CareerSherpas: Climbing the Mountain

When you’re on the way, it helps to share the load

Signal to Noise Ratio

Whether you know it or not, you’re being inundated with information almost every waking second of the day. When you stop to think about it is the information really made up of messages you need to pay attention to or is it mostly just background noise filling in space?

When you hear dire news that the economy is in trouble what is your first reaction? Does your blood pressure rise as anxiety about the future builds? Okay so maybe that’s a bad example to start with, let’s try again…

When a farmer in Kansas hears news about terrorist attacks in Mumbai, terrible as they are, should a they worry about their safety in Kansas? When a sale is on for shoes you just have to have, do you need to run out to the store right then? When you’re asked to produce extra documentation on work that’s already “done”, is the extra documentation really the issue?

The short answer is probably not.

This overloading of less-than-immediate news happens all the time and for many reasons, but it’s important to keep it in perspective. Unless the farmer has family in India, the Mumbai attacks don’t represent a need to worry about safety. The shoes, wonderful as they are, will probably be out of fashion in a few months.

There might be a message hidden in the request for extra documentation though, and if you miss it all the documentation in the world won’t solve the problem. The request itself might be noise, but the underlying problem might be something you really have to address.

Engineers have a nice term for this confusion of meaning and information, the signal to noise ratio. What this means is that in order to get a clear message through (the signal), it has to be able to get through a bunch of background interference (noise) which clouds the transmission. In order to understand the message coming through, you have to have a certain signal-to-noise ratio which matches the content you’re trying to receive.

So the question here is, to get back to the slow economy example, what is the message you actually need to pay attention to in all the hype and worry-making? Look closer to home and ask yourself what changes you need to be aware of in your company, your clients, your retirement and your situation. Is your company in trouble or making changes? Does it need to? If when it all boils down, your job is reasonably secure and you can make plans from where you are do you really need to worry?

Being able to filter out the meaning in the information you’re presented isn’t always easy, but knowing that there’s a lot of noise out there it helps to take a moment to ask if you’re getting the signal.

Peter Fitzgerald is the founder of and is currently working on his first book, conducting high-level business analysis, connecting individuals with ideas and opportunities, and attempting to learn the bagpipes.

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