Time to Hang Up the Sleeping Bag

Today’s most-emailed article in the New York Times is about the near-manic entrepreneur,  who dreams big and sleeps in his office. I read it feelingly, as it describes a way I have always wanted to be.

But in at least one respect, how I wanted to be changed once I became a father. Not for the reason you expect, because I now have to be at home for dinner; it’s true that I often leave the office earlier, but I still work once my son is asleep, and usually until I can’t stay awake anymore.

What changed is I watched someone already very like me become enraged at the universe because he needed a nap. It was almost comical to see my son so distraught without any self-knowledge at how easily solved his problem was.

Then I realized the joke was on me. I reflected on all the days I was a beastly leader. On every one I was tired and self-righteous from having over-worked myself the night before. In almost every case, I swung to the dark side  in the afternoon, when I should have been in a crib crying myself to sleep.

I still come to work cranky and tired, but when I do, I try to remain carefully sequestered the next day. “The reason I’m cranky,” I tell myself, “is because I need a nap.” I have half-seriously thought about keeping a pacifier in my desk drawer, or a sippy-cup of milk in a mini-fridge.

This doesn’t mean I want to pacify myself into becoming a professional manager. I still believe what a friend’s great-aunt told me many years ago: that a person’s most important quality is the quality of her energy.

And I can’t quite give up my own craziness, or my belief that the whole world is desperate for sincere emotion, real personality, decisions made when there’s no percentage in them. You can’t change the world without that craziness, or without a lot of hard work.

But if I’m going to be a lunatic, I have to be a well-rested lunatic. If I’m going to congratulate myself on a heroic effort, I won’t “harbor spiteful feelings against ordinary people for not being heroes.”

Since the day I came to Silicon Valley, the sleeping bag in the office has been our red badge of courage, a symbol of our willingness to do whatever it takes to realize our vision. But when the hero of the New York Times story shows off his sleeping bag, it just seems like a cliche, and an empty symbol. Anyone who works hard already lives ten minutes from the office anyway.

Over time, you realize that the real trick is working hard without seeming like you do at all. One of the other manic leaders cited by the New York Times, Teddy Roosevelt, once reported  in self-bafflement: “I never seem to get tired.”

I used to spend a lot of time wondering how it could be that Teddy never got tired. Now I realize the trick is to never let yourself get tired. If you’re going to work hard, do so quietly, and know your limits.


  • http://sheynkman.tumblr.com Kirill Sheynkman

    It's never about how much time you spend working or how hard… it's about how much you get done and what you accomplish. And though the two are often thought to be closely correlated, I really don't think the correlation is that strong. Working 14 hours and getting tons done is not nearly as impressive as working 4 hours, getting tons done, and heading home. The latter is impressive. The former is just a “Potemkin Village” set up to impress, not unlike the sleeping bag in the office.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Love the Soviet-era references Kirill, and agree with you in the main but not everyone can get tons done in four hours…

  • susi

    Indeed. There's a night and day difference in my little 11 month old pre-nap and post-nap. The adult parallel is watching someone's energy and productivity unravel as the invisible, yet-to-be-diagnosed cold or stomach bug takes ahold. The creeping crud can turn Benjamin Franklin into the Terminator in a matter of hours. Thank goodness for progress and corporate culture for real people. Now you go home to take a long nap and drink some orange juice. before the darkness spreads. Gone are the days of leaving the lantern on.

  • http://www.HomeSellingStrategist.com Clare Michael

    You could play it like our President does it and keep offices at 62 degrees. Burrrrr. That would keep me awake.

  • http://www.mn-houses.com/shoreview.php Shoreview MN Homes for Sale

    What a great article! I can relate with the working until I can't stay awake any longer, and then get a few hours of sleep only to regret my late night marathon session the evening before…but the cycle will live on until we all force ourselves to define our limits. Having kids will force us to define these limits quickly!

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