One morning in the middle of the second century AD, the most powerful man in the world was awakened by his orderly.
It could have been in his tent on the front lines of the war in Germania.
It could have been somewhere along his frequent and arduous travels across the empire—in Asia Minor or Syria, Egypt, Greece, or Austria.
But chances are it was at the palace in Rome.
It was early. So early.
The sun still hid. It was cool and dark and quiet.
Like any normal person, a deep part of Marcus did not want to wake up, instead wanting to “huddle under the blankets and stay warm,” he would say. It was nicer there. Easier there.
But then he caught himself. “Is this what I was created for?” he said to himself. To feel nice? To have it easy?
“I have to go to work—as a human being,” he said, hauling his feet up and onto the floor. “Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants, and the spiders and the bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can?” he said to himself but also to us. “And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”
I first read a passage from Marcus Aurelius about this in his Meditations when I was 19 years old. It was before I dropped out of college, and I was having a similar back-and-forth with myself most mornings. Stuck in an early class I could never seem to get motivated for, my lower self desperately wanted to blow it off. So it was amazing to read the most powerful man in the world chiding himself for wanting to stay in bed. A guy reluctant to get out from under the blankets and put his feet on the cold floor—just like the rest of us. I printed out the full passage and put it on the wall next to my desk.
At the time, that advice was a helpful reminder to myself to get off my ass, to stop being lazy, and to work hard. It was an important early lesson in discipline. As I said in Discipline is Destiny, this decision we make in the morning, it not only determines how our day will go but it determines who we are.
It was early, always early, when Toni Morrison awoke to write. In the dark, she would move quietly, making that first cup of coffee. She’d sit at her desk in her small apartment, and as her mind cleared and the sun rose and the light filled the room, she would write. She did this for years, practicing this secular ritual used not just by writers, but by countless busy and driven people for all time.
“Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact,” she’d later reflect, “where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”
But of course, it was as practical as it was spiritual. Because at the beginning of her career, Morrison was also a single working mother of two young boys. Her job as an editor for Random House occupied her days, her children every other minute, and by the late evening she was burned out, too tired to think. It was the precious early morning hours between the parting dark and the rising dawn, before her boys uttered the word Mama, before the pile of manuscripts from work demanded her attention, before the commute, before the phone calls, before the bills beckoned, before the dishes needed to be done, it was then she could be a writer.
Early, she was free. Early, she was confident and clearheaded and full of energy. Early, the obligations of life existed only in theory and not in fact. All that mattered, all that was there, was the story—the inspiration and the art.
There she was, starting her first novel in 1965, freshly divorced, thirty-four years old and struggling as one of the few Black women in an incredibly white, male industry. Yet in her mind, this was “the height of life.” She was no longer a child, and yet for all her responsibilities, everything was quite simple: Her kids needed her to be an adult. So did her unfinished novel.
Give it everything you’ve got.
Which she did. Even after The Bluest Eye was published to rave reviews in 1970. She followed it with ten more novels, nine nonfiction works, five children’s books, two plays, and numerous short stories. And she earned herself a National Book Award, a Nobel Prize, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yet for all the plaudits, she must have been most proud of having done it while being a great mother–a great working mother.
Of course, it’s not exactly fun to wake up early. Even the people who have reaped a lifetime of benefits from it, still struggle with it. You think you’re not a morning person? Nobody is a morning person. In the military they speak of sleep discipline–meaning it’s something you have to practice. We only have so much energy for our work, for our relationships, for ourselves. A disciplined person knows this and guards it carefully. A disciplined person knows that getting their 7-8 hours of sleep every night does not negatively affect their output, it contributes crucially to their best work. It allows them to wake up and take advantage of the most productive hours of the day—before the interruptions, before the distractions, before the rest of the world gets up and going too.
Hemingway would talk about how he’d get up early because there was “no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” But we can imagine the mornings when he was hungover or exhausted from partying…those were not as fruitful. Morrison found she was just more confident in the morning, before the day had exacted its toll and the mind was fresh. Like most of us, she realized she was just “not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.” Who can be? After a day of banal conversations, frustrations, mistakes, and exhaustion.
Not that it’s all about being clever. There’s a reason CEOs hit the gym early—they still have willpower then. There’s a reason people read and think in the morning—they know they might not get time later. There’s a reason coaches get to the facility before everyone else—they can get a jump on the competition that way.
Be up and doing.
While you’re fresh. While you can. Grab that hour before daylight. Grab that hour before traffic. Grab it while no one is looking, while everyone else is still asleep.
Today, my routine is a little different than it was when I was in college, but I’m still up early. Now I’m not alone in a dorm but in a house with young children. Instead of an alarm clock, the kids wake me up before 6 a.m. My rule is no phone for at least the first hour of the day. I get the kids in the stroller and go for a three-mile walk. Then I journal for fifteen minutes before tackling the hardest task on the to-do list— it’s always something writing related. I write for about three hours then break the intermittent fast I started at around 6 the night before and do some reading over an early lunch. The pandemic was rough for me like it was for many people but one good thing about it was that I really dialed in my routine (I talk about this at length in the afterword of Discipline is Destiny if you want more detail). I think back now to those endless days of being in the zone, of having few interruptions, and as crazy and weird as they are, I have a nostalgia for them.
“I think Christ has recommended rising early in the morning, by rising from his grave very early,” observed the theologian Jonathan Edwards in the 1720s. Is that why quiet mornings seem so holy? Perhaps it’s that we’re tapping into the traditions of our ancestors, who also rose early to pray, to farm, to fetch water from the river or the well, to travel across the desert before the sun got too hot.
When you have trouble waking up, when you find it hard, remind yourself of who you come from, remind yourself of the tradition, remind yourself of what is at stake. Think, as Morrison did, of her grandmother, who had more children and an even harder life. Think of Morrison herself, who certainly did not have it easy, and still got up early.
Think of how lucky you are. Be glad to be awake (because it’s better than the alternative, which we’ll all greet one day). Feel the joy of being able to do what you love.
Cherish the time. But most of all, use it.
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