Signal to Noise

Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable. –Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. –Steve Jobs (1955- )
Love is the big booming beat which covers up the noise of hate. –Margaret Cho (weblog 1-15-04)

The road unrolls into the beam of the headlights and rolls back up into darkness again after you’ve passed. The only glow is from the radio in the dashboard. No towns for dozens of miles. For a while there is lonesome music on the radio. Then a hiss builds in the sound, from a barely audible whisper, to distant surf, to something more full-throated and annoying. The words of the song are getting hard to make out. The music is being swallowed. The noise overtakes the signal until there is nothing but static.

Signal we can understand because it has meaning. Noise we cannot because it has no meaning.  But signal is really a particular type of noise, it’s noise with structure, and that structure is what we recognize as meaningful if we know how to decode it.

Signal and noise can also be a metaphor for the things in your life. How much signal are you tuned in to? What do you do, or try to do that sustains, challenges, fulfills and intrigues you? What are you teaching yourself? What are you learning? What engages you and allows you to really plug in to the experience of living?

In Coyle’s book The Talent Code (review) he identifies several different scenarios in which the signal is intensified beyond normal. This–among other things–helps the brain grow myelin, the substance that helps neurons fire more efficiently, making you better at whatever it is you’re practicing. The best example  Coyle gives is futsal, a game very much like futbol (American soccer), but in a smaller field, with a smaller and heavier ball, and much quicker. Major players in world soccer (esp. if they’re Brazilian), have used the greater intensity of the signal in futsal to improve their soccer skills. It’s also a great example of how playing  a game might actually be furthering your goals. Some think playing games are a waste of time, and video games can be a great example. But what is time-wasting, really? It’s noise. And noise depends on your definitions, your context.

What do you do that is a time-waster? Be careful when defining this, because loafing about could be much-needed relaxation. Or it could be a way of letting the creative juices bubble up. But it could also be just plain wasting time. The difference is how you feel about it, and the reasons for doing whatever it is you’re doing. We all need leisure time and fun, and this can be “signal,” but too much of a it can be like too much saturated fat: tastes great and the body needs it, but it’s really not good to have too much unless you’re aiming for a short life and a painful death. So, being able to tell signal from noise in one’s life (or in judging another’s) isn’t always easy. That late night, Red-Bull-infused video game marathon could be a necessary training ground for somebody who wants to work in the video game industry.  You get the picture.

Assuming that you’re already practicing, how can you increase the signal in your practice? What is your futsal to intensify the practice experience? Some examples might be playing with others, with a metronome, varying tempos, focusing on difficult passages only, recording yourself and listening immediately to how you sound. All of these things can and will boost the signal your practice.

If you aren’t practicing, how can you squeeze another twenty minutes out of your day to give youself that little boost? Heck, even five or ten extra minutes of signal per day would be a boost of 30-60 hours of “signal” per year. That can’t be bad for you. Patience and persistence is more important than “talent.” In fact, the argument has been made (Sternberg, 1998) that talent, or expertise, only arises out of patience and persistence and the accumulation of practice. So easy to say. Harder to do. One day at a time. Have you practiced today?

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


Sternberg, R.J. (1998). Abilities are forms of developing expertise. Educational Researcher, 27(3), pp. 11-20.

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