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Understanding the Sleepless Elite Making $$$ on Very Few Zzzs

A lot of the rich and famous achieve a huge amount on a few hours of sleep. Can the rest of us get in on that?

Getting enough sleep takes forever. Eight hours is a long time to just do nothing — that’s a third of your life in which the most you can possibly achieve is a vaguely exciting dream or particularly intriguing fart. Maybe you’ll do one that sounds like a question followed by one that sounds like an answer, a fairly special event but not one you can monetize. 

In a world where everyone’s broke and overworked and it can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, chipping away at this lost time can appeal massively, especially when so many incredibly successful people swan around boasting about how few Zzzs they catch. 

While in office, Barack Obama slept six hours a night. Highly-strung finance enthusiast Jim Cramer goes to bed at 11:30 p.m. and gets up at 3:45 a.m. Elizabeth Holmes — admittedly, not exactly a role model in terms of ethics, but she got a lot of (sometimes extremely questionable) stuff done — supposedly got by on four hours a night. Tom Ford claims to sleep for only three hours a night. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson says he sleeps between three and five hours a night, giving him plenty of awake time for his seven daily meals. Elon Musk says he occasionally works for 120 hours a week, which leaves only six hours and 51 minutes per day for everything else added up — sleeping, washing, playing with X AE A-Xii… 

No wonder they all end up super rich. Someone who sleeps for four hours a night spends 1,460 more hours per year awake than someone who sleeps for eight, and they can do whatever they want with that. They’re building billion-dollar empires while the rest of us are dozing, dreaming about building go-karts with our ex-landlords

These high achievers that need minimal sleep are part of what the Wall Street Journal dubbed “the sleepless elite,” the 1 percent or so of the population that just don’t need as much sleep as the rest of us and seem to have a tendency to end up highly successful. But even if someone is gleefully happy and gets everything done that they need to, sleeping as little as this counts as a sleep disorder. It’s a positive disorder, and a pretty appealing one, but a disorder nonetheless. The bad news for anyone hoping to join the select few making millions at midnight: It’s genetic. 

A lot of the research into short sleepers comes out of the lab of Professor Ying-Hui Fu of the University of California, San Francisco. Fu points out that sleep is second only to air and water in terms of how long we can go without it without serious consequences. In a 2009 paper published in Science, Fu identified a mutation on a gene, BHLHE41 or DEC2, which was linked to needing less sleep, and could be replicated in mice and flies who suddenly found themselves with a lot more time to dedicate to exciting projects.

In 2019, her team subsequently identified another gene mutation — a single-letter shift in the gene ADRB1 that was found in a family with three generations of short sleepers that didn’t have the DEC2 variation. When recreated in mice, it, again, resulted in the mouse version of someone who springs out of bed at 4 a.m. and starts a company before breakfast. A third mutation, in the gene NPSR1, also found in 2019 and published in Science Translational Medicine, seems to play a role in improved memory as well. 

So there appear to be a few options out there, none of which are available to you due to being, y’know, genetic. It isn’t just a case of setting a really savage alarm and pushing yourself through the yawns. You can’t do anything about how much sleep you need apart from trying to get it. 

“I don’t believe there’s any safe way to [make oneself into a short sleeper], and I wouldn’t advise people to try it,” Fu told USCF News. “Our brains are intricate machines with many intertwined neural pathways. These pathways dictate mood, sleep and cognitive function, and if you try to manipulate one pathway, you’ll likely affect another. One day, though, we may have enough knowledge to intelligently tweak the system and help people sleep more efficiently.”

Most people, according to Fu, are chronically sleep deprived, a condition with well-known, long-term health consequences. “You’re more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, metabolic problems and a weakened immune system,” she says. Insufficient sleep can also increase your chances of getting the common cold, becoming obese, developing diabetes and just, uh, generally kind of dying. (Fu suggests figuring out how much sleep you need by going on vacation — this is pre-pandemic advice — and, while avoiding alcohol and caffeine, trying to reach a point where you go to sleep and wake up naturally, noting the times and trying to stick to this pattern when you get home.)

While we can’t tweak our genes to need less sleep, we can at least content ourselves with the thought that the sleepless elite might not be the whole story — we have no idea how many people have these genes but completely piss away their extra waking time writing Deuce Bigelow fan fiction and rubbing themselves up against stuff. And that’s a comforting thought. For every CEO boasting of needing hardly any sleep — and, let’s be honest, some of them are almost certainly lying to seem mysterious and superhuman, and actually enjoy a completely sensible amount of slumber — there’s probably someone else living to a similar schedule, but one populated by completely pointless nonsense. They might not be sleeping much, but in a way, they’re living the dream.