It’s noisy in my head.
There’s a good chance, it’s noisy in yours, too. The trouble is, I spend my days battling two channels of noise: my own, and others. By noise, I don’t necessarily mean noise, but I do mean thoughts and ideas with marginal unique value.
Think about it this way: you’re on an old-timey radio (non-digital) and as you turn from one station to the next, you encounter static. What’s the difference between static on the radio and the music found on the specific stations being broadcast across? The stations have intent, purpose, and (theoretical) value. That value is discreet, and what I’d consider signal.
To return the metaphor to the noise in my head, the willingness to put up with the noise comes with the hope of encountering a new signal, broadcasting new ideas, or new value for existing ideas.
A lot of people put a lot of energy into processing other peoples’ noise for them. You’ve probably read it on blogs, or seen it on the news. Most of your thoughts aren’t actually your thoughts, but reactions to everyone else’s.
You think you’re being “inspired”, but when the source of inspiration is noise and not signal, the quality of that inspiration trends downward.
Consider this for a moment. Do you even remember what your own thoughts sound like? Or have you forgotten that voice in favor of the other voice, the one that spends all day listening to and reacting to everyone else’s thoughts? Sure, it’s easier, but what are you missing by not having your own voice?
I’ve tried a variety of techniques over the last few years, and continue to find out new things about myself every time I do.
This past week, I spent 6 nights in the Spanish countryside with one of the newest teams I’m working with. The Wildbit team is almost 100% remote, with myself, Chris, and Natalie in Philadelphia, Daniel in Canada, Gilbert in Germany, Ilya and Dima in Russia, Igor and Milan in Serbia, and Eugene in Ukraine. A couple of times a year, everyone gets together to spend actual time together, not just the virtual together-ness we have in instant message and Campfire chat.
6 nights in the peacefulness of the countryside provided a lot of time to get to know one another, talk about the products and the business, and do some planning for the future. For some people on the team, the peacefulness provided inspiration as well. Many team members cranked out some excellent new features and ideas for the products. For me, I struggled. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself and make the most of getting to know my team better – which will invariably benefit the work we do together – but I can’t say I was inspired with the presence of peace.
For many, the removal of external noise is helpful for finding internal signal, a powerful source of inspiration. Not for me, though. Leaving external noise behind is a good battery recharge for sure, which is also important for quality inspiration, but recharging the batteries without anything for them to power only solves half of the problem.
I know I’m not alone in that I prefer to work in noisy environments. I love cities and busy areas, I love coworking spaces and cafes. The existence of actual noise seems to help filter out the noise in my head, since in a way they sound similar, leaving higher quality signal behind to work with. Noisy environments provide sort of a filter to cut through the noise in my head. Sort of like panning for gold, if everything goes well, all of the cruft fades away and I’m left with some nugget of gold.
But I’ve learned a new trick. This evening, while walking across town in Barcelona, I realized that I was surrounded by the noise of a city. That included people talking…but in a language that I almost entirely can’t understand, and even the bit I can understand requires concerted effort. While walking, people watching, and taking in the beautiful architecture, I realized that without the input of other people’s conversations, I had a very strange but intentional sense of peace for myself.
I’d removed the opportunity for my voice to be interpreting other people around me because, well, I couldn’t understand most of them if I tried. That meant that, even with them contributing to the noise around me, it was less distinguishable from the static of the city sounds that I use to cut through my own noisy thought process.
I’m going to try this again when I return to Philadelphia by finding a place to work in Chinatown, where I’m likely to be surrounded by noise but not by people whose conversations I can process along with my own.
If it works, awesome. If not…I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t mind returning to Barcelona for another signal-seeking mission.
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