This past Wednesday, the University of Michigan had the pleasure of welcoming back alumni Mike Erwin for a talk on solitude and leadership in today’s information age. Mike Erwin began his college career at West Point, where he graduated in 2002 and was commissioned as a Military Intelligence Officer. Following graduation, he went on to do one tour in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan. In 2009, after finishing his third deployment he studied positive psychology and leadership at the University of Michigan. He cites the late psychology professor Chris Peterson, as a profound mentor who had a great influence on his life. After graduating from the University of Michigan Erwin became an assistant psychology professor at West Point, co-authored his first book Lead Yourself First, and founded two non-profits Team Red White and Blue and most recently The Positivity Project.  

    During the talk, Erwin discussed the importance of staying focused and free of distractions in today’s society, in which he describes as moments of solitude. Solitude as defined in his book Lead Yourself First is, “a state of mind in which we focus on our own thought without distractions”. The BLI Habit “Pause and Reflect” mirrors Erwin’s definition of solitude, as this habit suggests to “Spend time alone, quietly; Debrief often… Work in and on your relationships”. Erwin believes there currently exists an over accessibility to technology including phones, emails, and text messages and he examines how multitasking with current technology negatively impacts an individual’s cognitive ability IQ between “five to fifteen points”. Current studies prove that an increase in multitasking decreases an individual’s ability to focus just on one activity. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, agrees citing his own study on a human’s ability to multi-task, “They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.” The constant over the accessibility of technology and distractions, demands for moments of rest for our brain in order for personal and professional growth. 

    The ability to engage in solitude has become a competitive advantage not only in the workplace, but also in accomplishing new ideas or tackling personal, mental, or physical challenges, specifically as a leader. As a leader, comprehensive thinking is key in making a decision that not only impacts you but also those around you. Solitude strengthens a leader’s clarity, creativity, emotional balance, and moral courage. Therefore, brain rest free of distractions remains crucial for the functioning of our brains and 100 percent productivity in developing ideas. With solitude inspiration and innovation develops from within and can only be unlocked through the comfortability of rest.  

    Erwin suggests making solitude a part of your daily routine, along with brushing your teeth and eating breakfast, as a way of developing the ability to focus intently. He mentions two types of solitude planned or spontaneous. Planned solitude requires a block of time set aside for you to engage in solitude whether that means exercising, meditation, or simply going for a walk. Moments of planned solitude can be anywhere from 10-15 minutes. Spontaneous solitude is not planned and works best during times of increased stress or anxiety. By launching you’re your own journey of reclaiming solitude remember to be deliberate about how you spend your time and to set or reset expectations socially and personally. Next time when life may feel too hectic or you notice yourself getting constantly distracted during crunch time, I advise you to take time and Pause and Reflect while engaging in a moment of solitude. 

For further reading, check out these suggested books by Mike Erwin:


  • Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday
  • iGen by Jean Twenge