In defense of night owls 🦉
I'm sick of morning people propaganda. Some of us thrive in darkness and are tired of being night shamed for it.
Headline: “Richard Branson and Tim Cook Wake Up at This Ungodly Hour (and You Should Too).”
So now I’m supposed to wake up at 5am so I too can become a billionaire? Whatever. I am sick of constantly being bullied by aggro morning people.
I get it, people who wake up early run the world (and phew, they sure do love to brag about it). Every productivity article mentions it and it’s always a Habit of Highly Successful People. Apparently, we all need to start treating our bodies like army brigades: “We do more before 9am than most people do all day.”
Jack Dorsey gets up at 5:30am. Tim Cook wakes at 3:45am. The Redeem Team doc tells the story of Kobe Bryant headed to the gym as the rest of the team returned from a night of partying. The lesson: Every world-conqueror is up at the crack of dawn (and you should be too). I bet some biz bigwig will soon buzz about getting negative hours of sleep: “I go to bed at 1am and wake up the night before at 11:30pm. I love it! Sleeping -1.5 hours gives me the opportunity to start each day with a clean and organized slate."
On a certain level, I admire these morning freaks and their resulting stream of accomplishments. If this comes naturally to you, congratulations on winning the circadian rhythm genetic lottery that enables you to conquer capitalism and collect rings (brass/championship/other).
But I’m tired of the preachy attitude that accompanies this lifestyle, as if it’s the only way to live. I reject the message we all must wake up at the crack of dawn and start accomplishing. Some of us thrive in darkness and are tired of being night shamed. Morning people: As a creature of the night, I HIT SNOOZE ON YOU.
(Actually, I never hit snooze. I don’t even set an alarm. I wake up when my body wants to wake up. Imagine that.)
I could argue it’s because I work at night. As a comedian, I often ride the subway home from gigs at 1am. Before that, I spent years gigging with a rock ‘n roll band, also leading to plenty of late hours. But it’s a chicken/egg thing. Do I hate mornings because I work at night? Or maybe I work at night because I’ve always hated mornings.
Even as a kid, I’d wake up as late as possible. In high school, I took first period study hall because it meant I could show up at school 45mins later. In my first semester of college, I took an 8am class and quickly vowed to never repeat that mistake.
It runs in the family, too; I come from a long line of people who hate bedtime and love sleeping. My father frequently prowled the house at 3am. My mother would routinely wake up, drive me to school, return home, and go back to sleep. Until she had a kid, my sister would rise at noon on weekends.
I’ve long made waking up late a priority. I was a recent college grad when I told a job interviewer I wouldn’t come into work before 10am. “Well, everyone else here shows up at 9am.” “I see. Well, you don’t have to hire me.” And I got the job. In that moment, a curtain opened. I realized I could choose time instead of letting outside forces control my body. I could tell the morning police I do not consent. And that has made all the difference. (That and taking naps. Naps rule.)
Note: Shoutout to all the early risers who wish they had a choice. Obviously, my late-rising lifestyle is not available to many. It helps greatly to not have a child or a dog (one of the better advertisements for both not reproducing and owning cats and perhaps why the two seem to pair so well together). It also shows the benefits of not being a construction worker, farmer, elementary school teacher, or any other job that requires rising with the sun. However, I’ve noticed it’s usually people who elect to wake up at the crack of dawn (and not those who are forced to do so) who brag about it the most. People forced to wake up with the roosters are usually too tired to crow.
It’s not that I hate mornings, it’s that I’m in love with the night. I have so many questions for those who rise at the crack of dawn: When do you get wild? When do you meet strangers? When is your life surprising? When do you wind up somewhere you’re not supposed to be? Do you ever eat with Europeans? Where is the poetry in your world? Do you ever hang out with bartenders, servers, or cooks? When do you follow some girl you barely know to a secret after-hours club that hosts a poker game hosted by a Korean guy in a suit who offers you ketamine? Do you ever watch musicians improvise, comedians straddle lines, or DJs pull wallflowers into the center of the floor? Do you only dance at weddings? When do you get drunk? When do you screw? Seriously, I envision you sending Google Calendar invites to your partner: “Missionary position. Tuesday. 5:45-6pm. Please confirm. ‘Will be wild.’”
