Tech Life The noise is a lie

The Noise

It started that morning when you actually had time to go to your favorite coffee shop on that Wednesday morning. You, like many of us, had a bunch of time off for Christmas, so you decided, “I never go to that coffee shop and it’s one of my favorite places to think. Fuck it, I’m going.”

You threw on your favorite sweater — that one with the holes in the elbows — and your blue baseball hat. You ignored the urge to invite a co-conspirator on this visit. You just wanted an uncomplicated, unencumbered, easy trip to the coffee shop.

You arrived, grabbed a cup of black coffee, found a small, round, wooden table with two chairs, and sat down amidst the chorus of dozens of coffee drinkers discussing topics you could hear, but not understand.

With your hands firmly around your coffee cup, you stared around the room and your mind drifted. I love this place. All coffee shops should be built of dark wood. And all furniture. In fact, I need a new desk… made out of dark wood because… I hate my job.

There it is. It’s certainly a topic that’s been on your mind, but it took a solo trip to the coffee shop during a post-Christmas decompression period for you to actually hear what was important to you. More importantly, it sticks.

During the drive home you realize: I hate my job because, while I’m busy, I haven’t learned a thing in the last six months. That night over dinner, you find yourself shaking your finger at your best friend: Shame on me, six months of uselessness and that changes — now.

Frustration has blossomed into the beginnings of strategic resolution and the reason that happens is a lack of Noise.

The Noise

The Noise wants you to believe it’s Signal. The Noise is things you need to do, and they are approachable, knowable, and accomplishable things. You do them — one by one — and mentally pat yourself on the back as you finish them because you have a sense of moving forward.

The Noise surrounds you. People walk in your office with their Noise and they write it on your whiteboard. You nod and agree, “Why, indeed yes, that’s noisy” and they leave comforted — thinking your agreement was somehow progress.

And that’s the greatest lie of the Noise. The idea that listening and reacting to the Noise is significant progress. Yes, these small bits of work we do all day are essential to getting things done, but go back to your last big vacation. After the first three days of decompression, when you were sitting in that hammock with a glass of red wine, under that oak tree that is older than anyone you know… tell me what you were thinking about. Was it the 27 bugs you left in an unverified state, or was it the epiphany that in the first three decades of your life you haven’t come close to building something as impressive as this damned oak tree?

The Noise wants you to believe it’s Signal and its omnipresence in your life slowly and deviously convinces you that the Noise is important. But all listening to the Noise does is deafen you to the things that are important.

Taking Time to Think

You return bright and shiny from long vacations because you’ve no longer been dulled by the Noise. Your job once you’ve returned is to maintain that shininess, which is hard… the Noise is everywhere.

This is why I believe you have to work to make a 1:1 a conversation and not a status report. This is why you’ve established a regular communication cadence with your team, but don’t panic when that cadence is altered. This is why you force yourself outside of the building where you seek unbiased external perspectives willing to not only explain their part of the world, but also hold a mirror up to yours. And this is why I believe you get up and radically change your gig every three years.

These habits are designed to create unexpected moments with Signal. Each moment with Signal is a moment that you’re killing the Noise and they exist so you remember what it feels like to care rather than just do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

35 Responses

  1. Great one. Thanks for this.

  2. Agree with Zool.

    Adding this to my tweets.

    Cheers, Paul

  3. This should be a guest post on 37signals’ blog.

  4. Nice thought on “Groundhog Day”. Cheers!

  5. Soule 13 years ago

    How fleeting those moments of calm and clarity… and how precious! This post cut through the noise of my day; thank you for that.

  6. Goyuix 13 years ago

    Your allowance of a potty-mouth in your writing – in my estimation – is hurting your credibility as a professional. I sincerely doubt it is generating the desired impact.

  7. This is exactly the reason I’m changing jobs at the moment. I realized how much of the last 6-12 months have been mostly noise and not signal (and I used to work on research about improving the signal-to-noise ratio, ironically).

    I’ve only been here 2 years, but I think it can also be a product of being an ‘expert’. You start out doing work on many different types of things until they find something you’re exceptional at, and then you become boxed in to do just that. “Don’t bother him with that project,” they say, “He’s much better at doing this other kind of work, so have him do that.” The project may have been signal to you, but they would rather give you noise.

  8. wibble without a pause 13 years ago

    Hmm, I don’t have an office so I get to hear the noise of others in the cubicle farm. Here they tend to call them cells.

    I was expecting to hear you say that you were quitting and finding another job !

  9. Check out my friends new book, almost the identical theme … Consider by Daniel Forrester

  10. Claire 13 years ago

    “People walk in your office with their Noise and they write it on your whiteboard. You nod and agree, “Why, indeed yes, that’s noisy” and they leave comforted — thinking your agreement was somehow progress.”

    Wow. You’ve made me simultaneously nod and grimace. But what if there isn’t any noise?

  11. Dave Belden 13 years ago

    Ha! Emailed the link to someone, and accidentally typed “Noose” instead of “Noise.”

