The sleep revolution


Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast……

— Macbeth, in Macbeth



Millions of Americans recharge their phones and screens and laptops before they go to bed at night, but do they recharge themselves? Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post, says we’re in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis that creates anxiety as well as exhaustion, depression as well as droopy eyelids and dangerous accidents, poor judgment and prolonged sleep-deprived stupidity.

Ariana is undoubtedly an overachiever. Born Ariadnē-Anna Stasinopoúlou in Athens, Huffington moved to the United Kingdom at the age of 16, to study economics at Cambridge, where she blossomed into the woman she is today, becoming the first foreign and third female President of the Cambridge Students’ Union.

Huffington has gained fame in almost all forms of media – as an author, columnist, political commentator, talk show host, actress, travelogue and even wannabe politician, when she ran for Governor of California in 2003 as an independent candidate. In 2009, Huffington was named 12th in Forbes’s first-ever list of the Most Influential Women In Media. She has also moved up to 42nd in The Guardian’s Top 100 in Media List. In 2014, she was listed as the 52nd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.

Switch on your favorite TV talk show and chances are that Arianna will be on as a guest, delivering her pearls of wisdom. Arianna is everywhere. This exposure has gained many detractors whom I could accuse of being male chauvinists. Nobody sniggers at overachieving males. Some in the media have taken nasty snipes at her, on how she always manages to grab the center stage, lecturing on TED, inveigling herself into interviews with talk-show hosts and speaking her mind out loud at every turn. A recent comment from one such alpha male media guy was…” I’m starting to put Arianna Huffington into the same category as the Kardashians, the Osbournes and the entire cast of Jersey Shore.”

An ambitious woman in a man’s world has to be on her feet 24/7 and so was Arianna, constantly juggling a packed schedule, trying to maintain control over an over-the-top life style, when in 2007, she had a wake-up call. In her words, she says, “One evening I collapsed from sleep deprivation and hit my desk on the way down, breaking my cheekbone and getting a gash below my right eye that needed multiple stitches. That was my wake-up call for changing my own life, understanding the science behind the need for sleep and also looking around and seeing how many millions of us are in similar states of perpetual exhaustion to the point where it becomes the new normal and we don’t even notice it.”

What does an impassioned celebrity do when she encounters something that she sees as life-changing? Why, she writes a book on it of course. And so did Arianna. In her new book, titled – The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night At A Time, she exhorts readers to get a good night’s sleep. Working 24/7, she says, has terrible consequences, not just on health and productivity. Being on call, requiring to be the job all the time, is the cognitive equivalent of coming to work drunk, she says.

What is more, Arianna sees claims of sleep deprivation as a sort of macho thing for men. She was recently having dinner with a guy who bragged that he had only gotten four hours sleep the night before. “I felt like telling him – you know what? If you had gotten five, this dinner would have been a lot more interesting”

Sleep deprivation was in fact considered a key tool in enhanced interrogations that the CIA carried out on terrorism detainees, before Obama placed a ban on it.

At its height, sleep deprivation overlapped with other interrogation procedures – the use of stress positions like shackling a standing detainee with his hands in front of his body. To prevent detainees from getting a normal amount of sleep, loud music was played 24/7, on short loops. Sometimes a man would be woken every half hour so that, after a while he was completely disoriented, unable to coherently gauge the passage of time. Cells were also reportedly kept deliberately cold to prevent detainees from falling asleep. It was routine to keep detainees awake for a week at a stretch. Freed detainees are unanimous in that sleep deprivation is one of the worst forms of torture imaginable.

Willingly depriving oneself of sleep (as busy execs do), has the same effect as the involuntary one, I am told.

I read an excerpt of Huffington’s book and did not find anything in it that I haven’t already been aware of. Today, there are hardly any folks who haven’t heard or read about the ills of sleep deprivation. However, Huffington is spot on with this. If you haven’t or don’t experience problems sleeping and the consequences from it, count yourself lucky. I’ve gotten in a car accident from sleep deprivation. I’ve nodded off standing at work once. In college, I failed several math tests due to it. I recently failed an interview from it because I was so nervous the night before that I didn’t sleep a wink. I most certainly have difficulty processing information and my moods bounce back and forth like a metronome.

Even math for instance. I used to be a math wizard but that changed when I joined the industry in the 1980s. Then in my 30s, I was this corporate hotshot on the rise and one evening I was trying to recall calculus in my sleep-deprived state and I found it next to impossible to relearn something I had been a master at. When I used to read a book, I found that after a while I couldn’t retain most of what I had read. I was basically unable to function as a normal human being because of sleep deprivation.

