Solo Thoughts 6: What Does It Mean To Be Solo?

SOLO 118 | Solo Thoughts


Host Peter McGraw returns to the desert to update his thinking on what it means to be solo versus single.

Listen to Episode #118 here


Solo Thoughts 6: What Does It Mean To Be Solo?

In April of 2020, during a global pandemic, I launched my second book, Shtick to Business, and began to put my humor work behind me. I started to lean in seriously to the Solo project. Solo has blossomed in ways that have been unanticipated, in particular being profiled on the Today show with Maria Shriver. More importantly, I’m a changed person. My life is notably different. I feel liberated. I’m living more honestly and authentically than I ever have before. My relationships are healthier than ever. I’m grateful that this has happened while I’m old enough to appreciate it and still young enough to enjoy it.

It has been a while since my last Solo Thoughts episode. In a Solo Thoughts episode, I talked directly to you, the audience, without a guest or co-host. I put off doing Solo Thoughts because they take more time to prepare, but I’m out in the desert again, back at the high five homesteads where I launched that book and took a two-month sabbatical from my sabbatical. This is a good time for me to reflect and share some perspectives.

There are two elements to the show if you have not noticed. One is tussling with ideas around single living and relationships. The other idea is to explore ways to live a remarkable life. They are connected. I believe that singleness in general and soloness specifically allow for more diverse opportunities to thrive and do in a way that meets the world’s vast diversity in tastes, desires, and lifestyles. It’s impossible that there is one way to live a good life. Outside a few universal principles, the parents, teachers, journalists, scientists, and gurus who tell you how to thrive are omitting a wide array of opportunities.

In this episode, I address what it means to be solo, which is frankly an evolving definition for me. As you may know, I host a Solo community that you can apply to be part of at PeterMcgraw.org/solo. There are passionate and opinionated people on the channel and the conversations typically mimic the tone I strive for in the show, smart, upbeat, and unapologetic.

Occasionally, a thread gets spicy such as the reactions to the Seeking Arrangements episode. A member of the community not so gently pushed me and the community to better define what Solo means. Here is a partial quote from the post, “After reading the blog post, numerous times in participating in the forum, I think the concept of Solo is nebulous and b*******. I have been in a several-year monogamous relationship, and that was not right for me, but I can, after any period of time, consider myself solo. In fact, after reading the blog post, he is far from solo.”

He said, “He is engaged in numerous relationships with deep connections and meaning. The fact that this channel exists is evidence that solo living is not something we strive for. We all want community and connection, deep relationships, the chance to safely be vulnerable, and the opportunity to engage in sex, except for asexuals, which discounts things more. I do not think anyone wants to go through life alone. It seems unarguable. The concept of Solo should be clearly defined. It seems it has to do with monogamy and not placing anyone in a primary relationship, but at the moment, I conclude the name Solo is misleading and inappropriate, and the concept should be fleshed out more.”

This post is reminiscent of my experience as a professor and scientist, where the process of discovery is facilitated by critiques, as unpleasant as that can be. This critique in the subsequent discussion has been useful for me. I’m writing a new book, my most important and perhaps final. The writing is going more slowly than I would like as I’m eager to get the word out and give people the guide I wish I had years ago.

Nonetheless, I’m taking my time. I’m still learning as I’m writing, and the concept of Solo is a working progress but one that needs to be locked in before I publish. The evolution of my thinking should be evident if you compare the early episodes of this show to the more recent ones. I have developed a voice, a perspective, but I’m still working through the language of it all.

Words matter. They matter because the stories that people tell themselves influence their lives, and words make up those stories. Of course, I’m not the first to invent terms to classify a subset of single people. Bella DePaulo, my guest in Episode 2, shows that there are non-trivial numbers of people who are “Single at heart.”

She writes, “If living single is your first choice, it is how you live your most authentic and meaningful life. You are probably single at heart. People who are single at heart are not single because they have not found the one, they are unlucky in love, or they have issues. They are single because singleness suits them. It is who they are.”

Fenton Johnson, in his book, At the Center of All Beauty, presents a different type of solo. Solitaires, people who seek solitude as a way to facilitate their creativity. Sasha Cagen, who has been on the show as a guest, spent a year writing an essay in which she introduced the world to people who are QuirkyAlone. She identifies a particular type of single. Someone who is 1) comfortable being alone, 2) would like to be in a relationship, but 3) is unwilling to settle. There is also a strong notion of self-love among the QuirkyAlone crowd.

Here is my attempt to make the term Solo less nebulous and less b******, but be patient with me as I suspect it will undergo subsequent revision. First, let me tell you why I chose the term solo in the first place rather than make up a new word, a la QuirkyAlone. The word solo elicits positive associations of autonomy and adventure, such as Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic, Colin O’Brady’s unsupported solo trek across Antarctica, or the traveler perhaps like you certainly like me, flaneuring in a foreign city. If you do not know what flaneuring knowing is, I suggest you check out the episode and try it sometime.

In all three of the cases, single at heart, solitaire, and QuirkyAlone, the author who chose the term also describes themselves. Whatever the definition of Solo is, I would need to fit in it. Moreover, I want a term that’s inclusive. I want a big tent. I want to be able to accommodate many unconventional ways to live in a world that overvalues the relationship escalator. For example, I think that all QuirkyAlone are solo, but not all solos are QuirkyAlone.