  12. Ryan Sobol 13 years ago

    I hear changes reverberating toward you… I hope you’re ready.

  13. Rands,

    This is one of the most important things you’ve written. Thanks a ton.

  14. Your allowance of a potty-mouth in your writing – in my estimation – continues to extend your credibility as a professional. I sincerely doubt it is turning many people off.

    Thanks for speaking your mind and writing about it.

  15. Nailed it. I’ve had this vague, nagging sense that something had been…off. I can’t remember ever reading a blog post and stopping in the middle to say, “This. This is what I’ve been trying to articulate.”

    I need to mull this over for a few days and figure out what I can do about some of this noise.

  16. Every three years is par for me as well.

  17. Thanks. Best post so far from one of my favorite living writers. (Granted, I don’t read many.)

  18. Wonderful post! I noted the f-bomb, too, which appears prominently when I shared this on face—k.

    I’m not offended by the language, but I’d like to share this with Mom and Dad (I kid you not) to explain why I prefer independent consulting.

    Would you be willing to edit that one word so “Great-Grandma” doesn’t have a coronary?

    Just don’t replace it with frak. I hate that goram silliness.


  19. Great post; thx! I can relate. For almost 30 years since college, I’ve tried to generate my own signal rather than working on someone else’s noise–which can be a feast or famine sort of strategy, but I have never hated my job, quite the opposite, actually. (And I walk, daily, to a coffee shop down the street as part of the commute to my home office.) I’ve changed focus less frequently than every three years, but whenever the signal to noise ratio dropped, the changes were big.

  20. Bijan 13 years ago

    This is the first blog post I ever read that reminded me of Joyce’s Dubliners. And yes… that is a compliment.

  21. I was driving along today listening to the NOISE on the radio, flipped over to CD (always a surprise as to whats loaded), and there was ELO’s Confusion! Rember that old tune? And there I thought..yes, I’m confused. Which way? How do I stop all the CLUTTER from getting in the way of PROGRESS? I am self employed and something it just ….OFF, as Brock Boland puts it. My thoughts were that I have lost touch with myself. And there you have it, it’s all the NOISE.

    Thank you, amazing read. I’m an instant fan, referred by a tweet.

  22. Pontus 13 years ago

    As always, I felt a rush of joy seeing “Rands in response (1)” in my RSS feed, saved it for last and as always: Great post!

  23. Jamie Dumont 13 years ago

    Thank you. You’ve just clarified why I’m leaving my chosen profession and turning my life on it’s head. I love those moments when The Noise quietens down and isn’t ringing in your ears quite so loud. I find you also tend to reach the conclusions that others always respond to with “Why have you done tha…..Oh yeah, I see!”

    In response to the comments about the word “fuck”, why does it matter? I have yet to meet a person who does not understand the meaning or the implications of the word. I have yet to find a person who has not used it. There is this odd sense that we must not swear in front of children to protect them, not swear in front of your boss in order to not offend them, not swear in front of your grandparents to avoid their head’s imploding.

    The odd swear word thrown in there does not make you any less intelligent, it does not lower your social standing, it does not make you appear crass or unrefined; it makes you appear normal and human.

  24. Very true! It’s hard to know if what you’re doing is right when you are constantly immersed in it. If you want to take this to a bigger level, spend some time in another culture for a bit. You’d be surprised how much other Noise stops when you step out of your whole society for a bit…

    (Shared this with my Tweeters. Good stuff. Keep it up!)

  25. I feel calmer now. Thanks.

  26. Wogan 13 years ago


    Perfect timing. Thanks for the clarity.

  27. Steve 13 years ago

    Brilliant. Thanks.

  28. Robert 13 years ago

    I’m a business owner and I’ve been fighting the b.s. this world throws at you non-stop for 13 years and I’m a fucking success. I don’t sit around crying about how the world didn’t work out how I wanted it to. I do something about it every day.

    The best part of being the boss? I don’t have anyone to complain to but myself when things don’t work out.

  29. Wonderful post! I noted the f-bomb, too, which appears prominently when I shared this on face—k.

    (Rob Myers comment above)

    And your weird blanking means I parsed that as ‘facefuck’. Which kind of rocks. (Is that the “Micro$oft” of 2011?)

  30. Another magnificent post and again I share you with the Discardia folks. Thanks, as ever, for writing with your honest, frank, insightful voice.

    (Ahpook, oh good, I’m not the only one who read it like that. 🙂 )

  31. Allen Laudenslager 13 years ago

    The people who need to read this are senior management! They “leaned” the process so far that their subordinates don’t have any time to just think any more. The high noise is a function of bad management. The best improvements to your product come from putting your feet up on the desk and just thinking.

  32. Stefan 13 years ago

    What a fine piece to start a noisy day with. Thank you so much for that.

  33. Marina Zabelshansky 13 years ago

    The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

    George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) “Maxims for Revolutionists”

  34. Greg Thomas 13 years ago

    Great article, and as many have said, perfect timing.

  35. aveceterrie 13 years ago

    must look at this for less for less