Arianna Huffington ranks sleep among other basic human rights like the right to not go hungry and the right of freedom of expression. Sleep is a right that most employers violate when they expect their employees to be perpetually on call, especially since the advent of the smartphone. A close friend who was CEO of Wipro-USA a decade ago, once told me that his boss, the billionaire Wipro Chairman, Azim Premji, had this penchant for calling him up in the US, in the middle of the night to discuss something trivial that could have easily waited till the next morning. And when my groggy friend picked up the receiver, Premji would ask sweetly, “Did I wake you up?”

Nowadays it has become almost a badge of honor to claim that you can function to your optimum productivity and be unstoppable even when you get very little sleep. Republican Presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, says he gets by on just about four hours of sleep every night. According to Huffington, Trump displays every symptom of chronic sleep deprivation as described by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine – difficulty processing information, a paranoid mindset, mood swings and about-faces in his position on issues – all of these may be symptoms of sleep deprivation.


Before I vamoose, I have to tell you that I find this whole thing about us becoming zombies if we are sleep-deprived, a bit overblown, even though the best management practices might seem to show you that sleep deprivation and being workaholic hurts your performance, as Arianna Huffington suggests.

Take a look at the bios of top game changers in almost all walks of life and you will find a common thread running through them – they have all been sleep-deprived. Successful people wouldn’t be where they are today without having insane work ethics. Steve Jobs left incredibly big shoes for Tim Cook to fill. However, the man got the top job for a reason. He is a workaholic and Fortune reports that he begins sending emails at 4:30 a.m. He holds staff meetings on Sunday night in order to prepare for Monday. A profile in Gawker reveals that he’s the first in the office and the last to leave.

Mary Barra started at the very bottom of General Motors at age 18, when she enrolled in an engineering college sponsored by the company. She worked her way up the ladder with smart decision-making and a willingness to give the company everything she had. The Financial Times reports that colleagues recall her being the first person in the office every morning and responding to emails after 11 p.m. In 2013, her dedication was rewarded when she was named GM’s first ever female CEO.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos always had a relentless work ethic. From very early at Amazon, his work days have lasted a minimum of 12 hours, seven days a week, often ending at 3 am.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is known to leave work at 5.30pm to go home and prepare dinner and spend time with her children. And then, according to a 2013 interview with the Harvard Business Review, she gets right back to work online, after putting her kids to bed.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is known for her incredible stamina and work schedule. She routinely pulls all-nighters, working 130-hour weeks. When she was at Google and felt exhausted, she crawled under the desk and slept.

One of the most powerful and well-known women in business, Pepsi CEO, Indra Nooyi, worked midnight to 5 am as a receptionist to earn money while getting her Masters Degree at Yale. Today, she wakes up at about 4 am, according to Fortune. She says that at times during her career it has been normal for her to work until midnight.

Elon Musk tells other entrepreneurs they need to work twice as hard as everyone else. The PayPal co-founder and SpaceX and Tesla CEO is known for his tireless work ethic. His advice to budding entrepreneurs – ‘If other people are putting in 40-hour workweeks and you’re putting in 100-hour workweeks, then you know that you will achieve in four months what takes them a year’.

Back in 1975, when Alpinist, Reinhold Messner and his climbing partner Peter Habeler decided to discard all the traditional high-altitude climbing paraphernalia – porters, a large team of climbers, bottled oxygen, mechanical aids – to summit Gasherbrum I (at 8,068m, the 11th highest mountain in the world), he opened up the possibility of a whole new dimension in mountaineering. Throughout his climbing career, he continued to expand and define that dimension – in 1978, climbing Everest without bottled oxygen (with Habeler) and by 1986, scaling every one of the 14 peaks in the world above 8,000m without the help of supplemental oxygen and with bare minimum equipment and no outside Sherpa support. When he was young, Messner routinely went days without sleep while practicing on the Alpine peaks with his brother, Gunther.

The inspiration for the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Creation of Adam) came to Michelangelo after he had spent sleepless nights in a cave high up in the hills outside Rome. On the run from Pope Julius II’s storm troopers, for failing to meet his deadlines and goofing off on the job, he had been hiding without food and water and hadn’t slept in four days. It was when he was looking up at the cumulous cloud formations in the sky one twilight that it hit him – he finally had the inspiration for the now world famous fresco showing God reaching down to Adam.


The common thread that runs through all the above individuals – sleep deprivation – didn’t hold back their drive and creativity. It in fact nurtured them, nourishing a certain section of their brains and propelling them toward success. So, the set of rules seem different for successful people.

In any case, I am not going to spend money on a book that tells me to go to bed – alone.