Reduce the Noise; Boost the Signal

February 14, 2024

Last week, I discussed the challenge of maintaining a sense of purpose in a noisy world. Unless we intentionally filter out noise, our sense of purpose—our “signal”—can be overwhelmed, and eventually lost. Fortunately, it is possible to filter out the noise and boost the signal in our lives.

Sometimes, the noise in our lives comes from circumstances beyond our control. Emotional distress, health problems, and even abuse can create so much dissonance that it’s hard to focus on anything else. These are real problems, and nothing I write today is meant to minimize these painful burdens.

But we often work against our own self-interest. We magnify the noise in our lives—and then wonder why we can’t hear the sweet melody playing quietly in the background. If we want to hear that melody, we have to reduce the noise.

Many struggle with noise that comes from comparing their situation to those of the people around them. Mark Twain reportedly said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” It is also a great amplifier of noise.

In 2020, researchers at Yale University and the Singapore University of Management delved into the relationship between wealth and well-being. After analyzing results from more than 2.3 million participants worldwide, the researchers concluded that our absolute amount of wealth is less important for our sense of well-being than how we compare our wealth with those around us. A desire to keep up with the Joneses appears to be hardwired within us. But that inclination only amplifies the noise. You have to get beyond that if you want to boost the signal.

We can also lose the signal by getting trapped in our comfort zone. Someone once said that “comfort is the enemy of progress.” A recent book by Michael Easter called The Comfort Crisis describes this problem: “Most people rarely step outside their comfort zones. We are living progressively sheltered, sterile, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged, safety-netted lives. … But a radical new body of evidence shows that people are at their best—physically harder, mentally tougher, and spiritually sounder—after experiencing the same discomforts our early ancestors were exposed to every day.”

My friends Joe and Stephanie Potter know the benefits of getting out of their comfort zone. Earlier this month, I visited them at their home in Hilo, Hawaii. Three years ago, they sold their home in Pacific Grove, packed up their four kids and two dogs, and moved to a new life on the Big Island.

But this was no Hawaiian vacation. In Hilo, they bought an acre of paradise and went to work building their homestead: clearing the land, fencing the yard, and planting fruit trees. They built pens for their goats, coops for their chickens, and hutches for their rabbits. When I arrived, they were building two large tables to expand their aquaponic vegetable production.

They work hard. In addition to their farm, they have regular jobs. But my friends find deep satisfaction in learning new things to turn their little farm into a viable economic enterprise. As they work together, they learn how to quiet the noise and boost the signal in their lives.

I asked Joe what advice he had for someone looking to create a more purposeful life. He said, “Make a plan for what you want in your future, and then start chipping away. Start small and do what fits your needs.”

If you want less noise or more signal in your life, carefully reflect on the following four questions:

  1. What brings me the greatest satisfaction in life?
  2. Where do I currently focus most of my energy?
  3. Are my answers to those two questions aligned, or do I need to make some changes?
  4. How can I better use my resources to live a life of greater purpose—both now and throughout the remainder of my life?

Process these questions in a quiet place. If you have someone in your life, include them. You might want to get your financial advisor involved. As you go through this process, you may be surprised by the clarity of the signal you discover. Follow it.

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 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