I hate that Delta Air Lines commercial, the one called “4 am,” that mocks me from my in-seat screen.
It starts off with a montage of perky professionals, rising before dawn in homes and executive-class hotel rooms around the world, stretching their gym-toned bodies and firing up coffeepots at an hour usually reserved for mating fruit bats.
“Here’s to all 180 million of you early risers, go-getters and should-be sleepers,” the voice-over says, as Disney’s “Heigh-Ho” swells in the background. “Because the ones who truly change the world are the ones who can’t wait to get out in it.”
Yes, I get it. I have heard this all my life: Society likes morning people. Loves them, actually. Early risers tend to be more punctual, get better grades in school and climb up the corporate ladder. These larks are celebrated as the high achievers, the apple polishers, the CEOs.
It’s basically the idea that Ben Franklin touted more than 250 years ago—“early to bed, early to rise”—with everyone else cast as lazy or self-indulgent.
But what if they are wrong? What if night owls are actually the unsung geniuses? What if we are the ultimate disrupters and rule-changers, the ones who are better suited to a modern, postindustrial society ruled by late-night coders, digital nomads, freelance moguls and coworking entrepreneurs?
Perhaps it is finally time for the night owls of the world to rise! (Just not too early, of course.)
CALL IT DSPS
I knew I was different by the time I was 7 or 8 years old. My parents’ efforts to get me to sleep by 7:30 pm were pointless.
Years later, sleep doctors would diagnose me with what is commonly called delayed sleep phase syndrome, which refers to anyone who goes to sleep hours later than the, ahem, “conventional” time. The condition is often boiled down to scary sounding initials—DSPS—like so many life-threatening diseases.
And I have it fairly bad. My body naturally wants to go to bed around 2 am and rise around 10 am. Whenever I try to adjust to an early schedule, my brain is like mush. Conversely, I light up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree around 9 pm, and for the next few hours I am my most me: alert, clever, inspired to create.
Not that society has ever shown much flexibility toward my sleep cycle. I have had an office job for most of my adult life, and I am now married with two children under 10, so I regularly rise by 7:30 am, doing my best to fake some Fred Rogers good cheer as I pack lunches and get our sons off to school.
As a result, I suffer chronic sleep deficit. That is, I have a sleep problem, although technically, that is not accurate.
I sleep fine. It is everyone else who has a problem with it.
WHAT’S YOUR CHRONOTYPE?
My blue-pill moment came this year, when I read Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California at Berkeley.
The book details how every human runs on a 24-hour circadian rhythm, an internal clock, which coordinates a drop in body temperature, for example, as it prepares for slumber, and cranks back up when it is time to wake. What larks like my father never understood is that not everyone’s clock is the same.
According to Walker, about 40 percent of the population are morning people, 30 percent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between. “Night owls are not owls by choice,” he writes. “They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hard-wiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”
That might even serve an evolutionary purpose. When early humans lived in small tribes, as in the early scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, staggered sleep schedules bestowed a survival advantage: Someone was always awake to watch for prowling leopards and club-wielding rivals, according to the book.
But it has been downhill for us night owls ever since. The rise of agriculture brought fields to till at daybreak. The industrial revolution brought factories with 8 am time clocks. Night owls were forced to adapt, and that appears to have taken a toll.
‘DRESS LIKE YOUR BOSS’
I certainly know what it is like to burn the candle at both ends. When I graduated from college, I found the morning rhythms of office life to be an eye-opener—though not literally, of course.
At my first job, as a newspaper reporter in Orange County, California, I was required to be at my desk at 8 am. I held that job for 14 months, taking only one week of vacation, but my body never acclimated.
Night after night I would lie awake until 1 am or later, freaking out about my inevitable exhaustion the next day, as the Santa Ana winds violently rustled the Italian cypress trees outside my bedroom window.
Even when I dragged myself in at 7:45 am, my boss had already been there for an hour, because bosses rise at the crack of dawn, right? That’s why they are bosses. In the corporate world, rising early has always served as a handy signifier of unbridled ambition, the will to succeed.
Among C-suite executives, that tradition is alive and well. Robert Iger of Disney, Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Indra Nooyi, the departing chief executive of PepsiCo, are all said to rise between 4 and 4:30, and they are relative lazy slobs compared with Tim Cook of Apple, who reportedly bounds out of bed at 3:45 am.
No surprise that “employees who started work earlier in the day were rated by their supervisors as more conscientious, and thus received higher performance ratings,” according to a 2014 study by the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.
It’s the old “dress like your boss” formula for success, but with chronotypes, not clothes.
But what if the modern-day workplace no longer operates under that formula? What if being a night owl is no longer a handicap, but an asset?
The traditional 9-to-5 workplace is starting to fall out of favor, especially in Silicon Valley and creative sectors where the workday is no longer tied to daylight hours. And, with robots and artificial intelligence further eroding the old system by taking over the routine tasks, the new workplace culture is less about punctuality and more about creativity and breaking the rules.
Corporate America is catching up. Some 80 percent of companies now offer some form of flexible work arrangements, according to a 2015 survey by WorldatWork, a nonprofit human-resources association, and FlexJobs, a career site.
For many workers, this means “freedom from a crushing commute, from an interruption-filled office, from a 9-to-5 straitjacket,” said David Heinemeier Hansson, a tech entrepreneur and an author of the book Remote: Office Not Required.
For night owls, this is huge. No longer must armies of professionals arbitrarily be rousted at daybreak, like groggy recruits heeding a bugle blowing reveille.
Indeed, late risers are organizing. Camilla Kring, a Danish business consultant and author, founded B-Society, a night owl advocacy group that is lobbying to end daylight saving time, promote flexible work schedules and adjust start times in schools, “to support different human chronotypes.”
“Companies can use the knowledge about circadian rhythms as a competitive advantage,” Kring said.
And maybe they already are. The term “chronotype diversity” is starting to find traction, as business managers explore concepts like team energetic asynchrony: staggered work schedules to make sure all workers are working at peak efficiency.
It is about time. Let’s hope the whole world finally wakes up to the idea that we night owls are more than laggards and sleepyheads.
Fast-forward to 2025, say, and I settle into my seat on a Delta flight, perhaps a supersonic one, to be greeted by a new commercial. It starts off with a montage of perky professionals in executive-class hotel rooms around the world, firing up the kettle for camomile tea and furiously tapping away at laptops as they race to meet deadlines at an hour usually reserved for James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke.