Once upon a time, vision and drive were the keys to success. Now, late nights, early starts and running on coffee are an additional prerequisite. The media tells us that Apple CEO Tim Cook is proud of being the first one in the office and the last one out. The startup culture glorifies long hours, extreme dedication and working for “as long as it takes” to get the job done. Sleep, it seems, is for the weak.
Unfortunately, sleep-shaming is not unique to the tech or startup world. In fact, it’s closer to home than we’d like to think. A lot of these themes surface in Northwestern’s busy narrative. This is a school where my peers respond to “how are you?” with “tired” as often as “good.” This is a school where our small talk revolves around how busy we are, how many midterms we have and as a function of that, how little we slept last night.
However, I think sleep is important. But more than I care about the 11 benefits of sleep, I’m concerned by the culture surrounding sleep. I like my bed as much as I dislike that we live on a campus that inadvertently sleep-shames individuals, a campus where sleep is an indicator of how wonderfully busy and involved someone is. This subconscious practice of associating a lack of sleep with busyness and success is not only inaccurate, but also potentially harmful.
One inaccuracy arises because “early” and “late” are relative terms. Last month, Cook semi-bragged about his early start while trying to convey his excitement for the Apple Watch. He tweeted “Got some extra rest for today's event. Slept in 'til 4:30,” but what isn’t said is when he slept. People have different sleeping schedules and it’s likely that the really annoying morning person in your 8 a.m. class didn’t sleep at 2 a.m.
Even when our sleep numbers take that into account and we talk about hours of sleep, the numbers aren’t as accurate as we give them credit for. This is because we often assume that in their waking hours, Northwestern students were working hard or playing hard, just as we were told all Northwestern students do. But the categories are narrow and we forget that people do more with their time.
Moreover, our bodies are different and studies have shown that genetics and habits might alter the amount of sleep people need to function. A lot of factors are at play and the final product, how much you can do on a given amount of sleep isn’t something you can control. It’s impossible to know the whole story from a single indicator, so we shouldn't set so much store by it.
Using sleep, or how little we get of it, as an indicator of whether we’re doing enough could lead to unhealthy feelings or behavior. I remember not feeling adequate during my freshman year when I would consistently finish my homework and turn in for the night earlier than all my suitemates. It almost felt as if I wasn't doing something right and that I was less involved and hardworking than they were.
The implications of getting caught up in this culture manifest physically as well. To stave off my (unjustified) feelings of inadequacy, I stayed up for the sake of staying up. I felt that my dark circles and incessant yawning the next day would serve as markers that I was doing Northwestern right. With most students falling far below the recommended nine to 10 hours of sleep a day, those indicators shouldn't be badges of honor.
Sleep isn’t for the weak. In fact, we have it to thank for keeping us strong. Northwestern shouldn’t be a campus where students feel guilty for sleeping early, waking up late or sleeping for double-digit hours. Make a conscious effort to remember that what you mean on this campus, whether it be your involvement, contributions or whatever else, is defined by a great deal more than how little time you spend in bed.