Silence is golden, especially in today’s global/mobile world

Ah, September—the back-to-school, back-to-work month! For many of us it marks the end of a three-month period in which we try to take as much vacation time as possible with family or friends, preferably outdoors.

For me, summer 2012 allowed for another trip with my kids to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Six days of nonstop being outdoors canoeing, portaging, eating dehydrated foods, fishing, and sleeping on hard ground in one of the few true wilderness areas left in the United States.

I’m sure to some this sounds like utter hell. But it’s a rewarding endeavor in that it strips away just about every element of “civilization.” No rush-hour traffic, music, motors, TV, texting, computers, video games, phone service, electricity, plumbing. No emails, texts, or IMs, no list of chores to tackle at home, or list of projects to complete at work (though they’re of course waiting upon return). Just the basics of food, shelter, clothing, and time; time to visit with the people you’re with, read a book, think, and unplug enough to actually feel nature.

This isn’t just about what one sees and smells. It’s actually about what one hears, or rather, doesn’t hear. The silence in certain areas of the BWCA is deafening, even during the daytime. One of the last lakes we were on was void of songbirds; it was warm and fairly still, and I could clearly hear a leaf fall from a tree roughly 30 feet away. Three days earlier, in the morning, we could hear the rumble of a small waterfall located more than a mile away.

It’s an incredible experience; one that I hope more people can take in before AT&T destroys it by building cell phone towers enabling cellular service in the western area of the BWCA—the portion that attracts millions of dollars in tourism dollars each year for the city of Ely. While unsuccessful attempts to block such “progress” focused on its visual impact (a 450-foot blinking tower), the real damage will be the loss of silence, as people inevitably forget to turn off their phones as they do everywhere else, or decide to use their hands-free to talk with friends back home while canoeing across an otherwise silent lake. If this begins to happen, perhaps I’ll start packing a paintball gun with my fishing gear.

The BWCA experience also reminded me of how important it is to unplug here at home—to every day turn off social media, and media in general. I know that’s opposite of how things are trending—that we need to stay on top of work emails, while increasing how much we tweet pithy observations, post to and “like” on Facebook . . . But there’s a quality-of-life element we’re losing by being plugged in too much. It includes the art of talking with and listening to one another.

I used to keep a BlackBerry on all night and checked it close to bedtime. I also fell into the bad habit of doing things on the laptop (from emails to web searches to Facebook and Twitter) when I should instead have been talking with those around me. No more. I’ll be unplugging every night and staying unplugged until early a.m. from now on—except, of course, for being reachable by phone if really needed.

As our work and home lives turn more hectic between back-to-school and the end of budget planning in December, I hope you, too, can unplug every night to more thoroughly enjoy life, and better recharge for the next day.


What silence looks like in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Opportunities with Autism II

Before I sign off for this month, I want to plug the Autism and Employment Forum coming up October 9. Speakers will include Walgreens CEO Randy Lewis; Dr. Stephen Shore, author of Living with ASD; and executives from Cargill, 3M, Best Buy, and Medtronic, who will share how their companies are benefitting from better managing and hiring more individuals with some type of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Walgreens has developed distribution centers where more than 40 percent of employees have some form of disability, many of them ASD. 3M created professional videos depicting interviewing, acclimation, and accommodations strategies to bring autism awareness to human resources and hiring managers. Certain Best Buy districts have developed special training programs for those affected by ASD.

Also speaking at the forum will be Best Buy employee Ryan Hemphill, whom I introduced in a February 2001 Editor’s Note titled “Opportunities with Autism.” There, I talked about how the percentage of employees—especially incoming—with ASD is increasing incredibly fast. It’s now estimated that one in every 88 individuals, many of whom are still children, have ASD. Smart employers are taking steps today to tap this high-quality talent base by learning more about how people are affected by this disability, and how to reshape processes and work environments as needed to allow them to flourish as employees.

“We don’t seek to identify people on the spectrum,” Susan Larson from Best Buy’s HR Communications department said. “Instead, we do things through employee communications, talking about the subject and encouraging people to hire and work with people who may be on the spectrum.”

Nearly every company’s job application process includes an assessment questionnaire that can inadvertently eliminate individuals on the autism spectrum. For example, there’s often a question asking whether an applicant has ever stolen from an employer or school.

“A person on the autism spectrum will read that and take it very literally,” Larson said. “If they accidentally took a pen home from work, they’ll answer the question ‘yes.’”

In Hemphill’s case, however, a job coach helped him understand the questions asked in the application process. He did well with it, aced the interview, and was hired as a cashier, boosting his self-esteem and launching him on a path of independence and career development. He went on to earn an IT degree while working at Best Buy.

Produced by the Autism Society of Minnesota, the Autism and Employment Forum will take place at 3M’s corporate headquarters. Expected to attend are Governor Mark Dayton and senior executives from several area businesses. And there’s a daytime program and a duplicate evening program to accommodate schedules as much as possible. I hope to see you there.