This Is The Secret To Sanity And Success

People fail for a lot of reasons.

People do crazy things for a lot of reasons.

But one reason we don’t talk about enough is sleep.

I watched this at American Apparel.

There were a lot of problems at that company.

It borrowed too much money. It had a toxic workplace culture. It was besieged by lawsuits. It opened too many stores. This was all written about many times during the company’s public disintegration in 2014.

As I talked about in Ego is the Enemy and in Stillness is the Key, Dov Charney, the founder, was a remarkably accessible boss. A lot of leaders talk about being reachable, having an open-door policy, but he really did.

Not just open-door but phone and email too. Any employee, at any level of the company, from garment sewer to sales associate to photographer, could reach out whenever they had a problem. For good measure, during one of the company’s many public relations crises, Charney posted his phone number online for any journalist or customer who had an issue as well. The upside of this was that he was constantly in tune with what was happening in the company. He could solve problems as they happened, sometimes even before they happened. He had eyes and ears everywhere. He could notice and respond to sales trends. He could jump on every opportunity.

The downside of this was the same as the upside. Because by 2012, the company had 250 stores in 20 countries. Charney was sleeping only a few hours a night. By 2014, he wasn’t sleeping at all. There was always someone with a problem, always someone with an idea, always something to do. There was always someone somewhere in some distant time zone taking him up on the open-door policy.

It was this extreme, cumulative sleep deprivation that was the root of so much of the company’s catastrophic failure. How could it not be? Research has shown that as we approach twenty or so hours without sleep, we are as cognitively impaired as a drunk person. Our brains respond more slowly and our judgment is significantly impaired.

I knew this was a problem at the time, but it was only a few years later when I had kids that I fully understood. He was slowly killing himself through sleep deprivation. It wasn’t simply that he was making bad, even reckless decisions, it’s that his sleep deprivation was depriving him of the ability to make good decisions.

You want to think you can function on little to no sleep, but you just can’t. Not on a sustained basis, anyway.

American Apparel ultimately careened in a catastrophic mess of its own making. The decision to open up a new distribution facility was rushed, the timeline impulsively moved up. And when it started to go poorly, Charney moved into the shipping and fulfillment warehouse, installing a shower and cot in a small office. To him and some diehard loyalists, this was proof of his heroic dedication to the company. In truth, he was doubling down on what had created the problem, and ensuring it would be made worse.

Dov descended into madness in front of us. Unshaven. Bleary-eyed. Incapable of controlling his temper, or of even the slightest bit of patience or propriety. Issuing orders that contradicted orders he had issued just minutes before, he seemed almost hell-bent on destruction. It came soon enough…

Two things stand out to me from this period. The first is when he would call to talk very late at night, sometimes staying on the phone until he drifted off to sleep. It was as if he was terrified of having even the slightest down period, so he actively fought sleep until it eventually just took over. And then, oftentimes, there would be calls or texts early in the morning. He’d barely stayed asleep.

The other standout moment was reading reports from the famous board meeting after he had agreed to some financing terms that diluted his control of the company. His board watched, in horror, as Dov mixed package after package of pure Nescafé powder in cold water—essentially mainlining caffeine to stay awake. By the time he left the meeting, he no longer had a job. Within a few months, his shares were worthless.

Although this failure was particularly epic and played out in the headlines, it’s actually fairly common. The overworked person creates a crisis that they try to solve by working harder. Mistakes are piled upon mistakes by the exhausted, delirious mind. The more they try, the worse it gets and the angrier they get that no one appreciates their sacrifice.

Elon Musk has been doing some version of it (to slightly better results so far) for years now. Stimulants to stay awake. Ambien to crash. Careering from crisis to crisis, urgent deadline to urgent deadline, tweeting at all hours, a cycle which makes it all the more impossible to enjoy his success or plan for the long-term future. Arianna Huffington tells the story of waking up on the floor of her bathroom as she was building her company, covered in blood. She had passed out from sheer exhaustion and shattered her cheekbone on the way down. Meanwhile, a friend of Churchill’s said “He made in Cuba one discovery which was to prove far more important to his future life than any gain in military experience, the life-giving powers of the siesta.”

People say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” as they hasten that very death, both literally and figuratively. They trade their health for a few more working hours. They trade the long-term viability of their business or their career before the urgency of some temporal crisis.

If we treat sleep as a luxury, it is the first to go when we get busy. If sleep is what happens only when everything is done, work and others will constantly be impinging on your personal space. You will feel frazzled and put upon, like a machine that people don’t take care of and assume will always function.

It takes discipline to put your phone down and go to sleep. It takes confidence to manage your schedule in a way that protects your health. It takes self-awareness to know when you are not at your best, your mind is not operating right, and to step away.

The philosopher and writer Arthur Schopenhauer used to say that “sleep is the source of all health and energy.” He said it better still on a separate occasion: “Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death. The higher the interest rate and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed.”

Are you going to wait for a literal wake-up call? Are you going to keep working yourself to the bone, trading sleep for an extra conference call or a few minutes on television or a meeting with an important person?

That’s not success. It’s torture. It’s a prison experiment.

And no human can endure it for very long.

Happiness? Stillness? Enjoying the solitude or beauty of your surroundings? All of that is out of the question for the exhausted, overworked fool. The bloodshot engineer six Red Bulls deep is doing it wrong. The recent grad—or not-so-recent grad—who still parties like she’s in college is not cool.

I try to remind myself that having to stay late at the office to write, trying to push through on no sleep, is disrespectful to the craft. When I spend that extra time on my phone instead of going to bed, when I plan a trip or a week poorly, I am cheating my work, cheating my family. I’m doing something unfair to the stranger I happen to bump into.

Mostly, I am cheating and harming myself. A 2017 study actually found that lack of sleep increases negative repetitive thinking. Abusing the body trains the mind to abuse itself.

Sleep is the other side of the work we’re doing—sleep recharges the internal batteries whose energy stores we need in order to function and thrive as a person. It’s a meditative practice. It’s stillness. It’s the time when we turn off. It’s built into our biology for a reason.

If you want peace, there is just one thing to do.

If you want to be your best, there is just one thing to do.

Go to sleep.

Written by Chelsea Debrot