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Sleep is My Superpower
I used to be so dumb when I was a kid.
True story. Back in 1999-2000, I was a pretty busy guy. I was working a full-time job as a LTJG in the Coast Guard, I was going to grad school part-time, and I had a part-time job on the floor of the Pacific Options Exchange. This was my typical day: I’d get up at 3:45 to drive to San Francisco for my trading floor job, I’d work there until about noon, then I’d head back to my Coast Guard job to work from 1pm until 10pm. Then I’d come home and study until one or two in the morning. Then I’d go to bed and do it all over again. For a period of a little more than a year, I was averaging two hours of sleep a night. I’d catch up a little bit on the weekends.
You dumb dummy. I mean, it all worked out in the end—I got a job on Wall Street, and the rest is history. But that was a really unhealthy thing to do. And towards the end of that period of time, I was delirious from lack of sleep, just going insane. I have distinct memories of standing on the trading floor, looking up at the screens, and having no idea what the hell was going on because I was so sleep-deprived. But there were no ill effects on my health, at least none that manifested immediately. I have the usual stories about pulling all-nighters in college, including one time when I pulled two all-nighters in a row, but that was just bad time management. And the military in general is not good for sleep. I’d be at sea, standing one-in-three watches on the bridge, getting up at 2:45am to stand the 4am-8am watch, then working a full day. From age 18 to 32, I got practically no sleep at all.
That changed in 2006 when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My doctors stressed to me the importance of getting a full night of sleep—lack of sleep can trigger a manic episode. So I slept. And the interesting thing is that, once I started getting sleep, I went from being a minimally competent trader to being a stud trader. When I started getting sleep, everything in my life got better. These days, I get eight, sometimes nine hours a sleep a night. It is my superpower.
Oftentimes, someone will say to me, “You do so many things—when do you sleep?” This always makes me smile. I do so many things because I sleep so much—it makes me a million times more productive. I would say that my productivity drops 10% if I get seven hours of sleep a night, 30% if I get six hours of sleep and 50% if I get five hours of sleep. Less than four hours of sleep, and I am practically useless. People have been studying this, and they’ve found that a lack of sleep is highly correlated to all sorts of health problems, including things you would never think had anything to do with sleep. People are a bit obsessed with longevity these days, well, one simple way to live longer is to go the fuck to sleep. Lack of sleep makes everything worse.
In the United States, we have a workaholic culture where people are routinely underslept—investment bankers and such. I recently heard a story where a junior banker was told by an MD that he could “sleep when he’s dead.” I don’t have a problem with the workaholic culture, but we’d all be vastly more productive if we got a good night’s sleep every night. But there are trade-offs in everything we do. If you sleep two extra hours of sleep a night, that is two less hours you have to do other things. Frequently that means exercise. The number of Wall Street guys that get up at three-thirty in the morning to work out is uncountably infinite. You have to work out, right? I’ve done these calculations, and in my estimation, you’ll get more longevity out of sleeping than exercise. Not that both aren’t important, but sleep is more important. “Well, I have kids.” Heard that one before, too. Let me tell you something—it has been almost two decades since I stayed up to watch a late-night show. Who watches these things? On average, I am in bed by nine-thirty.
I don’t think I’ve made my case convincingly enough. I write four newsletters, a bunch of books, got my MFA, teach a finance class at the university, DJ, write these stupid essays, write short stories, trade, host a radio show, travel around the country, and make a little time for exercise. None of this is possible without sleep. A friend of mine goes to Burning Man every year, and asked me if I would come next year, in 2024. So I asked him: when do you sleep? He says, oh, I sleep. But is it noisy? There is house music playing 24 hours a day, he said. Your tent is rattling. You can feel the vibrations through your sleeping bag. This doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me. He offered me a slot to DJ at his camp, but I don’t think spending a week in the desert with no sleep is really worth it. Too old for that shit.
Also, sleeping is fun! When I was in my twenties, I viewed sleeping as a waste of time. I wanted to be awake all the time, experiencing life. I really thought I would sleep when I was dead. Now, I don’t consider sleeping to be a waste of time at all—I get some of my best ideas when I am asleep. A couple of months ago, I dreamed up an idea for a short story, got up the next morning, and started writing. I get a lot of ideas from dreams. I even get investment ideas from dreams. Also, dreaming is a blast, you get to do all kinds of things in your imagination that you can’t do in real life. And most of those dreams occur in the 1-2 hours of REM sleep, right before you wake up—that’s where I do all my good thinking as a creative. Nothing worse than having your alarm go off at 3:30am, right in the middle of Stage 4 sleep, and you have no idea where you are. Dreaming is your subconscious trying to solve problems in the middle of the night. There is a whole science around dream analysis, and while I don’t put too much stock in this, I do think that dreaming is when you allow yourself to think about things you wouldn’t allow yourself to think about when you are awake.
I should also add that any program of exercise should be accompanied by a program of sleep, especially weightlifting. You can lift weights all you want, but you are not going to get any stronger if you don’t sleep and allow your muscles to heal. I lifted weights for four years at the Academy, and didn’t get much stronger. The only time I got stronger was went I went home for a long weekend and slept ten hours in a night, then I’d go back to school and add ten pounds to my bench press. I should also add that drugs and alcohol are terrible for sleep. You might get drunk and pass out, but you’re not really sleeping—you’ll be exhausted the next day. Cocaine sounds like fun (never tried it), but the idea of not sleeping for a few days doesn’t agree with me. I am currently writing this on a plane to Los Angeles. Got up at 2:45 this morning to catch the early bird shuttle to Charlotte, and I can tell you that I’m going to be in bed at 7pm tonight, West Coast time, so I can catch up on my sleep. I am as fastidious about sleep as some people are about diet and exercise. They may be physically healthy, but I am mentally healthy.
And that’s another thing—if you are prone to stress and anxiety, your stress and anxiety are going to be amplified a hundredfold if you are not getting enough sleep. I’m like everyone else—when I get in bed, my mind is racing, worrying about shit I have to do or stressing about this or that. It takes me about a half hour to fall asleep. But sleeping is like Ctrl-Alt-Delete on my brain—I wake up the following morning, rebooted, and the stress is gone. It’s the best possible thing that you can do for your mental health. But of course, all the ding-dongs are focused on their physical health, and sleeping four hours a night. What is more important? How you answer this question says a lot about your outlook on life, and your priorities.
Every once in a while, you hear about these jerks who say that they only need two hours of sleep a night. You know who used to say that? Eliot Spitzer. He’d be running around Central Park at three in the morning. He’s not Superman—he’s just an idiot. We are not different. Nobody needs less sleep. If someone tells me that they’re getting four hours or less of sleep a night, and that’s all they need, I fundamentally distrust them. They’re lying to you, and they’re lying to themselves.
We all have demands on our time. Sleep always seems to be last priority for people because they don’t see the benefits of it. They’ll muddle through on two hours less. When was the last time you got a full eight hours of sleep. Years ago? Do you remember how good it felt? You can feel that way all the time. Colbert sucks, anyway.