Here’s a column I wrote a few years back about sleep deprivation in Silicon Valley. The re-emergence of sleep pods at Google today got me thinking about it again.
Tireless Preaching Virtues of Sleep
August 29, 2008
San Jose Mercury News
My first clue that Mark Rosekind is serious about this sleep stuff came when I called to make an appointment to meet with him.
“Is 9:30 too early?” his assistant asked.
Nine-thirty? Too early? This is Silicon Valley. Half the day is gone by 9:30. There have been gym workouts, power breakfasts, the kids have been schlepped to school, companies have been bought and sold and sold again.
Next came the couch — a cushy black one along one wall of Rosekind’s office at Alertness Solutions in Cupertino.
“The couch is not for show, ” Rosekind says. “We absolutely practice what we preach.”
Which is sleeping. A lot. Or a lot more than you probably do. You need eight hours a night, you know. Nine or 10 if you’re an adolescent.
Rosekind is a bona fide sleep consultant. A man who studied under and worked for sleep guru Dr. William Dement at Stanford before starting a company that comes up with strategies to help corporations make sure their workers are well-rested. A man who’s spoken on sleep at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland — twice. (No word on whether any of the world’s biggest movers and shakers nodded off.) A man, in short, on a mission: Rosekind is out to tell anyone who will listen that we simply don’t get enough sleep — and that there are serious consequences when we don’t.
“We need sleep and now we know it’s vital, ” he says. “Without it you die.”
OK, so Rosekind doesn’t have a list of people who died literally from lack of sleep. He does have studies, statistics and a PowerPoint presentation, which argue that accident rates go up and performance goes down when human beings cut corners on snoozing.
While he makes his money from working with airlines, trucking companies, hospitals and businesses where sleep is a serious safety issue, he attempts to make his point for free — speaking at local high schools in an effort to reach kids and their parents.
The thing that fascinates me about Rosekind is that he is mounting his assault from a place that is arguably the capital of sleeplessness. It’s like arguing for vegetarianism in Nebraska or coming out against Botox in L.A. And he knows it.
“We live in the heart of it here, ” Rosekind says of Silicon Valley’s always-on culture. “Right in the heart of it.”
The valley is a place where lack of sleep is a sign of success, a place where college kids graduate from pulling all-nighters in dorms to pulling all-nighters in cubicles. A place where corporate histories (think Apple, Yahoo, Netscape) are rich with founders and early engineers surviving on catnaps under their desks.
Rosekind says those sleepless success stories are all about pushing the envelope. And what entrepreneur doesn’t want to push the envelope? But there are other stories, too. Stories people aren’t as anxious to talk about.
“Everybody’s got a story when they stayed up all night, ” he says, “and hit the wrong button and lost all the code that they did last night.”
Rosekind argues more would get done a lot faster if workers simply took the time to sleep. And yes, there are simple things we can do to make that happen. Naps at work are good. And caffeine used strategically can stoke performance. (Naps and coffee. I love this man.)
But the biggest change needed, Rosekind says, is a change in attitude. And that change could take a while.
“I think we’ll be at this for a long time, ” he says. “I’m not going to be around when it happens.”
But as long as he is around, he will keep up the fight. Tirelessly.