A quiet environment is a sign of success

A quiet environment is a sign of success

When I was looking at apartments I didn’t notice the incredibly noisy construction right outside our windows. I attribute this oversight to the same phenomena that happens in the video where you count basketball passes – if you have never seen the video stop everything and go watch it.

Quiet = money

Vox did a video on how quiet has become a sign of quality.  And people sell quiet. Bose has become a noise reduction company, and so has Miele. And CEOs establish themselves as quality leaders by disconnecting their phones to have quiet time.

We know a lot about the negative impact of noise, because rich people fund studies to squelch developers. Environmental noise effects not only our hearing, but our sleep, social skills, and cardiovascular health.

Too much noise is a sign of poverty. So people paint their houses with noise-reducing paint, and companies are trying to reduce their noise footprint as a way to attract top-flight employees.

I find myself constantly hoping for ice storms at night so the construction is delayed and I wake up to quiet.

Quiet = focus

I’m working with a group of writers, editing everything they write for a year. There’s one guy, Graham, who is a psychologist, and sometimes I feel like reading his stories is when I’m quiet and still and it’s a daily meditation. Other days his stories stream like endless noise. One day, after ten rewrites, I told him I will kill myself if I have to read another version of this story.

The next day, maybe to save my life, he sent a story about how there is no benefit to delaying a bad feeling. I told him to throw out the whole piece. “It’s too broad an idea,” I told him, in case he was thinking of delaying the delete button.

But now I will steal the best paragraph of his story and tell you that our instinct is to delay terribleness – like construction – but that delay doesn’t help us and instead becomes emotional noise in the back of our minds. I would add a link to Graham’s piece here, but of course, it’s in the garbage.

I think we look for people who can help us find quiet. Amelia is my new friend. (That link requires $1 to read. But you know she’s really my friend because the only other person I’ve charged you to read about is Melissa.) Amelia creates quiet in my life by telling me what I should be worrying about. I can’t stop worrying, but at least I can have a prioritized list. For me, focus means quiet.

Quiet = good noise

Specktral Quartet commissioned 45 composers to write ringtones. You can upload the ringtones to your phone and then you turn your annoying, repetitive factory ringtones into something interesting and surprising.

John Cage is a composer whose name is associated with quiet. His piece 4’33” is a solo for the piano, but the pianist doesn’t have any notes. So the audience sits in silence and has no choice but to notice there never really is silence. The composition encourages us to hear all the noise around us as music.

Quiet is mental.

The best financial advice tells you that feeling financially secure is a state of mind; you can think yourself rich. I see how you can change your experience of noise so that it feels like quiet.

Quiet is sometimes just better than whatever there was before. And just like we never really feel like we have enough money, we never really feel like we have enough quiet. That’s why they are both so special: you want more.

32 replies
      • Mitchell
        Mitchell says:

        @graham —
        Not my only takeaway, but it was my initial takeaway.
        She’s a professional resume writer, author, and blogger. I love her work and hate see her tarnish her brand because of a stupid typo.
        I pointed it out with a comment.
        She fixed it.
        Not sure why she published my comment, but that’s her choice.

  1. Don Kaiser
    Don Kaiser says:

    Intriguing as always.

    Certainly wealth is tied to quiet, compared to poverty.

    But then I thought about extraverts I know who wants background noise 24/7 (TV, talk radio…) they are uncomfortable with silence. While that constant stream wears me down, I can feel my body trying to push it away. Until I finally have to physically run away. ;)

    A link to differential effects of noise on introverts/extroverts:

    I can turn “worry” off but it never stays off for long. Thank you/Amelia for the concept of prioritizing worry. :)

    The ring tones are really fun! Thank you!!

    • Isabelle
      Isabelle says:

      Being uncomfortable with silence doesn’t have anything to do with being an extrovert. Being uncomfortable with silence is about the inability to comfortably inhabit your own MIND. Plenty of introverts are also terrible at that.