As an aside, if you don’t know what the relationship escalator is, I suggest you look into it by reading the Solo episodes with Amy Gahran. Start with Getting Off The Relationship Escalator. While it needs to be inclusive, solo also needs to be exclusive. Not everyone is solo. Strict adherence to the escalator certainly does not qualify.

What are the hallmarks of being solo? I’m sure you are thinking to yourself, “Finally, get to it.” If you think deeply enough, for long enough, you are eventually going to be faced with the existential threats of death and the potential meaningless of life. It is a nasty one-two punch to your soul. If you think deeply enough and long enough, you are also going to experience another existential punch, and that is isolation.

No matter how connected you are, family, friends, community lovers, or even a soulmate, if you believe in soulmates, no one can know you as well as you will know yourself. Only you have unfettered access to your thoughts, feelings, and experience, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Solos have tackled the threat of isolation by accepting and even celebrating their individuality. That is, solos are complete. They are comfortable standing apart in their aloneness. They recognize themselves as a whole person, not as half of a person.

Furthermore, they do not see single living as a liminal. They see single living as equally worthy as nonsingle living. That is the first hallmark, completeness or wholeness. Solos, too, are autonomous, which Merriam-Webster defines as self-directing freedom and especially moral independence. Solos seek to provide for their own needs because they do not expect someone to bail them out. They are better able to parent themselves than nonsolos. Thus, seeing potential romantic partners as a way to enhance life, not as a way to repair it.

The third hallmark, which is neither necessary nor sufficient, is the solos tend to be nonconformists. In the same way that solos do not default to viewing a traditional romantic relationship, the escalator is a way to solve their problems. They tend to be unconventional more generally. They recognize that there are many ways to live, and they are less likely to be judgemental of other people’s ways to live, which should be clear from these ideas.

The completeness, the autonomy, and the nonconformity are that being solo has less to do with relationship status than it does withholding a non-normative view of relationships and life in general. Thus, not all singles are solo, and not all solos are single. Solos may participate in romantic relationships, though they tend to diverge in some fundamental way from the escalator.

For example, two partners may live apart together, or in the case of the solo poly crowd, three or more partners may not live together. Solos tailor their relationship goals based on their desires rather than the desires of society. They decide whether to engage in romantic and/or sexual relationships or not at all. If they pursue a relationship, they decide what the relationship will look like. Conventional or not, they won’t default to the norms.

With all that in mind, here is my working description of what it means to be solo. Regardless of relationship status or goals, solos see themselves as complete individuals, i.e., not half of a whole who value their autonomy. These qualities often manifest in openness to unconventional beliefs and behaviors. I know a little bit wordy, a bit imperfect, but it’s what I got for now. Please let me know what you think.

The community member who started the thread mentioned me specifically as a solo who has many relationships and many meaningful connections. I do, though, none resemble the escalator. My soloness is on display in the following ways. I live alone. I’m good at it, and I do not want to live with a romantic partner or anyone else.

I’m social, and I enjoy hosting events, but I like my solitude. I do a lot of things alone. I travel alone, go to the movies alone, go on walks alone, go to cafes alone, go to museums alone, and so on, and I enjoy it. I’m heavily self-reliant, solving my own problems, but often with the advice and the help of others, but I am the primary driver of that, though I am deeply appreciative to the friends, family, and beyond who support me.

I feel complete. My romantic and/or sexual relationships are great value to my life. Though I won’t merge my life and have doubts about monogamy, I have been practicing relation anarchy. I call it relationship design when I meet someone who is unaware of the principles of Relationship Anarchy. I have a good Solo episode on that if you are scratching your head now. That has been good for me. We get to design our relationship and agree upon it mutually.

Finally, I’m thinking and behaving increasingly non-normative about how I work, what I work on, and when I work with much less regard to what my peers and the rest of the world think would be good for me. To close, I want to tell you a story about how going solo in some ways opens up the possibility for greater connections because solo is independent of relationship status. Solos may have rich, diverse, meaningful, platonic, romantic, and sexually intimate relationships. Solos typically have many more relationships than escalator riders. The former solos have a lot of love to give. The latter often reserves love for their immediate family.

I have a friend from college, we were super close in college, and we have gone on different paths in life. He married his college sweetheart, had three kids, and fortunately, we stayed in touch despite our different paths, which I am incredibly grateful for. He is a frequent reader of the blog post. He may read this story.

We talk on the phone every so often at the end of a call one day. I said to him, “I love you.” Something that I have been doing with a broader group of people. To be honest, sometimes it comes to me, and I say it unplanned. The next time we spoke, he brought it up. I had forgotten about it. He said to me, “I did not know how to respond.”

He went on to say that he reserves that phrase for a small number of people, his wife, his kids, family, etc. I said to him, “I understand, and that was not a problem.” I was not expecting a response simply. I have a lot of love to give, and I get to say, “I love you,” often and easily. I have love in my heart for him. That is all I have for now. Thank you for reading, and look out for the next Solo Thoughts episode number seven, where I focus on some new ideas I have about living a remarkable life.


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About Peter McGraw

SOLO 118 | Solo ThoughtsPeter McGraw is an American professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. As a behavioral scientist his research spans the fields of judgment and decision making, emotion, affect, mood, and behavioral economics.