Solitaire, patience, and creativity at work

by | Apr 26, 2012

Card game: Klondike solitaire game with Bee Playing Cards

Solitaire — the pastime of playing cards alone — is often regarded with disdain. Solitaire players are viewed as slackers wasting time when they should be doing something productive. Solitaire is even seen as a pathetic pursuit — a game for outcasts and loners of limited mental capacity.

The game’s reputation has not been helped by popular music. In the 1972 song by Neil Sedaka and Phil Cody — a number one easy listening hit for the Carpenters — “Solitaire” is played by “a lonely man / Who lost his love, thru his indifference”:

And solitaire’s the only game in town
And every road that takes him, takes him down
While life goes on around him everywhere
He’s playing solitare

Laura Branigan’s 1983 hit “Solitaire” repeated similar forlorn themes:

Solitaire, it gets so lonely
Solitaire, you wanna hold me
Don’t wait up, ’cause babe, I won’t be there
Solitaire, solitaire, solitaire

I say it’s time to reconsider solitaire — to appreciate it as a clever and handy device for unlocking unlimited creative potential.

Wait … what?

First of all, is solitude necessarily such a tragedy? Even in the midst of the current pressure to be “social” in every moment of our daily lives, there are countering concerns over privacy, which the dictionary defines as “the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people.” A certain amount of privacy has always been desirable, and it only grows more so as it becomes more scarce.

In her TED talk “The power of introverts,” Susan Cain asserts that the contemplative side of our nature deserves more respect — especially in the workplace and in schools.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan CainAmong other qualities, she points out that “introverts actually get better grades and are more knowledgeable, according to research,” and that “introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do.” In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cain uses Apple computer inventor Steve Wozniak as a contrast against what she calls the “new groupthink.” She quotes Wozniak’s advice from his memoir, iWoz: “Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

The Penguin Book of Card Games, by David ParlettHistorically, solitaire games have been more widely known by a more virtuous name: Patience. In The Penguin Book of Card Games, author David Parlett writes that “Patience is the mental equivalent of jogging: its purpose is to tone the brain up and get rid of unsociable mental flabbiness.”

Play a few hands of most Patience games, and the label turns out to be apt. While rules and strategy can seem ridiculously simple — and although random luck is often a predominant factor — a certain open and relaxed state of mind is conducive to success. In order to keep track of the status of, say, seven columns of cards at once, one must let go of peripheral distractions (consistent with the famous paper by George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information“). Obsess over some conversation you had an hour earlier, and there’s a good chance you’ll miss an opportunity to play a card — and your only chance to win the hand.

Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living, by Allan LokosIn a way, this type of calm and open attention resembles a state of mind cultivated in eastern spirituality. The title of the most recent book by meditation teacher Allan Lokos is Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living. In it, he writes:

Patience is born when we create a pause between our experience of a feeling and our response to that feeling. Without a pause we are likely to find ourselves reacting in our conditioned manner. After all, that is what conditioning is. With a pause, there is at least the possibility of a more positive response, and certainly we are less likely to cause harm. Patience lives in the gap between our experience of an event and our response to that experience.

In playing solitaire, each turn of a card is an event. Some of these events are instantly pleasing, but many are initially disappointing, causing a reflexive urge to quickly dismiss the card and move on.

Pausing can make all the difference. A split-second pause can allow you to see a possibility you did not expect. Solitaire — or Patience — is an exercise aimed at developing this open-minded pause.


The Patience game I play is the most common one, Klondike. Klondike is also the computerized version of the game written by Michael A. Casteel in 1984 for the original 128K Macintosh, and updated by him ever since, including iKlondike Solitaire for iPhone and iKlondike Solitaire for iPad.

According to Wikipedia, another computerized version of Klondike — simply named “Solitaire” — has been included in all versions of Microsoft Windows since Windows 3.0. I would not know.

Because so much of my own time is spent manipulating things on a computer screen, I prefer to play solitaire with a physical deck of playing cards — Bee Playing Cards in particular. I usually keep a deck waiting on my kitchen table.

I like the tactile aspect. I enjoy shuffling, and the subtle sound of the cards as they are turned and placed. Some have even listed Klondike among the triggers for a spine-tingling sensation known as ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) which begins in the scalp. In my opinion, if that’s what you’re after, The Tingler is much more effective.

While many people play Klondike turning three cards at a time from the remaining deck, I play by what are sometimes called “Las Vegas Rules” — turning one card at a time and going through the deck only once. I have not found authoritative odds, but I doubt the chances of winning any random hand are even 25 percent. For me, the objective is not winning. It is getting away from the computer and some impossible problem for a little while, and into that patient state of mind where possibilities can be recognized.

Jonah Lehrer’s latest book is called Imagine: How Creativity Works. Speaking about this in the video above, he notes that alpha waves in the brain are an invariable precursor to the flash of insight, or epiphany, which solves what researchers call a “compound remote associative problem.”

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah LehrerHe also lists the sorts of relaxing activities which produce alpha waves in the brain: “Taking a warm shower, going for a walk on the beach, taking a nap on the couch in the sun, drinking a beer in a chair and watching television — whatever it is you do that puts your mind at ease, that gets you to stop thinking about work, chances are it involves the production of some alpha waves.”

Do you suppose this might also apply to solitaire? if so, it would be nifty, since any game of Klondike takes only a few minutes, requires neither nudity nor leaving, and does not raise one’s blood alcohol level. You can play as many hands as you like, then resume work at any point.

Relaxation breaks like this may appear to be time-wasting — but according to Lehrer, the real waste of time is to concentrate too rigidly on the problem:

Most people assume that when faced with a very difficult problem, what they should do is drink a triple-espresso, chug some Red Bulll, do whatever it is they need to do to stay focused — to chain themselves to their desk, to continue staring straight ahead at their computer screen. But this research suggests that’s the exact wrong thing to do. Instead, when we hit that block, when the problem seems impossible, that’s when we should take a break. That’s when we should go on vacation. That’s when we should drink a beer, go for a long walk. The answer will only arrive after we stop looking for it.

Cycling between mental modes — the”closed mode” and the “open mode” — is the thrust of a lecture given over the years by Monty Python’s John Cleese, and featured in a post at Brain Pickings recently. Cleese describes the open mode as a state of mind which is “relaxed, expansive, less purposeful … more contemplative, more inclined to humor … more playful.” It is this state, he says, which allows our natural creativity to surface. Creativity is not possible in the closed mode.

So there. The next time you come across someone sitting alone, playing solitaire, do not assume they’re in a lethargic spiral of self-pity as a result of romantic rejection.

They may simply be arriving at a solution which provides the world with unlimited clean energy.

Or at least a funny movie.

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