    • Jody
      Jody says:

      I’m an extravert who, yes, immediately turns on music when I get into the car or come home. This is not because I am an extravert but because I have tinnitus and this is a doctor-recommended masking technique for the constant ringing sound I hear. I am envious of those of you who can actually “hear” silence; I will never have that opportunity again.

      • Isabelle
        Isabelle says:

        Jody, I’m sorry for the suffering your tinnitus has caused you. I actually have double vision, which is some ways I had never considered before is oddly similar to tinnitus. One interesting thing, though, is that in some mystical/esoteric traditions BOTH double vision and tinnitus have been heralded as signs of an inner ability to “tune in”, so to speak, to the Divine. Examining my vision from the lens of an ability rather than a deficit (which is how I looked at it for 20+ years, and suffered a lot because of it), has completely transformed my daily relationship with it. Whenevver I notice my double vision (it’s always there, I’m not always noticing it), it now feels like a gift. And this change in my own perspective has turned it into a gift.
        I don’t share this to try and suggest you do the same, because your path is your own—but rather just because it wasn’t until someone pointed it out to me that it even occurred to me I could look at it in this light.
        That’s always what I come to Penelope’s blogs for, a shift in perspective, so it seemed appropriate to share this here.

        • Khürt Williams
          Khürt Williams says:

          When you close your eyes, do you still see double? Tinnitus, something I am dealing with as well as graves eyes disease, has no “off” switch. The “noise” never ends. I am someone who appreciates quiet. Now I can not.

          • Elizabeth
            Elizabeth says:

            When I was diagnosed with tinnitus 20 years ago it was devastating. Life since has required constant masking and mental gymnastics to cope. It’s changed my personality and forced me towards extraversion since I have never been really alone since. In some ways I feel happier and more energized than before – maybe just a sign of ridiculous optimism.

  2. TashaMaria Tromer
    TashaMaria Tromer says:

    Hi. John Cage actually has a book called SILENCE, which I recommend. No, it is not a collection of blank pages.
    Good luck with your group of writing apprentices. May I suggest please don’t make fun of them or their work or use their work without giving them credit. Too often, writers are the plantation workers of our time. For 50 years I made a living as a paid professional writer doing a weekly column interviewing celebrities, and I can tell you our articles were regularly appropriated without asking us and definitely w/o paying us. I love your work but please be gentle with the work of others. Eviscerate the puff, sure. I knew a famous poet whose criticism of newbies was like a blowtorch. I would watch him incinerate people’s work, and shake my head. As an editor my personal pet peeve is when my clients the word ‘that’ five times in a sentence. Some people get writers block or performance anxiety in an overly critical atmosphere. They need love, encouragement, generous feedback, support, a safe space to create, and silence. TashaMaria Tromer

  3. Gina Marcell
    Gina Marcell says:

    I loved this article. Just reading it made me feel at peace. Thank you as always for a great inspiration.

  4. LMN
    LMN says:

    “Too much noise is a sign of poverty.” Early on after becoming a 1st time (single) mom, I lived in an apt complex full of poor people. You would think they were deaf for all the noise! 24/7. No respect for curfews or neighbors. The children ran around like they were pumped on sugar and more sugar. Music bounced off of my walls from two floors below! Salty attitudes ensued after complaints were issued. Can’t remember the many times I had to call the police at 10, 11, 12pm. Two years later I was able to move myself and baby to the ‘burbs. A nice apt complex by the lake where the rent was twice that of the previous apt. Now I fell asleep to the comforting sounds of crickets and nightbirds, instead of grinding my teeth over loud TVs at 2am, putrid cigarette smoke wafting through my window from the steps below, and the persistent beeping of monitor bracelets signaling numerous parolees it was time to submit their sobriety tests via photos to their P.O.s.
    One of my current neighbors had a sticker plastered to her car window: Poverty is a State of Mind.
    I connected with that slogan immediately. Those who can’t visualize anything better for themselves act accordingly.

