Perhaps somewhere along the way you’ve heard the story of Beethoven’s deafness. From the age of 30, the already hugely accomplished composer began going slowly deaf, until by the age of 45 he was plunged into complete silence and, his biographer reports, a period of despair. Eventually, though, armed solely with the music in his head, Beethoven was able to write his late career masterworks, including the revolutionary Ninth Symphony.
So far, so inspirational. The timeless story is clearly a testament to the power of genius combined with the will to overcome seemingly insurmountable adversity. But, according to computer scientist and best-selling author Cal Newport, there is also a more contemporary lesson to draw from the tale, one that’s just as applicable to modern keyboard jockeys as it is to era-defining composers.
The power of silence
That lesson, Newport explained on his consistently fascinating blog recently, is the power of silence. Most of us aren’t troubled by hearing fully articulated orchestral music in our heads, but our minds are nearly as noisy these days thanks to the internet. Our devices plug us directly into the general chatter of several billion humans (a.k.a. the internet), and it’s as loud and chaotic as you’d expect.
Beethoven’s later works were so groundbreaking, Newport argues, because he literally couldn’t hear what his contemporaries were working on. He had to dance to the beat of his own internal drummer because no other option was available. Would our own work be more original and more valuable if we seriously turned down the volume in our own minds?
“In our current techno-cultural moment, we’re constantly connected to a humming online hive mind of takes and urgency and quantified influence,” Newport writes, but he’s also observed that “much of my deepest work came from periods of relative disconnection; when I was living a life defined largely by the demands of my young family, a big stack of books, a deep leather chair, a few hours a week in front of new students on an old university campus, and endless miles walking and thinking — often in the woods.”
The lesson Newport takes is that “there’s long-term advantage in removing ‘society’s soundtrack’ from your ears, even if in the moment the absence is acute. As Beethoven so vividly demonstrates, you can’t really hear yourself until you’re able to turn down the volume on everyone else.”
Other geniuses agree
There are counterarguments to this. Science and tech have grown so complex that most cutting-edge work is now done collaboratively by huge teams. Creativity is largely a process of stealing and mashing up others’ ideas. While stillness is essential for execution, inspiration usually comes from drinking from the fire hose of the world. Or to put it another way, Beethoven probably wouldn’t have written the Ninth if he’d gone deaf at 20 rather than 40.
But there’s merit to Newport’s argument, too. Recent research has found silence is a positive good, helping our brains rest and recharge. And Beethoven is also far from the only genius who required long unplugged periods to come up with his or her best ideas. So did Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Charles Darwin.
In our age of Facebook, Instagram, and 87 different messaging apps, it is far too easy to err on the side of excessive noisiness. Cacophony is the default. You have to intentionally build stillness into your days. Do you have enough silence in your schedule to maximize your productivity?
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