“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of life, which they are thenceforth to rule. What wreck and rubbish have those mute workmen within thee swept away, when intrusive noises were shut out!” The great writer Thomas Carlyle may have had the right idea when he stated in the 18th century that silence inspires creativity. Going by his quote, he yearned for it. But is silence really everything it’s cracked up to be?
In our busier, more urbanised world, does silence really create the optimum conditions for peak-creativity? It’s long been assumed that everyone, whether they’re a poet, a playwright, or an entrepreneur, needs a quiet place to contemplate their goals and work on a creative project. But is this assumption outdated? Does it ignore the fact that we no longer have as much flexibility when it comes to just switching off? We’re bombarded day and night with lights, noise, and text notifications.
More offices than ever are cottoning onto the need for silent spaces for employees. ActionAid, a human rights charity focusing on violence against women and girls, has a quiet room where employees are encouraged to work on projects that need contemplation. At Unilever, employees are encouraged to visit the health and wellness room, while Google employees have nap pods that block out all light and sound for a daytime pick-me-up.
But in some instances, silence can be a distraction. Charlie is a stage designer, and he spends a lot of time scribbling in his notebook trying to come up with striking ways to grab an audience's’ attention. “I hate working in quiet places. I work on contracts which means a lot of time is spent working from home. I find stillness really unhelpful as every single noise is amplified and jolts me out of my bubble of creativity. Instead I like to have a mellow, consistent noise in the background, white noise, or coffee shop chatter, which actually helps me focus my thoughts more.”
In an article in the Journal of Consumer Research, three academics explored the question Is ambient noise always bad? Exploring the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition. The paper concluded that a moderate, compared to low, amount of noise boosted creativity. However, a high level of noise (anything above 85 decibels) harms your creative output. Studies conducted in 1973 by Martindale and Greenough found that for the most highly original individual's, performance is boosted by moderate noise because it creates a mixture of stress, arousal, and affects the attention span. Again, in moderation, background noise and chatter has been shown to boost creativity, rather than hinder it.
Taking leave of the city and going to live on remote island might sound idyllic but it could have some creatives crawling the walls. One friend, Joe, a writer, recently went to live on an island in the Mediterranean. He didn’t speak the language, but wanted complete isolation to work on a new book. If anything he found the silence unhelpful as he yearned for distraction.
Entrepreneur Rob Moore who runs business and lifestyle podcast The Disruptive Entrepreneur, says: “It’s believed that silence breeds creativity. While silence, meditation and mindfulness can free space in your mind for ideas to flow in, this is one of many more ways to be creative.”
He adds: “A great conversation or debate with an interesting, knowledgeable or critical person can create new ideas you could not have conjured up on your own. You don’t know what you don’t know and often you need other people to dialogue with to create new ideas. Listening to podcasts can trigger new ideas you would not have thought of by sending your mind down different paths, which silence can not do, because your mind can only go where it knows to go. Collaborating with other creatives, like Damon Albarn did when he went from Blur to The Gorrilaz, can create new fusion or hybrid ideas that can be wildly successful.“
Shane Clifford, co-founder and CEO of WonderBill agrees that there’s a time and a place for silence. “Silence can be gift and also a hindrance, it completely depends on the task ahead. If I have my head down preparing a pitch or knee deep in admin, silence is golden. When it comes to creative thinking nothing is more effective than bringing minds together to talk, debate and bounce ideas around the room.”
Clifford points out that silence can, at certain times feel unnerving or awkward. On other occasions it feel like a blessing. “I thrive when I am hearing the productive buzz of my team around me. Too often email is the primary point of communication but conversation is an important part of a well-functioning business.”
Lucy Edge, author of Yoga School Dropout and founder of YogaClicks.store doesn’t need silence to write. “I like music that evokes the right mood. I like to think of it as method writing! I wrote the Yoga School Dropout Indian scenes with Mystic India on repeat loop, and Dido for the sad singleton scenes.”
Listening to music can actually hone our focus, rather than removing our ability to do so. Similarly to Lucy Edge, Sarah Andrews is a playwright and hates working in silence. “When I’m writing I find that I get more distracted than I do when I listen to music, or the hub of background chatter. When it’s silent I get distracted by my own thoughts and am more likely to daydream, while if I catch myself falling listening to music, by thinking about the music it pushes me back on course. Working in a public space also holds us more accountable to others. It’s a lot harder to have a sneaky nap or load up Netflix when there are people actually being productive around you.”
Andrews explains: “The only time I long for silence when I’m working in a public space is when somebody fires up a YouTube clip with no headphones, a screaming baby enters the fray, or two people start an incredibly loud and detailed conversation about what they had for breakfast. However being in public places can also trigger inspiration. I once overheard an entire story about a man whose father was going to Dignitas and I ended up writing a play about it the next week.”
In a world where most freelancers have no choice but to head to co-working spaces and few of us have our own offices or even home-studies, silence isn’t always an option. Becoming more versatile as workers is key to success and productivity. For those who crave silence in the city, white noise playlists can be downloaded on Spotify. A country cottage may be out of reach for most entrepreneurs, but it seems as though silence can be a hindrance rather than the solution for many.