The hardest part of anything is letting go. A digital detox is no different. We have become addicted to our digital devices, just like the developers intended. The extent of the addiction is often worse for those who have to be always on, always connected – like business leaders.
As author Johan Hari says in his recent book Stolen Focus, “it’s not your fault you can’t focus. It’s by design. The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day, and then you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world’s attention burns.”
There is a growing consensus on the need to institute regular digital sabbaths or timeouts. One of the first problems though is realising that there are very few digital deserts left in the world where you can go cold turkey because there actually is no connectivity.
Recently, in the middle of a series of speaking engagements that took me to North Africa and then Europe, I thought I’d take the opportunity to test the theory by spending 10 days without any digital connection whatsoever in a remote fishing village above the Arctic Circle.
It was a revelation in more ways than one: arriving in a summer of midnight sun, verdant hills, crystal-clear water; all a far cry from the three months of icy winter without any daylight whatsoever; frozen fjords and a thick blanket of snow that will invariably follow.
There was also incredible internet connectivity.
It makes perfect sense when you think about the village: irrespective of its geographical remoteness, people still have to be connected with the rest of the world, especially for the crews of the fishing fleets at sea through the whole year, keeping in touch with their families, but also because of the geopolitical-strategic importance of the sea lanes to the north area, and the area’s proximity to an increasingly belligerent and ill-tempered Russia.
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There might have been connectivity but the geographic dislocation of the village and the fact that the sun never set, coupled with the tranquillity of the nature all around, provided the conditions conducive to stop the inner treadmill and reflect as well as I might had there been no Wi-Fi whatsoever.
It’s a journey that many have undertaken already, some have even perfected the ability to do it every day. Many more of us need to. We need to find the time to think, because otherwise we will increasingly live on autopilot, doing things by rote because that’s how we’ve always been able to do it in the past.
Rote behaviours can create chaos in a fast-changing world.
For me it was an opportunity to truly process much that had been suppressed as we worked so hard during the lockdown just to survive as a business and as a team. I thought about the real costs of the pandemic; dozens of close family members of dear colleagues on campus who had died, many students and alumni taken by Covid. It went deep for all of us, me included. So, the trip to the Arctic gave space to process and “let come”.
I had a similar experience when I travelled and lived in New Zealand for six months 20 years ago. The relative isolation there leaves you no option but to turn within and see your dragons.
Introspection is a very uncomfortable process and yet it is incredibly therapeutic. It’s vital for coming to terms with our own imperfection – and everyone else’s. Like defragging our computers, we need to sort through our experiences and cut loose the stuff that might be holding us back, fears and concerns that aren’t relevant to us anymore, and indeed could well be the very issues that are holding us back from getting on with our lives.
As we take the time to consider, we gain perspective. Sitting above the Arctic Circle, thinking about my country, South Africa, I was struck by the relentless pressure we seem to all face all the time – from lockdowns to joblessness, the spiralling cost of living, crime, service delivery, Eskom, social upheaval, the list goes on. It’s a treadmill that consumes us all.
As I have discovered from private conversations with many business leaders, it can be doubly hard for them. They have to deal with their own issues and then resolve those of the people they lead. The best leaders learn to channel the pressure in different ways: regular exercise and personal breakaways, to regain their own equilibrium.
For those who can’t put boundaries in place, the treadmill consumes them. With no outlet for the pressure, their personal pain goes inwards, catastrophically. Worse, as Freud said, we can project our painful emotions onto other people so that they become the carriers of our own unfaceable flaws.
Of course, this makes it easier for us to live with ourselves for a while because everyone else is responsible for our unhappiness, not ourselves. In fact, we continue to be stuck in cycles of misery, without learning, if we do this. We create false self-images of ourselves as the “victim” or the “good person” when the reality is that none of us is that entirely. We can only avoid this hubris through self-discipline and strength of character.
Finding ways to stop that out-of-control flywheel in the mind is vital. We need to stop feeding the infantilised mind that demands all the sensory overload from digital devices and all the attendant drama, and instead create a space where everything gets much calmer.
We all need to recover from the rigours of the Covid-19 pandemic and everything that has flowed from it ever since, as a public health crisis has segued into an equally virulent global geopolitical and economic contagion. Many of us think that recovery means acting decisively and quickly, and sometimes that is true – but generally, good decisions and incisive action can’t happen if our minds are still in overdrive, not even properly processing what we are taking in.
Do the basics
We have to wean ourselves from the magical thinking and binary constructs of heroes and villains that social media amplify so grotesquely. Leaders, especially those in companies, have to sidestep their messiah complexes and make friends with their real selves, which in most cases are just very ordinary people.
Greatness comes from ordinariness, doing the basics extraordinarily well. Many business leaders really want to be great people – and to be seen as such – but it’s a trap. There’s an equal and opposite reaction for every action: if an adult hero-worships you, or unwarrantedly praises you, run. They’re likely projecting their fantasy on you to make themselves feel contained. They will ultimately condemn you, because with your feet of clay and hands of lead you will disappoint their projections of you, triggering a pathological cycle of idealisation and devaluation that we see in the coverage of celebrities, sports stars and politicians.
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The trick for all of us, leaders most of all, is to get in touch with our own ordinariness and make that our superpower – not some Marvel comic book fantasy, because in truth the average person is really cool. When we get to know that real inner person, that’s when the real creativity starts, the inspiration is unlocked and the solutions appear.
Forget the myths of moments of sheer inspirational advertising brilliance spawned by hit TV series Mad Men; real creativity lies deep and slow – it starts in the moments when we are at the calmest, our infantile minds stilled and almost at the point of what feels like maximum boredom. “Hare Brain and Tortoise Mind” as the writer Guy Claxton called it.
Epiphanies arise in their own time from the slower tortoise mind, processing in the background. We realise the true power we hold when we still the incessant hare-brained chatter and step back from the hype that together conspire to distract us and keep us in thrall to those pulling our strings.
The best news is that we don’t have to go to the fjords to find it, it’s right here. It always has been. DM