If you’re skimping on sleep to accomplish your work and other pursuits, blame Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh and Donald Trump. They are some of the main contributors to what Pennsylvania State University labour historian Alan Derickson calls “the cult of manly wakefulness,” which has us in its grip to the detriment of our health.
Today, that wakefulness applies to both men and women. His recent book Dangerously Sleepy notes there was a time when women were set apart, warned they must get their “beauty sleep,” while men were advised that to achieve more, they must limit their sleep. But these days, equality reigns, and sleep doesn’t.
Benjamin Franklin, in his Poor Richard’s Almanack guide to getting ahead, offered the maxim that “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” But these days, of course, his nostrum about “early to rise” is clung to by many professionals, while “early to bed” is forgotten.
Thomas Edison may have done more to rob the world of sleep than anyone. “The inventor of practical incandescent lighting was not only the father of the night shift. He also took a prominent part in criticizing and even ridiculing sleep as an inefficient and immoral indulgence,” Prof. Derickson says.
Working nights was much more feasible with lights, but more important, Edison propounded the virtue of self-advancement through endless work and minimal sleep. He often worked all night when caught up in a problem, and told Scientific American that he seldom slept more than four hours a day. One outsider chronicled a 60-hour stint without sleep as Edison immersed himself in an experiment.
The book notes that newspaper editor Horace Greeley, whom we recall for his “Go West, young man” advice in order to benefit from the country’s growth, had another framework for prosperity: Twenty hours of work and four hours of sleep a day.
But it was Charles Lindbergh who was the most flamboyant epitome of manly wakefulness in his solo flight across the Atlantic, when falling asleep over the 33.5-hour trip would have meant plunging to his death in a time before automatic pilots. Because of a sleepless night before the flight and official duties after, he put off slumber for 63 hours.
At the press conference after the flight, he said: “I didn’t really feel what you may call downright sleepy, but I sort of nodded several times. In fact, I could have flown half that distance again.” Years later, however, in the 1950s, long after the myth had been solidified, he revealed he had nearly fallen asleep over Eastern Canada, early in his flight, and took to singing, shaking himself and stamping his feet to ward it off.
For women, Prof. Derickson notes, the message was different. Success was not climbing the ladder at work or gaining an Olympic medal but winning a male partner, for which physical appearance was deemed vital. Physician Emma Walker used the term “beauty sleep” in a 1906 article in Ladies’ Home Journal, advising, “As a rule, girls do not realize what a very important element of beauty is the early bed-hour. It is not until they begin to see the lines coming and the dark circles appearing that they wonder if late hours have anything to do with these fingermarks of time.” In 1933, Good Housekeeping added that lack of sleep could provide circles under the eye and lifeless hair, and in 1936, Ladies’ Home Journal put “nervous tension at the side of the mouth” on the list.
In the last third of the century, of course, women who wanted to make it in the world of work had to subscribe to manly wakefulness – exacerbated by carrying an unequal share of the burden on the home front. But the lure of success through avoiding slumber continued.
Prof. Derickson provides some examples from National Football League coaches including George Halas, George Allen and Jon Gruden, who, after his 2003 Super Bowl victory with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrote a book, Do you Love Football? Winning with Heart, Passion, and Not Much Sleep.
Even organizations got into the mix, Citibank boasting with its slogan, “Citi Never Sleeps.” The campaign ran from 1978 until 1996, but Prof. Derickson notes it was revived in 2008 with a 5 a.m. announcement by the CEO.
Speaking of boasting, Donald Trump variously has reported sleeping between three and five hours a night, saying he is so passionate about his work that he can’t wait to get up. In Think Like A Billionaire, he counsels: “Don’t sleep any more than you have to. … No matter how brilliant you are, there’s not enough time in the day.”
Of course, manly wakefulness is not limited to aspiring billionaires and other professionals. Blue-collar workers have been swept up with overtime and around-the-clock shifts in transportation, manufacturing, and other fields. Interns in hospitals may wear white coats and tout good health but they have the same horrid schedules. A 1988 U.S. report declared: “Ours is a society with an anti-sleep bias. We look down on societies like Mexico and the countries of the Mediterranean world where the afternoon siesta is a tradition.”
His book is titled Dangerously Sleepy because of the implications for our personal health, and the perils that occur when sleep-deprived people make mistakes. The Three Mile Island nuclear disaster happened overnight as did the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Lac-Mégantic derailment and explosion occurred late at night with just one person manning the train, so it will be interesting to see whether lack of sleep was a factor.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter