The gigantic value of silence

I’m about to offer probably the most abstract advice I’ve ever given, so if you picked up this morning’s paper hoping to find something practical and mundane, like how many pages your resume should be, please go get another cup of coffee, get caffeined up, and come on back.

I want to talk about silence – and how infinitely valuable it is, especially in our noisy, busy, complicated world in which we are constantly assaulted by countless forces, incessantly vying for our attention. And I want to talk about one thing we can and should do every day that is sure to help us deal with all this: create that silence – and think.

There are serious career implications.

But first, stop for a moment and take inventory of all these forces. The average American spends more than 10 hours a day in front of screens, a condition that needs no further discussion. But further, how many ways can I contact you? Phone: home, cell, business, WhatsApp, etc. – all of which are ringing, collecting voice mails, and, if that’s not enough, being forwarded to one of your other lines? Social media: LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and whatever the next one will be, which could be appropriately named Blah Blah, for all the good it’ll do. Oh yeah, there are also your two or three email addresses and texting. There are too many ways your daily life can be invaded, interrupted, disturbed, distracted, diverted, scrambled, assaulted, sidetracked, disorganized, disrupted, jumbled, confused, overrun … ugh!

Not to mention the three-ring circus we see when we turn on the TV: the multiple attention streams we must navigate when we watch cable news – anchors, four talking (screaming) heads, reporters on scene, videos, scrolling news headlines, and even digital stopwatches counting down to their next program. Meanwhile, the remote’s in our hands because we’re switching between this circus and a football game, which we’re not watching continuously because a typical three-hour game has only 15 cumulative minutes of action, which drives us nuts but we can’t completely let it go. Forget about all the attention streams here.

What’s worse, silence no longer seems to be possible at work. With the ubiquity of open office environments – ostensibly because they’re egalitarian, democratic, accessible, and “efficient” (not sure about that one) – we haven’t a minute at work not filled with some kind of ambient noise, interference, activity, buzz, and the like. All this considered, the resulting condition is, simply, that we’ve lost a precious commodity: silence.

Why is silence precious? The gigantic value of silence is that silence is where thinking occurs. And with thinking, ideas generate, and (as discussed the previous two weeks) ideas will determine our value, both to our organiztions and ourselves. But if there’s no silence at work, during our commutes, or at home, where, for God’s sake, will we have it?

For sure, there are idea-generating environments that are not quiet: carefully organized and sculpted brainstorming sessions, for example. But honestly, how many of us are lucky enough to have them at work? Honestly.

In 1911, Thomas J. Watson was managing the sales and advertising departments at National Cash Register Company (NCR). Running out of patience one day at an uninspiring sales meeting he blurted out, “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet; we get paid for working with our heads!” With that, he stood up, walked to the easel, and wrote “THINK” in large capital letters. “THINK” signs soon popped up all over the place.

In 1914, Watson left NCR to head up The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR) which later became IBM. Sure enough, “THINK” followed Watson, and so impactful was it, that it became IBM’s unofficial motto. It is embedded in their culture.

After WWII, when Albert Einstein already had been at the Institute for Advanced Study for more than 15 years, and the Institute was searching for a new director, members of the Board asked Einstein whom he would choose as successor to Frank Aydelotte. Einstein replied in typically witty style, “A quiet man who will let us just think.” Instead, they chose the brash, aggressive J. Robert Oppenheimer, but that’s a whole other story. Einstein found plenty of quiet thinking time anyway.

We don’t need to be Watson or Einstein, but we do need to think. And because we do, we must fully comprehend the gigantic value of silence.

If just for 10 minutes a day.



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