Iesha Small

writer, speaker, charity strategist

Exploring society, education, leadership and how to live a meaningful life.

Why we need solitude

Figure at the beach looking out to sea

Taken at Brighton beach, England.

What is solitude and why do we need it in work and life?

Quiet vs solitude

Earlier this week the kids returned to school. For the first time in almost three months there has been extended quiet.

Quiet

Adjective: making little or no noise- Cambridge Dictionary

I can hear some machinery being used by the workmen working on our neighbour’s house so perhaps quiet isn’t the correct term. Maybe solitude is more precise.

We often define solitude as “the state of being alone” (Cambridge Dictionary). However, recently I came across a definition that resonated more

“Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences—wherever you happen to be.” Cal Newport- Digital Minimalism.

 Time alone is rare when you share a home with four other people and three of them are under 10 years old (on the flip side- loneliness was not a problem during lockdown).

You do not need to be alone to have solitude. At the time of writing, M is working in the same room, we are content with each other’s presence but absorbed in our own thoughts. As a student I used to work for hours at a window in the corner of a large coffee shop in Central London. I was surrounded by people taking a break from their shopping, having business meetings and laughing with friends. Among the hubbub I was able to enter my interior world and focus on my thoughts as I worked on solving various equations and engineering problems with my music on.

Why is solitude important?

“It is difficult to understand yourself if you are never by yourself”- Ryan Holiday, Stillness is the Key.

Understanding who you are and what you must do. At the time of writing, it is Lent. For Christians, this is a reminder of the time that Jesus went into the desert alone for 40 days and 40 nights. He fasted and prayed and talked to God. When he left he was ready to begin preaching and teaching the people for sure*. During Jesus’ extended time of solitude he gained insight into the path that his life (and death?) must take. Most major religious traditions have stories where prophets, saints and equivalents have had time alone where they have prayed or meditated or otherwise been alone with their thoughts and received divine insight.

I’m no Buddha but while experimenting with Digital Minimalism I realised that I had more small gaps in my day to answer questions that were brewing in the back of my mind. The types of questions that generally would make my mind race just before bed and keep me awake. Small doses of solitude, either thinking or writing have kept my brain from getting clogged up.

Creative insights. For creative tasks, periods of solitude are essential to make connections and break throughs. Leonardo Da Vinci painted his masterpiece, The Last Supper, with the help of assistants and often in front of spectators but he was known to leave his studio with a notebook to go on long walks and gain inspiration from what he saw and heard around him.

At work I have recently added a 30 min walk slot to my calendar after lunch.  Recently, I had an extended period with long stretches of consecutive meetings, and I found myself feeling stale and sluggish.  I wasn’t creating enough time to process my thoughts and make links. I’ve found that having a walk helps me to think better and creates mental space. Other people in my life tell me swimming or jogging has a similar effect for them.

Essential for mastery and deliberate practice. To become highly skilled in any field you need to engage in deliberate practice. It is a form of focused practice, working toward a clear goal, where you receive targeted feedback which you act on in order to improve. The goal needs to be slightly out of your comfort zone and by repeating the cycle you become more skilled any can eventually achieve mastery.

Deliberate practice is more than repetition, it is systematic and intentional. It’s also best undertaken in solitude.

 “What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, it’s only when you are alone that you can engage in deliberate practice.” – Susan Cain, Quiet**

Improved performance at work

In Quiet, the author, Susan Cain, outlines a study that found high performing computer programmers were more likely to work for companies that gave them more privacy, personal space and freedom from interruption.

Collaboration is important for many roles but there are occasions when people working and learning need time to concentrate and get work done in solitude. I instinctively knew this when I was a teacher, I didn’t need my classroom to always be library level silent but I did insist on quiet for some sections of many lessons because I noticed that it aided pupils’ concentration and prevented distraction.

Time to reflect

In solitude there is nowhere to hide.  You realise what you do or don’t know. Maybe that’s why it’s so terrifying and we fill every possible gap with as many distractions as we can. You don’t have to move to a cabin alone in the woods or wander lonely as a cloud for hours on end (although I think I’d personally be fine with both of those options for a weekend).

Solitude isn’t just for hermits, prophets and creative geniuses. It’s available to ordinary people like you and me but perhaps in smaller pockets of time.  Maybe for you its time walking the dog. The half an hour before your colleagues start work and the emails and questions start coming. The calm time win your home when everybody else is asleep and all you can hear is the cat purring on your lap. The time when you turn off the car and notice yourself breathing.

Whether the opportunities for you are big or small, notice the time, savour it and fight for more space and solitude to create better conditions for personal reflection, insight creativity and mastery. understanding,

In solitude there is nowhere to hide. Maybe that’s why it’s so terrifying Click To Tweet

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*Ooops, confused the lyrics from Tour by Capleton with the New Testament – Sorry!

**This is from a longer conversation Susan Cain had with Anders Ericson who did the breakthrough research into deliberate practice

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If you are interested in the human side of leadership then my book The Unexpected Leader is for you.

Why we need solitude