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The Power in Solitude and Deliberate Practice

As I was researching for a presentation for my psych class, I discovered a study that was intriguing but also champions the notion that a smart approach to the way we practice our work is something that we must be mindful of.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain — also a TED speaker who’s talk has amassed millions of views and appeared as a major story for Time — shows that solitude can be a catalyst for deliberate practice that develops our skills and facilitates the attainment of mastery. But the summary of the study isn’t only limited to a musical pursuit. I believe it applies to anything that we do — writing, studying, learning, designing, drawing, working, etc.

The study says this [emphasis by me]:

“In a now-famous experiment, he and his colleagues compared three groups of expert violinists at the elite Music Academy in West Berlin. The researchers asked the professors to divide the students into three groups: the ‘best violinists,’ who had the potential for careers as international soloists; the ‘good violinists’; and a third group training to be violin teachers rather than performers. Then they interviewed the musicians and asked them to keep detailed diaries of their time. They found a striking difference among the groups. All three groups spent the same amount of time— over fifty hours a week— participating in music-related activities. All three had similar classroom requirements making demands on their time. But the two best groups spent most of their music-related time practicing in solitude: 24.3 hours a week, or 3.5 hours a day, for the best group, compared with only 9.3 hours a week, or 1.3 hours a day, for the worst group. The best violinists rated ‘practice alone’ as the most important of all their music-related activities. Elite musicians — even those who perform in groups — describe practice sessions with their chamber group as ‘leisure’ compared with solo practice, where the real work gets done.

In a world of FOMO, social media and smartphones, distractions abound.

If you ever read articles on people’s morning rituals, it may not come as a surprise as to why some wake up at 5 am. You may find the words like, “peace and quiet” or “the world is asleep.” It’s a time when people get their work done — they’re most creative and undistracted. I think we can summarize those feelings into one word: solitude.

Paying attention to my own habits, my most creative hours are in the morning right when I wake up. I spend 2-3 hours writing, editing, and reading. I immerse myself into my work, put my phone on silent and out of sight, and I close off my browsers and email application. I can’t tell you how fast 3 hours goes by when doing this.

However, solitude is difficult because it’s unlike any other hours of your day. You are essentially alone with your thoughts, insecurities, and desires. It enables you to really tune in to yourself. This is something that is easy to escape because it’s so difficult being alone.

But like those violinists said, it’s where the real work gets done.

A few things to keep in mind as well:

1. Multi-tasking is a myth

In the words of Christian Jarret — passage found in Manage Your Day-to-Day, a series by 99u — dispels the myth of multitasking [emphasis by me]:

“Studies show that the human mind can only truly multitask when it comes to highly automatic behaviors like walking. For activities that require conscious attention, there is really no such thing as multitasking, only task switching—the process of flicking the mind back and forth between different demands. It can feel as though we’re super-efficiently doing two or more things at once. But in fact we’re just doing one thing, then another, then back again, with significantly less skill and accuracy than if we had simply focused on one job at a time.”


2. Deliberate practice facilitates mastery

I will always stand by the idea that the pursuit of mastery paves the road to a meaningful life. Look no further than people who have mastered their craft — the arts, dance, design, writing, architecture, music, innovation, and more — and the kind of lives they lead and the impact they make.

It’s about possessing a skill set that not only supports you financially, but spiritually, psychically, and mentally. It’s about loving what you do, but more importantly, providing great value to others. It’s an innate desire to create and to share.

Solitude and deliberate practice are some of the defining ingredients to mastering your craft. Probably best to turn that phone off and respond to that email later. Probably in your favor to get to work.

3. Judging what you create

This section can be summarized best by Steven Pressfield. He says in Do The Work:

“Sometimes on Wednesday I’ll read something that I wrote on Tuesday and I’ll think, ‘This is crap. I hate it and I hate myself.’ Then I’ll re-read the identical passage on Thursday. To my astonishment, it has become brilliant overnight. Ignore false negatives. Ignore false positives. Both are Resistance. Keep working.

If you don’t know why he means by “Resistance,” than you need to do yourself the ultimate favor and pick up a copy of The War of Art and dive in nose first.

What do you do to master your craft? What’s the practice?

Reference of the research: K. Anders Ericsson et al., “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review, 100, no. 3 (1993): 363– 406.