Simplify is a place to find focus and explore ways to make life better, simply.

The Cone of Silence

There’s something wonderful about silence. In our modern lives, we so seldom have any of it. When was the last time you did anything — other than see a movie in a theater–without some additional soundtrack–no traffic, no talk radio, no music, no cellphones.  Silence, or at least some muted-volume version of life, is for me way up there as a much valued commodity, which no one has enough of, but is often under-valued. The original TV show “Get Smart” had a silly device for secret conversations between Maxwell Smart and the Chief called the “Cone of Silence.” It always cracks me up, but it makes a point: there are times when you just need some silence.

Story time 

Photo by Kim Boek from Seoul, South Korea, via Wikimedia Commons

Let me paint you a picture. As a freshman at University of Texas at Austin, I lived in the Jester dorm (a somewhat ironic title, but the actual name of the place, no joke)–ten floors, 3,000 of your best friends.  Consequently it was very noisy and I found it hard to sleep, having grown up in what by comparison was the ultra-quiet suburbs. The freshmen neighbors with whom I shared a wall were fond of cranking their music after midnight. I like music, and I like loud music–a lot–but I also realized that I would not be able to survive and thrive on less than 4 hours of sleep each night.  My neighbors also had a habit of bouncing a rubber ball, a Spaldeen to be exact, against the wall at random hours of the day or night. Try reading or sleeping with “pah, dah, pause, dah, pah, pause” –wall, floor, catch, floor, wall, catch–for an hour. (Side note:  neither of these “party hearty” guys made it to sophomore year, but I digress.)

To cope with this noise level, I bought a pair of good headphones, not ear buds, full enclosed earphones. With them on, I could hear practically nothing of the outside noise. Even better, with the Classical FM station on low volume, wearing these in bed at night was something akin to an isolation chamber, but without the mind- and body-altering effects as seen in the 1980 sci-fi/cult/schlock film “Altered States,” in which William Hurt is magically transformed into a caveman by peyote.  With the headphones on, I slept well, passed my classes, graduated and went on the graduate school.

Story No.2

Later in life, I began to work more seriously as a professional writer and editor. I edited a few big books (100,000+ words) for an art museum, reviewing and revising the work of university professors and museum curators. At the same time, I set up a home office and began to work on projects there.  At the time, my kids were little and everyone who has kids knows that containing their volume at home is not really possible without Draconian measures. I remembered my college  strategy for coping with noise, but writing with music on proved too distracting. So I got a pair of ear protectors, like the ones used on a shooting range or flight line. When I put them on I would tell my wife, “I’m going into the ‘Cone of Silence’ for about an hour, so if you need to talk to me about anything important, please come see me face-to-face.” That worked, mostly. It required some give-and-take from all concerned. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am sorry to confess that this spillage of my work obligations into my personal life did not help my parenting or my marriage.)

But the main point is this: sometime you may need to establish your own Cone of Silence to deal with distractions. In the office, I’ve seen people use headphones in cube-land. For those that have an office door, just close it when you need to focus, and to be polite, put a sign outside that says simply “Please knock.” People will realize that you are working on something for which you need to focus and they will generally save non-essential interruptions for a time when your door is open.

For many writers, artists, graphic/web designers and even some computer programmers, they require a quiet place to work, apart from coworkers or family. That’s why people who have the means have private offices within their homes or a shack in the country. In some big cities, there are businesses where you rent a desk. Ginny Wiehardt, a Fiction Writing Guide at, has posted a list of such places around the nation and the world at (thanks Ginny!) The key point here is that carving out a place and time to focus is a universal desire that you share with many other people.

You just have to make a step forward to try. Try headphones, ear protectors, a private room, a rental desk. The main things is to afford yourself a Cone of Silence that works for you. Send more ideas and examples!!


About Hornsby

I'm a mid-career public relations executive now, but I've had nine lives. After 15 years climbing the ladder in the art world up to executive director in a museum, I vaulted over to this Internet thing, which was just getting going good in the 1990's. I worked at an information technology company, then had a short stint as a marketing executive, which led to technology public relations full time. After the tech bubble burst, I did corporate PR for a while, until I joined the academic world. I'm now a public relations executive for an Ivy League university. During the same career trajectory, I transitioned from a visual artist (BFA, MFA) to being a writer and performer (storytelling, stand-up). My newest venture/hobby is music, rekindled as a baritone in an a cappella choir.

3 comments on “The Cone of Silence

  1. Stephanie
    November 19, 2009

    I was recently on a six-hour drive along which there were few decent music stations that came through clearly. As a rule, I always drive with music. But one time, recently, I forgot my CDs; my ipod wasn’t charged – I freaked for a moment. Then, I just went with it. Turned off the static and all sorts of creative thoughts began trickling into then flooding into my mind. I arrived home calm and focused.

  2. simplifime
    November 19, 2009

    Silence: What a concept!

  3. Barbara
    December 11, 2009

    I often work in total silence. I enjoy music, but I find words distracting – especially if I know the song I’ll want to sing along. So jazz works well for the background. I can’t comprehend how kids manage to get work done with headsets on and noisy music playing. I see them rockin to the beat – while writing a serious essay. Would they do better if it were quiet – or are they so used to it that to them it’s the same as…. silence. A consistency of sound, or lack thereof. (“the sounds of silence” ala S&G.) As long as it’s consistent it’s not as distracting. ? Headsets, as you write, used to be used to block out noise. Now they’re used to create it.

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