act on one's convictions, even when they go against the established norms.

To cultivate independent thinking and leadership, it is essential to embrace solitude. Solitude provides the opportunity to reflect, question, and develop one's own ideas. In a world that values constant connectivity and multitasking, true thinking requires focused attention and the ability to filter out distractions. Research has shown that multitasking impairs cognitive abilities and hinders effective thinking. Therefore, it is crucial to carve out moments of solitude to engage in deep thinking and cultivate independent thought.

In conclusion, the age of the essay is not limited to academic requirements and conformity. The true essence of an essay lies in its ability to explore questions, challenge established norms, and cultivate independent thinking. Solitude plays a vital role in this process, providing the necessary space for introspection and critical thought. To become effective leaders, it is essential to embrace solitude, question the status quo, and develop independent thinking. By doing so, we can navigate the complexities of the world and make meaningful contributions to society.

Three actionable pieces of advice to develop independent thinking and leadership skills are:

  • 1. Carve out regular moments of solitude: Schedule time each day to be alone with your thoughts, free from distractions. Use this time to reflect, question, and develop your own ideas.
  • 2. Embrace discomfort: Challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and question established norms. Be willing to take risks and stand up for what you believe, even if it goes against popular opinion.
  • 3. Seek diverse perspectives: Engage in conversations and seek out opinions that differ from your own. Surround yourself with individuals who will challenge your ideas and help you see different viewpoints. This will broaden your understanding and strengthen your ability to think critically.

By incorporating these actionable steps into your daily life, you can cultivate independent thinking, develop leadership skills, and make meaningful contributions to society.

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