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Turning Down the White Noise

Turning Down the White Noise

The two most consistent things about distractions: one, the barrage of them is growing louder and louder. That’s just true. The second is that they always make good on their promises. Distractions make this promise: they say to you, they say to me, “Hey, pay attention to me. And whatever it was you were focusing on, you will definitely lose your focus on that thing.” That that’s what distractions do. They draw us away from what it is that we need to be paying attention to—what it is that we could be paying attention to, what it is that would help us in life if we were to pay more attention to it.

My wife and I, we have five kids and so we really value our sleep. To sleep better, we use white noise. Maybe you do as well. But one of the things that’s interesting about white noise is that it actually masks things. That’s what it does. It’s a tool that we use, to mask the things that we don’t want to hear. And so when you want to sleep, you turn up the constant, the-almost-hard-to-even-hear-sometimes sound, that are always in the background. And when it’s just loud enough, it covers up those noises you don’t want to hear.

In fact, the thing about white noise is that it’s constant. Whatever room you’re in right now, where wherever you’re consuming this content, just take a moment and just listen. You probably hear the sound of something around you. Maybe it’s people walking by. Maybe it’s music in the background. Maybe it’s just the simple slight hum of the air conditioning. You’ll also notice that it’s really imperceptible at times when you’re just walking through life. You don’t stop to pay attention to all the noise around you. It’s just always there, and it’s hard to even hear unless you actually listen for it.

And it is masking something. There is noise that you can’t hear because of how loud the white noise around you actually is. That’s what it does. White noise is really just a form of a distraction. Every single person in life has their fingers on the knob of some kind of white noise. Whether it’s Netflix that you’re bingeing on, whether it’s the online shopping that you’re doing, whether it’s the news that you’re always consuming, you’ve got your fingers on the dial of something that you turn up to mask the things that you don’t want to feel.

There’s a song that articulates this quite well. The band 21 Pilots have a song called “Car Radio,” in which the lead singer tells the story of his life. That he was enjoying his car radio, and then all of a sudden, his car radio got stolen. It got removed from his car. And so now in the silence, his fears that were always present—the things inside of him that he didn’t want to have to deal with—seemingly grew louder.

Now of course they didn’t, the difference is that the device he was using to mask those things actually got removed. And when the white noise of his car radio was turned down he could feel things that he hadn’t felt in quite a while. Eventually in the song he concludes, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of this fear that is now gripping me, that’s paralyzing me. I don’t even really understand where it came from.” But the truth is it was always there, he just had the radio up so loud he didn’t have to deal with it.

Recently, cars with automatic volume control have started to become standard. So when you’re driving down the interstate and you’re going a relatively high speed, they allow the radio to grow louder to cover up the sound of the road. And then, of course, you have that moment where you pull up to a stoplight, and now the sounds around you are now not as loud. And so they subtly and slowly turn the radio back down again.

I just have found that all of us are essentially doing the same thing. We all have our fingers on the dial if some kind of noise that we’re just automatically turning up to cover up that thing inside of us that we don’t want to feel. And it gets in the way of us becoming a better person. It gets in the way of us becoming a better leader. The great leaders really know how to deal with it. See, what happens is, as I began to feel loneliness in my life, maybe I turn up the volume of news or politics. As you begin to feel this new sense of anxiety or greater sense of anxiety, maybe for you, you turn up online shopping, and you just distract yourself with that. Or maybe for you there’s all kinds of fears about the future, or uncertainty about the future, and as those start rising up inside of you, maybe you look to work to pour yourself into even more.

Maybe the inadequacy that you feel—“Do I measure up? Am I enough?”—maybe the greater you feel that, the more you spend time working on exercise, or maybe even focusing on your eating habits. And then there comes a point in time where the volume just goes away, and you’re just left with yourself and that feeling that you had been masking—that you had been covering up. You see how stark that contrast is? It actually can be quite frightening. It’s why so many people are walking around today, emotionally incompetent, not knowing how to deal with those things inside of them. And it’s causing problems at home in our relationships, but it’s also causing problems at work in our own leadership.

So if you were to ask, “Well, what should I do about this? What’s a simple plan to begin to start to figure this out?” I think it’s really actually quite simple. The first thing I would try to do is just name your noise. Would you be willing to just state, “This is the noise that I use to cover up those things I don’t want to feel”? Here’s the great news: if you can’t do this alone, the people around you, the people closest to you, they probably would love to tell you. In fact, if you’ve asked them and you didn’t feel like you heard it from them, just ask them to text it to you. And they probably will. And it might actually be the phone that is the noise that you turned to.

But would you be willing to name it? Just say, “Hey, this is what it is.” And then secondly, would you experiment with the noise? You know the scientific method, right? You make an observation, and then you make a hypothesis, and then you change a variable, and then you test it, and then depending on what happens, you repeat. What if you did the same thing with your noise? What if you just experimented with it? “Hey, I have a hypothesis that I’m spending too much time at work,” or, “I have a hypothesis that I’m spending too much time on social media.” What if you just changed a variable just to see what would happen? Don’t get crazy and throw your phone away. Don’t get crazy and cut your internet cord. I’m just saying, just try for a meal. Just try say, “Hey, you know what? I’m not going to bring my phone to the table for the meal.” And just see what happens.

And then thirdly, after you’ve named it, after you’ve experimented with it, would you be willing to just listen to what’s there? Just simply listen to what’s inside of you. Hey, there might not be anything there. I don’t want to send you on some kind of witch hunt to find something that’s not actually there. But maybe there is something there. Maybe you actually begin to notice, “You know what? I didn’t realize that that emotion has been there that long and I’ve just been masking it. I’ve just been covering it up.”

Well, here’s an interesting idea for every one of us. If God really is the perfect father that we know him to be, and if he really gave us those emotions for a reason, don’t you think that he’s able to—with our help, that we’re able to, with his help—actually deal directly with them? What if you just invited him in to say, “Hey, I don’t know what to do with this anxiety. I don’t know what to do with this loneliness. I don’t know what to do with this feeling of inadequacy, but I need your help to actually deal with the emotion so that it doesn’t deal with me.”

The truth about emotions is that not only are they capable of dealing with us, but they’re also capable of wreaking havoc on the lives of everyone around us. You’re a victim probably of a parent who didn’t deal with their own emotion. And so, what have you decided? “You know what? It’s going stop with me. I’m going to be a person that is trending toward emotional health so that I can be a better leader and so that I can be a better person.” And what if you decided to become the kind of leader that habitually turns down the noise low enough and long enough to be ruthlessly curious of what’s there?

I’m telling you the best kinds of leaders are the most emotionally healthy people. And as you learn to turn down the noise low enough and long enough to be ruthlessly curious of your own emotions, I bet you’ll find that it actually makes you a better person as well.

— Clay Scroggins, adapted from White Noise, Session 2 of How to Lead in a World of Distraction

How to Use This Study

Maximize your influence by turning down the noise. In the How to Lead in a World of Distraction video curriculum, author and pastor Clay Scroggins teaches leaders four simple habits that create space for emotional evaluation and exploration. The helpful practices in the video study will empower leaders to replace the chaos in their increasingly busy days with an emotional competence and awareness that will lead to a calmer, more fulfilling life. Learn more at