Cutting Out the Noise

entrepreneurship zen general

I keep noticing a recurring theme in my hobbies and in business: cut out the noise and focus only on the essential.

It seems so simple, but the fascinating thing about life is that the things and people we encounter so rarely do cut through the noise. Instead it seems like most endeavors of consequence are messy, complicated and hard, and it’s not always clear why.

When you approach almost everything with the mentality of “how do I cut out the noise?” life becomes a very magical experience where a little effort in the right place can yield big results.

I think can think of at least 3 areas of my own life where cutting out the noise yielded big results.

First up is playing the piano. I took traditional piano lessons for about 8 years and spent literally thousands of hours learning, practicing, and occasionally performing. But for all my hard work, if I heard a cool song on the radio, the idea of playing it on the piano without every note written out was hopeless. I could play these amazing, technically difficult, beautifully written classical pieces, but I couldn’t play the simplest pop song. What the hell?

So I bought a bunch of books like “how to play the piano despite years of lessons”, Jamey Aebersold jazz lessons, the Jazz Piano book, DVDs on playing by ear, learn to play Gospel Piano, and a few others I can’t remember. I learned a little from each of those courses, but the one course that really shined through was the cheesily-marketed “learn to play by ear in under 20 hours” course.

This course dispensed with all but maybe 5% of music theory, disregarded scales, and ignored just about everything else from “traditional” piano teaching methods and focused instead on a few key principles: to figure out a song, start with a few notes, then figure out the chords but you know it’s only going to be 1 of 4 chords for this reason, use a few different variations with your left hand, and a few other nuances and that was it.

Earlier tonight, I was playing off a chords-only version of Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley, my wife heard me play it, asked me to teach her, and so I shared the play by ear method with her. She also had taken about 10 years of lessons and got a lot out of it but was left helpless against pop songs without the music, too.

The amazing thing was that in about 15 minutes, I was able to teach her enough information about the method that within another 30 minutes, she was playing that song plus 2 others by ear pretty well! With a minimum of effort, she got a huge amount of improvement and is excited to practice now because she sees exactly what to improve to play even better.

I claim to be no piano teaching genius, and admittedly my wife has years of lessons to draw on, but the key point here is that based on all the methods I studied many years ago, I knew which one cut through the noise for me, and sure enough it did the same for her.

The second example is learning to speak foreign languages. Like every other American high school student I took at least 2 years of foreign language study (4 years of Spanish in my case). Four years and thousands of hours of study — again! — this time left me helpless against a native Spanish speaker. It’s one thing to be helpless against a native Japanse speaker when you’ve never learned Japanese, but to study something for 4 years and be completely and utterly ineffective by every measure is without a doubt an education failure.

But I love learning foreign languages and so I hunted around for some third-party courses. Everyone now knows Rosetta Stone, of course, because it’s extremely well-marketed. Everyone’s heard of Pimsleur for some reason. I tried those and others and found just more of the same — subtle variations on rote memorization.

But then I discovered a course that was marketed as the “language teacher of the stars” and which claimed to get you conversational in as little as 10 hours. Like the “learn to play by ear” course it seemed incredible, literally not believable. But I figured it was worth a shot.

So I tried out the French course. At the time, I happend to be dating a girl who was fluent in French so I also had someone to practice with. Amazingly, within 10 hours, I was able to conduct complete conversations in French. I didn’t know everything obviously, but I knew the 70% of what mattered and so was able to communicate.

In fact, the course even makes the point that the English language has over 200,000 words but if you count all the words in a single edition of the New York Times, you find I believe less than 2,000 unique words. So, you can literally cut through the noise in this situation by focusing on the 2% of words in any language that are used regularly.

Anyway, the course was absolutely amazing and cost all of $80. If you’re interested, check out my foreign language hero, Michel Thomas, for more info. Sadly, Michel Thomas passed away in 2007, but his courses are still available. A very cool documentary on him is also available on Youtube.

Again, we see the power of cutting through the noise. Four years and thousands of hours of Spanish left me helpless in the face of a simple conversation, but 10 hours of focused work enabled me to be almost fully conversational in French. Wow.

My third and final example is business. One thing I have learned about starting and growing a company is that you don’t don’t always know what you should focus on. In such situations, you make an informed guess, check with colleagues and your instincts, and then make a decision.

But there are just huge amounts of uncertainty in business. In fact, it seems that whenever there’s high uncertainty between going from Point A to Point B, you take a lot of wrong turns until you ultimately stumble on the path that gives you the clarity of being able to cut through the noise.

In business, cutting through the noise means understanding what feature of the software will make a big impact on sales and customer satisfaction but maybe requires little investment of time and energy, or what marketing approach to take, or where to sell your product, or how to position it, or any other one of a million things.

The reality is that if you knew the optimal route to build, market, and sell a product from day 1 you could do it in a third of the time it takes to bring a new product to market. But the reality is that you will make countless wrong turns along the way, course-correct, and get back on the right track. Only in hindsight do you develop perfect clarity about how to move ahead on things.

So there it is:

  • Most endeavors of consequence involve high degrees of uncertainty in going from Point A to Point B
  • Uncertainty = lack of clarity = lots of noise to cut through
  • Cutting through the noise is hard and non-obvious, but once you’re able to do it, the results are spectacular


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