    Now I live in an area where most ppl live a life of privilege. Somehow I visualized the life I deserved and the wonderful QUIET that comes with it.

    This particular article really resonates with me. Thanks, Penelope!

  5. Ann
    Ann says:

    I used to live in a fabulous neighborhood and ultra-quiet condo building. Then I married someone who lived in a great neighborhood which was very quiet. A developer bought him out and we moved to not so great neighborhood where housing prices are increasing rapidly. I
    absolutely HATE this neighborhood. My alarm clock has become neighbors in the trades who go to work at 5:30 am. Yesterday, loud music from two blocks over awoke me at 3:30 am. My husband wears hearing aids in both years. Thus he does not think the noise is a problem.
    I did not sell my condo and I am considering moving back there for the quiet.
    I suspect a good many readers will consider my point of view as a sign of entitlement and classism. But I am ultra-sensitive to noise and I HATE the constant stream of cars, kids, dogs, etc. So while the value of our house goes up, my ability to tolerate the neighborhood noise is going down rapidly.

  6. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Where the hell did that gorilla come from?!!?!

    I have often said to my husband , the extrovert, that quiet, like time time alone, is insatiable to me, especially after having kids. You’re exactly right–there’s never enough! (Well, until the kids are gone and grown and all that noise is gone, to which I’ve heard you’ll be devastated by all the silence.)

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I very much enjoyed this post. I clicked on nearly every link and learned things about silence and noise I hadn’t given serious consideration previously. You definitely have a noise problem as evidenced by the plethora of research included here! Hopefully, the construction finishes up soon.
    The counting basketball passes video was fun and the ending was definitely unexpected. One thought that occurred to me after reading this post was the importance of being able to quantify noise levels. So then I wondered what would be the best way to go about doing that. Smartphone apps came to mind and sure enough there are many available which can be easily found by a search on the web.
    There’s also something else about noise and that is that not all noise is equal. The nature of noises heard in the woods are quite different than man-made noises generated unexpectedly without rhythm.

  8. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Yes! When we moved, I really thought wanted to live in the downtown area so we could walk to a cafe, or a movie, or the park. That is the ideal life in my mind. But when looked for a place, I picked one that is almost in the mountains. It is only 6 miles to downtown though. I can walk the kids to school and a park (OK, the park is almost a mile away, but on a good day, they will walk). But it is so quiet. Sometimes there are noisy parrots that fly over or sit in the back yard trees, but they are kind of interesting. I can’t do anything about them anyway.

  9. M
    M says:

    I had hoped to take the writing class but learned of it too late and financial limitations made it impossible. I am glad to hear something of it though. Penelope is a wonderful writer. I do think it’s important to give credit to the original writer you are stealing from and to get their permission. Also it’s good to be gentle with people who need encouragement along with their writing feedback. Is there anyone who needs that in the class or is everyone pretty tough? Also as far as noise is concerned, have people tried recordings or white noise machines? Some play sounds of oceans, streams, brooks, crickets, etc. I am hoping that when people say lack of silence equals poverty, we are not blaming poor people for being poor. Many have no other choice and plenty of poor people would like quiet also.

  10. Jonah's Dad
    Jonah's Dad says:

    I think once your kids leave home, quiet will have a different meaning for you. When they both decide to spend the holidays with their spouse’s family, again, quiet will mean something different to you. When you are no longer relevant and your children see you as more of a burden than anything else, how will the quiet seem then?

    I became a father late in life so I now have less money, less quiet, less focus, but I revel in the noise. I celebrate the cacophony, struggle, and the chaos of my new life. When I lived only for myself, quiet was a refuge and noise was a burden. Now that I live for something bigger than what I am, I cherish the noise because I know one day the quiet will return.

    Life at it’s best is noisy.


