In 2006, Justin Vernon—frontman of indie folk band Bon Iver—packed up his life and retreated to his father’s hunting cabin in a remote part of Wisconsin where he wrote an album (For Emma, Forever Ago) that changed his life.
Of course, the idea of going AWOL (a military acronym that stands for “absent without leave”) to spark creativity isn’t new. Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Virginia Woolf were said to retreat to off-the-grid huts—seeking an intimate space and isolation to tap into their artistic reserves—to get away from distractions and focus entirely on their pursuits.
While this particular (albeit extreme) method isn’t the solution for everyone, there are plenty of people who have perfected the “art” of going AWOL—and have found success through solitude. But in our connected day and age, how do you throw caution to the wind and really let everything go? Here’s how experts recommend going off the grid—and why it’s good, mentally and professionally, to go solo if you’re in a slump.
“Going into the woods, literally and figuratively, provided me opportunities to go deeper into myself,” says Zach Schlosser, founder of The School for the Future, a social innovation education startup that teaches project-based courses on social entrepreneurship, activism, and contemplative practice. “[It helped] clarify my values and goals, and train focus and insight. My best, most meaningful work has come from making space for this.”
“I had a beautiful view of Mt. Rose and Mt. Slide, which separate Reno from Tahoe, made friends with the alpacas in the neighborhood, and was continually accosted by the hive of yellow jackets that lived in the roof of the tree house,” Schlosser says.
Reflecting back on the experience, Schlosser believes his six months of solitude was what he needed to jump-start his creativity. He experienced “incredible alertness and clarity while being completely relaxed,” adding “I’d encourage everyone to act 10 times more boldly than they currently are and live a more alive life.”
Getting into the right headspace isn’t just conducive to your work, it’s also beneficial for mental health—especially for men.
“We all need and deserve a chance to decompress and reboot,” says Jessi Leader, a licensed therapist based in Minneapolis, MN. “This notion is infrequent in daily life because of societal and familial pressure; men are constantly confronted with unrealistic ideas about being a ‘man.’ These ideas are not only unrealistic, but toxic to manhood,” she adds.
You don’t have to travel hundreds of miles away into complete desolation. The point is to find a place that’s “safe, calm, and invigorating,” Leaders says, with the goal of forging a more “balanced relationship between your rational and emotional mind.”
“Going AWOL disrupts habitual thought and behavior patterns that keep us unsuccessful and unfulfilled,” adds certified counselor and author David Bennett. “An effective disruption promotes brain ‘neuroplasticity,’ which basically rewires the brain to create new thoughts, emotional responses, and behaviors, leading to a new outlook.”
It could be what you need to shake up a stale daily routine, a mindless job, or an unfulfilling home life—some of the most common reasons men feel stuck in their lives.
“Brain rewiring is difficult in adults,” continues Bennet, “which explains why people make New Year’s resolutions, but resort to old, uncreative behaviors and habits almost immediately. Going AWOL could be what it takes to start fresh and new.”
While not everybody has access to a remote hunting cabin in Wisconsin or treehouse in Reno, men should take solace in the fact that their own version of getting away is unique to themselves. For some, taking the day off work and hiding out in a coffee shop could be enough to effectively break the habit and jump-start their creativity.
“It creates the excitement and energy that come from doing something new and daring; it’s primal to the male instinct to survive through sheer determination and drive,” says Bennet.
Now all you have to do is figure out where your “cabin in the woods” is and how to get there. So, what’s yours?