“We must reserve a little back-shop all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.”— Michel de Montaigne
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, time alone is a precursor to success in intellectual and creative pursuits.
Montaigne, Nietzsche, Thoreau; great artists, philosophers, and scientists; original thinkers across a variety of disciplines all knew the value of solitude and how it helps them improve their knowledge and craft.
Today I’ll share some reasons why solitude is so crucial to self-learners, as well as my experience discovering the importance of solitude.
Solitude is Where you Discover Your True interests
Obsessions reveal themselves to you when you’re alone:
- in the shower
- on a solitary walk in the woods
- locked up in your study reading a wide variety of books. (Check out how reading helps you find your callings)
It’s in quiet solitude that you gain some separation from the voices of the outside world which keep telling you what to find interesting — these days, usually crypto, celebrities, and sports.
On your own, you can start to plumb your own depths for your authentic interests, and then pursue the study of them relentlessly.
Maybe the interest hiding within you is political philosophy. Maybe it’s trail running, botany, or economics. It’s hard to know unless you spend some time exploring these fields and activities on your own, without the rewards of financial success or societal praise driving you to do so.
Reading is one of the best ways to find your authentic interests. Books expose you to new fields and ideas that might be interests you never knew you had.
Whatever it is that draws you, if you want to teach yourself that new subject or acquire that new skill, you’re going to have to spend a fair amount of time in solitude.
If you want to read more books this year, consider getting Audible.
I listen to Audible on walks around town and while doing the dishes, a task I’m not sure I’ll ever learn to like no matter how much Buddhist philosophy about living in “the now” I read.
Solitude is the Ideal Environment for Self-Education
“In the organization of our life, the essential point to safeguard, in view of which all the rest is necessary, is the wise provision of solitude.”— A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
To prosper as an autodidact, you’re going to have to get comfortable securing alone time in a quiet place to engage in your interests.
Solitude provides you with the ideal environment for deep focus, reading, reflecting, thinking, and retaining what you’ve learned.
It’s also necessary for creative association, the unconscious mental process of connecting dissimilar concepts and ideas in order to form new insights that lead to innovation.
In the book Solitude: A Return to the Self, Anthony Storr writes the following about the role of solitude in creativity:
“Being able to get in touch with one’s deepest thoughts and feelings, and providing time for them to regroup themselves into new formations and combinations, are important aspects of the creative process, as well as a way of relieving tension and promoting mental health.”— Solitude, Anthony Storr
Note how Storr calls out mental health as another benefit of solitude.
Emotional wellbeing is an important ingredient of productive, ongoing self-education. We are more likely to do our reading when we feel calm and content.
We’re more likely to skip our studies to binge watch tv and eat Cheetos when we feel anxious and depressed. I can attest to this from my personal experience.
My Experience With Solitude in Self-Education
The last four years of my life can be read as a history of increasing solitude, further removal from the hectic social life of partying that I inhabited from high school through my early twenties.
My quarter life crisis, where I realized sales and the city were in cahoots to kill me, chanced to occur just months before the pandemic struck.
When the first case hit US soil, I had already moved out of my apartment and back into my childhood home, with the goal of becoming a freelance writer. The plan was to stay for 2 months while I built up a client base, but the pandemic kept me there a full year.
Sequestered at home, I spent a lot of my time reading and writing, with the occasional Zoom call with close friends.
Throughout the pandemic, I realized that I was actually a lot happier than I had been in NYC, a lot more mentally stable than I had been in about a decade. It wasn’t long before I made the connection between solitude and wellbeing.
After that year, I went back into the world, but I took precaution against burning myself in the fire of society. I began to regularly take time for myself.
Several years later, I’m at the point where I spend most weekends without partying or attending large gatherings. I put more emphasis on intimate hangouts with the people I cherish most.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love going out to bars, perhaps a bit too much. And I get wildman urges once a month that I have no choice but to oblige.
That said, I often feel that too much socializing separates me in a way from myself.
“I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think I really think. After a time it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.”— Friedrich Nietzsche
After a wild weekend with friends, I often feel the need to pick up the pieces of my life, to remind myself of my authentic interests and important goals.
Sometimes I don’t read for several days after a big social weekend. My drive has dwindled. And the act has grown intimidating, almost as if I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it well enough. (Learn about how reading perfectionism might be holding you back)
But soon, I recover, open a book, and remember why I’m on this mission of lifelong learning:
“I need solitude, which is to say, recovery, return to my self, the breath of a free, light, playful air.”— Friedrich Nietzsche
Although solitude is essential for learning, you should still try to find people who share your interests and talk to them about what you’ve read. Being a hermit might sound romantic but it’ll probably just make you go insane like Nietzsche did.
Plus, talking about your readings with other people is great for retaining information and holding yourself accountable to do your studies. It’s also just a lot of fun. (Check out my article on finding a reading buddy). Finding good people who share your interests makes you feel less alone.
“Wow I’m not the only sap spending my Friday nights studying botany and quantum mechanics alone in my room. What a world!”
How to Get More Solitude in Your Life
Take the time to figure out which social outings actually bring you joy, and which are FOMO obligations taking you away from the hobbies you like to do alone, like read a work of political philosophy or watch a lecture on Shakespeare.
If you’re busy with family, consider talking with your spouse about your need for alone time. Maybe they’ll trade one night per week of childcare with you.
Or (something all of us can do) switch our sleeping schedule so that we have either the early mornings or the late hours of the night to ourselves.
Many thinkers, scholars, and creatives have used these hours to accomplish great things, from mastery of a field to the production of a great book or work of art.
To sum this article up, you should enjoy your friends and family. For most of us, they’re always going to be the most meaningful parts of our lives.
But you should also explore yourself and your interests in solitude, and find time to shut the damn door and hit the books.