Why startup founders should prioritize sleep. A book review of Why We Sleep

Ravi Kurani
6 min readMar 20, 2021


I just finished reading Why We Sleep by Dr. Matthew Walker. It was a book from Bill Gates’ list (yeah, the one that implants microchips through mRNA vaccines). I digress, it was a really good read — and I definitely recommend it for any startup founder. I’ll tell you why, below.

Why We Sleep from Gates Notes

The startup culture (& business culture) doesn’t prioritize sleep

The “West” primarily looks at sleep as something thats feeble, weak, or unnecessary.

It’s “down time”.

“You could be working — you’re wasting time sleeping”

Cage the Elephant has a really good song named Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked. Though the song is actually about a prostitute and the paths that people take, the title has been bastardized as a response to someone saying “man, you work alot” … “well, aint no rest for the wicked”.

Especially in Silicon Valley startup culture (which I can speak to first-hand), sleep is not prioritized. I feel like I spent so much of my early startup years trying to pull late nights, thinking those extra hours will get me to some Valhalla.

I do want to differentiate, however; that working more than the average person just does get more miles on the idea that you’re working on, but NOT at the expense of sleep.

99.5% of our lives were built to be in a very different environment than we live in today

After reading this book, I realized that we’re actually missing out on a huge portion of our genetic ‘Sapiens’ code that I didn’t utilize.

99.5% of our hardware (brain / body-systems) are build around a human-experience-model that isn’t what we spend our time on today. 99.5% of human life was spent exercising, eating mostly a plant-based diet (because catching animals was a tough job), and following the rhythm of the sun (the circadian rhythm).

99.5% of Sapien’s lives were built for an environment that we don’t live in anymore

On top of that the light (lux) of a fire is much less than that of the Franklin (and Westinghouses) lightbulb. This means that as our hardware was built around an environmental context that had been driven for millennia by the Earth’s rotation around the Sun. On top of this the added blue light we get from our computer monitors and general lighting we have around our cities (and homes) adversely affect us.

The lux of a fire is less than that of a lightbulb (our bodies were sync’d to the Earth’s rotation around the Sun).

So, with this information — we can project that the lives we live today are not build for the OS (operating system) that the body had previously coded. It’s like building an app (that is made for iOS) and trying to install it on a Windows 98 machine. It just won’t work; parts and pieces may be architecturally sound, but an iPhone (and an app built for iOS) is just very different than an HP computer that ran Windows 98.

BTW — I got this 99.5% number from a separate book (The Secret Therapy of Trees by Marco Mencagli and Marco Nieri) that I’m reading on forest bathing. That’s for another post.

So, why sleep? We live in different world today. I can just power through, right?

By depriving yourself of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, you’re actually doing your full cognitive capacity a disservice.

As a founder, your job is to draw conclusions from the limited information you have, and best narrate it to the stakeholders that will purchase, invest, and work with you. You need to think clearly and have clarity around new strategy and products that you’re building. You and your team are building something new and will exponentially change the world, right?

The headline here is that your body utilizes sleep to process wake-state events, without wasting energy on keeping your body running. The processes of your body such as walking / talking expend energy; the wake-state requires a decent amount of energy to keep all systems running. The REM (rapid eye movement) sleep state (which is special to Sapiens and a few other mammal species) allows us to reduce energy consumption to the rest of the body and provides your ‘sleep-brain’ without the interruption of the outside world.

“REM sleep has also been called paradoxical sleep: a brain that appears awake, yet a body that is clearly asleep.”

Dr. Matthew Walker writes:

“Think of the wake state principally as reception (experiencing and constantly learning the world around you), NREM sleep as reflection (storing and strengthening those raw ingredients of new facts and skills), and REM sleep as integration (interconnecting these raw ingredients with each other, with all past experiences, and in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works, including innovation insights and problem-solving abilities)”

The wake-sleep sections as defined by Dr. Matthew Walker

What you’re actually allowing your mind to do is utilize your REM sleep state to it’s fullest extent, so you can spend more time thinking (and eventually executing).

You essentially buy yourself hours to simmer over something thats on your mind through getting good REM sleep.

A nighttime theater to tests out and build connections

Two quotes that really stuck out from Dr. Matthew Walker are below:

“Sleep provides a nighttime theater in which your brain tests out and builds connections between vast stores of information.”

“…the sleeping brain fuses together disparate sets of knowledge that foster impressive problem-solving abilities.”

A nighttime theater in which your brain tests out and builds connections…let’s think about that for a second. As a startup founder, your entire job is to see where the puck is going — we need to see the blind spots of markets, other competitive products, people that may not fit into the teams they’re in. The REM sleep state allows you to expend energy to connect these disparate pieces of information.

But I’m fine, I don’t feel sleepy, and I function just fine

I thought the same thing. You want to fight it, because you feel like you only have so many hours in the day.

Dr. Matthew Walker says:

“Similarly problematic is baseline resetting. With chronic sleep restriction over months or years, an individual will actually acclimate to their impaired performance, lower alertness, and reduced energy levels. That low-level exhaustion becomes their accepted norm, or baseline. Individuals fail to recognize how their perennial state of sleep deficiency has come to compromise their mental aptitude and physical vitality, including the slow accumulation of ill health.”

The human body is pretty resilient in that sense; you’re able to baseline and grow acclimated to the reduced sleep. The issue is that you’re not working at 100% of your fullest ability, and eventually the hardware (your body) will begin to break down and can/will result in ill health. And honestly, running a startup — everyone is expected to run at 110%, so you’re definitely doing yourself a disservice.

OK, how much sleep do I need?

Dr. Matthew Walker states that sleeping less than 8 hours a night, and especially less than 6 hours per night, is detrimental to cognitive ability and time to physical exhaustion drops by 10–30% and aerobic output is significantly reduced.

Try it!

As a founder building tech, you’re always experimenting, right? Give yourself 2 weeks and set a goal to try to get 8 hours of sleep.

This is day 9 of my #90DayOfProse challenge