Signal and Noise While Thinking

January 12, 2019

My favorite place to write is a small breakfast cafe in my neighborhood. I head up there any chance I get, sit down with a Chai Tea and some eggs, and then (hopefully) kick some words out at a reasonable clip. At the same time, I have a wonderful home office that I love and spent quite a bit of time on setting up for myself that I very rarely use for writing.

It seems as if I need a certain amount of noise and activity in the background to think well. This has always been true. When I studied in college, I would blast music in my room at full volume instead of sitting quietly in the library. The silence made me uncomfortable. And I love reading and thinking while sitting on the beach. There’s always stuff going on, which calms me down.

This seems not uncommon among nerds. In part, it’s a function of the talent and ability of nerds to context switch. But some of us also seem to need the noise to help build a signal.

All nerds can context switch well, but the drive towards or away from background noise feels like a proxy for what type of work we prefer. We can consider work on a spectrum between depth and breadth, where depth requires singular focus for long periods of time to figure out one problem and breadth requires a more shallow, generalized understanding across many subjects and components. Over time, I’ve gravitated more towards breadth (while occasionally yearning for depth). Had I been more aware, I could have seen the need for background noise as an indicator.

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