Why Short-Term Solitude Makes You a Better Thinker

Illustration: Darius Foroux

Jesse Livermore is considered the best stock trader in history. He was the inspiration for one of the most famous books on trading, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, published in 1923. He was a true pioneer of stock trading and brought his profession to a new level in the early 21st century by dedicating his whole life to trading.

His habits were unique for his time. He had laser focus from 9:30 a.m., when the market opened, until 4 p.m., when the final bell rang. In an interview found in the latest edition of his book, How to Trade in Stocks, he gave the following advice to traders:

Keep stress at bay — act in all ways to keep the mind clear and your judgment correct. I did all I could to achieve this in my physical life by going to bed early, eating and drinking lightly, taking exercise, standing upright at the stock ticker, standing while on the telephone, and demanding silence in the office. I spoke to no one on my way to work and kept silent about my stock market actions.

I’ve spent a long time studying the life and philosophy of Livermore. As a stock investor, I identify most with value investing, but I believe it’s important to study speculators as well. Interestingly, many traders are still influenced by Livermore. People are still applying his ideas to stocks, futures, commodities, and even cryptocurrencies. While you might not be a trader, there’s one idea of Livermore’s that’s useful for every single person: In order to think more clearly and make better judgements, add more solitude to your life.

Solitude encourages independent thinking

A big part of Livermore’s philosophy was to rely on your own thinking. He always wanted to make his own decisions and hated stock tips that came from others. He wanted to take full responsibility for his actions. He wrote:

My main objective was to protect myself from unwelcomed bad influences — in particular, I was trying to avoid anyone who might be inclined to offer me assistance in trading the stock market by giving me some information — in the form of a tip. Tips were the one thing that had done me the most harm in trading the stock market.

Other people influence our opinions and thoughts all the time. And as a result, our decisions and actions are also influenced by others.

Becoming an independent thinker is one of the most important things you can do in life. When you think for yourself, you can stay open to other people’s opinions, knowledge, and input — but you always form your final judgment.

This gives you a sense of freedom and personal responsibility. When you make a decision that doesn’t turn out great, don’t blame others — but also don’t judge yourself too harshly. You simply made a bad decision. At least you did your own thinking, which will help you with your next decision.

Solitude helps you focus on things that matter

We often can’t solve our challenges because we don’t spend enough thinking about the solution. We either act too quickly or don’t have the mental energy to spend time on our challenges.

Thinking takes time and energy. It requires going back and forth on your ideas. It requires looking at problems from different perspectives. But we hardly ever make time for thinking. Most of us are constantly interrupted, so we don’t even have the chance to think. We just decide. No wonder we make so many bad choices.

That’s why Livermore spent so much time in solitude. “I needed continuity of thought. I needed to be able to have more than 15 minutes of uninterrupted thought,” he said. Livermore even took rigorous steps to avoid people on his commute to Wall Street:

I either travel to the office by car in silence and isolation or by my boat in the better weather, also in silence, with no other passengers — this gives me a chance to read the newspaper and plan my day. If I travel by myself, I can continue with my thinking without any interference in implementing my plan for the day.

In our fast-paced world, we tend to value quickness over quality. We’re always surrounded by other people’s voices — friends, family, colleagues, when we’re listening to someone talking on a podcast or audiobook. The key to becoming a better thinker and decision-maker is to give yourself more time.

How much is too much alone time?

Though solitude is important, we shouldn’t overdo it to the point of cutting off our social ties and connections. Research shows that loneliness can have negative impacts on our health, like an increased probability of cardiovascular diseases. One New Zealand study that followed 1,037 individuals from birth to age 26 also concluded that social isolation negatively impacts overall health.

This could have led to Livermore’s downfall as well. He struggled with depression most of his life and eventually became a recluse. As social creatures, we should avoid that fate. That’s why I suggest short-term solitude.

First, figure out how much time alone is beneficial to you, personally. You can learn this by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What happens if I’m surrounded by people all the time?
  2. How much time (in hours, days, weeks, etc.) am I okay being surrounded by people?
  3. What happens if I’m alone all day?
  4. How much time am I okay being totally alone?

Figure out how you respond in certain situations. And use your answers to figure out how much time alone you need. For example, I use my morning ritual and evening ritual as my alone time. No social media, no meetings, no calls. Just myself, my thoughts, and a journal or a good book.

It takes some time and experimentation to figure out how much solitude is beneficial. After a period of being surrounded by people, I often like to spend one or two days fully alone. Since I’m mostly an introvert, that works well.

Another effective method is to challenge yourself by doing the opposite of what you usually do. If you’re an extrovert, just spend an afternoon alone. If you’re extremely introverted, spend less time alone and go out more with family, friends, or acquaintances. Pay attention to how you feel, and it will help you determine your optimal amount of solitude.

Solitude makes your judgment authentic

Give yourself enough uninterrupted time and space to think. We have to process a lot of external information that can potentially influence us. That’s life as part of a society.

By adding more solitude and listening to our own thoughts, however, we can come up with authentic ideas and judgments that are a product of both the outer world and the inner world.

That process could be as simple as spending at least two hours alone per week with your notebook. Just sit and try to work through your challenges. Make notes. Think about different scenarios.

And most importantly: Rely on your own judgment. It doesn’t matter how good your judgment is — what matters is that it’s actually yours.

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