Bryan Johnson is calling time on CEO sleep martyrs like Elon Musk and Bill Gates: Napping under a desk doesn't make you a 'hero,' it makes you 'half dead'

Photo Credit Magdalena Wosinska 5 e1699530460611

Anti-aging expert Bryan Johnson is tired of self-proclaimed hustlers who pride themselves on getting little to no sleep.

The centi-millionaire and founder of Blueprint, a health and wellbeing organization studying age biohacking, claims to be the best person in the world at sleeping.

And having seen firsthand how many high fliers deny themselves rest—Johnson was the founder of Braintree which was bought by PayPal in 2013 for $800 million—he’s calling time on the widespread practice.

The phenomenon of successful individuals priding themselves on a lack of sleep is well known.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and owner of X—formerly known as Twitter—says he often sleeps in his office or on sofas in secluded corners of company headquarters.

Likewise Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said he used to compete with peers to sleep as little as possible, hinting at an underlying judgment if an individual gets a good night’s sleep.

More recently Peter Brown, CEO of investment management firm Renaissance Technologies, said he’s spent some 2,000 nights sleeping in his office—and even offered an employee a pay rise for picking up the phone in the middle of the night.

Gates has since said he’s realized the error of his ways, and Johnson agrees.

The 46-year-old entrepreneur, who is trying to reverse his age to 18, told the Diary of a CEO podcast he goes to sleep at 8.30 pm every night, having eaten his last meal of the day at 11 am.

Although his controversial regime draws astonishment and criticism alike, Johnson countered: “Sleep is the single most important thing any human does on any given day.”

A cultural phenomenon

Johnson said a no-sleep culture is embedded into many business circles, adding his friends often feel “trapped” by the pressure of a ‘grind’ lifestyle.

“If you look at it from a cultural identity standpoint [for] people who work hard at an entrepreneurial endeavor there’s this mythology that if you sleep under your desk, or you go days without sleep you’re a hero, that people will tell stories about you,” Johnson said.

“It’s almost like if you’re a great entrepreneur, and if you want to be respected by your peers, and if you want to achieve mythology-like status, you do that sleep deprivation thing.”

Johnson said when he speaks to peers about why they don’t get enough sleep, it’s often because the individual thinks they have to go through sleep deprivation in order to “be the kind of person they want to become.”

He added people “feel trapped that if they don’t [sleep less] they somehow won’t achieve ranking among the social group.”

Gates has echoed this thinking, saying on his podcast earlier this year: “In my thirties and forties when there would be a conversation about sleep it would be like ‘Oh, I only sleep six hours,’ and the other guy says ‘Oh, I only sleep five,’ then ‘Well, sometimes I don’t sleep at all.’

“I’d be like ‘Wow, those guys are so good, I have to try harder because sleep is laziness and unnecessary.”

A shift is coming

Increased research into the benefits of sleep has begun to shift some of the ideology around deprivation.

As well as obvious health benefits such as a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression, sleep is needed to operate well at work.

A 2010 study of more than 4,000 U.S. employees found fatigue-related losses total $1967 per employee, representing a “significant” drop in productivity.

Other studies have found a lack of sleep also compromises the quality of work.

In 2016 a report of the construction industry found that poor sleep led to a decrease in job competence, with good sleep helping predict the level of occupancy injury.

“The person who prioritizes sleep is going to be higher performing, they’ll be more lucid, they’ll have better ideas,” Johnson said. “The people who don’t sleep are literally half dead. They’re actually intoxicated, they’re impaired.”

Johnson was referring to a series of studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) which found sleep deprivation results in similar impairments to alcohol intoxication.

The reports found being awake for 17 hours is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%, while being awake 24 hours is similar to having a BAC of 0.10%—a level at which it would be illegal for a person to drive a car.

“These are people who are leading organizations,” Johnson continued. “There are groups of people that are expecting them to make high-quality decisions on behalf of the entire group. It’s those very people who are not sleeping well and who are impaired in their judgment. It’s backward.”

Evidence supports Johnson’s point. A 2020 study of partially and totally sleep-deprived subjects found that a lack of sleep increased impulsivity and risk-taking in decision-making situations.

Additionally, well-rested participants gathered evidence to make well-informed decisions while their tired counterparts tended to be less litigious.

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