I was always a pretty good student. I wasn’t the best student, but by the grace of God I did manage to graduate from both college and seminary with honors. When tests would come around I would have to study a lot to do well, but for the most part I did in fact do well. I didn’t study like some students though. Many students would head to a study group, Starbucks or a library to hunker down. I would usually go one of two places, outside if the weather permitted or into a room where I was completely alone. I did this for the privacy, but the privacy wasn’t because I needed quiet, it was so I could talk to myself. I’d find a spot where no one was around, and I would repeat and recite aloud my class notes over and over again until I had them memorized down cold. One summer, when I was taking an intensive Hebrew class, I would spend hours a day walking up and down the backroads around the seminary I attended, flipping through Hebrew vocabulary and grammar cards. I probably looked like the town crazy person walking down the street talking to myself, but those many hours alone practicing allowed me to do very well in my intensive summer language classes.
There is tremendous power in going somewhere private to study, rehearse, or practice in solitude. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describes a study conducted on violinists. Researchers broke the violinists into three groups: world class career violinists that solo on the international stage, great players that may play in an orchestra or professionally in some capacity, and those that were okay but ultimately would most likely end up teachers rather than actual performers. Then they studied the three groups practice routines, and what they found was truly amazing. All three groups practiced a lot, spending more than 50 hours a week on music related activities, but what they discovered was that the two best groups practiced in solitude an average of 24.3 hours a week. This compared to violinists that were not as good, who only practiced 9.3 hours a week in solitude. Read that again, all the groups practiced the same amount of time, the only difference was that the world class violinists practiced alone far more than those who were only mediocre performers. They followed this study up with interviews and when they asked these best violinist what the most important part of their practice was, they nearly all mentioned solo practice as most important, as that is where the “real work gets done.”
The power of practicing in solitude doesn’t just apply to music. A grandmaster in chess typically puts in over 5,000 hours of practice alone. Like me, studies show that college students that study alone typically do better than those that study with others. Research has shown that the best computer programers work in private, not on teams. Elite athletes, even those that participate in team sports, often practice different drills in solitude to improve. Why? Clark gives three reasons. First, practicing alone allows you to have intense concentration. When others are around people tend to get distracted. Other people move you off topic, you don’t accomplish as much practice. Second, to practice in solitude requires deep motivation. The desire has to be self generated, which means when you are there, you are there to truly get work done. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, practicing in solitude allows you to work on task that is most challenging to you personally. No studying questions you already know, doing drills you already have down cold, and no practicing things you’ve already mastered. When you practice in solitude you can work on what what is challenging to you, and improve in that without being held back by the group.
Thankfully, I don’t have to study for many exams these days, but the power of solitude is still something I practice every day. Daily, I try to block time off to get alone and work on the most important tasks that I am supposed to be accomplishing. Truthfully, when I don’t get this alone time to work on things (usually because I am caught in meetings all day), I feel frustrated as I likely didn’t make the progress I needed to in certain areas. Daily I also schedule time alone focusing on praying, reading and memorizing. Skipping this daily quiet time keeps me from growing consistently. Currently I am enrolled in Doctor of Ministry program, which requires me to spend time regularly alone reading, studying, writing. If I skipped these daily times in solitude, I have no doubt that my work, personal life and studies would all suffer. I may not be studying for an exam, or learning to play an instrument, but improving at my work and life requires me to find time for solitude every day. It’s a time I try to never miss.
What about you though, what could you improve in or accomplish today if you just set aside one hour to work on something in solitude?