It is about signal vs. noise.
This weekend, I watched the Netflix Vox Special “Explained” on music (this one). It turns out, humans are like no other animal when it comes to understanding music. This makes sense as we have the biggest brains relative to our body size – and hearing is more about the brain (same with vision) than the ears.
Understanding music is not one single thing. It is a combination of understanding rhythm, pitch, timbre, texture, volume and form simultaneously. Some birds are great at understanding rhythm, some bonobos are great at the understanding pitch but humans are the ones who got it all. So “getting music” is an active and cognitively intense process for the brain. Distilled to its very essence, what the brain does is; differentiate the signal from the noise.
Imagine you are sitting at a cafe sipping your almond milk latte or that you are at your favourite co-working space, hearing the noise of the people discussing the best e-mail marketing growth hack alongside the background music. Just by shifting your attention – as effortless as redirecting your gaze – you can focus either on the conversation or the music. Your brain does the heavy lifting and automatically zeros in on the signal you want to focus. (Detail for the curious: In this context the “you” is the Prefrontal cortex, and the “brain” is well, the rest of the brain, mainly the areas that do audio processing: thalamus and the temporal lobes.)
Basically, you give the brain a description of what you want it to focus on, and it does the rest: Pay attention to signals that fit the description; ignore those that don’t.
When it comes to your inbox (your mailbox, linkedin messages, whatsapp, messenger etc.), the situation is almost exactly the same. There are more messages than you could ever read through paying 100% attention, let alone answer. So what do you do? You compromise. You skim through and ignore…
We naturally choose to pay more attention to messages that are important to us, for the cost of ignoring the rest that don’t seem as promising. But how does this exactly happen?
It is just like deciding to hear or ignore the music: We give our brain a vague and fuzzy description of the types of messages we would potentially be interested in and let it do what it does best. Focus on the signals. Recognise the patterns. Ignore the noise.
Should I answer?
- Message from an influencer in your field. Yes.
- Message from the CEO of a large company? Most likely, yes.
- Message from a good friend? Yes.
- Message from a lucrative client? Yes.
- Message from a someone offering SEO service? Most likely, no.
- Message from someone looking for a job? Most likely, no and so on…
Here is the critical bit.
In most cases, the brain works in autopilot to find the matching patterns, ignoring the rest. It wakes you only when you need to make a decision.
The brain seeks a signal – a pattern. So that signal is really important and worth consciously thinking about. It is very much like a brief you give to a marketing or recruitment agency. Give the wrong one, and you got to a very bad start. What is your brief to your brain?
Different People Looking for Different Things
There are different personas and what each will respond to or ignore will differ. Each gave different briefs to their brains on what to look for. Depending on if you are a…
- Recruiter looking for talent for a specific role.
- Hiring manager not actively looking to hire, but open to meeting with people that have great potential.
- An investor looking for the next promising investment.
- Startup founder looking for key people to grow your business.
- Entrepreneur looking for people to co-operate in a project.
- Freelancer looking for the next gig.
- Consultant looking for a new client.
- Salesperson looking for a new lead.
All of these people will respond to or ignore different type of messages that hit their inbox. This automatic sifting process is a function of their own brief to their brain about what is worth their time.
If you look closely, you will notice something strangely remarkable. While some people are looking for something really specific, others are looking for something that is harder to specify. How does this difference play out?
Those Who Ignore The Most, Aren’t The Busiest.
Who then, ignores the most messages? Those who think they have a very clear idea of what they are looking for.
Think back to your own experience, does this make sense? It aligns well with mine. For example, a recruiter or a VC will most likely not read or reply, if the message does not signal it is a great candidate for hiring or investing. On the other hand, an entrepreneur is more likely to read and reply a message that comes from someone with an interesting background or expertise even though the direct benefit might not be so apparent.
You might be a recruiter who is ignoring someone who can recommend the best candidate for the role because their profile does not exactly fit your idea of the ideal profile.
You might be a founder ignoring any service proposal that comes your way, but might actually be missing out on a solution that can help your business.
Key conclusion #1 Ignoring a message is a function of how precise people think what they are looking for is (rather than just a result of how busy they are).
Key conclusion #2 When you think you know what is it that you are exactly looking for, you may miss out on what you might need the most. Thinking “I know exactly what I am looking for” is the same as “I know everything I need to know”. The reality is, we don’t. Especially in bigger cities with more diverse cultural backgrounds, it is hard to tell who knows what – or how good they are.
Key conclusion #3 It is wise to be very careful of the brief that you feed to your brain on what you should pay attention to and what you should ignore. If the net you are casting is too narrow, you might be ignoring some messages that you’ll regret. The wider the net you cast is, the more chance you have to actually meet more interesting people. The downside is that it is less automatic and more cognitively tasking.
Key conclusion #4 Challenge yourself to change the clues you look at: Focus more on the why and less on the who and what. Especially when we receive a cold-message we instinctively look at how personal the message is, who is sending it and what it’s about. It is only natural. We ask ourselves, Am I part of a huge lead generation campaign, or is there an actual person writing a message to me? And the triggers we pay attention to serve us well. If that person sending the message knows someone we do, or if the message is personal, that is good news. But are these actually the best filters to sort out real opportunities from spam? I don’t think so.
This is a problem: We look at who sent the message and what they are talking about more than the why. Our pattern recognising brain can only do so much, without involving higher brain functions involved with decision making.
This might be the solution: Try asking Why is this person sending this message? more often to get to the heart of intent. Use your decision-making capacities more rather than automatic filtering. Cooperation and collaboration are at the core of the creative spirit. When you establish intent, it is easier to sniff out the givers from the takers.
It might take more time and energy but do try to cast a wider net. Accept that, just as you don’t know everything, you don’t know exactly who you should ignore. Love the fuzzy and uncertain nature of these messages you receive, because they are very human in every way.
If you are curious…
I’m Ozan and my domain expertise has been people, culture and learning for the last 10+ years. Founded some startups, written some books (including Startups Grow With People: How to Pick Partners, Recruit the Top Talent and Build a Company Culture). Also acted as a consultant for some great companies. Now I’m running CommonWisdom and building some side projects such as CultureBoom.
All the other stuff I made over the years is at ozandagdeviren.com