  11. cheryl chamblee
    cheryl chamblee says:

    This post makes me weep. I love it.

    Maybe comfortable quiet can also be a sign of a success in relationships?

    Growing up, I would ride along on random errands with my dad in his truck–each of us on one side of that big bench seat–and barely say a word. I loved those rides.

    Now, when my own kid and I are riding along, and she’s staring out the window silently, I try not to pester her with questions. It’s hard to check that impulse.

  12. Panda
    Panda says:

    So if I counted the correct number of passes and saw the gorilla – what does that mean?

    This post resonated with me as well, as I read it from the quiet of my home office.

  13. Adrian
    Adrian says:

    Having been living in a noisy city for a while, I kind of developed high mental tolerance for noise. Actually, environmental noise has become so much the norm for me that quietness feels like something is wrong!

    Sometimes I can’t even sleep when it is totally quiet around me, so I have to keep the TV turned on to help me fall asleep. My brain may need some serious rewiring :)

  14. MK
    MK says:

    I had never thought of quiet as a sign of money or wealth, but it’s an interesting idea. I think it’s true.

    We live in the middle of at least 40 acres of uninhabited woods. Our closest neighbors do, too, so there are about 7 houses on 400 acres, total. All of us have very limited incomes, and our homes reflect that.

    But for all the scrimping and saving and driving broken-down cars and shopping at Wal-Mart, I never feel poor. We chose to live here because family and nature and quiet are priorities. And every time I come home, I feel as wealthy as a queen because I have what I want.

  15. laurie jane kern
    laurie jane kern says:

    I am a software developer and team lead. I tell all my team that there are 2 hours where I will not interact with THEM or anyone else. I turn off my phone and put on over the ear noise cancelling headphone with NO music playing so I can focus on my work. Oh and I suffer from Tinnitus too, so that adds a layer of background noise I always hear

    Your post sums it up perfectly.

  16. Jean-Christophe Chouinard
    Jean-Christophe Chouinard says:

    Great post Penelope!

    It comes right on time, I just read a survey by Oxford Economics (when the walls come down) and found out that the ability to focus and work without interruptions and having a personnal space were ranked among the top most important things for employees and executives in their work environment.

    It made me look for new solutions to reduce office noise.

    Here are some tricks I found:
    -Having furniture to define spaces
    -Provide employees a way to signal easily when they are not to be disturbed
    -Provide unassigned, enclosed rooms
    -Adding some walls
    -Noise reduction ceilings…

    Any other ideas that worked in the workplace?

  17. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Hang on. I’ve not been following for a little bit and now I’m trying to piece together the move. When did this happen? I didn’t realize that Penelope was in Boston now. I thought only one of her sons was moving to Boston. I’ve skimmed over the old posts but I can’t find the one where Penelope said she was moving herself. I missed that point!

  18. Corneliu E. Giurgea
    Corneliu E. Giurgea says:

    I agree with you that financial success is all but a state of the mind. You have to believe it to come it. As such, everyone needs to appreciate the fact that success is heavily attached to one’s mindset. You can’t have a negative mind and expect to attract positive things in life. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Maria Miccoli
    Maria Miccoli says:

    I needed to read a dose of Penelope and did a search in my email and learned I had missed this article (I have a lot of emails). I totally agree about the role in sound and health.

    I wrote an article on Pulse on the rate of churn. Consultants have encouraged businesses (especially coffee shops and fast food places) to use several techniques to get rid of lingering customers including the use of music (high pitch and loud) to make it almost painful. I personally have experienced hearing loss due to having been exposed to this daily for hours (I’m stubborn).

    The benefit of small towns is the quiet. You don’t realize it until you live in a small town for a while and then return to the city. The absence of noise vs the constant hum of traffic with sirens interspersed. Some in the rv lifestyle who have lived for so long in some of the most quiet areas in the country find it more and more difficult to return to the city… to a life of what once was, for them, normal because they knew nothing else.

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