Learning Alone: A Secret to Success

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By Collin Shamley

Around this time every year, most people try to improve something about themselves: get in better shape, learn a new skill, get better grades etc. There is probably something about yourself that you wish was better.

The average person’s motivation to be great is always at its peak at the beginning of the year and then fades after January. So what causes people to revert back to their former selves or give up on their goals?

Chances are if you try to improve a situation without changing your surroundings, you will be unsuccessful. By “surroundings”, I mean people you used to spend a significant time around that aren’t helping you reach your goals.

I am not saying you need to cut these people off completely. The point is that if you want to be successful you sometimes need to separate yourself from people altogether.

Research psychologist Anders Ericsson took up chess when he was fifteen. He believed he was good at it until one day a boy who had been one of the worst players in the class started beating everyone. Ericsson wondered how could someone, who he used to beat easily, beat him just as easily. He searched for answers in fields such as chess, classical piano, and tennis.

In a now famous experiment, Ericsson and his colleagues compared three groups of expert violin players at the Music Academy in West Berlin. The players were divided into three groups: the “best violinists”, who had potential for careers as international soloists; the “good violinists”; and the a third group training to be violin teachers rather than performers.

The musicians were interviewed and kept a diary of their time.  Researchers found striking differences between the groups. All three groups spent the same amount of time per week, over fifty hours, doing music related activities. However the two best groups spent most of their time practicing in solitude: 24.3 hours a week for the best group, compared to 9.3 hours a week for the worst group. The best violinists ranked practicing alone as the most important music-related activity.

Ericsson and his peers found that solitude had similar effects on other performers. Studying alone is the strongest predictor of skill for tournament level chess players.

College students who study alone tend to learn more over time than those who regularly study in groups.

Elite athletes often spend abnormal amounts of time in solitary practice.

It’s only when you’re alone that you can invest in deliberate practice. When you practice deliberately, you identify the skills or knowledge that are out of your reach, work to upgrade your performance, monitor progress and revise accordingly.

Practicing in groups fails at this and is often counterproductive. You are reinforcing existing cognitive mechanisms instead of trying to fix them. Working alone has the best condition for deliberate practice because it requires deep concentration, motivation, and involves working on a task that is most challenging to you.

Learning alone doesn’t just mean working without the presence of people in your space. You also need to distance yourself from anything else that can distract you. This means no multitasking.

According to author Susan Cain “What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.”

Some important things to remember: It’s okay not to be great at something right away. There is always someone who will be better than you, so stop comparing yourself to others. Remember this and find some alone time to improve yourself.

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