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How To Work More Productively to the Sounds of Silence

One late night years ago I was listening to a radio interview of a jazz musician. He said that sometimes what separates the great musicians from the rest is not the notes they play but the notes they don’t play. Over the years I’ve come to think that what he said about jazz musicians applies to most of the arts, as well as the professions, when they are practiced at their highest levels. The best artists and practitioners know when less is more.

A skilled speaker will sometimes use a long pause before beginning. The longer the pause, the more rapt everyone’s attention to an engaging opening line. A fine actor can sometimes accomplish with a long, telling look what dialog cannot. The comedian Jack Benny would pause for incredibly long periods, in a way that would unnerve other comedians, yet his audience would laugh all the louder.

In writing, it’s often what the author and editor leave out that makes the book a success. And in contrast, how many books have sunk, overloaded with a bilge full of words? It is what is left out of a Studs Terkel oral history or an Edward Hopper painting that makes the art that remains, art that soars.

Skilled movie directors make canny use of emptiness: the retired athlete gazes out over a deserted stadium, the teacher considers his quiet classroom after the students have filed out, the cleaned-out closet is a backdrop for a note, small and solitary, on an empty bed.

In the movie Good Will Hunting, Will’s buddy longs for the day when his genius friend Will won’t answer his beat-up door for their morning ride to their blue-collar job site, because it will mean Will finally did something with his talent. When that morning does actually come, we hear his buddy’s knocks go unanswered and see him smile a bittersweet smile as he walks slowly back to his car, alone.

The high art of being quiet is known to those who are most capable in the verbal professions. I have seen skilled and patient interviewers sit quietly, thereby coaxing from their subjects things they never would have said in answer to a direct question. The negotiator, the counselor, the trial attorney, the priest—the most skilled know when less is more, what notes not to play. Call it the power of nothing.

What is it about us humans that what is not there, especially when unexpected, is more poignant than what is? This power used artfully in life is used dramatically in ceremonies of death: the riderless horse, the flyover with its hollow formation, the flag at half-mast.

When the newspaper columnist Ann Landers passed away after 40 years of writing, her daughter wrote a short tribute and asked the editors of the many newspapers that had carried her mother’s column to leave the remaining space blank, “in honor of a gutsy, old-school newspaper dame who believed there was no better job in the world and who would, if she could have, wished you a fond and grateful farewell herself.” Below those words printed in my newspaper stretched a long white column.

What is it about us humans that what is not there, especially when unexpected, is more poignant than what is?

We know that we take for granted all that we have. We know that only when something is gone can we can properly value it. And as much as we may extol living in the present, smelling the roses along the way, most of us cannot do this in any sustained manner.

Showing something missing in notes expected but not played, words felt but not spoken—these and so many others are the absences that skilled professionals use to transcend normalcy and help us see more clearly, if only for a moment, our miraculous present.