Noise Versus Signal

February 08, 2024

Several years ago, a friend introduced me to the world of amateur radio. I studied for the exam, got my license, and bought a radio. I am no expert, as my friend will attest, but it has been a wonderful opportunity to learn valuable life skills.

One of the first things I learned was how to distinguish signal from noise. Radio signals are electromagnetic waves modified by a transmitter to carry information. They travel at the speed of light until they are picked up by a receiver, which converts them into sounds you and I can understand. When properly tuned and powered, radio signals can carry huge amounts of information over vast distances. Noise, on the other hand, contains no information. It’s often the product of random electrical impulses in the atmosphere, and comes across the radio as static. Unfiltered noise can overwhelm the signal; if you want to hear the radio broadcast, you have to both tune in to the correct signal and filter out the noise.

This conflict between signal and noise applies to more than just radio. Our world is full of noise; unless we filter it out, it can overwhelm the signal in our lives, resulting in poor decisions and a less-than-satisfying life.

Some things amplify noise. For example, much of social media is noise, regardless of the number of likes it garners. The same is true for much of mainstream media. Long gone are the days when you could tune into network news with any hope of getting an unbiased report. Perhaps we were simply naive about editorial overlords back then, but when Walter Cronkite signed off with his signature line, “And that’s the way it is,” we generally took his word for it.

Often, the noise in our lives is self-inflicted: we overcrowd our schedules and our closets. Some think money will solve their problems, and sometimes it can. However, it’s worth noting that wealth often amplifies the noise in our lives.

In his book From Strength to Strength, Arthur C. Brooks tells the story of a man he knew in the early 1980s. The man, in his mid-30s, was part of a software engineering team that enjoyed spectacular success in the early days of personal computers. His success brought him more wealth than he had ever imagined, only to discover what so many others had discovered before—money is not meaning.

As Brooks describes it, the man sought other ventures, hoping more success would fill in the gaps in his life. Finding little success, he turned instead to his bucket list. Brooks writes, “He bought houses. He bought cars by the dozens. He bought gadgets, art, and every expensive knickknack that struck his fancy. His purchasing outstripped his ability to even enjoy the things he bought: He used his dining room as a kind of warehouse for unopened boxes full of things he had acquired. Paintings sat on the floor, unhung. Cars were not driven. And yet he wasn’t happy. He boasted endlessly about his big hit years before. ... Meanwhile, his growing collection of items, experiences, and people piled up as a substitute for the success he obviously craved. But that craving was never satisfied.”

Why was the man’s craving never satisfied? Because he couldn’t hear the signal—the sense of purpose he sought. There was simply too much noise. Please note that the noise was not his money. Nor was it caused by his money. Rather, the noise was within him, and was reflected in the choices he made. His wealth merely amplified noise that was already there.

We each struggle with noise. Fortunately, there are simple things we can do to reduce the noise and strengthen the signal in our lives. Financial planning can be a big help in this effort. Tune in to next week’s column for practical ideas on how to filter out noise and boost the signal in your life.

Please see important disclosure information here.

Steven C. Merrell MBA, CFP®, AIF® is a Partner at Monterey Private Wealth, Inc., a Wealth Management Firm in Monterey.   He welcomes questions that you may have concerning investments, taxes, retirement, or estate planning.  Send your questions to: Steve Merrell, 2340 Garden Road Suite 202, Monterey, CA  93940 or email them to