The anti-social secret of success
In 2017, I spent a grand total of four evenings in on my own. A few of the other 361 were professional engagements, but the rest were genuinely social. Naturally, I put this down to the gravitational pull of my charisma, as inescapable as any black hole’s event horizon, but a neutral witness might also credit a certain amount of dumb luck. I lived in a big city. I had a job that put me in touch with like-minded people as a matter of course. I was not housebound by old age or the burdens of child-rearing.
Either way, I am at one extreme of society’s monstrously uneven distribution of, well, society. I have known enough people near the other end to have some sense of their plight. It is not just that loneliness is distressing in and of itself. It can also lead to other misfortunes. The worst marriages I know of were entered into by people who had tired of — who feared — being alone. Whether the evidence really stands up the idea of a “loneliness epidemic” is unclear. But people who brave the subject, such as Gail Honeyman in her novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, find a ravenous audience.
It is not out of callousness, then, that I say this: the opposite of loneliness — for which the English language has no satisfying noun — has its curses too. It is possible to have too much company.
This has nothing to do with “role strain”, another pathologisation of normal life. It is true that a group of friends will tend to have its discrete portfolios: organiser, banter merchant, romantic counsel, the Successful One. And we often rotate between these roles in different social circles. But the level of “acting” required is not all that stressful: otherwise, it would be a stretch to describe these as friendships in the first place.
No, what companionship really compromises is work. Being alone and feeling lonely are not the same thing, but each can be a spur to high achievement.
It is almost impossible to excel in many fields without prolonged seclusion. Looking at my bookshelves as I write this, it is striking how many American greats opted out of the social swim. Think of Philip Roth in the Connecticut woods, Cormac McCarthy near the New Mexico scrub, Don DeLillo with his forbidding business card, which read “I don’t want to talk about it”. As for Thomas Pynchon, few known photographs even exist of him. No wonder these writers eclipsed the Brits who made so merry with each other. The Americans emulated Montaigne, who literally lived in an ivory (all right, stone) tower.
Writing is solitary by definition. But the same pattern obtains in other lines of work, for the plain reason that inspiration is not always and everywhere “collaborative”. It takes place in concentrated isolation too, as do other things that drive success, such as strategic planning and rest. Even that most social of jobs, sports-coaching, is often a hermit’s pursuit. After several centuries in charge of Arsenal, Arsène Wenger said he knew nowhere in London other than the stadium, the training complex and his house. What was once almost a boast took on, in the last years, an air of remorse at sacrifices made.
The old feminist quandary — can you have it all? — applies, in an adapted sense, to men and women alike. Is it possible to have a maximal social life and the career of your dreams? The question is not idle. One day, I will have to decide whether to make the most of what thimble-full of talent I have, which will necessitate a social retreat, or keep answering the call of cities at night.
It is not just the fact of solitude that can bring on success. It is the actual feeling of loneliness. So many high achievers seem animated by a desire to escape a wallflower tag from youth, or even, dare we say, to avenge it. Of all the top-tier politicians I have met, only David Cameron seemed entirely free of this insecurity. In finance, this quest for social status through other means is almost as common. Social status is not quite the same as companionship, granted, but it can be a bewitching substitute.
For those stricken with the curse of company, there is no competing against these people. If you fit nicely into the world, after all, why conquer it?