Let’s face it: Morning people tend to be dullards. I do not envy their lives filled with Good Morning America, early bird dinners, “perfect ‘that girl’ morning routines,” and Disney-approved content. I choose goth girls and vampires over cheerleaders and alarm clocks.
Also, I associate rising early with getting old. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville posits the reason the elderly wake up so early is because they know death is imminent. They want the sun while it’s still available to them. I understand why the elderly might act this way, but I can’t fathom why those who are still young voluntarily choose the path of the aged. Waking at dawn does not make you an old soul; it probably means you’ve just mistaken acting old for being wise.
Starbuck, first mate:
It's late; you should turn in.
Sleep? That bed is a coffin, and those are winding sheets. I do not sleep, I die.
This isn’t me advocating for a life of sloth or abusing your body. I sleep well, exercise, meditate, eat healthy, and moisturize like a son of a bitch. (Aveeno, gimme some product and I will placement it for ya.) You don’t have to live like Sid Vicious to know the night.
In fact, it may be early risers who are the ones damaging themselves. Research shows those who fight their body clock are likely to be less productive, more stressed, and even more likely to die sooner.
Research also shows night owls tend to perform better on tests that measure memory, processing speed and cognitive ability, tend to be more creative, and tend to be more financially successful.
Then there are the health repercussions. Chronic sleep deprivation results in an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.
Maybe we’re called night owls because we posses so much wisdom.
A 2009 study by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist from the London School of Economics, who hypothesized that "more intelligent individuals are more likely to be nocturnal, getting up later in the morning and going to bed later in the evening, than less intelligent individuals."
As for early mornings being wide open spaces for productivity, the night can also be a wonderful time to get in flow. There is no traffic, both literally and metaphorically. You’re not constantly bombarded by incoming messages, alerts, and “breaking” news. Your tabs are sleeping so you can focus on whichever window truly matters to you. I routinely write essays like this one after midnight because that’s when I actually finish things. It’s 2:33am right now and it feels like nothing else in the world is happening.
But how do you do it?
“Up late all the time? Sounds like you’re on drugs.” Nah. Well not that kind, anyway. While I’m a fan of weed and psychedelics, I hate uppers and don’t need them to stay up. I have plenty of natural jumpiness resulting from a perfect storm of anxiety, insecurity, and Judaism (intergenerational trauma has a way of making one a bit skittish).
And FYI, morning people are junkies, too. It’s just their drug of choice, caffeine, is sanctioned by society since it keeps Starbucks packed and offices productive. Watch the withdrawal unfold if a caffeine addict doesn’t get their morning fix. It’s like some new kind of werewolf that also does spreadsheets.
And listen to how these fiends obsess over coffee beans. “The pure Columbian stuff.” Gotcha. Juan Valdez probably did more for addiction than Pablo Escobar.
And then there are the pills many take to force their bodies to comply with early bedtimes. Melatonin is the soft stuff, but that’s really just gateway Ambien. And phew, that Ambien stuff is no joke.
I once dated a gal with one of them “real jobs” who needed Ambien to help her sleep. The wild thing was the scheduling involved. She had to wake up at 7am which meant she had to fall asleep by 11pm which meant she had to take her pill by 10:30pm. If she didn’t, it could mean hallucinations, Roseanne-esque social media posts, or murdering her roommate while sleepwalking. (At least that’s how it seemed to me.) It’s a lot of pressure to be finishing dinner at 9:30pm and be told, “If you want to have sex, we need to leave immediately and finish within an hour or else I’ll turn into a serial killer.” Check, please!
The geography of time
There’s a reason night dwellers are usually city folk. Sure, things stay open late in a metropolis, but it’s not just that. In crowded places, time becomes a way to segregate yourself from the masses. By choosing different hours, you can sort yourself out of the system. Even if you can’t travel to a different time zone, you can create your own. Time is like geography that way.
Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop
I'll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
-Bruce Springsteen in “Darkness on the Edge of Town”
It’s an attitude, too. Nightcrawlers do not yield to society’s regulatory flow. We are outsiders who live on the chronological edge of town. We watch from the shadows, tell secrets, and get lost. We are nighthawks at the diner.
In Why I Adore the Night, novelist Jeanette Winterson explains how the night changes people:
I have noticed that when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing — their outer lives. Sitting round in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling – their inner lives. They speak subjectively, they argue less, there are longer pauses.
To sit alone without any electric light is curiously creative. I have my best ideas at dawn or at nightfall, but not if I switch on the lights — then I start thinking about projects, deadlines, demands, and the shadows and shapes of the house become objects, not suggestions, things that need to done, not a background to thought.
The morning breaks me
I admit the morning has occasionally seduced me. Walking a dog upon rising forces you to engage with the world and realize, yet again, you are officially “alive.” During lockdown, I started running in the mornings as a way to feel like I’d gone somewhere. And I’ve attended intriguing events distinct for their unusually early start times: a Yoko Ono/Blood Orange performance at MoMA (5am) and a Daybreaker “morning rave” (6am) come to mind; both deliberately chose a wee hour as a way to force visitors into a different mindset.
And there were vacations where “seeing the sights” meant rising early. I have climbed a volcano as the sun rose, toured Angkor Wat while birds seemed to vibrate in the cracks, harmonizing with the dawn, and watched light emerge over the edge of a crater in the Serengeti as a lioness yawned next to her cubs. All were magic. I understand waking up early to connect with the natural world (and that includes caring for a child/animal).
But if someone wakes up early just to be more productive at their job, I wonder if that’s just another sign of how predatory capitalism keeps pummeling our souls. Sure, these folks may get a head start, but what’s the point if it’s in the wrong direction?
Every once in a while, night owls and early birds cross paths. The former headed home from debauchery, the latter racing to productivity. We pass by each other yet usually fail to clock the thing we have in common: We both travel during the shoulder season of the day. We both skirt the sunrise, just from different sides of the night.
The difference is us night prowlers know what lies ahead for morning folk while up-at-dawners have no idea what lies ahead for us. Because neither do we. Nightcrawlers must embrace the unknown in a way that defies routine. Mystery is our routine.
Like the depths of the ocean or outer space, the darkness of the night demands surrender. While that can be scary, occasionally, the night pulls you in, nurtures you, and shows you stars you never thought you’d see. Some of us aren’t willing to abandon that possibility simply to cross off a few more items on a to-do list. For us, the stars are the to-do list.
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😈 Watch my “Matt Ruby: Substance” special already!
😈 I post clips of my standup and more at Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
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If you never let them know, they never know
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Ep 9 // Pay it Backward by Honoring Your Elders
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Ep 7 // How therapy-speak turned victimhood into currency...
😈 NYC? I perform at the Comedy Cellar Tuesday nights (Hot Soup at 10:30pm). And NY Comedy Club Wednesday nights (Good Eggs at 8pm in the East Village location, $5 tix with code “scrambled”). Come through. Another Misguided Meditation coming soon too. Stay tuned.
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Thanks for reading! Please consider fwd’ing this to a friend who might dig it or posting about it on social. Peace. ✌️
Was never a morning person... I have the sleep metabolism of a house cat.
A most eloquent and entertaining essay, sir. The whole matter of the "proper" hours for sleep have been highly politicized, I believe, beginning with the industrialization of work, wherein human beings were yoked to the efficiency required by giant textile looms and, later on, mass production lines -- a parallel regimentation of machine and human.
For thousands of years, and still in some cultures today, It was common to sleep 4 hours or so, wake up for 2-3 hours doing whatever one wished -- weave, cook, chatter with others also awake, have sex, walk about -- and then sleep another few hours. A book on my to-read-someday list is Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age, by Clark Strand (2015). As a young man the author woke in the night and walked the dark countryside around his home, calm and unafraid. (Is fear of the dark also a modern imposition?) Although much of your essay is filled with bright-lights-big-city details, you do touch on themes of quiet revelation and freedom, as does Janette Winterson in her words you quote.